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Five years at a boarding prep school in leafy Northumberland

Fig.1 Before donning make-up and costume as the Station Master in ‘The Ghost Train.’ Easter 1973

I settled into Hedgehope Dormitory at Mowden Hall, a boarding preparatory school set in 32 acres of woods in Northumberland in early September 1969 (or 1970 I’m not sure).

The formal ‘Sunday’ uniform was much the same as I had worn at Ascham House, though now we wore green, not red. Both uniforms came from the same shop, Isaac Waltons off Eldon Square in Central Newcastle where my sisters also got their Central High and Westfield uniforms.

Mowden is less than 20 miles from my home in Gosforth, but it had might as well have been in a different country for a boy of eight or nine.

Occasionally a boy would run away, Rupert Van der Post walked cross-country towards Gosforth, following the electricity pylons that ran into the urban conglomerate of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in a straight a line as the Roman Road to the north. My older cousin Stuart also made it back to his family farm at Riding Mill.

I started to keep at diary at Mowden when I was 13

I have kept a journal on and off for the last thirty years or more; my memories of Mowden come from entries in my first ‘Five Year Diary,’ letters home kept by Mum and letters I received from grandparents … and girlfriends.

I was at Mowden for five years

In my last year I had ‘a proper’ girlfriend, i.e. someone who wasn’t just a friend of the family or one of my younger sister’s friends; I was 13, she was 12. We met on a ‘School Cruise’ one Easter. We met on the last night, danced at the disco into the evening, held hands together during Auld Lang Syne and kissed by the railings on the port side promontory of the S.S.Nevassa. Kathy Adam was in St George’s House, at Rosemead School in Littlehampton, West Sussex.

We wrote to each other most weeks for a couple of years.

Letters at Mowden Hall were handed out after lunch each day by a teacher calling our name, these letters from Kathy, decorated with hand drawn flowers and love hearts, and the letters S.W.A.L.K. covering the envelope produced a cheer, each time, from the a dining hall of over a hundred boys.

On pink paper with a cherub on it she wrote in an uncertain, lopsided, childish hand:

‘Dear Jonathan

How are you? I am fine. I am sorry I have not written but I am very buisy lately. There is an incect going around our school it is called nits. Nits are lice eggs and they live in your hair. A girl came over from Belgium brought them. 4 girls have been found with them and every Friday our hair is checked for them. Don’t worry I have not got them. I went on an outing on Sunday to a bird world in Farnham it was very good. I bought some love beads with wire bits in them and they look very nice. I am in Prep at the moment and I am ment to be working. Oh well. STUFFS!

Thanks for the photos they are lovely. I have had my half term. When is or was yours?

I MUST go I have got a lot of work.

Lots of love

Kathy xxxxxxxxxxxxx’

Kathy was my first ‘girlfriend’

I cared for her, fancied her and thought about her. My pre-adolescent thoughts were innocent and romantic. Though we never met again, we wrote to each other for two or more years. One night we planned to ‘wish’ each other into each other’s dreams synchronously across the 250 miles that divided us. I tried using this idea in a story years ago – one of hundred of half-baked ideas I’ve squirreled away.

I remember our school trunks and ‘tuck’ boxes at Mowden Hall School, the houses (like Hogsworts School) were: Bewick, Grey, Collingwood and Stephenson (named after famous figures from the North East of England), the shelves of silver cups in the dining hall, the common rooms, the kitchens, Marmite on Toast, huge pots of tea, jugs of water, the matrons known as Matey Ma and Matey Mi, teas on rugs watching cricket, teas in the back of the car after rugby games.

I remember being crap at cricket, but enjoying scoring in a little pocket book

I also recall the ‘pissing’ competitions in the corrugated iron urinals next to the cricket pavilion, during matches the urine would run out through the entrance. Yuk. I remember part of the woods being cleared for timber.

I remember the cold frames and potting shed by the outdoor swimming pool before they were removed; we had flower gardens and vegetable gardens; I have a picture of my brother’s garden that one the ‘Gardening Prize’ one year. I remember having to wear white knickers in that unheated pool before we had achieved some series of swimming tests – Straker was stuck in such humiliating pants until he was a prefect.

I remember the ‘Science Labs’ with the apothecaries collection of glass jars and chemicals, keeping locusts and guinea-pigs; I remember the loft where we had art. I remember the gym where we played ‘pirates,’ and the fives court next to it.

