Autumn; Change and Contemplation – and the writing starts!!


It’s too long since I wrote my last blog so I thought I would write at this slightly unnerving juncture where I start to construct my 100,000 word thesis in earnest. And, on one level, it does feel like a construction process, in the sense that I have all the materials in place with which to build– screeds of notes on archival material; many articles and vignettes I’ve written already; a complete thematic analysis of all the interviews and memoirs I’ve undertaken and collected; a very comprehensive literature review, comprising all the books and articles I’ve read, and a detailed bibliography. Stepping into the world of construction sounds linear, organised and rational but, at the same time, this is a deeply emotional and highly subjective experience where the thinking process, the synthesis of my experience and learning over the last 22 months, the impact of the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been is being processed at a profoundly subterranean and inchoate level. It feels like the evolution of a tiny, fragile new life form, which is somewhat afraid to appear to the light of day at the moment, eyes wide and blinking, and body vulnerable. That sounds whimsical but I’m groping to express that disconcerting schism between construction and evolution, confidence in my material and personal anxiety and uncertainty.

The last few months since July have been a strange mix of detailed analysis, of loss and remembrance, and of celebration. In August, Frances Farrer, author and journalist, who wrote ‘Sir George Trevelyan and the New Spiritual Awakening’, a brilliantly written book and a touchstone for me which describes the evolution of Sir George’s thinking with great insight and sensitivity, passed away very suddenly aged 65. As the Oxford Mail obituary read, ‘She is deeply missed by all who knew her. Frances worked as a freelance journalist and wrote for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, T.E.S and Time Out’. She also wrote books for children and this showed. Frances and I talked regularly and at great length on the phone, often for 3 hours at a time and, as well as her tremendous erudition about education generally and her knowledge of the Trevelyan family, she had a gleeful, childlike sense of fun and would have me rolling with laughter. She had a gift for mimicry and did a great impression of Sir George, regaled me with tales of her meetings with older (now, sadly, deceased) members of the Trevelyan family when she was researching her book around 2000 and regularly sent me images via email to amuse and distract me during the research phase of my work. Frances had been commissioned by the Wrekin Trust to update and write a new chapter for her book on Sir George and had already undertaken much of the research. My work and hers dovetailed and we helped and supported one another, with a view to working more closely together in the future. I shall miss her very badly.



On August 28th it was the anniversary of my beloved dad’s death. This is not the space or place to express how I feel about that, except to say that I am trying to incorporate my feelings and also my dad’s thinking about education, class and community into my writing. I have been re-reading his essays from his time at Ruskin and here are a few quotes which resonated with my own study and my own philosophy, particularly in relation to adult education, capitalism and class. My dad was a humanist and a deeply liberal man. He never judged people and I rarely heard him criticise. He was humane and generous in his dealings with people, despite very humble origins:
‘People today are striving to improve their standard of living. In a capitalist society this is necessary! What disturbs me is the move away from ethics or moral judgement to the concept of self-gratification’

‘I consider myself to be socially aware – this awareness didn’t just happen, it has gradually emerged through study and introspection and a reluctance to accept anything at face value’.

‘Give me the child to the age of seven and I’ll show you the man. Robert Owen in the 19th century was an advocate of co-operation, he believed that man’s character is made for them and not by them. By character, he meant not the individual disposition of each person, but the make-up of social and moral ideas, instilled in the community as a whole by education and environment. Also, if they were taught co-operation and fellowship, instead of personal salvation and aggrandisement, society would speedily acquire a different character’.

