Old West Downs Society – Memories of the Tindall Era, 1922-1954

From N.J. Hodson, 1943 to 1947

West Downs at Blair Atholl – First Memories

London Mush. The 7.20 p.m. from Euston departed from almost the leftmost track. It was very smoky and steamy there, as there was almost no forecourt for these vapours to disappear. It was a corridor train – I don’t think the modern design of railway carriage existed anywhere then. Nervously wearing my new Billings & Edmunds outfit – a few days before we had visited B&E to complete the transfer of these items. This had been at great cost to the family in terms of clothes coupons, and some had been scrounged from practically every friend and relation. Visits to B&E were made more interesting by the existence there of a remarkable model of Gulliver in Lilliput. This was a recumbent man about 3 feet in height swarming with tiny men, each about 1½ inches high. If you were very lucky the senior assistant at B&E would give you a little booklet, which was a potted “Gulliver’s Travels,” interspersed of course with advertisements for B&E’s wares. After leaving B&E’s shop in Hanover Square we paid two calls. One was to the Royal Copenhagen China shop, nearby, where we bought a very useful set of china in pale blue edged with white, which we all used for family meals for many years, and which I still have and use. The second call was to Saint George’s Church, where I and my brother had been christened. Ever since then I have had the custom of visiting Saint George’s Hanover Square at every major point in my life.

The train chugged slowly through England. We all learnt the litany: Leamington Spa, Rugby, Crewe, Lancaster, Carlisle, Coatbridge, Airdrie, Lanark, Stirling, Perth. At Lancaster there was a great deal of hissing and bumping as a second locomotive was attached for the steep climb to Shap Summit. On my first time up Sister Guy came into our carriage, selected a boy, and then to my amazement down came his trousers and a big needle was firmly stuck into his buttocks. I had been prepared for a new way of life at West Downs, but this was not the sort of thing I had expected. However I was soon reassured that he alone had to have this treatment, as he was a diabetic. One of a pair of twins, his name was Fuller, and his father had been the school doctor when West Downs was at Winchester. Sadly his diabetes soon took a turn for the worse and he was taken away from the school, dying shortly after.

Rugby was rather a surprise because in contrast to the total blackout of London we always stopped for a while in a brightly lit marshalling yard. Scrutiny revealed that each of the overhead lights had a large cone-shaped cover which would have screened any direct glare from enemy bombers. In actual fact there once was a raid while we were waiting there and all the lights went out until the all-clear was sounded, so our fears were unfounded.

There was always the same guard on the train. We used to look out for him, as he had a fabulous party trick which always amazed us. If you listen to a train passing through the scenery the various diddy-bumps, rushes, whooshes and other sounds are characteristic of the viaducts, bridges, level crossings and so forth that the train passes. Points, of course, made a different sound to ordinary track. The number of diddy-bumps in 41 seconds gave you the speed of the train in mph. What that guard could do was to predict from inside the carriage, with all the curtains pulled firmly down because of the blackout, with complete confidence and accuracy, exactly when each change of rhythm, for bridges in particular, would be heard. He would say, “Bridge number 241 coming now 5-4-3-2-1 – there she goes.” Eventually Sister would come and shoo him out, but we always loved this trick.

When the train arrived at Perth we would all emerge onto the platform and be conducted into an otherwise empty upstairs restaurant. An ancient waitress creaked around slopping out porridge for each of the boys. This porridge was quite unlike the delicious variety we had at home, as it was highly watered down, and had a gritty texture.

We then got into a different train, which made its way up the Tay valley as far as Ballinluig, where it followed the River Tummel. Then came in quick succession Pitlochry, Killiecrankie and, finally, Blair Atholl. We all got out, and our luggage, which consisted of a playbox and a handcase each, was piled up onto a farm cart. This was drawn slowly through the village and across the main road, then through large wrought iron gates and up the long drive to Blair Castle itself, all the boys of the London Mush following in a long crocodile.

