Here follows a summary of the events of the whole day, held on 26th May 2018, the tributes given by various members of the OA Club, and one of the speeches given at the OA Dinner.
The Old Abbotsholmians’ Club Reunion Day 2018
By Danni Arnold (formerly Knott) Knott and Nikki Darnell (formerly Knott)
(Danni was a pupil until 2017 and is now a committee member of the Old Abbotsholmians’ Club. Nikki taught at Abbotsholme for many years, and was also the Houseparent of Orchard House.)
On a beautiful day in May, Abbotsholme stood stately and welcoming in the sunshine as Abbotsholmians congregated from far and wide to celebrate the life of one of the best of her own, Tom Palmer.
Former students whose lives Tom had touched arrived with their wives, husbands and children; old friends and colleagues separated by time and distance were brought back together by a shared desire to be part of this eloquent act of remembrance. For Tom Palmer; but how could it be for Tom? He was an indefatigable force. So kind, so cheerful, so good, so clever. Yet we gathered, greeting each other with a sense of bewilderment and pleasure, because how could one not feel pleasure, when contemplating the life of Tom and when meeting in his honour?
In the chapel that we all know so well, we listened to Tom’s brother telling us about the young Tom, struggling to make his mark in a family of older boys. There was music and laughter. We loved the story of Tom’s revenge on the yobs in a car who nudged and intimidated his brothers on their big motorbike, while Tom drove quietly alongside their car on his tiny motorcycle, punched out their wing mirror and made his escape through the traffic. Small, but heroic in defence of his loved ones.
We all remembered instances of his strength and fortitude.
With us in the chapel his family - Emma, Jake and Ellie listened - and then Jake spoke of Tom as a father at home, of the games and the fun.
We all remembered times when we played his crazy games or got ambushed by his tricks and jokes. And we all remembered ‘the man with the thigh-slapping laugh’ as Tom and Jenny Robinson really brought this unique part of Tom’s character alive with their energetic poem.
By the end of this marvellous service, no eye was dry, and no-one was left in any doubt of what a wonderful man Tom was and how much affection and admiration he inspired. We had all reconnected with each other through a spiritual celebration which was truly Abbotsholmian and of which Tom would have heartily approved.
Of course, that was not the end. We had lunch and then had the opportunity to take part in activities – Tom-type activities. Extreme Frisbee, climbing, humming tunes on a small whistle-type instrument, and a hike round the estate for the more sedate – in which a few of those not taught D of E by Tom, got a little lost! We lay around the lawn, talking of old times, relaxing, drinking tea and watching the Frisbee players crash into each other and exhibit challenging behaviour. After all, it was Tom we were thinking of, and he was the one who championed Gubbadi, the game which involved holding your breath whilst chanting ‘Gubbadi, Gubbadi, Gubbadi’ and capturing as many people as you could within a small circular area!
Then tea became pre-dinner drinks, and more Old Abbotsholmians assembled. The atmosphere was charged with excitement, as friends and colleagues greeted each other and caught up on news and views. So few occasions have the power to reunite those who have spread their wings and moved on, yet this yearly event is one such: a gathering for those who have flown the nest, but still value the place and the people who shared the platform from which they sprang.
Racheal and her team laid out a wonderful buffet and everyone enjoyed fine wine and sparkling repartee. Jenny Richardson shared a wonderfully reflective reading, and Chris Hall regaled us with a marvellous after-dinner talk, both of which informed, amused and touched our hearts.
Finally the day was done and our carriages awaited. The time had come to bid a fond farewell: to Tom, to Abbotsholme and to our friends.
God be with us ‘til we meet again.
The Tribute given by Mary Spencer (Member of staff 1978 – 2002)
It was a truly great day when Tom and Emma arrived at Abbotsholme. With Tom on the staff a new and exciting era opened up. Here was somebody with a never-ending fund of good ideas who would give his all to the school and inspire staff and pupils alike to take on endless new and exciting challenges.
I have so many images that come to mind when I think of him. A lot of them of course are in the outdoors. We’re walking together up the Inylchek Glacier in Kirgystan; I’m watching him ice climb there; we’re sitting talking and laughing in the food tent in the Atlas Mountains; he’s giving an exhausted and tearful Emma Briggs a piggyback for miles under Mt M’Goun; we’re in a tent on our staff backpack across Scotland playing his favourite card game ‘Chase the Wicked Lady’ and he’s delighting in Tim Moon’s frustration at being landed yet again with the Queen of Spades; I’m watching in awe as he disappears at amazing speed down a steep bouldery slope to a loch far below. What a superman he was!
