Over the hills and far away

TOO many of the boys and girls of Sidcot School down the years, the memories they have cherished have not only been of events within the school walls or grounds, the friends they made, and the masters and mistresses.

TOO many of the boys and girls of Sidcot School down the years, the memories they have cherished have not only been of events within the school walls or grounds, the friends they made, and the masters and mistresses. Sidcot School was not just Sidcot, but the whole district, and when walking the lanes and paths round-about one used to meet Sidcot scholars enjoying the freedom of countryside rambles.This idea of giving the scholars the run of the locality has paid rich dividends, not only in their health and happiness, but also in their education. There can be no doubt that what were known as 'The Walks' had a great influence on Francis A Knight as scholar and teacher at Sidcot, nurtured his love and knowledge of natural history, and enabled him to write so charmingly and with so much authority about the district.In his History of Sidcot School he comments that memories of 'the Walks' are among the most cherished memories of old scholars. "Those who have forgotten the teachers, forgotten the lessons, forgotten the games, remember 'the Walks', as well indeed they may," he says."What old Sidcot scholar does not recall Max Mills, with its ruined mill, its loitering river, 'nurse of rushes and reed'?" he asks. "The weir and the pool below; the mill-pond and the water wheel; the wandering stream beyond, with it sand-pipers and kingfishers, its miller's thumbs and its lampreys?"Who is there cannot picture those old orchards, with their lichen-coated trees, their mistletoe boughs, the tits' and nuthatches' nests; the spruce by the river, where the gold-crests used to build, the famous spring with its streams of bubbles; the swamp with its flowers and birds' nests, and its treacherous bog holes; the trout caught in butterfly nets and stewed in the gluepot over the workshop gas. Surely the Elysian Fields could never hold more charm than those broad meadows, in the prime of a summer-time, all ablaze with their multitudinous wild flowers? "The weekly walks were more extended then," he says, "not only as regards the time devoted to them - the whole of every Tuesday morning or afternoon - but the ground it was possible to cover."There was no wall around Dolbury then, Black Down was free as its own sweet air. No one ever drove us off Sidcot Hill, no gamekeepers ever turned us out of the adder-haunted thickets of Kingwood. Banwell Park was as free to us as the Queen's highway, as, with two ancient hill fortresses upon it, it might well be."There was no wall across Banwell Tower in those days, shutting off Sidcot scholars from what had been a public recreation ground."Associated with that hilltop, in the memory of every schoolboy of Henry Dymond's time, and, indeed for many subsequent years, are the fir cone fights that used to take place round the foot of the tower that is so conspicuous a landmark throughout the valley."It was the custom for 'Schoolroom boys', the second, third, and fourth classes - each combatant having first filled the pouch of his gown with all the hard green fir-cones he could lay his hands on - to garrison the top of the mound; the mound that, in earlier days, had served as a grandstand from which to watch the horse races that were held each year upon the long ridge of the hills."Then the Class-room army, similarly provided with ammunition, advanced to the attack, the object being to take the mound by storm. Those fir-cone fights were no child's play. Nor was the lot of an unpopular master an enviable one, when, in the face of a hail of hard, green cones, he charged at the head of his men, or stood up, without cover of any kind, a target for every hostile marksman with a grudge or grievance."Knight tells us that an old scholar spoke of a particular affection for Dolbury, with its old camp, its rabbits, the fossils in its ruined ramparts. Sandford was also a favourite haunt, for the sake of its potato stones and its snakes and butterflies. Snakes always had a special fascination for Sidcot schoolboys."Callow was not a very favourite walk, except when we went there to play football. But it had its points. There were rare shells among the screes at the foot of the cliff themselves, there were fossils in the old walls on the top, and there were plovers' eggs to be found on the plough-lands."There were fossils on Wavering Down, too, and flattened bullets and Snider cartridge cases by the rifle targets, and there was the glorious view over the moors from the top of Crook's Peak."Those moors, too, were a delightful hunting ground. "Many a Saturday afternoon have I spent among the fascinating ditches, getting back to school only just in time for tea, soaked but triumphant, loaded not only with shells for my collection but with toothsome little eels for the stew-pot, that is to say, the glue-pot."Then there was Churchill Batch, with its tangled thickets, its snakes and slow-worms and hazel nuts, a