‘For roughly 20 years of my life, home for me was a two up/two down terraced house, without bathroom, hot water and only an outside toilet. I am reluctant to call it a slum dwelling but it comes in that category. What I remember most about it was the neighbourliness and the unselfish attitude to help out if someone was ill or faced with a crisis. I never knew of any old people being neglected….the bonds of affinities remained until the people were split up after a slum clearance order…comfort and all mod-cons are not the be-all and end-all of everything. The town planners and architects, although with good intentions, are designing isolation units’

‘Class distinction…creates divisions between human beings and is a breeding ground for prejudice and pride. To quote Jacques Rousseau, ‘From pride all evil has grown and gone ranging round the world devouring men’’

‘I have been fortunate to have been given the opportunity for further education. This has increased my scope and knowledge through literature and interests, and brings me in contact with people from all walks of life. It has changed my concept of many things, and now, when I feel dissatisfied, I analyse and get to the root of the cause. If what John Stuart Mill wrote is true – ‘it is better to be dissatisfied than satisfied’, then I am better’

I celebrate my father’s thinking, as well as mourn his absence. He is a fundamental part of this evolutionary process of moving towards writing and crystallising my own thinking.

On a completely different note, in September, we held the College Celebration event at Attingham for all those who have contributed to the research through interview, written memoirs, as volunteers helping me in the research process, and as former College students, lecturers and colleagues of Sir George Trevelyan. It was a memorable and very moving experience, seeing people back in the old dining room again, experiencing the hubbub of voices, debate and discussion, as old friends and those unfamiliar to one another from different decades of the College – from the ‘40s through to the ‘70s – connected or became reacquainted after many years. There were several stirring talks, tea and cake, a chance to share memories, a group photograph on the Portico and an opportunity to re-visit the rooms in the house. Talks were given by Mark Agnew, Manager at Attingham, Sarah Kay, Curator, myself, Roger Orgill MBE (Chair of the Wrekin Trust and Sir George Trevelyan’s godson) and Barrie Trinder (eminent writer, College lecturer and Industrial Archaeologist). I recorded people as they walked round the building, storing away their recollections, and listening to their stories – a tremendous privilege. It has now formed part of the web of memory which is informing my thinking and my writing.
College Celebration event

Finally, on the first weekend of October I was invited to speak about my research at the Wrekin Trust’s Round Table event, Being the Change, at Hawkwood College in Gloucestershire, an anthroposophical College which Sir George saw as a ‘daughter’ College to Attingham. The purpose of the Round Table event was as follows:

Amidst growing concerns about the precarious nature of life and the need to address the interconnected aspects of political, economic, social, environmental and spiritual understanding, the 2015 Wrekin Round Table, explored how we are each ‘Being the Change’ and how we can best support ourselves and each other during these unprecedented times.
‘Furthering the spiritual awakening of humanity’ was the impulse which moved Sir George Trevelyan Bt to found Wrekin Trust in 1971. He saw the need for a higher level of consciousness in the midst of the confusion of the crumbling nature of society and the work of the Trust has always been to provide safe and sacred space for people to work in community to explore the challenges and possibilities of practical spirituality.
Most importantly, the weekend was about community, the development of deep connection with each other and what’s possible when we are able to share our presence with each other.

My presentation focused on the complex issues stirred by Sir George’s growing interest in the spiritual whilst Warden at Attingham. I was asked to be honest and provocative about its ultimate impact and achievements, offering questions about whether or not this strand of his work had become decoupled from the social and political urgencies we face today, and faced then, and whether or not this process had already begun at Attingham. The respect with which my commentary was received was humbling. I found the weekend a very powerful learning experience, coming away with a much deeper understanding of the spiritual work (and values) of the Wrekin Trust and a strong sense of community with the people I met whilst at Hawkwood.
And now to write!