The pupils respected and loved him in equal measure. He was the epitome of a great teacher towards whom they all gravitated in anticipation of the next mad or inspiring thing Mr Palmer would do or say. Who else would do a headstand while taking chapel, play the fiddle on stage wearing a flowery straw hat in ‘Lark Rise’, be a sitting target for wet cold sponges to be hurled at him during Comic Relief or attend school dressed in girls’ uniform? Nothing was too outrageous for him to undertake. It was just all huge fun.
I was thrilled when he founded the dance band and made the barn dances an integral, unmissable part of Summer Gathering. I can see him now leaping with one energetic bound up onto the stage in the Roseyard, having just demonstrated the next dance. He’d grab his fiddle, play the introduction and off we’d go at break-neck speed, until, just before people collapsed in exhaustion, he’d wave his leg in the air and the band knew the last eight bars had arrived.
He was a dream of a colleague to work with; efficient, imaginative, funny and with a work ethic beyond belief. He was also serious, sensitive and highly principled - a man of true integrity. It is a cruel irony that everything we say about him in this memorial service today wasn’t part of a typically great celebratory Abbotsholme send-off for Tom. There should have been speeches about him and much laughter over shared memories, a song should have been written and lustily sung for him, but it was not to be, and we failed him.
The last time I saw him just days before he left for Kazakhstan he looked so relaxed and well, and was courageously positive about what lay ahead. And as the conversation flowed we were treated to a couple of his signature explosive guffaws of laughter. I’m sure you can all hear his laugh now. I will always cherish the memory of that evening, and cannot credit that we won’t meet again.
The Tribute given by Mark Wells (Parent and Chair of Governors 2002 – 2012)
I first met Tom in 2000, and little did I know then that a year later I would be spending a couple of nights in a cell with him in South Africa. It was pretty cramped because we were sharing it with another person as well. Someone who’s actually in this room today. Simon Barber.
We were staying in Breakwater Lodge a former prison in Capetown, which had been converted into a hotel, you’ll be glad to know! We were there as part of a Round Square Conference with a group of Abbotsholme pupils. The theme of the conference was Ubuntu, an African philosophy which roughly translated means: A person is a person through other people.
I think that describes Tom pretty well. For him it was always about what he could do for other people. Whether that be taking them on international conferences, visits to companies as part his Business Studies curriculum or the huge range of outward bound activities that he managed and led here at Abbotsholme.
One member of the Wells family who cannot be here today, is Michael, who went on countless trips and expeditions with Tom to all parts of the UK, climbing mountains in Nepal and canoeing across the rivers of Canada. He was also part of the Abbotsholme team that won the gruelling Round Square Adventure Race in 2008, coached of course by Tom Palmer. Michael described to me the way Tom developed them as a team over the two years leading up to that competition, taking them on early morning runs or giving up his weekends for canoeing, climbing, mountain biking and orienteering. For a tiny school like Abbotsholme to beat the likes of Wellington or Gordonstoun was one of their proudest achievements and that team still meet up and talk about it today. Michael said that what drove them on during those days was that they wanted to do it for Mr Palmer.
I know that team was something that Tom was particularly proud of. Not only the fact that they won, but also the way in which they did it. He told me afterwards that on the final day of the competition, Abbotsholme had already built up a lead through the various other events and simply had to finish within 20 minutes of Gordonstoun to win the trophy. Tom described to me the scene on a bleak Welsh mountainside when a weary Gordonstoun team trudged across the finish line and stood there, hands on knees, gasping for breath. At that moment they heard the sound of singing in the distance.
What you gonna do,
What you gonna do when we come for you.
Around the corner of the hill, came the Abbotsholme team, not trudging, but jogging. Not weary, but smiling. Not gasping, but singing. For their teacher.
The Tribute given by Tom Wells (2001 – 2009)
If Mr Palmer were here today, I would just want to say, on behalf of myself and the other pupils who studied under him. Thank You.
