The Spirit of Willy Woodthorpe

19890611Ashford Woodthorpe Road School5Recently the daily prompt at WordPress asked me to write a memorial to part of my childhood that had been destroyed.

It’s not fashionable to admit liking school. Sometimes anti-intellectualism goes too far, and so I am here to tell you that school was happy for some of us, at least some of the time.  My secondary school was horrible, but primary – well, I lived in heaven for several years, my dears. I told you about one of my teachers there the other day. The fantastic Mr B.

It wasn’t just Mr B though; it was the school itself. It wasn’t Hogwarts (if Hogwarts ever had a prep school, which it didn’t, but never mind), with Houses and homework and ghosts – although allegedly there was a ghost in our classroom. I think Mr B made him up, but you can’t be too careful about these things. The ghost lived in the roofspace over our classroom; you see that big arched window in the main building? That was our classroom, and Willy Woodthorpe, the ghost, lived above it.  At the end of the day, when we were getting giddy, Mr B would sit us down and play his version of Sleeping Lions. We had to sit at our desks and not smile or giggle. Meanwhile he stalked among us, telling us about Willy Woodthorpe and making silly faces and noises until we cracked. The last one to laugh won.

When I say the school was special, I don’t mean the teachers, although most of them were fabulous. Except the one who threw the blackboard wiper at your head if she got cross. She was not fabulous at all. She was the threat we held over annoying kids.

“I’ll tell Miss Scary!”

That wasn’t her real name of course, although it was how we thought of her. I doubt she meant to be scary, but she did get quite angry quite often. She used crutches because she had had polio as a child, and so she was not very mobile. I suspect the throwing was compensation for a clip round the ear, which other teachers might have adopted.

Anyway, not the teachers. The school itself, the bricks and mortar and crumbly, fading glory of it that you could pick out of the cracks with prying fingers when you were bored.

It was typical of many schools of that age – high windows and ceilings, resulting in cold rooms with grumbling, clunky radiators fighting a losing, cantankerous battle, and a polished wooden floor in the main hall where we went to sing hymns and do gym (not at the same time). The stage had library shelves at the back which you were allowed to use once you were good enough at reading. It was brilliant. There were books about astronauts and dinosaurs and volcanoes, although sadly not all in one stupendous volume.

The playground had lots of nooks and crannies, because the building was so fractal on the edges. It was a bit like Slartibartfast’s fjords, lovely and crinkly, providing a baroque feel. By unspoken agreement, different year groups inhabited different areas. Once we were in the final year we took over the space outside our classroom and held manic conker competitions and pretended to be daleks and had fights and long, soul searching discussions on the benches (because it was almost, but not quite, time for puberty).

During playtimes we might see our mums going past on their way back from shopping in town, which meant we had to be reasonably well-behaved otherwise we would be in trouble at home time. There was a rain shelter (you can just see the edge of it on the left hand side of the photo; it’s the square brick wall poking in behind the railings) which only held about half the school complement on days it was wet, so the smaller children tended to steam slightly if they sat near a radiator on a wet afternoon. We always went outside at break, without exception. Blue knees were pretty common because the girls all had short skirts and the boys all had short trousers; the science class on circulation of the blood made complete sense once you had examined your mottled knees and realised your life was being sucked from you by vampire winds. Our mums knitted balaclavas to keep our ears warm, but knees were left to fend for themselves.

I suppose the school was hard to heat, although the kitchens cooked us hot dinners every day so it felt warm in the hall itself. The only way in and around was up and down stairs, which were problematic if you had difficulty walking, like Miss Scary, or like the boy in our year who had cerebral palsy. He took forever to get up to the classroom. At the time we just waited because that was how long he took, although some of the boys called him names when the teachers weren’t around.

The downside to this suburban idyll was the toilets. When I say toilets, don’t be fooled into imaging pristine water closets with working flush mechanisms and gleaming porcelain. This was the 1960s. They were in special blocks the other side of the playground, and they were unspeakably horrible. I suspect most of us, if we learned nothing else, learned top quality bladder control because really anything was preferable to having to use them. It was a wonder we didn’t all catch cholera, although if we had I expect we would still have had to go to school. You needed a cast iron excuse to be off sick, such as death, and even then only if your mum wrote a note.

Most of us were happy there. Most of us learned to read and write and add up enough to get by.