Insights and Connections


As we reach into midsummer and beyond, I am now at the stage where the last of the interviews I have undertaken has finally been transcribed – a painstaking, and much lengthier process than I thought (!!), made easier by the wonderful College volunteers, as I mentioned previously – and the interviews are all now being thoroughly analysed and coded for key themes and threads. This sounds like a dry process which belies the often deeply personal nature of the interviews and the transformational quality ascribed to the learning people experienced at Attingham College.
Reading through all the interviews again has been revealing and powerful. With the passage of a year, in some instances, I am viewing them afresh and recognising the full importance of what was said, in the context of all the information I have gleaned since. I am also even more aware now of how great a privilege it was for me to hear people who experienced the College first hand speak so openly.
Two more recent encounters have enriched my knowledge and understanding considerably, particularly of Sir George Trevelyan. In March this year I met Martin Bulmer, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Surrey University, and Sir George Trevelyan’s half-brother. There is a forty year age gap between Martin and Sir George but Martin saw him at the Trevelyan’s Wallington estate in Northumberland periodically, where he grew up, though George’s visits were infrequent. Martin was particularly interesting on the division between George and his father Charles, which has been referred to a number of times in different interviews.
Sir Charles was a radical socialist, a Labour politician (though expelled at one point for his support for a “popular front” against the National Government) who served as President of the Board of Education in 1924 and between 1929 and 1931 in the first two Labour administrations of Ramsay MacDonald. He was much loved by the miners of the area who called him ‘Good Old Charlie’. Charles had a hammer and sickle erected at the Wallington Estate entrance, on the opposite side to the family’s heraldic statues, sadly no longer there! No-one throughout the interviews I have undertaken has any recollection of Sir George discussing or referring to politics. His only reference to the broadly political issue of class is referred to in his article Adult Education and the Living Idea (year unknown) in which he talks about the importance of modern education working in a ‘manner fitting for our more or less classless society’ (p.1). This notion would not, perhaps, have sat well with his father and Charles was also impatient and exasperated, at best, by matters spiritual and George’s pursuit of them.
Martin said –
‘I think there was a divergence because my father was interested in politics and George wasn’t – my father was not interested in spiritualism and George was and that’s really what divided them – even had George inherited Wallington I think he might well have used it for adult education purposes – there were suggestions that he had ideas along those lines…’
And for Sir George adult education itself was profoundly spiritual, as a means for ‘living ideas to work down into our society, and adult education has here a special, and in some sense, a priestly, task’ (Ibid., p.3).
Nevertheless, this passion for the spirit and concept of spirituality transcending the bounds of class and background seems to have motivated George throughout his life. Interestingly, his father too had an interest in adult education and had given the stable block at Wallington over to the YMCA and also to the Post Office. Martin commented on this and said –
‘so annually the Post Office used to have an open day at Wallington for – well it seemed to me to be for the young members of staff but it may have been for any members of staff but it was particularly aimed at people called telegraph boys in the early post-war period’.
Sir Charles was also interested in the work of Kurt Hahn, who founded Gordonstoun where Sir George taught before working at Attingham. There is perhaps more of a convergence of opinion – at least in terms of adult education and an untrammelled approach to it, allowing for freedom of the spirit – than the two men were able to articulate to each other.
My own ambivalence about the spiritual courses and the way in which they are sometimes presented as eclipsing all the other pioneering work Sir George achieved at Attingham perhaps suggests some similarity with Sir Charles’s views. I can’t deny that I am a political person and that I believe that political struggle matters profoundly whilst ever we have such a deeply unequal society. However, I also believe strongly in the spirit, in art, poetry and creativity as a means of transcending sometimes the most inauspicious of situations and enabling people to come alive as fully realised human beings. Sir George, I believe, was motivated by this view and this remained with him all his life.
I was fortunate enough to interview Walter Drews in June this year. Walter is former Principal of one of the short-term residential adult education colleges which existed at the same time as Attingham, Wansfell College, and is also tutor at another, Knuston College. He is also writer of the scholarly PhD thesis ‘The British short-term residential colleges for adult education 1945-1995’, (a great help to me). Walter had the privilege of meeting Sir George as a very old man, shortly before he died, in around 1994, for his thesis. He talked about Sir George’s pure generosity of spirit, his desire to help and give all he could to the interviews, despite being very frail and bent double with arthritis. As Walter and his colleague, Brenda Harris, arrived, Sir George came out of the house. Walter described it thus:
‘He was a very old man – bent over on a stick – he took us up in his house – he couldn’t have travelled anywhere. He came out first of all and we introduced ourselves and I said Brenda would take notes and he came out and he said ‘aah, my beloved Cotswolds’ and I liked the man immediately there was bit of ‘heimat’ about him, belonging to somewhere – wonderful chap’
Brenda remembers the beauty of the furniture he proudly showed them, how he touched it and stroked it with pride – ‘He took us into his living quarters and there was beautiful, beautiful furniture that he was very proud of …he was physically very frail’. She recalls him saying, despite being tired, ‘please ask me some more questions if you need to’.
I think that encapsulates that spirit of generosity and love of humanity very poignantly and rather beautifully.