For me, Mr Palmer was a big part of why I became a teacher. He believed so passionately in what Abbotsholme stood for, using the outdoors to teach us about ourselves and each other. Learning how to think critically, solve problems, work as a team, or simply have fun.
His level of passion and enthusiasm was infectious. Whether that was leading the tone-deaf Dove House in the singing competition or getting a gold D of E group to clean a week’s worth burnt food off our Trangias, he always gave 100% and as a result so did we.
At the time I thought his OED lessons were a bit of fun. A welcome break from sitting in a classroom. It was only later that I realised how much I had learnt from them both personally as a pupil, but also as a teacher. Mr Palmer taught me that the best lessons are those that make learning fun. Where you break the mould and do something that pupils will talk about and remember for years to come. Like how raft-building on the Dove River or threading someone through the spider’s web teaches you problem-solving, team-work and strategy. And also how laughter can be a great way of dealing with stressful situations.
Whenever he taught us, he set a perfect example both in his approach, his communication and his positive energy. When we came up with a plan, he always encouraged us to GO BIG. And he was forever encouraging us to STEP OUT OF OUR COMFORT ZONE, something he did all the time.
At Abbotsholme, we all had huge respect for Mr Palmer as a person, a teacher and as a human being. For many of us, that respect has only grown over time as we look back at the influence he has had and continues to have on us all.
Everyone here was lucky to have known him. Some of us count ourselves exceptionally lucky to have been taught by him too.
So thank you Mr Palmer. For everything.
A Tribute by Alexander Skitt (1998 – 20008) and Claire Skitt (Parent 1998 – 2012)
Alex: 18 years ago - the Skitt family up-rooted themselves from a cosy life in Northamptonshire and moved 100 miles north to the rocky peaks in search of a better school - one which understood that when it came to education, qualifications were the tip of the iceberg, a piece of paper which meant nothing in the real world without the life skills to apply them, a moral compass to guide them and a keen sense of adventure to embrace the challenges and opportunities thrown before you. Little did we realize it at the time, but we hadn't just found this ethos in a school, we'd also found it in a man.
Claire: As a parent I met Tom in 1999. When I think about him, the first picture I see in my mind’s eye is his dazzling, flashing smile, a smile that just lit up your heart. And his steady focused gaze as you laid out your plan, your thought or, if you dared, a complaint, he nodded and softly said yes at every comma, full stop or pause in your sentence. You could sense a calm steely core able to listen to anything. As a parent Tom was your go-to person. His presence instilled you with confidence: you knew your children were in safe hands, they would be challenged, and they would succeed.
Alex: Inside the classroom, I’ve never been pushed as hard by anyone as I was pushed by Tom in the pursuit of high standards. In fact, I remember receiving 98% in an essay…I was delighted…Tom’s reaction was to pull me to one side for a private chat to tell me he was disappointed…I’d left the last 2 marks out there. At his base Tom was a teacher who never accepted anything less than excellence, your very best. However as anyone taught by him knows…high standards were only just the very beginning of the Tom Palmer educational experience…!
Claire: Tom understood that being an educator was beyond teaching. It was connecting with the students. Back in 2010, he and I were discussing the pioneering work of Wellington College on ‘Happiness linking to Academic Success’. Tom thought the 14-15 year age group were in most need and I was given the afternoon Activity slot to trial the programme. Completely blindsided by the level of high jinks in this year group, and providing huge amounts of laughter for the sports centre staff witnessing my plight, I took it to Tom who grinned delightedly. What do I do? I asked. His answer? Roll with it. Just let them talk. That’s what they need. It turned out he was right. He understood that to be happy, they needed to be able to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas and to be heard.
Alex: From my perspective, the ability to challenge was Tom’s greatest strength. He listened, but never let you back down from a challenge. He pushed you outside your comfort zone and nowhere was this more apparent than when he was in his natural habitat; ‘the outdoors’, where he would teach us leadership, teamwork, resilience...but always with a huge sense of fun.
