Our junior school of the 1970s was incredibly forward thinking. We had our own school buses while other schools still had a man walking in front of a horse and cart with a red flag. We had a swimming pool while our nearest rivals were still jumping in puddles. We also had our own Outdoor Activity Centre, halfway up a mountain on the Welsh Borders years before they became fashionable.
All of this was down to the head teacher, the God-like David George, who loved his school, the kids and the village, and I was stunned to learn he’d died recently. Top, top, top fella.
As far as I can remember, Mr George had bought Oakdale - a clapped out old farm house - for the school around 1970 at some ridiculously low price, which may have included the bartering of some sheep and a pile of scrap metal. He’d done the place up, quite possibly out of his own pocket, in his own time and produced a homely little centre which could comfortably accomodate fourteen kids and a couple of teachers to do the kind of stuff you can’t get insurance for these days.
So, on any given Monday morning, a bunch of kids aged between eight and eleven asccompanied by a couple of teachers would pile themselves and their luggage into a converted ambulance and cart themselves off up the M4 to the Wye Valley.
Our parents tearfully waved us off at the school gate, before running off home for a “Thank God they’ve gone” party. The minibus had wooden bench seats, no seatbelts, and we all piled in on top of the bags, cases and junk. One lucky kid - judged the most likely to puke up - was allowed to sit up front, belt-less, with the teachers. It would be enough to give any solicitor a heart attack.
Wurzels: Words cannot describe my agony
Mr Morgan - our Welsh wizard of a form teacher - slapped the school’s only music tape into the slot, and we would be treated to a “Now That’s What I Call Fucking Awful” musical compilation for the first of fifty-eight times that week. To this day, I still have nightmares about The Wurzels singing “I’ve got a Brand New Combine Harvester”, surely the work of Satan. And don’t get me started on JJ Barrie “singing” “No Charge”, the kind of saccharine-sweet bollocks that can only drive you to commit murder.
By Monday teatime, following an afternoon’s diversion at the SS Great Britain in Bristol we descended on the house. Seven to a room, be bagsied beds and settled in. Giggling could be heard and an eye appeared just above floor level.
The dreaded enemy! Girls! They’d found a hole in the wall of the boys dorm in the stairwell and were spying on us in the time-honoured fashion. And did we do anything to block it up? Of course not! Instead, Andy squatted down onto his haunches and let rip the most terrifying fart into the hole that only a farmboy like him could manage. It lasted for a good ten seconds and sounded like a motorbike going down the road outside.
There was a scream. “Miss! Miss! The boys are being dirty!”
Yeah, it was OK for them. They’d only been rumbled spying on the boy’s dorm, a stunt they repeated on a regular basis for the entire week. We had to live with the consequences of Andy’s pickled arse. And he didn’t stop. All week. Day or night. And the windows were stuck. In the end, he and his mate Simon were “allowed” to sleep in Mr George’s caravan out the back, much to our relief.
It was a week of doing dangerous stuff. Up mountains, through forests, down caves, over rivers, eating Miss Hilldrew’s cooking. We lived on the edge, and by and large, we escaped uninjured. Whatever the teachers were getting paid for their week of juvenile hell, it was nowhere near enough. We were wild, we were out of control, we were lucky to be alive. So, what did they do to keep us entertained of an evening? Our spartan accomodation didn’t have a TV. They took us down the pub. Corporate lawyer has heart attack...
With our teachers either cooking for the bunch of gannets nominally under their control, or just having a nervous breakdown somewhere private, we were allowed to wander the valley around the house virtually unsupervised. That was a Bad Thing. The sheep were worried, and so were the locals. They knew about us from previous visits, and we were frequently threatened with “I’ll make sure Mr George hears about this!” Did that stop us? What do you think?
Geoff led an assualt on the top of the valley to “see what’s on the other side”. Like adventurers, we followed him up and up through the bracken, heather and gorse, thrashing the undergrowth aside with sticks. Before long we reached the summit and took in the view. There was a telephone pole. And lots of trees.
“You git!” we complained. “We followed you all the way up here for this? It’s like... like... trees!”
He had to die.
Clicky for part II of this epic tale of mirth and woe.