At this point we met the Tindalls for the first time. TMT had driven KT down to the station. He walked back with the boys, while she put in her car those of the new boys whom she judged most overcome by the moment. The roof rack and opened boot were piled high with hand cases. Inadequately roped, invariably some of the cases fell off and were picked up by hastily volunteered members of the crocodile.

On arrival at the castle the new boys were taken at once to TMT’s sitting room, which was on the first floor. Here she gently broke us into the discipline of Castle life. Usually seen with a pair of binoculars slung round her neck she was a keen bird-watcher. After getting to know our names she showed us where our dormitories were and then we all went out to play with the other boys on a leg-of-mutton shaped piece of grass that served most of our immediate recreational needs, and was known as the Banvie Lawn.

So far it had all been rather interesting and exciting. Suddenly however I felt very small and very alone. A lump rose in my throat. I felt tears well up. I moved as inconspicuously as I could to a point where my back was turned on all the other boys. After a few moments all was well again and I had regained my composure.

Life soon fell into a pattern. There were lots of new things to be learnt: the names of all the boys in the school and of all the staff seemed to be no problem. Cricket was new to me, as were Latin, money-books and spring-onions. Especially spring-onions. We had these for tea each day that first summer term, though for some reason I had never had them before.

The woods around the Castle were fragrant with wild garlic, which made their exploration a delight. In a small wood near the Banvie Lawn was a statue of Diana. I found this rather confusing, as the Tindall’s daughter Ann was living at the Castle and had just produced a daughter – Diana. I remember wondering why Diana had been portrayed as a young woman when plainly she was a very beautiful young baby.

Also leading onto Banvie Lawn was a mown walk about 20 yards wide with a belt of trees and shrubs on either side, some of which were a good climb. This led up to a statue of Apollo in a state of nudity that I found rather embarrassing.

Among these shrubs could be found lengths of iron railway track. Apparently at some time there had been a railway line just here. I found this unlikely at the time, and quite ridiculous now. Nevertheless the track is still there, even to this day.

As the School was run as a large Scout Troop, existence at Blair was a sort of idealised summer camp. Off games walks were hikes in the nearer lanes, while bad weather walks were through the forests and even onto the moors beyond. We soon learnt to recognise and eat herbs like sorrel, to recognise the droppings of capercaillie, and to appreciate the secret inner life of the ponds and lochans. On two days a week we played wide games in which every aspect of the forests and moors were utilised. Mostly these games were “Smugglers and Excisemen,” in which the goods being smuggled were a couple of playboxes. We learnt to use all sorts of ruses, such as decoys, to get the goods through. Lives were represented by a piece of wool tied round the arm. We all became expert at semaphore and could get messages across large tracts of country while the enemy’s attention was attracted away or when natural features could be used to ensure that he could not see the signaller.

Some of the boys wore the kilt, but in any case no one under the age of 11, and few above it, wore anything but shorts. In the winter the temperature could go down to –10°F. There was heating in the classrooms, mostly in the form of stoves. Some of these were quite powerful, and the whole thing would glow red. Drops of ink flicked on top would sputter round and round as though possessed of life.

There was a large Hall in the Castle which was used as a combined Shakespeare, Chapel and Dining Hall. It was also used as a gymnasium for our PT classes. Unfortunately its wooden floors were rather inclined to project splinters into the bums of boys who were careless about how they sat down on it. There was a minstrels’ gallery in it which was used as a Scout HQ. There were various models of monkey bridges here, showing how the lashings, knots and splices that we were supposed to know were used.

HA Ricardo presided over the Scouting. He wore the Gilwell Wood Badge and MacLaren tartan square on his neckerchief with great pride. He had the very highest standards for all that he did, and made sure that we carried these standards through into our Scouting as well.

The PT and the dancing were taught by Miss Coombes, who had been a ski instructor in Switzerland before the war, and who repatriated herself there again as soon as possible after it.

Miss Campbell was an ardent naturalist. She was a useful person to lead off-games walks, as these soon elevated themselves into nature rambles.

Miss Flint took the Lower School my first term there. She did her best, but she made the mistake of clashing with KT over her belief that LS II should do early morning runs before breakfast. She was replaced by Miss “Maisie” Richardson, who was a great success and who lasted in the job for the next 40 years.