Sir George lecturingSirGeorge - Jonathon Parker

In Their Own Words – Quotes from Attingham College Interviews and Memoirs


Sir George

Now I’m at the stage of reading through all the interview transcriptions and memoirs, I wanted to share with you some of the rich and vivid quotes I’ve taken from the many interviewees and memoir respondents, to give a flavour of the College as it was in its heyday and to highlight some points of particular interest. Some of the quotes are taken from a previous round of interviews, undertaken by Sarah Kay, Project Curator, and Brenda Hough, former volunteer Archivist, in the early 2000s. The rest are interviews from the last year or from collected memoirs over that period.

Background to the Development of the College – the use of stately homes

It was not a certainty that Attingham Park and Hall would become a general adult educational establishment. From correspondence between 1943 and 1947, clearly a range of conversations about the future usage of Attingham took place before it became a College in 1948.
It is interesting to note that a number of the colleges which evolved post-war in other stately homes became associated with particular groups and interests. So Denman College, at Marcham Park in Oxfordshire, became a College for the Women’s Institute in 1948 and remains a thriving WI educational institution to this day. Wortley Hall, a stately home near Barnsley and the seat of the Earls of Wharncliffe until the Second World War, was taken on in 1950 by a group of local trade union activists who identified the hall as a possible educational and holiday centre, and established a co-operative which succeeded in purchasing the hall for those purposes. It is still used by trade unions and by the Raymond Williams Foundation, as well as being a first-class wedding/social venue. Hawkwood College, a former stately home in Gloucestershire and seen by some as something of a ‘daughter’ college to Attingham, was bought by followers of Rudolph Steiner in 1947, the Whincops. It was later managed by Bernard Nesfield-Cookson – a close friend of Sir George Trevelyan who had previously taught at Attingham – and his first wife, Eileen. It remains a context for short courses on the theme of creative exploration in personal and spiritual development, arts and crafts, music, health and well-being, as well as nature and sustainability.
Fewer of the general adult education colleges have survived.

Letter from M. Somerville to Lady Berwick

‘I have been thinking about a WI college, if indeed we are to have one. I have heard almost nothing about it but I presume we should be tenants of some suitable large mansion – it seems improbable that you could ever find sufficient men and maids to staff Attingham Park adequately these days. Have you ever thought about possibilities in connection with the idea of the WI College? We should, I think, be more desirable tenants than those you are now considering who might be organised by the type of extreme socialist who is so very difficult to live with!’ (reference to the College?!!)

Geoffrey Toms – Former Warden (1971 – 76)

‘The world of residential education has naturally changed a great deal – there was a spate of founding colleges after the war. They were led by charismatic personalities – George Trevelyan is a good example of this’.

The Residential Experience

So many memories of Attingham College are connected with the physical experience of being a resident – remembering the park, the bedrooms, the details of student life.

Susan Morgan, former College student, said, in a beautifully evocative written memoir:

‘I have wonderful memories of staying at Attingham as an A level student at Shrewsbury Technical College. Lectures I remember were Karl Marx and William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Sir George Trevelyan climbed Caer Caradoc with us and chatted with us when we were dining later.
We played records in the lecture room and I have loved Schubert’s Great C Major ever since. The impact of the wonderful surroundings and looking out over the deer park has remained with me.
Nights were spent in dormitories above the front door and the curtained beds were possibly four to a room. I remember having a nightmare, thrashing about in the curtains concerning boys killing pigs – thanks to the lecture earlier!’

John Hassall, former student, stressed the importance of being ‘away from the workaday world’. Attingham provided an early taste of university for John who went on to become a schoolteacher – it ‘challenged’ him, providing a confidence boost and a chance to meet people from broad backgrounds.

