There were outdoor performances a-plenty in the early years. Pupils recall smiling grimly through a bare-foot dancing display on a grass tennis court no-one had noticed was scattered with fallen holly leaves. The balcony outside the then dining room was used to stage not, as one might expect, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, but ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – with a Portia who cherished a secret passion for her Shylock, and later went on to the Central School of Drama.
Remembered more vividly by most past pupils, though, are the simpler outdoor pleasures, the everyday currency of rural life.
‘Summer smells, masses of bees, lilac overhanging a field, and cows which gathered round you when you read poetry at them – especially Gerald Manley Hopkins,’ wrote Alison Ludlow (nee Piercey). ‘Ducks Farm where eggs cost one penny each, and they were cooked for you on a Sunday for tea if you wrote your name on them. Ramsdale Farm with its reject honey combs at 1/6d each. The Rose Garden where some bloomed even in January, as did the poor new-born lambs when we came for the so-called Spring term.’
‘We gathered apples and pears from the trees at the far end of Whin Bank, and brewed our own “wine”,’ recalls John Woolley, a pupil from 1945 to 50, and later headmaster. ‘We learned to cook anything parents provided – or anything we could catch.’ A decade earlier, Christine Pegler, relished eating ‘the fresh mushrooms we gathered before breakfast.’
‘I suppose there were lessons and bells,’ writes Clare White who, as the daughter of the Principal, Mab Bradley, was a pupil in the late 1930’s, ‘but I cannot remember them. We rode and picked blackberries and hazelnuts and wild strawberries, and walked to Ravenscar every Saturday, picnic lunch en route, and caught the little train back to Robin Hood’s Bay.’
There were certainly lessons and bells. However, although the curriculum in those days included the academic subjects familiar today, plus Latin and Greek, the prospectus also assured potential pupils that ‘some practical knowledge can be gained of various interesting country occupations such as Farming, Riding, Gardening, Poultry and Bee-keeping.’ And all for 30 guineas per term, plus Medical Fees of 10/6 (52½ pence).
Such ‘practical knowledge’ came from unusual sources. The teaching staff in the 30’s included the novelist, Leo Walmsley – credited in the Prospectus as the author of ‘Three Fevers’, ‘Foreigners’ and other works. Not titles to stir instant recognition now, perhaps, but widely read in their day. One might suppose he was employed to teach English. Not at all. He is advertised as supervising: ‘Building, Carpentry, etc.’ Equally eccentrically, the Principal’s husband, Dr Bradley – with a slew of distinguished academic qualifications to his name – oversaw the teaching of Riding, Horsemanship and Stable Management. From the outset, it was clear this school was never likely to take an obvious or conventional path.
And while Fyling Hall flourished academically, with pupils winning scholarships to the major public schools, rural skills and activities continued to be threaded into and around the timetable. Ben Pegler recalled that, as a young teacher, ‘the woods needed thinning, and I thoroughly enjoyed, with the help of the boys, cutting down the trees Dr. Bradley had marked. It was all done in a very amateurish fashion, and that we escaped having an accident was a miracle’.
Even as late as the 60’s pupils were despatched to the woods, as Graham Gibbs recalls. ‘With ropes, axes and saws, we spent the morning logging. This entailed searching the woods for fallen trees, most forty-plus feet long, chopping and sawing off branches, then hauling the lot back to school. All morning, the sound from the woods was one-two-three-heeeeeeave!’
Other pupils recall digging water mains (and earning a fee rebate for their efforts!). Moreover, ‘at critical times in the farmer’s year,’ writes John Woolley of the immediate post-war period, ‘large numbers of boys whom Mrs Bradley considered “not very academic” would disappear for anything from ten days to three weeks in order to harvest quantities of desperately needed crops for a starving, rationed country.’
Fyling Hall was – and indeed remains – a rural school, blessed with beautiful surroundings. ‘Why does it have such a rich store of memories?’ asked Alison Ludlow, and undoubtedly spoke for many when she answered her own question: ‘Perhaps because of a sense of freedom. You could roam the moors or camp in the woods. Yet you were responsible for yourself and for others.’