I remember getting a number, I was 105 when I started, no 2 when I left.

We lost our first names entirely; I have no recollection of calling anyone anything other than by their surname with Ma or Min appended if they had a brother or cousin at the school. The Bainbridge brothers/cousins stretched this practice to Max, Ma, Min and Minimus. Because of my surname and having an older cousin and brother at the school I was known not as Vernon Min, but ‘Vermin.’

I remember the ghost stories we told in the dorms; ‘the green mist,’ the grey lady’ and ‘the monkey’s paw.’

The two most junior ‘dorms’ were Hedgehope and Till (named after small Northumberland mountains in the Cheviot Range).

I think there were only four of us: Brown, Malkin, the ‘Dormitory Captain’ called ‘Turnbull’ and me.

We had a rotten, green wooden ladder propped against the dorm window as a fire escape; this was later replaced with a proper, iron structure. We were introduced to making ‘bundles’ with our clothes, folding everything into our pullovers; we had to be ready for fire practice, which came early in each new term. In the dark, with torches, the alarms wailing like air-raid shelters we’d gather behind our ‘D.C.’ and head down to the dining hall where Mr Dakin did a roll call and rounded up the few boys who had been left asleep in their beds. I can’t recall the name of the dorm on the other side of the corridor where I went next. I remember the D.C. being a guy called ‘Young’ who told great ghost stories and at the end of term brought his guitar in. I was sick in my bed one night after a ‘tea’ after a rugby match – too much chocolate cake and coca-cola in a stomach used to eggy bread, marmite on toast, beans on toast, egg on toast, sandwich spread on toast and toast on toast with toast.

We did our teeth in a large communal washroom where ‘Matey Ma’ also made those from ‘sick dorm’ take a bath if they’d missed a ‘lunge bath’ downstairs. Maybe we had a bath or ‘plunge’ twice a week, once a week we had a ‘foot bath’ instead. Each morning Matey would come in, wake us, turn on the lights and open the curtains. We’d file out behind the ‘D.C.’

While in Beamish Dormitory various nicknames were created, there was a gang who became ‘Pinky, Perky and Porky’ Blacket, Ramsbotham and Saxby I think.

For some reason Ramsbotham and Blacket also became temporarily ‘surrogate’ parents called Sue and Francis, which we inverted to ‘Eus’ and ‘Sicnarf.’ While in Bewick David Malkin used to sleep walk across the room. I remember ‘dorm raiding’ well that summer term because when I leapt from the bunk with a pillow I cracked my left heel. I got away with not telling anyone about it until I saw a doctor at home. There was a hole in the roof to the attic in Beamish Dorm.

The last ‘dorm’ we slept in, and the largest after some extension work in the early 1970s, was ‘Tyne,’ with others, in no order, ‘Coquet’, ‘Tweed’ … named after hills or rivers in Northumberland.

I remember the games of table tennis, and ‘round the table,’ and playing ‘billiards’. I remember gatherings in the senior common room to watch 16mm black and white movies. I remember conker fights, the cellars were we made Tamya and Airfix models and balsa wood aircraft. I remember Mrs Dakin, ‘Denny’ who got everyone into the choir or doing handbells.

My brother and I were in the choir.

I remember the audition, then practice, and becoming a Christmas soloist, I eventually became Head Chorister, leading the choir at first by ‘nodding’ my head in time, but instigating a change to using a hand.

I remember doing a marathon swim in the Lake – only the once, the lake was never deemed deep enough or safe enough to do that again. I was under 10 and came something like sixth out of the school.

I remember the marathon like runs, the ‘Stelling Run’ and more rarely the ‘Five Mile.’

I remember the woods, the observatory, the dens, the ‘water works’ and the ‘Nature Reserve’. I remember ‘Den Raiding’ at the end of term and prefects stealing a friend’s clothes and putting them at the top of a tree. I remember all the antics in the woods, climbing the trees and trying to get from one tree to the next in the top branches, ‘sliding’ to the ground in the branches of fir trees, and engraving our names in a three hundred year old beach tree at the top of the drive. I remember the assault course, ‘tuck’ after Sunday Lunch given out by the day of the month on which your birthday fell; I remember spelling tests, coming out of Maths to watch the landing on the moon, the black outs during the miners’ strike, the brown boiler suits were wore outside for break and to go in the woods, the cassocks and ruffs, the music cubes as we called the ‘music cubicles.’ I remember birthdays, with a cake and candles and ‘friends’, handing out cake as boys screamed ‘me’, ‘I’m your friend’ and all that nonsense. I remember some boys standing outside the Headmaster’s Office having a farting competition, my brother and ‘Reeves’ were two of the boys up. I remember boys being caned. I remember the library, the scary book on World Wars I and II in which their were pictures of a man being hanged and another few who’d been decapitated.