Jancis Mander, a student on one of the very first courses at Attingham in 1948, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, remembers vividly her experience of staying at Attingham and various antics at the time!
‘I was in a dormitory of six where our sleep was disturbed by a dive bombing bat. Next morning, we woke to find all of our wardrobes were in a row in the middle of the room and all six of us had our hair tied to our bedheads; none of us had known!’ And another…..
‘We’d no sooner got into our beds then the door was flung open and there was a hosepipe sprayed on us and Nibs Matthews who ended up as the Director of the English Folk Dance Society was at the front of this hosepipe….we were soaked!’

English Folk Dance Society summer school 1948

English Folk Dance Society Summer School 1948

Frances Farrer, author and journalist, remembers being told that the bedspreads, with Bannatyne prints, were created from the cotton sheets taken out of the attic at Attingham – a great sense of ‘taking the thing at hand’ and that post-war spirit of making do and mending.

Marcia Taylor, Head Cook from 1956 to 1958 recalls:
‘The bedrooms for the staff were 92 steps up to the top of the house (no lift then) so you made sure you had everything you needed until you had finished work at about 2, 2.30, when we had the afternoon off until we started again at about 5 pm to do the evening meal, when there was a course in’.

Variety of Courses

Mike Threadgold, former Head Gardener:
‘They had all sorts – they had sheep farming, they had the hippies here one time. Lord Harlech’s daughter all them was here one time. I can remember seeing them out on the front with her little baby in her arms, Lord Harlech’s daughter. She was here. And all them sorts of people, these hippies, they was the rich hippies as we called ‘em. He used to have a hippy week always, Sir George did, and it’d be full of hippies, all round about. And they’d be sleeping down the Mile Walk in sleeping bags…’

Geoffrey Toms, former Warden

The College was ‘unusual in 2 ways – undoubtedly the building and its size enabled the great variety of courses…the building added very much to all the facilities and the great attraction of an 18th century building and the astonishing grounds’. Geoffrey felt it had a special appeal, more so than other colleges. He also said that ‘it was in terms of student numbers the largest of the colleges’ – it had a total of 70 beds at its height and had an ‘astonishing range of courses’, covering music, contemporary culture, current affairs, craftsmanship.

On Sir George

Sir George

Despite up to 45 courses a year and working as chief networker and leader of many of the courses over the whole 24 year period during which he was Warden, enthusiasm and ‘joie de vivre’ seem to typify Sir George Trevelyan.

‘He used to wave and jump about – I think it was his nerves. That’s what made him appear eccentric’
Mike Threadgold

Sir George took many of the courses himself. John Hassall remembers his course on Gerard Manley Hopkins, where Sir George was ‘very much the inspiration of the place’ … ‘declaiming the Wreck of the Deutschland’.

Merrion Wood, former Caretaker’s son, who lived at Attingham as a child remembers Sir George’s great sense of fun – ‘Sir George was like a big kid’. He recalls that Sir George was ‘always up to antics’, especially at Christmas and bonfire night, which was celebrated in the courtyard then – with a big bonfire. Sir George would leap over the bonfire – performing ‘his party piece’. Merrion remembers he always sang ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ‘At’ as he did it!

‘He was wonderful to us as staff – he was always there for us. He’d always pop his head round the door and say ‘hello girls’. You could always go and talk to him…and he made you feel important’ –
Mrs Carole Bowdler – ‘jack of all trades’ laundry and cooking – worked at College in the 1960s – recorded in 2002

Paul Fletcher, who is currently Trustee of the Challice Well, was involved with Sir George in the Wales Network from 1979-1989 and spent considerable amounts of time with him. He recalls that Sir George was ‘great fun and believed in play’. He would put nettles into boiling water and give people individual readings for the New Year! He had stuffed rabbit toys in his suitcase which he saved to give to any children he ran into and always carried with him.

