You get the famous Fyling Hall wow factor about half a mile from the school. It comes at the precise moment you drive over the brow of the hill – and there stretched out below you is the most wondrous sight, a stunning advert for the Yorkshire coast.
It’s the sweep of land from Robin Hood’s Bay round to Ravenscar – of fond memory. I first read about it, drooled over it, indeed, in the Bramblewick novels of Leo Walmsley, a native of Shipley where I grew up. Now I find that there is a school that actually overlooks it.
Autumn’s early warmth is still lingering and the sun glinting on the sea, white breakers collecting round a rocky promontory. The fields are a soft pastel green, blotched with seasonal golds and reds. Idyllic is the word that springs most readily to mind.
Now, if the great American educational freethinker Henry David Thoreau, in his seminal bookWalden, was right that we learn best in beautiful surroundings, then Fyling Hall must be a prime place to study – and to teach – I was thinking. The contrast with the grim approach to some of the city schools I have worked in was not entirely absent from my thoughts. (I shudder to think of that time in a quite different landscape when I was frisked entering and leaving a school near Alexandra Palace, London.)
I was here to do some supply teaching in the English Department. Even after a lifetime in the business I confess to a certain nervousness. After all, an interview with a Headmaster is never something to take lightly, either as pupil or teacher! The moment I was shown into the staff room, however, any anxiety I might have had seemed to subside as my gaze took in a sort of home from home. It was immensely welcoming in an old-fashioned way and, obviously, dated from the days when such bolt-holes were called common rooms, a much nicer term. You’d have to borrow the German word Gemütlichkeit,perhaps, to approach its lived-in quirky cosiness. There were lots of wingback chairs set at odd angles and an actual three-seater settee which must have borne the impress of several generations of scholarly figures.
There was an actual wood-burning stove and refreshingly, amazingly, life-affirmingly, nary a single example of those admonitory government posters de rigeur in state schools. There was a tasteful Impressionist print over the fireplace and, in an alcove, presiding over everything, was a painting of a formidable lady who bore some distinct resemblance to Enid Blyton, and truly this might have been straight out of her Mallory Towers.
The staff were most welcoming and the interview came and went, man to man, in a perfectly civilised way – with none of those weaselly little jargonised catechisms to catch me out. None of those unsubtle acronyms dropped in like compressed gas cylinders to flush out the unwary individual not up to speed on the latest pedagogical buzz. Could I teach was all that was deemed pertinent, and presumably I must have persuaded that I could. Mind you, the scrutiny of my yellowing bona fides was done with great diligence and various agencies and references consulted before I was duly allowed anywhere near a classroom in the afternoon.
Later, I was shown round the entire school by the safety officer, mindful to point out the fire extinguishers and related points, drills and appliances. I was particularly keen to see the library, having an old-fashioned fancy to judge an educational institution by this means. I found it large and spacious and being used commendably for quiet study. More to the point it was well-stocked (and in an orderly manner) with actual books, for reading, page-turning, studying, taking delight in – where these days the common prejudice is to have a ‘resource centre’ with very few ‘resources’. So few ‘resources’, indeed, that such books as survive have to be laid front-facing.
This to the very life was how the library was when I went to school and where I first read and was inspired by Leo Walmsley who had dedicated copies of his entire works to Salt Grammar School. This, indeed, was how libraries had been when I first started teaching several decades ago. This is how school libraries should still be, I couldn’t help thinking.
My next port of call was the Barn, rustically named but in reality a superbly useful hall complete with stage, ideal for teaching drama, equally useful as a rehearsal space or performance venue. Three ‘A’-level Drama students were so immersed in their roles as to be unaware of their temporary audience.
But at the purple end of the day, after a very pleasant afternoon teaching able pupils so polite that they thanked me as they left, there was an even greater knock-out moment to come. I’d taken the wrong turning out of my Waldenic cabin in the woods and was perambulating the leafy purlieus when suddenly emerging on a terrace grand enough to have fronted a lake in Tuscany. From it was the most celestial view of the whole of the Paradise Coast whose scenic virtues Walmsley had extolled. I was in some kind of rose garden and the sun was a splintery circle in a bloody sky. I felt a certain awe, wonder, gratitude.
Yes, I thought, it would be very easy to fall in love with this place, but decided to keep my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to be mistaken for some kind of jejune rash enthusiast or worse some dreadful toady currying favour in the hope of prolonging his stay. Yet when I was asked to write a blog entry – my first ever blog and, sadly, by no means in, er, bloggerese – I felt strangely compelled to blurt out how I felt.
Why not? The pupils must know how privileged they are to be schooled in such an environment and in such small classes where they can receive the personal attention of their teachers in a way inconceivable in any other school I’ve been in. But after a lifetime of teaching if I were to affirm what they already knew, then it could not do any harm. If I were to go even further and say I could not personally conceive of a place more propitious for learning, they might appreciate even more their good fortune and profit from it.
I had an instantaneous conviction that it would be right to write this blog and maybe add to it at a later stage when I know more.
Teacher of English
(Dr. Liddle began his teaching career at Bradford Boys’ Grammar, followed by thirty years as Head of English at Hipperholme Grammar School, Halifax. Since retiring, he has visited hundreds of schools as examiner, advisor and inspector.)