I attended Old Hunstanton Primary School until it closed its doors for the last time in 1975. The school was in the Gothic Revival style and resembled nothing so much as a towerless church built from gingerbread. The local carrstone that crumbles into the sea at Hunstanton is too soft, so a paler, more sturdy variety is quarried from Snettisham and, historically, elsewhere. High gothic arched windows, gothic arched doorways with external iron hinges, no ceilings but for the lofty roof itself, and ancient wooden desks sporting stained inkpots, all these qualities contributed to the singular atmosphere of the place. That, and no internal toilets.
In spring glossy alexanders would sprout from the hedgerows. We called them hemlock and treated them as the most dire of poisons, despite them being just as edible as their closer cousin, angelica. Daisies would smother the playing field and bluebells could be found in the wood. This wood formed our most interesting playground. There was a fallen tree at its edge, rotting and monsterous. An elm, I think it was, judging by the suckered regrowth that now surrounds the site of its fall. We called it The Mammoth, not just because of its size but because it quite literally looked like the half-buried, rotting remains of one of those beasts, surfacing from the thawing wastes of the Siberian tundra – especially if you had the imagination of a child who read more National Geographic than comics. As it lay on its side the branches that would have then risen vertically had been missing in life and the trunk was hollowed and open. Branches that were its legs reached down into the ground, knee deep in alexanders. Smooth branches, bare of bark, and the colour of prehistoric, peat-stained ivory curved forwards and down to form its fearsome tusks. Its narrowing, tapering trunk was its, er, trunk. We would climb up its flanks into the rotting hollow and pretend to ride this woody mammoth into untold, glorious adventures: adventures that were only limited by the scope of our unfettered imaginations, and the ringing of the bell that sounded the end to our lunch breaks.
At Easter we would paint or dye eggs with nettles or onion skins. On Mayday we would dance around the maypole. At Harvest Festival we would donate food parcels to the church. Although I tried, I was never any good at weaving corn dolllies. At Haloween, there would be apple bobbing. At Christmas some of the older boys would be asked to collect a giant Christmas Tree, donated by the Le Strange Estate, from where it had been felled in the grounds of the hall. They would carry it on their shoulders, squeezing through the gothic doorway and into the Junior School, before errecting it in that lofty space. Then there was the Christmas Party: although, being no more than seven at the time, I was never involved with the financial arrangements, I can only presume that this lavish event was funded by the Le Strange Estate, too. There were (substantial) presents, carol singing, hand-bell ringing, a good meal (in stark contrast to our utterly abysmal school dinners which are the root cause of my phobia of all things beetroot!) and some particularly memorable jelly & ice cream. From a distance of some 40 years, this all sounds a bit Dickensian, with a sprinkling of The Wicker Man thrown in for good luck.
On some days Mrs Slaney, our teacher, would take us out for trips. A walk down Smugglers Lane to the beach in the summer, or a walk to the hall when the trees were bare. Before its reconstruction in the 80’s the view of the hall from under the archway was not quite as appealing as it is now. A series of fires had reduced the frontage to little more than a facade, slowly crumbling into the moat (In that respect I was reminded of Newark Castle, on the river Trent, the deathplace of King John). Beyond this some 17C parts and Victorian rebuilding remained perfectly habitable, and had been divided into flats. On those school visits we were faced with a bleak, ghost haunted semi-ruin. The windows above the dark waters of the moat, though devoid of glass, seemed to house frowning, unwelcoming eyes. To young children whose idea of terror was hiding behind the sofa as John Pertwee battled the Sea Devils, this was the stuff of thrilling nightmares. Children who had relatives who’d worked at the hall told stories of them hearing mysterious footsteps, of doors slamming closed for no reason, and of spots of unnatural cold. In the moat, murderous pike the size of sharks were rumoured to lurk, ready to take take your arm off at the shoulder if you got too close: Simon’s brother had received a nasty nip whilst fishing.
I can remember there being a ‘secret’ tunnel somewhere in the grounds. Sometimes the iron bar gate was locked, and sometimes we could sneak below ground to reappear elsewhere. There was a simple maze with the statue of a favoured hound in its centre, and a (yew?) tree near the haha that had been manicured into a marquee-sized shelter – a green, taxus crinoline where our class could shelter beneath its voluminous, boughy skirts.
My father told me that P G Wodehouse used to stay with the Le Strange’s before the war, but he couldn’t forgive Wodehouse for the broadcasts made from Germany. I’m looking back 40 years to this, but at that time my father was looking back under 30 years to the war. To my generation the war was a matter of history. To my fathers generation it was a matter of memory. Jack, who shared a net with us on Heacham Beach (catching herring, salmon and sea trout) had been a POW working on the Burma-Siam Raliway: he refused to buy anything Japanese. Dick, who drove me home from school, was a Desert Rat, and carried the banner at the Cenotaph on Rememberance Day. My father took me to London to see his father’s name engraved upon the Tower Hill Memorial. He’d been there at its unveiling in the 50’s, yet none of my siblings were ever told anything about it.
So, after watching the BBC’s disappointing attempt at Blandings, I decided to revisit the old pile. The Emperess’s pig sty, whilst still in some form of existence, remains strictly out of bounds. I made use of the limited pedestrian access, along the tracks of the park, which is permitted on Thursdays. I ventured no further than the archway, just close enough for a decent composition. My
trusty Kiev 4 decided to have frame spacing issues, so those images are lost. I’ll have to pay another visit. After all these years perhaps it’s time to lay ghosts to rest, and to see this place under the living light of the summer sun?
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