Jacqueline Wood did not attend Buckland House School and arguably had the harder job of the two authors in conjuring up the atmosphere of the stately home and its place in the overall plot. So, what are her impressions after having been so deeply involved in the lives of those that lived there, and more intriguingly, what were her own experiences of school life by comparison?
What impression did you obtain of Buckland House as you read and talked about it?
I was captivated by Buckland House, and although I haven’t yet been there, it feels as if I have and it already holds a special place in my heart. Long before we even started to write the book, Mark would tell me anecdotes of his life at the school and as I began research on the book I was quickly drawn into its history. I have always been fascinated by old buildings, particularly the idea that so many generations of people have passed through one place. So, when we wrote about the house, covering three eras, I was delighted. I would therefore like to alter Churchill’s quote to “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape generations.”
When we were contacted by the Buckland alumni Facebook group shortly after publication, I got a real sense of community from the stories that they shared about their time there. They were all so enthusiastic about going back to visit the house again too. It really made me wish that I’d been a pupil there!
What was your favourite lesson at school and why?
English. I was captivated by stories from a very young age and remember sitting on the carpet in Primary school listening to my teacher read. She wore a crystal pendant which sparkled with the colours of the rainbow as she moved; this made story time even more magical.
I enjoyed having the opportunity to write my own stories, the power to create worlds out of words is magic in itself.
And your least favourite lesson and why?
Maths. I always struggled with Maths. At middle school I had a very strict teacher who terrified me. I would stand at his desk, completely terrified, and he would ask me simple questions which I would be unable to answer. It was as if a wall had come down between us. He once told my mother, in front of me, that I was no good at mental arithmetic and that damaging comment stayed with me for many years afterwards.
Who were your inspirational teachers? And do you think they would have been out of place in a boarding environment?
One teacher springs immediately to mind; my form teacher at middle school, Mrs Commander. She also taught needlework. She was from India, and walked with a very proud bearing. Not many of the children liked her because she was strict. I loved her. As we sat sewing she would tell us tales of her childhood in India, it was fascinating. She was strict but gentle. She definitely wouldn’t have been out of place in a boarding school system.
She had a clever way of managing things. One wet playtime the naughtiest boy in the class, who annoyingly sat next to me, got up and drew some boobs on the blackboard. When Mrs Commander returned, the class sat petrified. She calmly walked up to the board, stared at if for a minute, then disappeared out of the room again. Nobody moved. When she returned, she said to the boy beside me, “Shaun, this is clearly your artwork and as it so badly drawn you will be spending lunchtime in Mr Brown’s classroom with a biology book, so you can at least learn to draw things like this correctly!”
So much print is often given up to describe punishment at private schools, so what were the harsher forms of punishment at a state school in your day?
At middle school, there was the plimsoll. This lived in the Headmaster’s office, but I don’t think he ever actually used it. He was such a kind, gentle man that I can’t imagine him using any type of force. But when we went into his office to do our reading assessments we could see that the plimsoll really existed. I think that was deterrent enough. Although corporal punishment wasn’t banned in state schools until 1987, I don’t remember anyone talking about the cane at secondary school. We had a house system, prefects and detentions.
Were you ever punished and why? (if you dare say)
Yes, I was. I had my bag of marbles confiscated by my Maths teacher. The whistle had signalled the end of playtime and I carried on playing. He kept them until the end of term and I was devastated. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything else. I was a well-behaved student.
What extra-curricular activities did your school provide?
If I move onto secondary school now, we did a lot of sports. I was on the hockey team and after school we would head off to the other schools to do matches. There were also badminton and netball teams. The boys did rugby. A lot of us were also involved with music and drama.
Was the food good?
Well, put it this way; after a week of lunches at secondary school I decided to take sandwiches. My mother is an excellent cook, so my sister and I would go home to a lovely meal each night.
What aspects of the life at Buckland as a boarding school fascinated you and what could you do without?
If I had attended at a very young age I think it would have taken me a long time to adapt to being away from home as I used to suffer even being away for one night. However, I think it would have done me good at secondary level. When I went to university I noticed that the people who had been to boarding school were so much more confident than those of us who came straight from home. I don’t think I would have liked the strict routine, or the food, but would have enjoyed the beautiful house and grounds. Buckland pupils also had a certain amount of freedom and that would have been fun.
Now that you have become intimately acquainted with a boarding school, albeit from another era, what aspects of your school do you think Buckland was missing and, vice versa, what aspects of the schooling at Buckland could have benefitted your own institution?
If I think about my own schooling at the age of 12 and compare it to Buckland House, then mine was much less regimented. But I suppose boarding school had to be, to a certain degree, just to get simple tasks such as showers and meal times done. We certainly began our day in a much more relaxed manner, which was probably too relaxed for those who struggle with self-discipline. However, being able to learn in a much more academic environment would have been beneficial. I think that both Buckland and my own school were very balanced in terms of extra-curricular activities, but at Buckland the pupils had the advantage of being introduced to these activities at a much younger age.
How did you feel on leaving school for the last time?
Leaving secondary school after A levels was a relief. I was more than ready to break away from home and set off into the big wide world of university to become my own person.
Which did you prefer university or school?
University. I was lucky enough to attend beautiful Durham University where I studied English Language and Literature. I would sit in the English department library, studying and glancing at the view of the river and Durham Cathedral. I appreciated the enthusiasm of the lecturers and was in awe of how much they knew about their subject. And the books of course…all those books!
Which teachers from the story would you most liked to have met?
I would love to have met Mr Briggs and had a cup of tea with him and his dog, Lancaster. And the deputy head, but just for five minutes so I could experience his nastiness.
You have not yet been to Buckland House, which places are you keen to visit most?
My first port of call will have to be the lake and the bamboo maze (if it’s still there). I’d also like to see the old dormitories. I think I will probably walk around tapping the walls to see where the secret passages are! The owners have very kindly offered to show us around when we go. It will be a wonderful experience to finally see the places we’ve written about.