I remember becoming a ‘D.C.’, house captain and captain of swimming.

I won the ‘D.Cs’ prize more than once, which also brought with it an end of term ‘feat’ for the winning dorm.

I don’t look back with any fondness at being a prefect though; it brought the worst out in me, so I deserved the nickname ‘Granny,’ I was pernickety, like my mother and father.

I remember the humiliation of half-drowning in the outdoor pool in my last summer term and having three swimming cups taken from me as a consequence – I was diagnosed as asthmatic five years later. Were I a vengeful psychopath I would have drowned the teachers responsible for this, I would have had those teachers who caned boys for doing badly in a test lashed too.

See, it wasn’t all happy memories.

Tamer punishments were most likely to be ‘stone picking’ on the sports fields. I remember the honours boards and how as a new boy you looked up to those names and never imagined being up there one day as Head Chorister, Head of School, or winning the History Pr


Words, words, words; but not in that order!

‘To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.’ Said Alfred Hitchcock.

If I’ve written below about the demise of the written word, then I take it back.

OK, love letters have had their day. I don’t even suppose that boarding Prep School Boys are writing home religiously every Sunday either; though we did.

My mother’s collection of letters written by my brother and I from aqe eight years make quixotic reading.

Avatar started with a script.

The three CD edition is worth it for the documentary on the creation of the film. It started with an idea expressed as a ‘scriptment’ (sic) i.e. not even a script, but words on sheets of paper nonetheless.

A Learning Designer starts with a script, as does an Account Manager.

A client wants to see it in writing. You can edit words. You can share words. You can hold, copy and digest them in written form.

An idea (or problem), a brief, a synopsis and treatment … that leads to a script. And once this is nailed down the costly business of production begins. Why should e-learning be any different to the production of a mega million Hollywood movie, or the Christmas Pantomime in Ambridge Village Hall.

I get paid to write because I’m able to fill a blank space with bright ideas in a sequence that makes sense (linear) or does not (non-linear).

But ultimately says something.

Writing a blog can be like porn

A comment from a name

‘Writing a blog can be like porn; too much of it and it begins to numb your life. I’d miss reading but it would be fantastic to see you back here in five years’ time blogging about something great you’ve achieved back in the real world.’

(sorry it must be weird getting advice from some stranger but you’ve got to expect that when you show so much on here)

I agree entirely.

The blog gets written in fits and starts. This current burst is like an explosion of my bowels. It is being productive in a way that isn’t revealed here. I do this for a while then apply this obsessive attention to detail to a piece of work.

Ploughing through the past, especially being able to visualise it with old photographs, drawings, diaries and ephemera constantly touches on a variety of themes on which I am continually working. I have collected these things over several decades for this purpose.

I am clearing the desk, making space in my mind.

This ‘blog’ is called ‘my mind bursts’ for a reason. I drop this as other projects take over – this same energy goes into a video production, a drama script, a pilot or a screenplay.

I like that component of the confessional that comes with writing like this. I gain something by having to check my progress.

There is progress

Yesterday I did a five-hour stint in the office – my garret. Yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in 20 years – today I’ll swim a mile. I’m dealing with post, answering e-mails, seeing friends, doing things with the kids, getting recipes from a cook book, taking a book to bed rather than vegging out in front of the T.V. until I collapse.

I’m conscious of the damage I have done to my body

My liver doesn’t want me to drink. A glass of wine has become poison. My immune system is shot to bits – I will fight this by getting fit.

Some goals

Last March a novel went out to an agent – they get another before then.

The Swimathon beckons, sailing starts again in a few months (I’ve paid my membership) and there’s a triathlon in September. The skiing season is not over. If we go out in April, I’ll be fit to ski.

There’s a job I want in London

I have an idea … a way to wrap up something I’ve been working on for over a decade.

Writing a blog can be like porn

So is sport, so are lovers, so are children and hobbies. So is anything you become excited about. For me keeping a diary is sometimes an obsession (which rarely last more than a month) more often it is a chore, a slog.

