Let me say straight away that I have not been a very good "Old Boy" of Kingham Hill School; although I have travelled back to the school from time to time to show my kids and others and have visited the church graveyard in Kingham village to pay my respects to the dead of "The Rohilla" quite a few times, I haven't done a lot else!
So this might well be a chance to redeem myself.
It is not only 50 years since "The Rohilla" disaster, but it is also 50 years since I left KHS. Sitting here at 67 years old, thinking back to those times, what do I have to thank Kingham Hill School for? I think my answer is a very simple one - these last fifty years.
I was a part of a single parent family before single parent families became "the vogue". I had been born in the middle of a German air raid in Norwich in 1942 and my father was killed in 1944. Up to the age of 11 years old life was - I admit it - very tough, both for my mother and myself. "The powers that be" in my life at that time in the shape of one Mr Beck, a Welfare Officer, decided that it would be in everybody's interests if I was sent away to school thus obtaining a more stable and focussed upbringing. I must admit that I had no input into this whatsoever! I was going to go away. My mother scraped enough money together to get me and her to KHS for the entrance examination which I passed. I recall she had to borrow money for my school uniform and subsequent train ticket.
It was a long journey for an eleven year old to take, one who had never been away from home before. The early morning taxi (we never took taxis) to Norwich Station, the arrival at Liverpool Street and then Paddington with a ticket around my neck, the kind gentleman who gathered all us juniors onto the train to Kingham, and then lots of kids my own age all wearing the same uniform as me! All of us confused, a little bit frightened, excited certainly, and very pleased that other kids were going through it as well. So began my first really worthwhile "interface" with other children of my own age and from this developed all the other important lessons that one must learn if one wishes to become a good citizen. Thank you KHS!
I think we all got out of the train at Sarsden Halt! This great big train - like a long snake - stopped at this - well - insignificant little station in the middle of nowhere purely to disgorge its load of boys returning to KHS! Amazing! I wonder if the station is still there or has been long forgotten. Whenever I watch the film "The Railway Children" I always think of Sarsden Halt! I never did find out where the train continued onwards after it had dropped us off.
Whether coming or going this train nevertheless became a very important part of my life for five years. In the very early months at KHS I would always step on board with much trepidation about returning to "The Hill", and would always join the train (was it always the same one) to take me back home for holidays with great delight. I don't think that for all the right reasons this ever emotionally changed that much in the five years that I was there. At fifteen years old here we all were - maybe six - eight boys in a railway carriage going home. What was the very first thing we did? We changed into our long trousers of course! Now we could be grownups. Yes...those train journeys will be remembered by many I am sure!
I arrived at my new home-to-be with more curiosity than any other thing. My curiosity was not to be disappointed. Shock and awe!!
I was given a "bed" in a "dormitory", issued with my clean linen and told to "report" downstairs when unpacked.
Cold - oh so cold nights.
All those others snoring, groaning and grunting in close proximity.
Cold showers and...
Cleaning (I still have the smell of the wax in my nose today) and...
Prefects bossing you around...
Seemed like I had better grow up fast and get used to all this 'cause I really wanted to fit in! (How nice and motherly Mrs Meerendonk was, a truly lovely lady. Always there to reassure you, and give you a little sympathy when you were missing home or whatever, I thought she was super! I was quite frightened of her husband though at that time, but slowly, as I settled in, perceptions changed, as of course they always do.) I became accustomed to Chapel every day and three times on Sunday, and discovered that I enjoyed singing very much. I always found peace there and really opened my mind to God. Looking back, already after only one year I was developing and changing. I became totally absorbed in the way of life at KHS and loved it. It was my family, my parents and my friends everything that I had not had before but had now gained. Wonderful!
The tuck shop, Dixie Dean and fried bread
I was always hungry. I don't think that this was because there was a lack of food particularly, but more so because I had discovered that I actually liked food and after all I was a rapidly growing chap who was very busy doing all sorts of strenuous activities!
First we discovered the tuck shop, that little area of delights hidden away in the corner of the refectory building. As soon as our modest allowances had arrived in the post we would all rush off down there to buy some goodies. We died for Fussells Condensed Milk - we became quite addicted to it and would walk around for hours sucking from the cans. Now I think that it is revolting stuff, but then... and jelly babies ...and caramel bars... (I still like the latter two today).
I don't quite remember how Dixie Dean, the Manager of the Refectory, and were introduced but suffice it to say that we did. (I suspect that Mr Cooper's hand was in that because he knew that I was interested in things of a food nature). Mr Dean asked if I would like to help him in the kitchen preparing for the breakfast service every day. I accepted and by so doing ended up in a very privileged food position indeed. After all the work was done and the service was ready to go I would have my own breakfast. To say that this was large would be understating it! I regularly ate 10 large slices of fried bread in addition. With this new arrangement in place I was never hungry at KHS again.
(By the age of 27 years old, I had held 3 General Managements and 1 Managing Directorship within the food industry. I stayed within that business till the age of 42.)
Art, trombones and a smallholding
I think that I was in a minority, because I loved Mr Durant's art and pottery lessons, held in the studio on the floor above the refectory. I was not, nor am I now, artistically creative, but I did like messing about with the pottery clay - my pottery jugs were quite unique - (though not saleable) and I absorbed his lectures regarding the Great Masters of Painting like a sponge. I have never forgotten that which I learnt then, all my life. (By the by myself and my wife had lunch at The Royal Academy in London only last month).