Fittingly, the most important life lesson I learnt from my time at Abbotsholme took place with Tom on a remote hill in the Peak District. We were on a practice Bronze Duke of Edinburgh expedition and we’d woken up to one of the worst snowfalls the Peak District had seen in years! We’d set out on our day’s walk, frozen but in good spirits and naturally with a mountain of snow handy and Tom in tow…it didn’t take long for mischief to set in. I must admit that I threw the first snowball…a fairly good shot if I may say so…straight and true…right into the square of his back. In nine years at Abbotsholme…I’d never make a bigger mistake. With the speed of a bullet and with no need of further encouragement, Tom had ducked to the ground and rose rubbing his hands together. As powdery white flakes fell from between his gloves, two things were palpable; his apparent glee and my impending doom. He then proceeded to chase me down the hillside at breakneck speed, unleashing ball after ball. For every one I retaliated with, Tom had two more waiting. It became very apparent…very quickly…that I’d chosen an opponent with 30 years more snowball-fighting experience than I, and so this continued for miles. Even when I called for a truce, Tom would give no quarter…he hadn’t finished with me yet. From this experience I learned two more important life lessons, never start a fight you can’t win and never…never…ever challenge a Palmer to a snowball fight.
Claire: He was a man of unshakable values, and my own little face-off with Tom was while hosting a girl from South Africa back in 2003. We planned a visit to the Cenotaph in London for Remembrance Sunday but she had booked herself on a kayaking weekend in Wales. No problem, I said, I’ll have a word with Tom. I had not yet got to know Tom very well. He planted his feet firmly on the ground, gazed at me with his smile.” No”, he said. “Oh!” I said. “She has made a commitment”, he said. What I had run into that day was one of Tom’s central values: the value he laid on commitment. Staying true to what you said you would do. He was filled with unshakable values – the values that were the backbone of the Abbotsholme ethos. Tom was a parent’s dream teacher.
Alex: At Summer Gathering, we listen to a reading of Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy. To many Abbotsholmians, Tom embodied the poem’s philosophy of adventure, discovery and fearlessness. When I look back on my school days some of my most treasured memories were made side by side with Tom, from climbing Majorcan mountains in true Abbotsholmian style…in torrential rain …….to more relaxing times at Summer Gathering, where no man other than Tom could give 100 teenage boys such an enthusiasm for barn dancing.
We offer this tribute with love and eternal gratitude to Tom for making our Abbotsholme experience so incredibly rich, and we know his legacy as a teacher and mentor will continue to live on in the infectious zest for life he imparted to the thousands of Old Abbotsholmians he taught as they headed off on their own voyages into the world.
A Tribute by Caroline Parks (1996 – 2001)
I feel very honoured to have been asked to speak today about a man who had such a huge impact on so many young people’s lives.
The interesting thing is, he never actually taught me a single academic lesson during the five years I knew him. He did however teach me more about life than most – his energy, passion and determination to make a difference inspired me immensely. He knew how to bring out confidence in others and to let them find out what they were good at, no matter what that was. In my mind – that is the ultimate definition of a brilliant teacher.
My main memories of Mr Palmer are focused around three main things and each one has shaped my life in very different ways.
Firstly debating – Mr Palmer rallied a number of us into taking up debating against other schools. As he prepped with us, often late into the evening, he was thought-provoking, challenging and passionate about winning the argument and catching the opponent unawares. I am now a lawyer and I believe that the confidence I developed through public-speaking, debating and the critical eye he taught me to develop has stood me in good stead for many things I have had to face during my career.
Secondly, Duke of Edinburgh - I vividly remember Mr Palmer announcing in chapel that those wanting to do Gold DofE should stay behind for a briefing. I did not want to follow in my brothers’ footsteps and stood up to leave. Mr Palmer casually blocked the exit and challenged me to take it on. Two years later I was at St James’ Palace accepting the award.
I am very grateful for the challenge he gave me that day, as he knew I couldn’t say no. DofE, was often cold, miserable and painful causing the most horrendous blisters, aches and pains. I remember trudging towards him at many a DofE checkpoint gritting my teeth and wondering why on earth I put myself through this. However, the memories I remember most vividly - the times that we bonded as pupils, generating many a late-night reminisce - are those formed through Duke of Edinburgh. I look back now and am proud that I did Gold – and I have only one person to thank for that.
Finally – Round Square - I started at Abbotsholme three months after my father had died and I needed a purpose. Round Square was exactly that. Last night I dug out some of copies of the Abbotsholmian and found an article written by Mr Palmer from 1997 describing Round Square as a family. He went on to describe it:
“as a group of schools that nurtures Round Square sort of people – people who are outward-looking, keen to help, tolerant and respectful of others, concerned about the word they live in and having a zest for life and its adventures to come” – exactly the type of person he was.
