Old school ties

Luke Jennings recalls his schooldays at Ampleforth and the part played by fishing and a soldier hero.

I went to Ampleforth College in September 1966, when I was 13, and I can remember the first day with awful clarity. The school train left from Kings Cross station in London at about two in the afternoon, and took the best part of four hours to chug up to York. It was raining outside, the train windows quickly steamed up, and the atmosphere was one of repressed hysteria: part nervous excitement, part apprehension at the 14-week stretch to come. Some of the older boys were still provocatively dressed in their holiday finery – a patchouli-scented chiffon scarf here, a regency jacket there – and there was surreptitious drinking and smoking which the presence of a single patrolling monk did little to quell. At York station we were directed to buses for the 40-minute northward ride, at the end of which we crested a wooded hill to see the school, dominated by the monastery and the Abbey Church, illuminated in the rain-swept darkness.

I went to Ampleforth, a Catholic public school run by Benedictine monks, because my father had been there in the 1930s. The school was divided into 10 houses of 60 boys each, and I went into St Edward's House at the suggestion of an ex-Amplefordian named Robert Nairac, who had taught at my prep school in what would now be called his gap year.

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A charismatic figure, who became both a close friend and a mentor, Robert would die in 1977, under circumstances of exceptional heroism, at the hands of the IRA. At Ampleforth, he had been in St Edward's, where he had absorbed the ethos of its erudite and humane house-master, Father Edward Corbould, and suggested that I follow in his footsteps.

Each house had its distinguishing characteristics. There were houses for the tweedily aristocratic, houses for rugger players, houses for the arty. St Edward's was tough and egalitarian, and we shared a building – a modernist edifice designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and known to us as The Jam Factory – with St Wilfrid's, and were very much Sparta to their Athens. They thought us brutish, and we thought them

effete; the sculptor Antony Gormley, the journalist Jeremy O'Grady (founder and editor of The Week), and the actor and writer Rupert Everett were all St Wilfrid's boys.

On our second day, the new intake was assembled to be addressed by the Head of School, a figure of some eminence named Gus Whitehead. He spoke to us, with considerable fervour, of the school spirit (the word Ampleforth, I swiftly learned, was never used by Ampleforth boys; instead, you always talked of SHAC – Senior House, Ampleforth College).

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To illustrate his point he told us a story. A 15-year-old boy had taken the bus to Scarborough on a Saturday afternoon, which was his right, and had found his way into a pub and ordered a brandy, which was not. While he was enjoying his drink, a school monitor had come into the pub. "I suppose you know I'm going to have to have you thrashed," said the monitor. "Of course," came the reply. "But now that we've got that out of the way, can I buy you a drink?"

This, we were told, was the SHAC spirit, and we would be expected to adhere to it. There was also the St Edward's house spirit, which was largely expressed through cross-country. Father Edward was very keen on long-distance running, and we were expected to follow suit.

Every day that we were not playing official games or drilling under the baton of Sergeant-Major Baxter, we pounded the roads and forest paths of the Ampleforth Valley, and it was a point of honour that St Edward's won the house cross-country competition each year, and made up the bulk of the 1st and 2nd Eight teams. I became a runner myself, but there were times, up to the shins in snow and mud, when I envied more aesthetically inclined friends like Mark Roberts (now librarian of the British Institute of Florence) and Jamie Muir (now a BBC documentary director) whose afternoons were spent in the warmly-heated Art Room discussing surrealism and the gothic revival with John Bunting, the art master.

Those cross-country runs were hard, but they took you to good places. The shadowy plantations around Gilling Castle, where the pine-needles muffled your tread as you raced along the fire-breaks, or the curving flank of Bolton Bank, heady with wild garlic. This was freedom of a kind, and certainly preferable to the chaotic official games which were the alternative for those, like me, whose cricket and rugby was of a non-elite standard.

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Junior monks were allotted the joyless task of supervising these events, and would often blow the final whistle on some dour, distant rugby-pitch to discover that the bicycles they'd ridden there had been stealthily dismantled during the game.

Combined Cadet Force, which took place on Monday afternoons, was even more irksome. Over the preceding weekend, belts and gaiters had to be blanco-ed (coated with a kind of slow-drying khaki paint), brasses polished with Dura-Glit, and boots bulled to a shine. We would then parade, with obvious truculence, and in some cases with dandelions poking from the barrels of our .303 rifles, under the unamused eye of the Sergeant Major, who would march us around the quadrangle for a couple of hours, or despatch us for bayonet practice against straw-filled dummies.

Fishing was my favourite release. Robert Nairac had taught me how to catch pike with a spinner and trout with a fly, and at every possible opportunity I would take off into the surrounding countryside.

On whole holidays, the Prior, Father Anthony Ainscough, would drive half a dozen of us to the little limestone streams which wound through the dales. We fished with the local wet flies, casting them so that they swept under the deep grassy overhangs. You struck when you saw the flash of a turning fish, at which point, if you were lucky, you'd feel the jinking run of a trout, or the nervy flutter of a grayling.

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They were rarely big – a half-pounder was a respectable fish – but they were beautiful: the trout dark-backed and spotted with scarlet, the grayling lit with a purplish shimmer. The day would end with the first fading of the light, and with Benediction; lines of boys streaming from their houses to the Abbey Church through the summer-scented evening.

Not everything was Elysian. The late 1960s were a time of change, and many of the assumptions underpinning boarding school life were beginning to look anachronistic. We were aware, peripherally, of the activities of the soixante-huitards in Paris. We felt the ripples of Woodstock. We questioned our presence at an institution like Ampleforth. The school struggled manfully to liberalise, to meet us half-way, but it was fighting against its own essentially traditionalist nature, and it was a troubled time for establishment and pupils alike.

Drinking and smoking were rampant, with official retaliation coming in the form of detention or beating, depending on your house-master. Father Edward shared with Shakespeare the view that mercy "droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven", but was not above sending serial offenders out in that same rain for a few hours extra cross-country on a Saturday afternoon.

There were spectacular acts of anarchy, of which the most daring was probably Danny Simpson's ascent of the Abbey Church and (if memory serves me right) planting of a skull and crossbones flag on the roof. The Simpsons were climbers of genius; Danny's mountaineer brother Joe would write the best-selling Into the Void.

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No-one I know has ever claimed that his schooldays were the happiest of his life, and there was much about Ampleforth in the late 1960s that was grim, even for those of us who had boarded since we were seven. But it was undoubtedly one of the great academic public schools, and there were great teachers there. Classicists like Bernard Vasquez, who opened our eyes to the harsh glitter of ancient Greece, or Father Henry Wansbrough, who could bring the daily routine of a Roman legion to life with such acuity that you could hear the hiss of the sword-edge on the whetstone. Or Algy Haughton, a visionary teacher of English Literature who, in happy defiance of school rules, would continue discussions of Ted Hughes or Harold Pinter over pints of Tadcaster Bitter in the pub.

SHAC is a different place today. The Jam Factory, in whose frowsty dormitories and cell-like rooms we smoked roll-ups and listened to Jimi Hendrix, has now been declared unfit for habitation by children. There are girls at the school; unthinkable in my day. But the Yorkshire countryside is still much the same. There is still wild garlic on Bolton Bank, and there are still wild trout in the streams, and given luck and a fair wind, there always will be.

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