I'm writing this in the Old Market Inn, next to the Cathedral Close in Winchester. I'm here on a nostalgic day trip, leaving my wife and family carless in Bedford. I tried the Old Coach House, opposite the Guildhall, but walked out when I found it was dominated by a TV screen showing motor sport. When I came into this pub, I didn't notice the piped music. Wish I didn't notice it now.
I've just pocketed a sachet of vinegar from the bowl on the table. I've read that they can make good Cartesian divers. You drop one into a water-filled plastic bottle and screw on the lid. When you squeeze the bottle, the pressure increase compresses the air bubble in the sachet, it becomes denser overall, and sinks. Since I've just told my readers this in a kids' book I'm writing, I think I'd better confirm it.
[Later: it didn't work. But a large pen-top weighted with paper-clips performs spectacularly.]
When you're next in Winchester, I can recommend Flower's bitter.
A specific incident had told me that I needed a day visiting my birth-town alone. It was when I was here with my family a couple of years ago, and stopped the car near the house where I spent some of the later years of my childhood.
It was in a country road above the city, called Kilham Lane. On that visit I was bewildered by the houses that surrounded me. Some landmarks must have survived from the times when I had known it, but I was too embarrassed to ask for the five minutes I needed to get my bearings. The house that seemed most likely to be mine looked like nothing I could remember.
[5:24 pm On the motorway, returning.]
I took the wrong turning when I was trying to get into Kilham Lane,and drove into a hilltop suburb that has surrounded my old home. An ancient water tower that had been lost and inaccessible in the woods in my time is now an arts centre, forsooth.
Given the leisure to get my bearings, I could identify my house easily enough. Or rather, the site where it once stood. The new broad-fronted monster, covered with a yellow wash, could not be the modest house I lived in, no matter how much extended. It blocks off the view from the road of what had been a long garden behind. Ornate lamp standards stand at the entrance. Usually buildings from one's childhood seem to have shrunk when revisited in later life, but the houses along the lane seem to have grown in stature. Flanking one side of a narrow track, they are places for private people.
The large pastures opposite seem unchanged. The brick wall that bordered one side of the lane further along is still there, though this has shrunk - it's not the long, high canvas for chalk graffiti that I remember.
The house we lived in before this one was a council house in Cromwell Road, a mile down Stanmore Hill. I don't know whether the council or the occupiers now own it. But its exterior is as shabby and hopeless as I assume it was 50 years ago. It is still a place to be escaped rather than improved.
Recent graduates of PSC will probably want to skip this post. It consists strictly of old-geezer reflections on how the place looked to me last Sunday, when I visited Winchester on a solitary nostalgic day trip. I was comparing it with my recollections from 1955–'63, so everything I say will be very old news indeed for anyone who's stayed in touch with the place. But it might be of interest to those who've stayed as cut off from Peter Symonds as I have over the years.
I wandered round the town first, which I've seen only fleetingly over the years. Well, guess what: some things are different after 40 years. In Southgate Street the hotel (I think it used to be called the Southgate Hotel) now calls itself the Hotel Du Vin, forsooth. I remember the window of Chaplin's the gunmaker as being filled with sports guns. Now it displays nothing more martial than Swiss army knives and Barbour jackets.
In Jewry St, there's now a Bottoms Up wine superstore where once I lusted after Hornby Dublo train sets (was it Curry's then?). In the High Street, God Begot House is now the home of a pizzeria.
In City Road there's surely some mistake with the bus stops. The signs claim that something called the 5c goes to Chandler's Ford, and there's no mention of the no. 47 that I caught every schoolday for years.
The stop is right next to the barber who must take the blame for most of the haircuts seen in school photos for decades. The shop-front doesn't seem to have been touched since I last went there. The name rings a bell: 'James H Marsh – Gentlemen's Hairdresser'.
The Theatre Royal has been revived for many years – as a theatre, not as the cinema I knew. The Odeon Cinema has vanished from North Walls, but the Reference Library that it housed is still nearby.
