When you took the Romsey road up the hill out of Winchester you passed the prison, and then just under the brow of the hill was the imposing pile of West Downs. It was a high building and looked out across the downs beyond the extensive playing fields behind it. It was a very cold spot. One day an Everest explorer came to lecture, and afterwards an unattractive form of white custard was added to the menu, and every window seemed to be open. It was known as the only school in England where a woman’s hat had blown off indoors.
Kenneth Tindall, a great genial bear of a man, was in many ways an impressive headmaster. He was a devoted Christian, and organised the many services in the simple and attractive Chapel brilliantly. He would read to us on Sunday nights: John Buchan’s Greenmantle; Bulldog Drummond, with great style. He loved Shakespeare and had the priceless gift of communicating his love to us. In this he was greatly assisted by the existence of Melbury, one of the most perfect settings for open-air Shakespeare imaginable. I remember the sound of the flute stealing gradually upon the ear, as Twelfth Night’s Feste wound his way down through the wooded hills onto the stage. We were well served dramatically; every year the staff would write and perform for us an exciting and ingenious thriller.
The school was divided into patrols and everything was organised along scouting lines – obsessively so, I thought. There is a certain humourlessness about scouting exemplified in one of the scout laws: “A scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties.” Possibly I’m biased because at one stage I was turned out of my patrol for losing too many Nuisance Points, but I don’t think so.
We had of course small classes, and I remember the standard of teaching as being unadventurously good. We had one teacher of genius. David Howell-Griffith had a gentle unassuming charm. He loved us all, particularly the least talented and we loved him and, would do anything for him.
And yet I was very unhappy for a lot of my time at West Downs. I was still under eight when I arrived, and I never got over my homesickness. For much of the time during my four and a half years I used to wake in the morning and for one blissful moment think I was at home. It seems to me that there can be no excuse for sending your son at that age to a boarding school, unless circumstances make it essential. Single-sex schools are in any case an anachronism, and schools like West Downs with their small classes, excellent equipment and conditions, and sometimes high standard of teaching, are inevitably confined to the children of the rich, privileged middle classes, who merely mix with each other. Unless and until all children of both sexes are educated together regardless of their parents’ income the appalling inequality of opportunity in this country will be perpetuated.