A Memory of Old Wennington

Timing

It was still wartime when I was sent to Wennington, a sad and weepy nine year old child, having already been sent away from home for a year when I was five, and again to boarding school for a term when I was six. The journey eastern Lincolnshire to Lancashire was a typical wartime one. No timetables or names on the stations, and slow steam trains full of soldiers with kitbags who were kind and stood in crowded corridors to let my mother and me sit.

Perhaps my mother thought the journey would take longer, anyway, we were a day early, so I slept in the big bare dormitory in solitary splendour the first night - not alarming to an only child brought up in ramshackle country houses. The wood and canvas bunk beds were a novelty. Once everybody arrived and the building and grounds came to life with children there was the challenge of discovering what to do and where to go, and how to keep up. I had, unfortunately, been put in a class ahead of my years because Frances was impressed by my reading, but I was woefully behind in everything else, and confused by the different approaches of the five previous schools.

There were children as young as three, and some much older who had been so traumatised by losing parents, homes, and the horrors of constant air raids that they were in no state to learn. We were all under the shadow of war and fear. The staff were also on tenterhooks, but so gentle and kind, that the atmosphere was encouraging, and they seemed able to work with us all irrespective of sometimes delightfully outrageous oddities.

Kenneth and Frances somehow knew that I was making a hash of being teased by the Big Girls (class mates), and that I was idiot enough to believe Rhona when she said my parents didn't love me because I was adopted. That had bothered me more than finding snails in my slippers. I don't know what they said to poor Rhona - who had her own problems - but they did comfort and bolster me.

The end of the war in Europe meant no more black out, and much celebration including a bonfire party. Food was still rationed of course, but we decided on our own midnight feast. There was much sequestering of titbits from meals, to be reheating slapped onto radiators (a bit of rust adds flavour) and those with obliging parents got Parcels. Ann Whiehouse's mother (Mildred, who became a school governor), was immortalised for sending home made coffee kisses, little chocolate cakes with butter cream in - unheard of luxury. It was all very exciting, and Kenneth had the good sense not to suggest it was time to settle down until we had got to the final crumb stage, and what with the effort of keeping awake until midnight, and a good eat, we were satisfactorily sleepy. How did he know our secret? Those long ears on pink threads so useful to Harry Potter and friends?

The Hogwarts Factor

There was a magic about Old Wennington, of which there were clear echoes at Ingmanthorpe Hall, and of course in the ethos of the school, but the old building and its surroundings, and the uncertainties of wartime did have a particular edge which Harry Potter would have recognised. The staff had all sorts of boring worries about narrow dark corridors and the slippery polished wood staircase and the danger of this and that, and the way it was so easy for children to vanish into grounds. Ideal.

To start with, Wennington station was exactly like the Hogwarts station, and with the same steamy air and smell of excitement at the beginning and end of term. The village was small and picturesque. There was Mrs Davis who had a neat little cottage with a spare bedroom for visiting parents and she was always welcoming a kind to us. The sweet shop was run by a tired and rather dispirited woman who guided us through the limited choices that would work with our pocket money and the sweet ration.

Just outside the village was the unassuming entrance into the Hall, and there was a rough drive, parallel to a much grander one, then derelict, but still lined with lime trees. Up the slope we went, to a flight of stone steps to a terrace guarded by two stone gryphons, with fat bellies and haunches and wings. From the entrance hall there was a wide wooden stair case bending sharply round and up to a big gallery which was used for music and dancing and jollifications, and from which there were dark corridors leading to dormitories and a maze of rooms. Downstairs again, there were large rooms used for teaching, and a big dining room also used for assembly and concerts, but at the back, no doubt through a baize door, were narrow corridors leading to the kitchen, where Willa was supreme, and managed to produce wondrous meals. Out at the back led to a cobbled courtyard, surrounded by buildings, including the entrances to the towers, barely visible from the front. Staff families lived there, including Louis Jones and Phyllis with baby Anthony, and Ruth Davies with baby Martin. Across the yard was Louis' big art room where there always seemed to be a hush of potential artists working away in class or out.

The shoulders of the building were wrapped by a large dark wood, which seemed to have a lot of yew trees and it was possible to traverse it by any reasonable climber without ever touching the ground. Certainly Arragog had relations there, but of a much milder disposition. Invisibility cloaks were freely available to children.

Wennington is surrounded by the most magnificent countryside, and we certainly explored it, both officially and otherwise. In the summer, accompanied by staff, we would walk up the road to the river Lune to swim. It is wide and clear there, with big smooth stones, and quite sizeable fish. Magical, and warm.

Of course the Hall had ghosts, and underground passages leading to other important buildings in the neighbourhood. It was said that they were crumbling, and only the select few knew of the entrances.

With the war over of course the Yealand Quaker Committee wanted the Hall back so that they could charge more than a peppercorn rent. It was sad leaving but even then we children knew that in large measure WE were Wennington, and the magic would go with us.

 

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