As I flicked through the pages, memories came flooding back about us working hard to promote international conferences and service projects all over the world. We organized a raft of charitable fundraising events including 24-hour basketball marathons, stationary cycle rides to Paris, and sponsored ‘bivvy in the bag’ nights sleeping under the stars. In every article there are references to Mr Palmer’s enthusiasm, commitment and passion.
The education Abbotsholme gives its pupils stretches far beyond academia – it does what few other schools come close to - producing people ready for the world, not just for exams.
I remember finding this quote by Albert Pine during my time at school and I have lived by it ever since:
“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
This quote sums up Mr Palmer in my view – he gave so much to Abbotsholme and every pupil he came into contact with – he was a mentor and an inspiration and I speak on behalf of many young people in saying that his legacy is living on in all of us.
My Dad – A Tribute by Jacob Palmer (2007 - 2014)
I just wanted to tell a few stories about Dad that have stuck with me as I’ve grown up.
When I was in Year 7 or 8, over the summer holidays I got obsessed with beating Dad at chess, so every week we would have a couple of games. He started with a huge handicap, with no queen, knight, castle or bishop, but slowly the handicap reduced until we were playing even games. And when I won, that was my proudest achievement for several years.
During the Christmas holidays at Abbotsholme, every time it snowed all the boarders seemed to stay at school, and then all the staff living on site would congregate at the top of Toboggan Hill, for obvious reasons. Most people didn’t have sledges so instead brought bin lids, plastic bags or Frisbees. Dad rejected these “traditional” methods and instead chose his favourite method of transport, a kayak. It worked very well, as he would fly down the hill at great speed until he crashed into the woods at the bottom.
One Bonfire Night we had invited a huge group of people over to celebrate, and during the evening Dad was setting off the fireworks - fountains, pinwheels and rockets - at the end of the garden. One of these rockets bounced off the tree above Dad and sent him running as it flew towards the crowd of onlookers before exploding, fortunately without injuring anyone.
Finally, it was a tradition in our house for every Saturday to be ‘Doctor Who Day’. Mum, Ellie and I would congregate in the living room after tea to watch ‘Doctor Who’. And without fail, every time the theme song played, Dad would burst through the door and dance around the room singing a terrible rendition of the theme song, to our cries of absolute dismay.
The Tribute given by Tom Robinson (1998 – 2005) and Jennifer Robinson (neé Bale) (2000 – 2007)
T – Have you heard the legend of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? Story goes, this laugh could be heard for miles around. An outburst so explosive it’d catch you off guard, A swift slap to the thigh, an excited glint in his piercing eyes.
J – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? He inspired in the classroom, he led out in the wild. They say he was half man-machine, half mountain goat, He was oft to be found paddling some kind of boat.
T - Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? They say he gave his working life to these here walls. He lived down the drive, at the bottom of the hill Story goes, he’d do headstands, just for the thrill.
J – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? His heart was full of kindness, his soul was one on which you could depend. Those eyes of enthusiasm, they always shone bright, Bright with the mischief of ghost stories around the campfire at night.
T – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? So full of vigour he’d jump three steps at a time; a life lived to the brim. He’d gubbedee gubbedee gubbedee for hours against teams of plus twenty, It is said he played fiddle all night in the Rose Yard, yet had energy aplenty.
J – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? He was a teacher in every sense of the word. Firm when needed: late homework, poor attitude or when jeans had been packed, He was supportive, encouraging and invested in how his students should act.
T – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? It’s widely known that the mountains were his natural habitat. A magnificent leader, of that there is no doubt, His super-power was helping people find their inner leader throughout.
J – Have you heard of the man with the thigh-slapping laugh? As well as all of this, at his core he was humble and caring. He put the needs of his students and colleagues ahead of his own, They say he was the of the kindest many had ever known.
T- Long ago, we were pupils at this wonderful school Little did we know each other, one the head girl, the other a bit of a fool But on our honeymoon, atop a mountain, we remembered this man The man who helped shape us - and before you we stand.
