I can distinctly remember the devastation I felt when I was left at West Downs in April of 1954 at the age of 8. I suppose I was no different from the other boys except that I was born and lived in Montreal and my friends and parents were 3300 miles away. I think I had been to West Downs four years earlier and probably had met Mr. and Mrs. Cornes then, but in my first few days at the school I marched up to Marcus Hinds who was Duty Master and introduced myself, thinking he was the Mr. Cornes my mother had said would take care of me. The gruff Mr. Hinds took little interest in me and Jerry Cornes was only to be seen at Chapel and in Dining Hall at meals.
The term seemed like an eternity but there was much to keep you busy. A few months later it was all over and I was off on my first flight, unaccompanied on a BOAC Boeing 707 across the Atlantic back to Montreal (in May my Mother had brought me by ship).
It got a little easier leaving home, but only a little bit each time. Parents of my friends were kind and I often got asked out for a day on a weekend. After a few years I found myself on the end of a row in Chapel, with a new boy next to me. He cried constantly for the first two weeks and somehow I had to help him, even though I felt homesick myself. I gave him whatever reassurance I could. Somehow with my parents so far away I felt I didn’t have a choice, I was there to stay, but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just go home.
I was never much of a sports person. I mean I enjoyed it but was never very good at it. I remember Sports Days and all the associated events like the obstacle courses and the maze which I loved. I thoroughly enjoyed any activity in Melbury – Scouting, Guy Fawkes celebrations etc. The Museum was another Place of fascination for me. All those old, weird things like dried up snake skins from darkest God-knows-where, and the fact that you had to climb up the ladder from the Private Side to get there.
I remember the mischievous things we did – going out of bounds, digging tunnels in the chalk, sneaking out on the roof above the change rooms and being spotted by one of the matrons from Sick Bay up above. One day coming back from Melbury we strayed from the road at the top of the hill while waiting for the rest of the group to cross the main road, and while running around kicking up the leaves we almost tripped on a body which we thought was dead, but which quickly aroused itself. An old drunk I suppose.
I have other impressions of Winchester, because I went on to Winchester College, and that was quite a change in many ways. When I got there I was so impressed with the freedom, and the lack of it at West Downs. I had a bicycle and I could ride it wherever my little legs could take me, whether that was into the city or out to the country. In retrospect, West Downs had seemed so confining, but at that age I guess it could not be any other way. When I left I West Downs in December 1968, I had logged 28 transatlantic crossings for a total of 101,000 miles, quite an accomplishment for a boy of 13 in those days. In the meantime my parents had moved west to Winnipeg.
When I left Winchester in 1973 I returned to Canada and attended the University of Calgary (1974-78) and graduated with a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Geology. I then worked for several years in the mining industry in Western Canada, Australia and Mexico before returning to university, this time in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia, where I completed a Master’s Degree in Geology/Oceanography. In 1986 I returned to Calgary to work for the oil company Chevron.
Of course I have been back to West Downs every time I have been back to Britain since 1973. My wife Carol and I last visited in 1983. We have 3 boys now, and sadly (as I understand it) there is no longer a West Downs to bring them back to see. The thought of those beautiful grounds and especially Melbury being covered by sterile estate housing is a sad one indeed.
I should just say that my boys won’t be following in my footsteps, even if there was still a West Downs. I’m sure I’d reconsider if we lived in England, but from Canada (and Western Canada at that), it’s too far and too painful. I guess if I could sum up my feelings about West Downs, I’d say that I’m sad to see it go, and glad my children won’t have to endure what I did to get an education.
P.S. I must ask, what will become of all the painted boards containing the honour rolls, the statue “Here I Am, Follow Me”, in the Private Garden, the photographs and other records of such an Institution?
Submitted by: Alexander (Sandy) W.S. Denton Calgary, Alberta, Canada