I also saw the first man walk on the moon one summer day, and discovered that not everyone speaks English when a couple of Chinese children arrived (no one actually explained but I suspect they were refugees). I had my first crush on an actual boy, won another boy’s best conker in a fluke attack, and did handstands against the toilet block walls with the other girls. I made a model of an archaeopteryx which hung for the rest of term from the classroom ceiling.

Admittedly I also learned some unsavoury lessons, such as: if I hit the boy who teased me, he got in trouble for teasing a girl, and no one believed I had hit him. He learned the game wasn’t worth the candle and left me and my friends alone afterwards.

Eventually the council got fed up with the crumbly old building and hazardous toilets. They sold it to the Salvation Army and this is what is there now.

But the spirit of Willy Woodthorpe lives on, and, to paraphrase appallingly, you can’t take my school from me. Cue fiddles!

Take my love, take my land

Take me where I cannot stand

I don’t care, I’m still free

You can’t take the sky my school from me.


Take me out to the black

Tell them I ain’t comin’ back

Burn the land and boil the sea

You can’t take the sky my school from me.

Know my school and you know me.



10 thoughts on “The Spirit of Willy Woodthorpe

  1. It was great to see a photo of the old school, I have googled it a few times over the years and found it nowhere – vanished like the old school itself. I think I was there about 6 or 7 years after you but I too had Mrs I and Mr Burch – (I can’t imagine they’re still alive) and you’re right. he was the best teacher I ever had even though I was often quite a toxic child, he really took an interest in me, which I can’t say any other teacher did. Mrs. I was just old fashioned, but I remember Mrs. King was actually abusive – maybe even sexually, I had one traumatising incident with her, I had been too rough playing with a boy and he got bruised, so she stripped me naked in front of the class as a punishment! My parents did nothing. In fact, I went on in future years (into the 80’s) to have some of those same classmates in future schools – and i was always embarrassed by it because they had seen the humiliating incident – so I could never really forget it. I think, after that, I just adopted an F.U. “too cool for school” attitude, and I did a few things which I thought were hilarious at the time, but which now in later life I regret. Mr. Birch had me for the final year though, and he was great though – it’s only because of him that I don’t look back on Woodthorpe School as a nightmare. Nowadays I live in Australia (in fact I’ve spent most of my life here now) – but I can still walk around that long-vanished school in my mind – I remember how some of the classes used to back on the the main assembly hall, and that the roof was full of wooden beams – the headmaster’s office (where you never wanted to go) was situated at the back of the hall, on the left side of the stage. Mr Burch’s class was upstairs: the room with the big window in your photo.

    • Mr B was just lovely, and always cared about his class, especially I think the ones who were less happy in school. I remember him being much the same with some of the lads in my class as you describe. I did keep in touch after I left and he even came to my wedding!

      • Thanks for the photo of the school by the way, I will treasure that – apparently it was built in 1869-1872!! When was it demolished? Late 1980’s? Replaced with some very ordinary looking suburban houses I seem to remember.

  2. yes, I think it was late 1980s – I was staying in Ashford around the hurricane of 1987 so probably around then

  3. Thanks for the photo and memories of the school. I was there from 1963 to 1967. I too remember Miss Scary and the outside toilets although they did build a new toilet block whilst I was there. I had a lovely time there with happy memories and made many friends despite being caned on the hand on two separate occasions by the headmaster.! It was a shame to see it knocked down and also Ashford Cricket club next door. Can’t remember any teachers names except for Mr Troak?

    • I remember Miss Stevens (she later became Mrs Weatherill), Mrs Howchin and Mrs Tangary in infants. In Juniors there was Mrs Northcott and Mrs Pickup as well as Miss Scary and Mr Burch. I can’t quite remember the name of the other male teacher. The nurse was Mrs Bligh. Amazing how I remember them in a still when I can’t remember what day it is half the time!

      • Much better memory than me! Although I do remember a very strange teacher that we called ‘Daddy Rimmer’. Looked a bit like Hitler! What years were you there if I may ask? 😊

      • Was that the headteacher? I can’t remember waht he was called though 😦 Girls didn’t get the cane, I think it was a slipper ofr our deleicate little bodies
        I was there a little after you, 1967-1973

      • No he was just a teacher. Can’t remember the name of the headmaster. Allegedly he had a metal plate in his head from the war and he used to go beserk sometimes. Happy days!

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