1974 Chris Robinson
1967 - 1974 Crowden
My initial application to Cranbrook received a straight rejection because we were out of catchment. As it happens my Dad had been at Worcester College, Oxford with John Kendall-Carpenter (the Headmaster) and the old boy network did its thing so I got in.

My early memories are mixed; living in Scott House with about 30 other boys aged 11 to 13 and ‘Flash’ Gordon (housemaster and geography teacher) and Cecil Irwin (very young and completely ineffectual music teaching house tutor). I lived in a dormitory with about a dozen other first formers (11 year olds – I remember Nigel Weaver, David Warne, Julian Flanders, Roger Goodwin, Michael McBrain – and that’s about it) and a couple of second year boys (David Nixon and Peter Andrew Quinton Martin - who was the fifth son of, presumably, Mr and Mrs Martin). On our first night we were ‘ragged’ by the bigger boys from the other dormitory; this involved them charging in and repeatedly demolishing our beds. Nixon and a few very brave first years (not me) tried to fight back but it didn’t get very far.

We had a 5 minute walk through the Crane valley to the main school buildings where we had breakfast in the dining room; the dining room seemed huge (it accommodated about 200 boys so must have been quite big) and was lined with pictures of young men in uniform holding trophies and weapons from shooting competitions at Bisley. There were probably other photos as well but I don’t remember them. We sat at long refectory tables with the boy at the end dolling out the food from large trays; I was at the far end so got the first bowl of absolutely revolting porridge. It had been cooked some hours earlier and had been kept warm meaning it was mainly skin and, as the first portion, I got the skin from a corner. Tea was ready mixed with milk and came from large aluminium teapots – just about drinkable.

Food, generally, was reasonable although the focus was on quantity rather than quality. Breakfast (the porridge stopped after a while) turned into cereal which was pre poured into bowls meaning the first in pinched a handful from bowls either side – so if you were last there wasn’t much left. We also got some cooked thing; piece of bacon or a sausage. Toast was a great luxury that we only had on high days and holidays – creating a fetish for the stuff that has lasted a lifetime.

Lunch and supper were both of the ‘meat and two veg’ type; we also had ‘Dick’s tea’ at four. Dick was euphemistically called ‘the Butler’ – again harking back to ideas above the school’s station. Dick was a very large (ie over weight) gentleman with a seemingly gruff demeanour but, actually, soft as butter. He might, at some point in the past, been a reasonable cook and caterer but those days were long past him. We all liked Dick but he became quite ill sometime in my third year and never reappeared. He was replaced by a new dining hall and a rather fierce but very efficient cook who ‘got’ boys and produced endless quantities of reasonably tasty ‘stew’ type dishes with masses of carbs which is what is needed to fill adolescents.

On Saturdays we didn’t get a cooked supper but we were allowed to put tins of food (usually beans) into a heating cabinet at tea time and recover them at supper time suitably heated. The trick, we soon learnt, was to open the tins BEFORE putting them in the heating cupboard – if we didn’t they exploded or, at best, became so distorted they were impossible to open.

Later, probably from the second year, we progressed onto buying fish and chips at the local chippy and ate it in front of Dr Who; highlight of the gastronomic and cultural week.

So, after breakfast, the choice was to walk back through the Crane valley, collect your books, and walk back for 9 o’clock assembly (or perhaps it was 8.45) in ‘Big School’; Big School was the equally sized room about the dining hall. There was a stage at one end complete with ropes, pulleys, flats and a lighting gallery that I got to know later in my school career. At the other was a gallery with additional seating.

As a first year we sat in the front left and progressed backwards year by year and ended up in the Sixth form at the front right. In my first assembly I sat with Dave Pollard and Dave Miller; two rather weedy boys from the local primary school. As it happens I think we all got into Oxbridge – Pollard was a very bright mathematician from memory and Dave’s dad came and taught maths at the school later.

There were two first years, 1A and 1B; no significance between the two and I was in 1A for the first term and got moved into 1B the second and subsequent because there was only one border in 1B and he needed a ‘friend’ whereas there were five of us in 1A. Form teacher was Mr Milton (spotty), the school chaplain, who taught us History and Divinity although I never knew which lesson he was teaching – all seemed the same to me (Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Jews…). Most of the boys had been to one of the half dozen local primary schools or from Dulwich College Prep School (otherwise known as Corsehorn) – other borders came from a variety of sources (I guess JK-C must have known a few other people) but several seemed to have military parents.

By the end of the first year the pecking order had pretty much been established; I was always one of the last to be picked for any team but generally one of the first to answer questions in class. There was a small divide between the day boys and borders for the obvious reason we spent longer with each other but, generally, friendship groups had formed – and I didn’t seem to be in any particular one but happy to drift. I became very friendly with Michael McBrain, but then he went off to Australia at end of the first or second year (the things people will do to avoid me). Half a dozen boys were moved up to the third year at the end of the first year whilst the rest went into year two; not too sure how this triage worked but it didn’t involve me. Think the idea was the very clever boys skipped the second year – but then they seemed to come back in the fifth (O level) year so didn’t do much good.