Back down in the town, I couldn't bear to go into the grotesque Brooks shopping centre (that campanile!). Instead I visited Debenham's. In the days when it was Sheriff and Ward's, my father was its display manager. His window-dressing skills won many prizes, including the first foreign holidays our family ever had. It's still a bit quaint, despite opening on a Sunday, but I was disappointed that cash isn't still whisked around the place by vacuum tubes.
Driving to Peter Symonds and parking in Boscobel Rd, I found that the tuck-shop had gone. ("What the hell is a tuck-shop?" Go read Bunter and Jennings... .)
I wandered around the grounds unbothered by anyone. There was some event going on in a lecture-room, and there were a couple of families with kids and dogs in the grounds, down by the old CCF hut.
Nearly every view from the old classrooms seemed to be blocked by a new building. The place is a construction site right now, with what looks like student accommodation going up, eating away at the top of the great field. I don't remember the Bronze Age burial mound right in front of the old classroom block. Perhaps all the masters (for thus we called them in those days of yore, children) were buried there when the school became a college. The old and new buildings are one almighty jumble, with no hint of planning or landscaping that I could discern.
I peered through the windows of the Freeman block, which was opened in my time at the school. I was looking for the long, narrow, raked desks on which we played a type of table football with coins propelled with rulers. In that classroom I was once unjustly humiliated when assisting Jock Shields with a science lecture. (He wasn't to blame – it was all the fault of ... but don't get me started on that… .)
And there I remember Jock once being overcome with grief when giving the Sixth Form a general studies talk on sex, of all things. (He'd given us a choice of that or some other subject, which I forget, and we'd made the predictable choice. We gazed in awe at what we'd unleashed.)
I couldn't recognize the room. It has somehow been shrunk into an ordinary classroom.
Down at the south-east corner of the field, that is surely the same building that was the canteen block where I avoided as much as I could of the detestable school meals. And that glorified Portacabin seems to be exactly the same temporary prefab that appeared in my time, housing four rooms. In one of them I undertook to learn Greek instead of a second modern language, because I was interested in Greek science and philosophy, as gleaned from Mentor paperbacks. Once I remember sitting there watching heavy snow falling silently and turning the twigs of the hedge outside into thick white branches of ice. Whether snow was falling or not, I didn't do a stroke of work, and Greek and I dropped each other after a couple of terms. In that time I managed to provoke the gentle Oink into hitting me, which must be some kind of record.
I wanted to get into the old main school buildings somehow, and ventured past a Staff Only sign to try doors, but everything seemed locked. As I started to walk away, a guy seeming to be a janitor called after me. When I told him I was taking a nostalgic wander round, he let me in without question and left me to my own devices.
The Hall was locked, and I passed through various offices up to the first floor. On a wall I saw something that didn't feel at all familiar, and yet should have been well known to me: a model in a glass case of a merchantman, the SS Pixie, "... presented by Col. Savage in 1936. The hull is hollow and contains engine bearers. It may be fitted with an engine at some future date and sailed in the swimming bath." The modern caption explains that the swimming bath was demolished in April 1993. I wonder if the Pixie was ever sailed in it.
Looking in from the south through the windows on the first floor, I found that the Hall doesn't really exist any more. It's been entirely taken over by a library. I could see nothing but book cabinets and tables. The classrooms leading off from the Hall, the lairs of John Cooksie, Ernie Gladwell, Oofy Priestland and the rest, have been turned into reading bays. I couldn't see what had happened to the stage on which Doc Freeman had led morning assemblies, coughing his heart out at the last.
It looks as if a new function has been forced on an unwelcome and ungainly old relic, the price exacted for permitting it to survive at all. That's rather what I feel about the whole 'campus'. The old and inconvenient part of it is there on sufferance, and will gradually be cut out as the years go by.
And even though I was never very happy at the school, and for years after leaving spent a lot of energy on detesting it, I shall be sorry about the school's death. Because the place is also an old and inconvenient part of my heart, but one that can't be cut out.