delightful place on a summer afternoon. And what a view there was from the little Camp on the top of it - the closely packed cottages of the little village in the hollow; Dolbury with its great encampment; the grey shaft of Wrington church, faintly showing against the far blue hills; the white road, wandering away in the distance towards home."Is Black Down the same to-day as it was forty year since? Black Down, with its sheets of blossoming heather, the ferns in the valley at its foot, the cluster of barrows at the top, its bogs, with their sundew, cotton-grass and asphodel, its sunny slopes with their sullen adders and their active little lizards, the rugged cliff where the rock-doves used to build, the two little mountain streams, with their ferns and foxgloves, their crystal pools and their tiny cataracts; do Sidcot boys love it now as we loved it then?"Knight says that it has been whispered that there was a time in the closing years of the last century "when a few bold and turbulent spirits, whose conduct and character kept their names off the 'walk-lists' set authorities at defiance by roaming the country, not merely at prohibited hours, but in the middle of the night".There even existed in the school a Secret Society, which held nocturnal meetings and kept its cipher minute-book in a rocky hollow in the side of Callow, and who were in the habit of wandering over the hills between midnight and daybreak, venturing as far as Cheddar and Black Down, and even down Goatchurch Cave.An old member of the school had written: "There were only a few of us in the Midnight Touring Society, never more than ten, and sometimes not even half that number ... so well were our secrets kept that no outsider knew anything of our movements, nor were our proceedings ever detected by the authorities, to whom our badge of membership, the letters MTS, which some of the fellows were actually daring enough to put on rubber stamps, after their names, were a mystery to the last."The time for starting the expedition was generally on a Saturday night, when the last of the masters to go to bed began to snore. Members of the MTS made their way through a window and stole quietly out of bounds. Usually all went well, but one expedition to the top of Black Down was interrupted by the barking of a dog at Tynings Farm, and the shouts of a man from an upper window, which drove them all under a hedge and kept them there for an hour or more before they dared move and make for home."The last of these unholy raids was made one summer night. Three of us had planned the descent of an old mine-shaft at Sandford Hill, and had hidden our apparatus on the spot. "The Meeting house clock truck twelve as we left the School, and by one o'clock we had driven our crowbar into the turf at the mouth of the pit."We were in the act of fastening the rope to it, when heavy drops of rain began to fall, and we were aware of the mutterings of thunder. It was clear that we should have to give up the attempt for that night. Wet clothes in summer would be difficult to account for: there were no fires that we could get at."Rope and crowbar were promptly hidden among the bushes, and we went off at a run down the slope and over the field towards the school. But just as we reached the stile to the old football ground the storm broke. Down came the rain in torrents."Every few minutes the sky was lit up by the most brilliant lightning, each flash followed by a deafening peal of thunder. Crouched trembling under the tree we discussed in low tones the situation. We regarded the storm as a judgement on us for our evil courses. We felt that we were doomed. I remember picturing an announcement that three Sidcot boys had been found dead under a tree. "At last the sun began to rise and the storm subsided. The thunder went rumbling away along the hills. We were saved. But before we left the tree we made solemn vows of a better life and of more exemplary conduct. Never again would we break bounds at night. and, cold and miserable as we were, yet devoutly thankful for deliverance from peril, we sang, 'Lead Kindly Light'."I remember vividly how the words 'The night is dark and I am far from home' appealed to our young hearts. We got back wet and muddy, but safe and undiscovered. More than that we kept our vow. That was at once the last expedition of the Midnight Touring Society, and the last day of its existence."Knight's History of Sidcot School is exceedingly frank. It tells of the times good and bad, of the unruly acts of rebellious pupils, and the achievement of those who went on to become famous men. Through it all one gets the picture of the school progressing to greater days. Following 'in the steps of F A Knight' I called at the school, and the headmaster, Richard N Brayshaw, kindly gave me a conducted tour.The end of my pilgrimage was a stone in the graveyards adjoining the Meeting House. It was simply inscribed: "Francis Arnold Knight, 1852-1915". Just that - dead for nearly 50 years, but still a delightful guide to the Mendip countryside.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on October 16, 1964