Second year felt more ‘grown up’ somehow; we’d moved back a few rows in Big School and knew how to extract just the ‘right’ number of cornflakes from surrounding bowls. Our form teacher was Mr Butler, a bearded and slightly alternative maths teacher who got us interested in computers (not a mainstream activity in 1968) by teaching binary (and other bases) plus we spent a long term using the medium of decimalisation of the currency (ie moving from pounds shillings and pence to pounds and pence). He was an excellent teacher who inspired a number of us in various directions, mostly sensible ones.

The school council got going and, for reasons that I never understood, I got elected as the form rep – and stayed on the school council for the rest of my time at Cranbrook. The school council consisted of reps from each class and a couple of teachers. My recollection is the ‘chair’ was one Roger Franklin, a sixth former who seemed to have a good grasp of committee management (although how my 12 year old self recognised that I’m not sure).

Third year was when it all started to get a bit serious; lots of work and confirmation, if any were needed, that I wasn’t a linguist and had no artistic ability. Other subjects all seemed to be ok and I started to get top of the form in most subjects (other than French and Latin); very pleased with myself but still rubbish at sports although social side picked up. Three of us (me, Nigel Weaver and Andrew Warne) remain in Scott as sort of ‘senior juniors’ whilst the rest of the year moved into School House (or old Crowden). We had a wonderful study in the cellar of Scott House whilst the first and second year boys remained in the seried ranks of desks above our heads. We also had some lower sixth boys as ‘prefects’ supposedly to supervise – but don’t remember them doing much.
This was 1969 so revolution in Paris, Vietnam war at its height, lots of social unrest and change all around us – but we remained interested in fish and chips, Dr Who, avoiding games, digging up the Crane Valley creating dams and staying clear of Ho Chaps Hawkins (an old school classics and maths teacher).
In the fourth year we moved up to School House; A large rambling Edwardian building with no heating and open bathrooms (ie baths in a room with no partitions). The windows in the dormitory froze solid (inside and out) when it was cold and, on one occasion a window actually fell out of its frame (I think the metal frame had contracted slightly due to the cold and, when someone tried to close it, it just came away. We all woke up with snow on the ends of our beds.

It was about this time that the school expanded physically and the new dining hall was built; This new school hall was built on the site of what had been the local police station; I can remember looking over the wall at several kennels containing the police dogs. The new dining room was a great revelation to eat somewhere clean with plenty of space and a serving hatch. Food tremendously improved with volumes of meaty stews and availability of seconds, thirds and fourths if you could manage it. For the ‘grand opening’ we had a very decent meal; don’t remember the details but it was particularly ‘special’. Dick Relf didn’t make the transition; I can remember talking to some of the teachers and asking if he could be retired such that the boys could do a collection for him; everyone quite liked Dick. Response was he was quite unwell and it was better for him, financially, to stay on the books for as long as possible. Made sense and an early lesson in pragmatic and quite altruistic management!

We also got ‘girls’; well, 6 in the sixth form and I think there were a couple in the fourth form. These strange creatures were objects of curiosity rather than desire (for me at least).

Again, I seemed to be doing ok academically winning several prizes for academics although achieving absolutely nothing on the sporting front. In fact I discovered I had an ingrowing toenail which was occasionally a bit sore but wonderful in that it got me off games for about 18 months. Appeared in various plays, mainly because I got on well with the house tutor in School House, a physics teacher called Les Johnson – who was the original ‘angry young man’. Mr Johnson wasn’t very tall, wore loud clothes and long(ish) hair; he loved Mahler and Wagner playing Dance of the Valkyrie most mornings at high volume to wake us (and him) up.

It was about this time that the rules regarding weekends away changed; in the early days at Cranbrook we had half terms and were allowed perhaps two ‘exeat’ weekends in addition per term – other weekends we remained in school entertaining ourselves as best we could. This was a period of intense social change and Cranbrook wasn’t immune; the school had a policy of headmasters changing every 12 years – why, I don’t know, but it was a good policy because it meant the school had the chance to reinvent itself every decade or so. JK-C left at the end of my third year to be replaced by Peter Rowe. They were very different; JK-C was a big man who had played rugby for England in the 1960s and believed in cold showers, sport and bridge. We had very little to do with him but, looking back on it, he was probably an alpha male who enjoyed being in charge. After Cranbrook he went to Eastbourne College where, allegedly, he told all the boys ‘to get a haircut’ at his first assembly – and it didn’t go down too well.

Peter Rowe was more in tune with the Zeitgeist although, horror of horrors, he had only represented his college at hockey! He was more academic and almost intellectual, and certainly the right personality to preside over a period of change; his approach was quite laissez faire and willing to expose us to new ideas. Under JK-C there was a pretty strict dress code (brown sports jackets, white shirt and tie, dark trousers and black shoes – jackets to have the middle button done up at all times). The announcement that middle buttons need no longer to be done up was met with delirious pleasure!

Fifth form and O Levels; and a move from school lodge into Crowden. Boarding houses all had a distinct character that seemed to survive through thick and thin; Rammell was sporty, Crowden was academic and Cornwallis was last in whatever the competition was. Allan and Horsley (the two day houses) were irrelevant to the borders and had much less ability to forge identities for the obvious reasons that boys went home every day.