Arthur Turner, or ATT, was a tall gangling slightly eccentric young man with spots. He was a brilliant teacher and he gave me a great deal of enthusiastic help with my maths, which was by far the most interesting subject to me, though I cannot remember being bored by any of them. He had a fund of stories, invented and embellished on the spur of the moment, about his pal George Not-Washington. On recruits’ walks he would flap along in a loosely fitting overcoat, with an old trilby he called his wholly holy holey hat, with a crowd of youngsters round him hanging on his every word.

Captain EH House joined the staff at the same time as ATT. I well remember seeing the two of them standing side by side at the first meal parade on their first day. One looked tall and humorous, the other was diminutive and wore an ugly scowl. He was a keen fisherman and helped the anglers among the boys with their fly tying. If he had any other talents he kept them well hidden. KT tried to use him to teach various subjects that he claimed he knew, but with each he was a more dismal failure than the last. Finally he came to French where his ignorance was so amazing that even the most junior classes would laugh at him. Prone to violent rages he ended his career at West Downs by hurling himself in one of his tantrums against the safety rail surrounding the stove in the changing room. The structure broke, and his trajectory brought him into contact with the stove, which broke his back. I was present at the time: I had a part to play in this because earlier in the day I had constructed a wax image, tied a label round its neck proclaiming it to be Capt. House, and stuck pins in it. Overcome with amazement at how rapidly this spell had taken effect I went and confessed all to KT. I was caned for indulging in witchcraft, and the school library book about witchcraft was summarily removed from the shelves.

Another retired military man was Captain Fox. He was a poor old gent with not much in his noddle, though he had a better knowledge of French than Captain House had had. His chief talent was a high degree of skill with the scythe. Thus he lasted through a summer term, as a sort of highly paid gardener cum groundsman, but left a little way into the winter.

Our real French genius was the adorable Madame Yvonne de Coutely. For some reason she was known as “The Mummy Cow,” very affectionately. She countered the cold weather of the winter at Blair Atholl by wearing large numbers of shapeless baggy garments, which, she claimed, trapped the air and insulated her.

Mr. Rose was about 75. He had been on the staff since the earliest days and had at once volunteered for the army at the outbreak of war in 1914. Twenty five years later he equally willingly volunteered to remain on the staff as his contribution to the war effort. Already suffering a little from ill health he finally retired just after our return from Blair, and died very shortly after.

Mr. Ledgard was also rather old. His birthday had been on 29th February, and although 1900 had not been a leap year, he claimed to be still a teenager. He taught Greek to Senior Division and appeared to be, and probably was, immensely learned. He always wore a stiff collar, a white and dark striped shirt, and a subfusc suit that he would have bought from an outfitters to the clergy.

Due to age and dignity he played no part on the management of our out of school activities, except that he presided over one of the tables at meals. This was a very good thing because, while he was very punctilious about our behaviour at table, some of the hostilities only staff were not, and it was important to get people’s table manners brushed up before they finally arrived at KT’s High Table.

Greek with him was a true delight, from the first lesson, in which he taught an alternative form of the Greek alphabet, to the days when we could read Xenophon’s Anabasis at our leisure. For the curious, the rhyming Greek alphabet is:—

Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta:
Knock a woman down and pelt her.
Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta:
Take a knife and fork and eat her.
Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu:
Parts of her are good to stew.
Nu, Xi, Omicron, Pi:
Other parts are good to fry.
Rho, Sigma, Tau, Upsilon:
Don’t forget the salt to pile on.
Phi, Chi, Psi, Omega:
That’s the end of that poor beggar.

Mr. Griffith needs little introduction. He was the best type of schoolmaster, beloved of staff and pupils, of athlete and non-athlete, of scholar and dullard. He was utterly professional, and took the greatest care of everybody of every age that he ever came in contact with. Since he has been so well described by so many OWDs I have no need to say much about him, except that he is probably the person who has had the most influence for the good on the most people in my experience.