One could - with reason - say that Mr Brindley the music teacher was a close colleague of Mr Durant them both representing the arts at KHS. Because of my interest in Mr Durant's lessons they decided that it would be a good thing if I took trombone lessons. As it happened I had no interest at all in learning to play a musical instrument but I said "yes" anyway because I did not want to upset Mr Durant. Thus once a week I would report to the music room on the first floor again of the refectory building - at the side - overlooking the smallholding. I gave up after some weeks and out of boredom started to study the activities of the smallholding instead.
As a result of this I met Mr Manning - the teacher in charge - also a native of Norwich, my home town. From him I learnt to love the countryside, and farm life with all its various aspects and would spend dozens of gloriously happy hours exploring the two Estate Farms, poaching Carp from Lord Rothermere's Estate (and getting caught by the gamekeeper), pinching apples, climbing pine trees in The Plantation, and damming up the Evenlode with mud. Titch Kelly (my mate) and had a great time.
Swimming, boxing, character building and Basil Benson
I was proud to be a member of the School Swimming Team, and to the best of my knowledge still hold the Worcestershire back stroke record gained whilst competing at the Royal College of the Blind. I remember well the early morning training sessions starting in early April. The blinding headaches you would have on leaving the water, from the cold, shivering like some sort of jelly for an hour afterwards. This if nothing else provided much motivation to swim 33 1/3rd yards very fast! I think that this is how I learnt to make a useful contribution to the team swimming effort. Reading the KHS magazine which I still have from 1960 I see that Basil Benson commented that "He sometimes swims brilliantly but lacks stamina". I am sure that Mr Benson decided to harden me up in other ways, . . (Well he was from Yorkshire I think - it's what they do up there).
It was my first experience at boxing which Mr Benson had introduced I believe to KHS as it was "character building" he said. There was a boxing ring in the gym, with all the boys surrounding it and one by one they were invited (told) to fight in the ring, I held back until I could escape his attention no longer... and in I went with a huge boy called Spatchek (I have often wondered if he was a Bosnian or something) and I was told to, simply, hit him. I found this rather hard since he was so tall...he took an enormous swing at me and knocked me out. I have never boxed again, though I did swim faster subsequently.
Matthew Rudman, David Earl and I were in the habit of swimming in the old pool at the bottom of the estate every summer. In 1959 David had a great idea. Were we all up to taking the risk of going midnight swimming in the new pool? Well of course we were! At around midnight I got out of bed, stuffed a pillow inside it, climbed onto the flat roof at Bradford, slid down the drain pipe and escaped! How exciting it was, running over the empty playing fields in the dark to meet at the swimming pool for our midnight swim. We had a fabulous time! Unfortunately Mr Meerendonk was waiting for me upon my return to the dormitory and I got "6 of the best". So I never did that again!
Matthew Rudman and David Earl were both drowned in "The Rohilla" Disaster. We had all gone together on the sailing trip the previous year with Colin Noble and had had a great time of it, Chichester, St Peterport, Salcome, and Dartmouth. I had wanted to go again with them on "The Rohilla" and had booked a place, but my mother could not afford it. I have spoken to them and prayed for them many times since at the churchyard in Kingham village. Sailing still continued though and still does! (In the 1970's myself and Ian - my helm - won The UK National Championship in "International 505" dinghies, and I participated in The "Soling" Olympic Indicators soon after that. Later, "Claire Louise", my "Contessa 26" offshore yacht, and I cruised to Brittany, Brest and Southern Ireland single handed, finishing back at Cardiff some weeks later winning my sailing club's long range endurance cruising award. I then became part of a 12 man offshore racing crew on a "Jeanneau Selection 38", helping to win many cross channel trophies with the Plymouth Racing Fleet. Whilst there I also "raced Navy" onboard Royal Naval racing yachts out of HMS Manadon with Commander de Burgh as skipper — Chris de Burgh's brother.
My eldest son, Jeremy, became a 1st Lieutenant in The Royal Navy, gaining a medal from Admiral Jack Cunningham for participating in the longest submerged voyage of any Polaris Submarine ever, three months, whilst he was a Weapons Engineering Officer on HMS Resolution. (The other sub had broken down with a reactor leak so "Reso" had to do double shifts)... He sailed in The Barcelona Olympics and I still sail with him sometimes at Hayling Island Sailing Club - he is now "Director of Intelligence and Defence" in an international consulting group working in Westminster). Truly, Matthew and David's deaths were not in vain!
I have so many evocative memories of my time at KHS that I cannot possibly include them all here...so a small "montage" might be appropriate now....
• 16 mile long cross country runs over frosty muddy fields in the depths of winter...hurting but loving it...
• Strenuous games of rugby - T was left prop - covered in mud, oranges at half time, tea and great sandwiches afterwards...
• Building secret dens that nobody but nobody knew about with your friends... (later, my two sons were privileged to be able to grow up in a beautiful part of the Wye Valley in Monmouthshire surrounded by stunning countryside - they built dens there too)...
• Doing naughty things but always being forgiven...
• Learning to take your punishment "like a man"...
• Being invited to "tea" on a Sunday afternoon with a retired RI teacher and his wife "off site"...here I drank Earl Grey out of bone china cups for the first time..!!
• Being allowed to have bicycles at school and the new freedom that that gave you...
• From this, learning to love the Cotswolds to this day...
• Going to the school dance for the very first time at 16 years old and meeting girls...and....
• Being allowed to wear long trousers at last...
• Enjoying the hospitality of the Grenadier Guards for two weeks at Tidworth whilst in the CCF and getting hopelessly lost in the middle of the night on Salisbury Plain - I took up sailing.
So to close my own personal circle 50 years on, what goes round comes round. Whatever I am and whatever I have achieved in my life I have made for myself with my family. But without the foundation that Kingham Hill School gave me I would never have started the journey. Thank you KHS so much.
Colin J Berwick
18th September 2009