The plan, always, was Crowden would be half of a building and, when funds allowed, the second half would be built with the house masters lodgings in the middle. That, indeed, did happen and Blueberry was built as the girls’ house (long after I had left). Generous John Blueberry was one of the original ‘sponsors’ of the school and gave an amount of money which, for the time, was probably quite generous however the nominal sum sounded comically small in 1972 so he was known as ‘generous John Blueberry’.

The school started a sailing club on a local reservoir about then. I joined, sailing being something I could do and it didn’t involve getting wet and muddy and a Ball. There was no pretence at competition; we just bumbled around a reservoir once a week and spent a lot of time fiddling with the various sailing tackle. These were good fun and no more than an excuse for a weekly sail; never had any competition or joint activities but there was one famous occasion when I took the Housemaster’s wife out for some reason. Diana Moore, wife of Hubert Moore, English teacher and Crowden housemaster was an ex nurse, quite sparky and generally a good thing. Anyway, I managed to capsize the boat and then struggled to get the boat and us back in the designated place – she didn’t come again.

We had a speech day every year where we all sat in a marquee on Scott field or Cornwallis Gardens (much nicer) for a hot Saturday towards the end of summer term. After church, there was some sort of milling about where bits of work were on display then, after lunch, we sat in the marquee and there were speeches by the Headmaster and Chair of Governors (Harold Nicholson) and some guest speaker – they were pretty dull but perhaps were aimed at the parents rather than the boys. At the appropriate point prize winners went up to the dais where we were presented with our bound books; for multiple winners like me we had to do a fair bit of nifty chair swopping so we were sat in the right place at the right time; it always seemed to be the same boys winning all the prizes so once you were in that club you seemed to stay there almost irrespective of results.

Winners were given a book token for 15 shillings (I remember that being the first one) and we went and bought a book which would then be bound in the school colours – a sort of burgundy faux leather – and a nicely written inscription in the front cover explaining what the prize was for.

Sixth form was okay. Tim Hartley and Peter Greer taught me Geography; Tim H was keen to teach geology and persuaded four of us to take it to A level in a year using the subsid time used to teach the AS level (a sort of half way between O and A levels). Theory was there was a geomorphology paper exactly the same as the geography syllabus, some rocks, minerals and fossils similar to the AS but more of them and in more depth, and some complicated mapping paper. We did the work although I never did really get the hang of the mapping and got an E at end of first year sixth form; E being the lowest pass grade but pretty good in a year on only half a timetable.

Apart from the academics I enjoyed life; didn’t do much sport due to ingrowing toenail but was, in effect, Captain of the fourth 15. We only ever played one match (against the top group from year below) and we were hammered. In the summer I swam; we did lifesaving Bronze medallion and then order of merit. No instruction until the day of the exam when an external examiner came along and asked us to swim half a dozen lengths to warm up before the exam which completely exhausted us as we’d never had to swim anything like that distance before. We were then asked to demonstrate some complicated lifesaving technique involving getting air into a drowned person by squeezing their limbs. Anyway, none of us had the faintest idea what it was all about and, at that stage, the examiner took our ‘teacher’ off for a good talking to. The teacher had only ever stood on the side whilst we swam about and given a few general tips on life saving at the ‘get the person out of the water’ type level. Anyway, we were awarded our ‘Awards of Merit’ on the basis that it wasn’t our fault and we were all dead keen.

Then there was the film club; great concept. Each term a small committee decided on what films we’d like to watch, they were ordered and we watched them in the lecture theatre on a Saturday evening. This was, of course, in the days before VCRs, DVDs or any other form of pre-recorded films. A ‘film’ came in three large canisters and consisted of reel to reel 16 mm actual ‘film’.
Students could join the club and paid an annual or termly sub via their bills (I think) but casual viewers could turn up and pay on the night. I had a little tub to collect the money – but there was no system to do anything with it thereafter – so that became my beer fund and very well used it was too.

It was always the plan that I’d ‘do’ Oxbridge although my pretty awful A levels should really have prevented that. For some reason that didn’t seem a barrier and I returned to Cranbrook after the summer holiday and had a fabulous last term doing Oxbridge and being Head Boy – I spent much more time being head boy than Oxbridge. Taking Geography as I was meant I didn’t really need to do any more Geography – and indeed, having got to Oxford, I realised how well I had been taught. I did do a bit of philosophy with the Head which involved reading a book, writing an essay which we’d then discuss – in other words the Oxford tutorial system dumbed down a bit. They were quite good fun and not at all serious. I also took a subsidiary subject (music) because I liked the music teacher (John Williams – not THE John Williams, but another one) and enjoyed music. Don’t remember much else but it was a really good last term.

From a sporting perspective David Firminger, the PE teacher, was a bit disappointed when I said I didn’t really want to take part in games but would sort myself out with a few runs. He had seen me as the captain of the third 15; Cranbrook was relatively unusual in that it actually had a third 15 – and it was reasonably well coached (by Mr F) and tended to win all its very small number of catches because the other schools just fielded a scratch team.
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