J – You see, we knew the man with the thigh-slapping laugh. We benefited from his guidance, his strength and his care. We lost to him at gubbedee, we danced to his fiddle, we were in that boat, We followed him up mountains and down to the coast.
T – The truth is we all knew the man with the thigh-slapping laugh. That’s why we’re here, to celebrate him in a place we know so well His spirit is within each and every one of us, and will certainly live on, Through our lives, our stories, our adventures and our song.
Speech given at the 2018 Dinner of the Old Abbotsholmians’ Club by Jenny Richardson (Member of Staff 1976 – 2014 and current Chair of the Old Abbotsholmians’ Club)
I’ve just come back from Orkney, one of the most northerly outposts of Great Britain. Not only is it colder, the days longer, the wind stronger, but it is different; and you do see things differently in the clear air. Wonders abound, some natural, some man-made; and Skara Brae is one of the latter. This Neolithic village, buried beneath the dunes for 5,000 years until a storm blew the sand away in the mid 1800s to reveal those houses, looking as though the occupants had just - bizarre as it may sound – gone off on holiday, never fails to excite my imagination. My antecedents - my ancestors - feel much closer, almost within touching distance, and I’m drawn to the way they lived in a clustered maze of houses, a honeycomb, all linked, all connected by covered passageways. They were a team; a community; a family. Here are their beds, their hearths, even their stone sideboards, just roofless now, for all to peer into.
George Mackay Brown wrote a poem about these people which begins
Here in our village in the west We are little regarded….
as, at the time, they were just one small outpost on the edge of the known world. The irony of his words hits home, though, when I sit and watch the hordes of passengers from the cruise liners who are rushed in to stare, bewilderedly, then rushed out again to the next stopping point on the day’s bus tour.
Little regarded? This village must be one of the most ‘regarded’ places in the whole country.
When Abbotsholme was founded, back in 1889 – not exactly Neolithic times, I grant you – it, too, was a place that was initially very little regarded in every sense of the word. Reddie had to establish a name for himself and his school from nothing – when it opened it only had sixteen pupils! - and although not on the edge of the world in a literal sense, it was, in a famous phrase, ‘half a mile from England’. And how did he promote the place? The education would be, he said, based on the principles of ‘To do, to know, to become.’ His boys ‘would live in the light that they may love the light’; and I can’t imagine he had a grey November day in mind when he wrote that, but the warm, golden light of a summer’s evening such as this one.
The years between 1976, when I first arrived at Abbotsholme, and 2004, when I retired, were a golden age, and I know just how lucky I am to have been a part of the school at that time in its history. If an archaeologist were able to delve into my time here, the treasures to be uncovered from my past, layer by layer, would be manifold.
My archaeologist would find the people who inspired me, those whom one was desperate to emulate, the ones whom one wanted to give their blessings to what you were trying to be and to do – Tony Price David Snell, Ian Small, Barbara Webbe, Paul Gill, Tom Palmer. He or she, trowel in hand, would find the Lofoten Islands in high summer, with bilberries covering the hillsides, oyster catchers screaming in the skies, and the salted cod we didn’t realise we needed to rinse before we cooked. There would be the play rehearsals for Toad of Toad Hall, Lark Rise, Guys and Dolls, Black Comedy, Twelfth Night, The Crucible, Les Mis, Our Town – and the rest; years and years of late evenings in the Old Gym and the Roseyard, weaving a little bit of magic, thanks to the ceaseless flow of enviably talented pupils.
There would be noisy house parties, with sugary doughnuts dangling from bits of string, bars of chocolate to eat with knives and forks, and, heaven preserve us, the flour game. Staff pantos with Darrell Farrant as The Wizardly Daz; Mike Ritson in pair of woolly long johns and a white hockey goalkeeper’s mask as the Radiant Lover; normally respectable, law-abiding members of staff happily cast as cigarette-smoking Sixth Formers in the Dingle - with lots of silly songs - and a happy ending.
Then there were the Carol Services; the view from the Front English Room at sunset; the glories of Silver DofE supervision amidst the flowery hay meadows of the Yorkshire Dales in June. And what are those pages peeking out of the ground? Could they be from ‘The Abbotsholmian’? For more than twenty years I edited that august publication, recording the life of the school in order to give my archaeologist a slightly easier task when it came to trying to unpick what was the truth from what was merely rose-tinted invention.
