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

Sir Henry Beresford-Peirse, Bt, 1943-46

I left West Downs at the end of the Summer Term 1946, to go on to Eton. The School only returned from Blair Atholl at the beginning of that Summer, so I only spent one term in Winchester. I remember it well because I was Captain of the School (if that was the correct title), Captain of the Eleven (we lost all our matches, I’m sure), Patrol Leader of the Hounds, a Confirmation Candidate and taking Common Entrance (where my chances were not highly rated). To this day I cannot imagine why I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, but I do remember suffering badly from insomnia towards the end of term. All my recollections relate really to Blair Atholl, but I do have one very strong feeling about Winchester. I cannot speak for my contemporaries, but for me the return to Winchester was one terrible anticlimax. I was as though you had asked the Duke of Atholl to leave Blair Castle and his vast estate in the highlands, and take up residence in a small suburban house on the outskirts of Winchester. Melbury was simply a bad joke, and the school itself, while obviously purpose built, was nothing as compared to Blair.

Scouting at Blair, under Harry Ricardo, was something quite special. With the scope offered by the Blair Atholl Estate, we ranged far and wide. Indeed, Wide Games, played over thousands of acres and teaching us the use of country to proceed unobserved to the objective, were a high point in every term. There was tremendous enthusiasm, and great efforts were made to obtain as many different badges as possible; I remember winter evenings spent up in the gallery, looking down on Shakespeare, doing knots and lashings which have never been forgotten. A large number of us gained the First Class qualification before leaving West Downs, and we were agreed that scouting could never be better anywhere else and, I think, many decided to give up scouting thereafter.

Cricket: We were at a disadvantage at Blair due to the lack of matches and probably the weather. Nevertheless, we were taught well, and there were nets on the lawn on the far side of the burn from the Castle. A rather eccentric master, Captain House, taught me the off drive by spending long summer evenings in the nets pitching the ball on precisely the same spot until I had perfected the stroke; I never learnt any other stroke so well.

Football: We did better at football, and there were matches against the junior boys, I suppose, at the Leys School, which was then based in Pitlochry. We never tired of watching Mr. Howell-Griffith in plus fours and stout shoes demonstrating deadly accurate place kicks from somewhere near the halfway line, and always putting them right over the bar. Some of the football pitches were distinctly uneven, and as for the cricket pitches, I remember one where the wicket was in a small valley, and the fielders stood on the slopes of the surrounding hills.

Common Entrance: Those boys, like me, who due to the War and one thing and another were considered bad Common Entrance risks, always ended up with Mr. Howell-Griffith. An inspired teacher of boys, he could turn the most hopeless case into a respectable pass, given a year or so. After being “up to” him for a time I don’t think there was one of us who wouldn’t have followed him anywhere.

Winter Sports: I remember one fantastic winter at Blair when we were in the grip of ice and snow for the whole of Common Time. Being War time there was no skiing equipment, and we had very few sledges. Everyone wrote home immediately, pleading for anything on which to slide down the hill. Meanwhile we prepared a long toboggan run with banked turns and as icy as we could make it. Finally, my father, home on leave, managed to knock together a sledge, and the excitement of going down to pick it up from the station at Blair Atholl I can well remember.

Henry Beresford-Peirse