In describing the staff one must not forget the non-teaching people, and of course the musicians who gave individual lessons. Once a week, on Friday mornings, we had “Choir Practice,” or CP. Miss Lunn officiated over this, so everybody was taught to that extent by her. Miss Playsted was in a wheelchair, so we must applaud the determination that kept her going, despite her handicap, throughout the war, and for some years afterwards. Yet she was a brilliant teacher of the piano, and even managed to have some effect on such innately untalented musicians as myself. Dorothy Lunn suffered a stroke after the war, and, though paralysed down one side, which affected her speech, she still carried on as long as she could.

Sister Guy was an angel. With her golden curls and her blue eyes she looked like one, and she ministered to the sick and well alike. Temperature taking and rash inspections seems to have been a very sensible thing to do. If nothing else it meant that every boy had a medical eye cast over him without fail twice a day. There was also MALT. Certain boys had had malt prescribed for them by their doctors. This was taken by perfectly measured amounts each day. Each participant had his own labelled jar and used a long spoon to get the daily dose. On the last day of term anyone could come and get as much malt as he liked until all jars were consumed. This was not really quite fair, but as I was usually one of the beneficiaries I won’t be complaining.

Another lady that ministered to us behind the scenes was Miss Ward. She was quite a jovial character who played a full part in the life of the ladies’ sitting room as well as being Matron. This of course did not include the medical side or the catering.

Various other characters came and went. There was the generically named Sourface Tiptoes, who was a sort of night nurse. She prowled through the dormitories all through the night, performing such duties as throwing the cat out of the window. Apparently this cat could fly, because it was at least 18 feet to the ground, yet no sooner had she gone out of the room than it would reappear through another window. It would have been kinder to animals if she had left it alone.

There were two enormous German Jewess refugees, called Lotti und Gerda. To be truthful, Gerda was slightly less over-designed than Lotti: in this way one could tell them apart when together, but it was usually guess-work as to which one you were talking to when taken singly. Furthermore we always thought of them in the dual. I remember being quite mystified when Gerda (or possibly Lotti) asked me to do something for her. Why not “us” I thought as I nervously looked around, expecting to see the other half of the combination lying dead somewhere nearby.

It must be said that the kitchens and store rooms were infested with rats. It was a favourite trick to creep up to the door of one of the storerooms, then fling it open to reveal half a dozen scampering rats.

There were various old retainers of the Duke of Atholl who had jobs in the school. One of these was Mungo. He firmly disapproved of our Sunday activities and used to line up the other old retainers outside the changing rooms as we made our way back from our Sunday afternoon wide game or other sport. “Ye shouldnae dae-secrate the Sah-bath” they would mutter to each boy as he made his way in.

On the other side of the Banvie Lawn was a wall, about three feet high. This was a ha-ha, the purpose of which was to prevent livestock straying from the fields beyond onto the lawn. There were sheep in the field. Just below the ha-ha was a brook with a marshy edge. Unfortunately during the lambing season lambs, and occasionally even ewes, would get stuck in the marsh and drown in this little brook. We would line up on the ha-ha to view the ensuing putrefaction. By common consent no stones were thrown at the corpses until the gall bladder had been revealed. Then it was a free-for-all, with a cheer going up when the disintegration of the gall bladder was accomplished. I suppose this was my first lesson in anatomy.

This same field had a good slope on it. In the winter, particularly Common Time, we used to make a fabulous toboggan run on it: boys who had toboggans were assiduously courted by those who did not. To build the track as much snow as possible was brought to it, usually by rolling up snowballs until they became boy-sized. On arrival at the track they would be cut into bricks with a spade. The whole school would then shuffle sideways down the track and tread it into a shape as near resembling the Cresta Run as we dared make it. Last thing at night as many containers of water as possible were brought to the track and poured onto it, where they would instantly freeze.