I simply record what happened that day – put it down so I have something to chew over a decade or more later. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good chew, picking over the details of an experience from a distance.

Did I really say and do that?

Enough. I have my day to plan. I’ve been here since 2.15 a.m – that was three hours ago. I missed the office in L.A. again!!!! The 16-hour time difference is hopeless. The ONLY time I sleep – early/mid evening into the small hours G.M.T. is 10.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. on the West Coast.

Power Structure

This is a piece of writing software I’d recommend. It holds everything I have gleaned about preparing storylines and treatments for TV, a novel or film. My current obsession with my teen years is to feed this beast, to try once again to get a story right.

A thousand words a day

Three years ago (or four) some of us in Diaryland did a writing marathon – a thousand words ON THE HOUR, live, every hour for 24 hours!!!! That is what I call obsessive. By pushing a genre to its extremes you discover its limitations. I am just about to run out of space in Diaryland to upload photographs and pictures. I can trim them all back, compress them and edit them, but ultimately I will fill this space and need to spread elsewhere. I won’t do that. I like the potential containment of this expression of the contents of my brain. Space in Diaryland isn’t limitless. How much space is required for the contents of my brain?


Try this.


Keep clicking

It’ll land on something that pleases or irritates.

I find it the most interesting way to get through the contents of this diary. As a result of having so much here across so many decades it can offer some unique combinations. It is the product of an idea and an expression of an idea in itself – how might someone with brain damage experience their life? At random? Dreams flow into each other better than skipping about the contents of a person’s brain at random. How would you escape this trap? In Groundhog Day Bill Murray returned to the same day until his character changed for the better and he was able to move on. What if I were to invent a character who gets stuck in a similar way, but in every day of his entire life? He can NEVER go forward, he CANNOT return to the real world until he’s dealt with the issues in his past. Does he become a modern day Ripvanwinkle? How does a person in a coma become an active participant in their cure? Where does reality have to become fiction?

931 words.

See what I am doing. Filling the space. Answering the question. Sitting the exam. Setting myself a challenge, but also a limit. A thousand words a day? I’ve just about to d it.

What am I going to write today?

Fiction. It is called ‘The Girl in the Garden.’

I wrote this a decade ago as a short story and have returned to the theme a few times since. I feel I have a way forward now, thanks to the way I’ve been scanning bits of my past into a PC these last few days. My late father kept letters my brother and I wrote to him from boarding school. We must have been 10, 11 maybe 12 years old. He’d just left us. I have the letters we wrote to my Mum too. Same hand writing, different addresses, different content.

Letter Writing

‘Letter Writing’ was a formal Sunday morning ‘class’ after church. I went to boarding school two weeks short of my 8th birthday. I was at Mowden Hall School, Stocksfield, Northumberland, England for five years.

This is where ‘The Girl in the Garden’ is set.

The tone should be more Iain McEwan than J.K. Rowling, more ‘The Cement Garden’ than ‘Harry Potter and his chums at Hogwarts.’

The story is revealed through a series of letters and the commentary added by the author/perpetrator/participant some decades later.

On y va

Tuesday 25th February 1975

I am 13 years and 5 months old.

I woke quite early, staying at an Inn at Barbon, Cumbria. This was the day of my music exam. I put the electric blanket on and listened to my cassette. I had taped what I needed to know. I had poached eggs and Chiver’s marmalade which were in small tubs. 71/2 minutes to Sedbergh. 11.00am we arrived after time with MM. I didn’t start until 12.30. I bished. (I hadn’t a clue what I was doing there to be honest. I’d come late to music and most of it was cracking the whip at school. With NO interest at all in music at home. No piano, no musical instruments played by anyone. My idea of the piano I needed an electric organ my father turned up with one afternoon). Lunch at Winder (which would be my ‘House’. And then the written exam (I had only passed my grade 5 Theory because the teacher/invigulator had done it for me. And home to Newcastle. (A few weeks later I broke my leg in a nasty ski accident and was kept off school for the entire summer term).

Not a blog, but the start of a diary that I kept pretty much for 10 years without a break and for another 10 years with periods of abstinence. Then along came the Internet and blogging, a public voice, a very different thing indeed.

Will I share the rest of the diary here? No! At least not hundreds of entries such as this where what I ate, whether or not I had a bath or had earache was the account for the day.

Interesting to know what I did on 27 of the last 37 25th of Februaries? Sometimes.

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