It was indeed a golden age, and I know it for such, and revel in the memory of it all, even though I know that this is not the whole truth. Or perhaps that that there are other, equally valid truths.
For example, I meet many OAs who were also here in the golden days. Except their Headmaster was Robin Hodgkin, who left some years before I’d ever heard of the place. Or their Headmaster was even Colin Sharp. These OAs were taught by equally life-changing members of staff – such as David Dean, Simon Watson, Howard Orme: legends I heard much about when I first arrived, and when all I could do was gaze about me, awestruck. So that’s at least two other ‘golden ages’ before mine, not to mention those who joined the school and began their own ‘golden ages’ after I had retired. How can this be?
At times such as this, I start reaching for images or symbols, probably because I was raised on a diet too rich in poetry. And Reddie gave us a symbol right here, in this very Dining Room. Unravelling the building necessitates deciphering a code, as you’ll know from his choice of the five-pointed star, and all that it stood for, as his emblem; the origin of the Radiant Lover who stands atop the war memorial; and the reasons for those particular choices of stone heads he placed around the walls of Chapel.
Here, on the copper canopy over the fireplace, there is a resplendent phoenix, the bird that is born of flames and destruction, the bird that arises from the ashes of its dead self; a golden, fiery bird. A unique creature. Each golden age of the phoenix is different, but the same: the rebirth of the same phoenix.
Much more connects us and binds us Abbotsholmians together than separates us. Abbotsholme has nearly died in the past. In the latter years of Reddie himself, it began to founder, and when Sharpe took over, we were down to two pupils. But back it came – and how! Fire destroys, but it cleanses, too, and out of that process can come new and better things. Think of the old Art Block and what rose from those ashes! And Abbotsholme will rise. That fact is built deeply into its mythology.
The school psalm – the Bible as reimagined by our founder - has it
Though man is short-lived as the grass, as a shadow that passes away The seed of eternity stirs in his heart and shall never die.
We individuals will come and go, golden ages will dawn and set, but eternity ticks away ….well, for ever. And the challenge for our future selves is always to aim higher, be better, as Tennyson’s words beneath our phoenix make clear:
That men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.
At the moment, Abbotsholme stands - in the words of that great historian and social commentator Philomena Cunk - ‘at a fork in its crossroads’. No one is quite sure exactly what will happen next, or when, or how. What we can say with the utmost certainty, however, is that, in 1889, it changed educational theory and practice forever, completely remodelling the chalk face of this country. It has helped to guide generations of splendid youngsters into becoming splendid adults; and has given thousands of us principles to live by and uphold. It has been a firm foundation in our lives and we have much to be grateful for.
This force of nature is in the process of being reborn, possibly differently, but surely at heart much the same. Just this last week, an OA said in an email to me, ‘I wonder if Cecil Reddie knew that he had created a school that would forge friendships so deep that oceans and years apart would never matter’, and I think he’d be very proud of that tribute, since the ideas of comradeship and loyalty to one’s friends were central to his original ethos.
And where do we go from here? Not just the people in this room but the whole membership of the club – and those who will join us at the end of this term, and in the years to come. A little bit of us will go to the graveside on the last day of the school year to hear those old words about how we are to ‘right the wrong, seek the truth, and love the beautiful and good’. And we will try to do so, because that is what, as Abbotsholmians, we believe in.
And we will be standing up high on Toboggan Hill, away from the school, seeing it from a distance - as good OAs should – and benefiting from a certain sense of perspective. We will be viewing the school, and our lives, in a much wider context, even if there is that old golden glow bathing the view before us. And why not? We are the bearers of the golden star, a star that many here wore on their school jumpers or their ties, and even now wear close to their hearts - if not always on their sleeves.
Whereas Reddie wrote of man being ‘short-lived as the grass’, another writer put it this way:
For our time is the passing of a shadow And our lives will run like sparks through the stubble
We, Abbotsholmians, are those sparks, those glittering pieces of bright gold in the wind; and what a powerful force we make together; and what a dazzling sight. And, in the years ahead, as I sit by my new firepit with the school motto inscribed around its rim and watch the logs blaze away, I shall see the sparks fly and think about Abbotsholmians, young and old; about all that Abbotsholme has been, and is now; and about what it will be, if the gods be willing, for generations to come.