At the top of this field was an Observation Post. This was manned day and night by members of the Observer Corps, who jotted down the details of every plane overflying the post. We used occasionally to make our way up there to chat to the men, but they were a dour lot and we did not go often. One term, on the way home, I found a booklet on the station book stand which promised to teach you to recognise enemy and allied planes. I thought this might be a useful skill so I bought it, and studied it assiduously. It had absolutely no effect, and at the end of the War I still couldn’t tell a Messerschmidt fighter from a Beaufort Bomber. I have carried the same inability into the recognition of cars, not one single make of which can I tell apart from any other one.

In order to get the boys’ hair cut KT invited over a couple of men from a Canadian lumberjack camp further up the road towards Rannoch Moor. They took 1½ minutes to process each boy, providing him with a crisp crew cut. At first no one could recognise anyone, but we learnt quickly enough, and rather enjoyed the slight anonymity. This shearing had been in honour of the approaching parents’ weekend at the end of June, so there were a few complaints from the parents. There was the Savege family of three boys at the school and also a cousin (Malcolm Savege, who sadly was killed at a very young age in the Korean War, on his first tour of duty as a Midshipman). Mrs. Savege volunteered to come up and cut our hair professionally. She would stay a week, and tidy up each of us as though we had been done at Trumper’s. I suspect that if the parents had thought it through they might have been less pleased, in view of the fact that most of the boys had to lose about half a lesson in order to get their hair cut.

There were other visitors who came and stayed at the school on a more or less regular basis. One of these was a dear old man, the Bishop of St. Andrews. He would stay a few days, often working on the preparation of boys for their confirmation. On the Sunday he would celebrate Holy Communion in our makeshift chapel in Shakespeare, which only the night before might have been the stage for an entertainer. On these occasions a number of old ladies used to come up to the castle from Blair Atholl, and join us for Communion.

Another regular visitor was that grand old man of the Highlands, Seton Gordon. He used to deliver fascinating lectures about Golden Eagles, and also about the hides that he constructed in various parts of the Cairngorms. He died only about ten years ago, having taken up residence in Portree on the Isle of Skye. I remember seeing him looking exactly as he had in the 1940s, watching the Portree Highland Games in 1975.

James Spooner who was a boy in the school, and who was the only one to have been at Winchester as well as Glenapp, and back to Winchester, had a mother who, as a very talented singer, performed to us under her stage name of Megan Foster. I can remember her lovely voice to this day, singing Schubert’s “Die Forelle.”

We had a number of other lecturers and entertainers. Ernest Sewell was a conjuror and he also had one of those ventriloquist’s dummies that he was quite clever at. Miss Cherry Apsley-Gerard came and talked about her brother’s life as an explorer, but just as she gained our interest she revealed the true reason for her visit, which was as a missionary from the Bible Society.

Another lecturer came during my first term, and talked to us about the breeding, rearing and handling of dogs. We didn’t have a dog at home, but I was very interested in this lecture, most of which I can still remember to this day, and still find very useful.

The school was not the only institution occupying the Castle. There were also a few evacuees from Glasgow. There were not very many of them, and they occupied only part of the South Wing, while we had the main body of the Castle and most of the South Wing. However, they were kept rigorously segregated from us, even though it would have been very much to our mutual benefit to have had more to do with each other. I suppose that KT did not think that the parents of his boys had paid good money to have their sons come home with a Gorbals accent. The laugh is that if you go round Blair Castle now you will see an exhibit explaining how it was occupied by the children from Glasgow during the war, and not mentioning West Downs at all. An example of Scottish Nationalist Doublethink, I suppose.

At the end of the war in Europe we had a tremendous bonfire to celebrate VE day. We had the day off school work, and spent the morning and afternoon building this great pyre, anxiously watching the dark clouds scudding by. The rain held off during the evening, and we shouted and cheered and sung and danced our way round and round the bonfire. There was a temporary master who was thought to be a German Spy, though no one could think what a German Spy would be doing in the Grampian Highlands. He gave fuel to this theory by standing nearby glowering at the scene with arms folded and speaking to nobody. He departed within a day or so, so I suppose a more logical explanation would be that KT had given him his notice and that he was a bit cheesed off about it.

Nick Hodson