Pam Turner, former student, gave a wonderful description of Sir George, the thespian, as he had a great love of theatre and performance. She suggested that Sir George just played himself in theatre productions, that people ‘dreaded being in performances with him as he made up lines and never bothered to learn the actual lines so could never be relied on for cues’! During the performances at New Year, people stayed in costume the whole time as they felt it fitted with the atmosphere of the stately home and Sir George made them stay in part!

Pic 2 front

Sir George Trevelyan and Ron Turner in ‘School for Scandal’, 1957

The Spiritual courses

There is no doubt that the evolution and growth of Sir George’s ‘esoteric’ courses drew large crowds and distinguished Attingham definitively from other similar colleges but also divided people in their responses. As Geoffrey Toms commented, they attracted a very diverse and sometimes challenging group of people. Geoffrey was part of the Birmingham University Extra Mural Department – who were ‘very concerned’, as were the Local Education Authority.
There is a sense from some people that he took everything with a pinch of salt whilst, at the same time, a spirit of exploration and experimentation underpinned everything he did – including into God and the God within. Frances Farrer commented that ‘George was not an enemy of reason but he was not in thrall to it as we are now’.

Michael Ray, former student, attended one course himself as a sixth former and was very impressed with Sir George and his ‘deep spirituality’, which he compared with that of the late John Taverner, Composer, who died recently, though not based on a Christian faith in quite the same way. He felt this aspect of Sir George was very apparent, and very ‘deeply felt’.
Sir George apparently said: ‘If I do nothing in this life other than gain a deeper understanding of death it will be a life well spent’. This was in part a reference to his well-known and pioneering Death and Becoming course – Ruth Nesfield-Cookson, Sir George Trevelyan’s long-time Secretary at Attingham and at the start of the Wrekin Trust.

More quotes to follow!

Spring Returns and Reviews of the year


This March sees me at the 15 months mark of the PhD journey – a point of review and the setting of new directions. After the hard slog of the final months of last year – both personally and academically – it is beginning to feel like the end of certain elements of my academic life and the start of new ones. So there is Spring, change and transformation in the air. I greet it with the usual ambivalence – change as exciting renewal and change as elegy and endings.

As ever, life mirrors nature for me. As I came up the drive to Attingham this week, I saw swathes of snowdrops, at the height of their beauty in the late winter sun, but also anticipated that the daffodils and crocuses are not far away. I will be coming less frequently to Attingham now that the archives materials are largely read, annotated and stored for analysis and all my interviews are complete. I realise how much I have come to love the space and the people who work there or were part of it in the past. The welcome I have received from the National Trust staff has been tremendously warm and I have loved staying in the visitors flat, or with Saraid Jones (who has been so kind and supportive) in her capacious rooms on the top floor of the house. The College volunteers who have worked with me – Andrew Petch, Sally Ellery, Clare Kelly, Elaine Bradburn, Sally Stote and Peter Francis – have made the archive journey so much easier and so much more enjoyable. I couldn’t have come this far without them, so quickly. They have trawled through course programmes – one for every season from 1948 to 1976 – and looked at emerging themes; researched the Attingham Summer School which started in 1952 and attracted important American and European conservators, archivists and historians with an interest in English cultural heritage and which continues its scholarly work to this day; analysed the College Visitors books which span 1948 to 1957 and looked at student demographics; examined all the newspaper cuttings and press materials connected with the College; analysed the contents of the wonderful College scrapbooks and the detailed Board of Governors reports and are now helping with the difficult and painstaking task of transcribing the interviews! Thanks, too, to Carol Forrester, a student at Bath Spa University, who transcribed 8 of the interviews last year. I know she spent many hours on the project and I am indebted to her.

At the Annual Property Review meeting I attended – reviewing the last year at Attingham – on Thursday this week I was struck by the huge commitment, energy and passion of all the staff and volunteers at Attingham. Their reference to Attingham as a ‘magical place’ resonated with me. For me, it has been like stepping out of one kind of reality and into another and I have loved the sense – in a small way – of being part of this team.

Now all my interviews are complete I am excited by the prospect of having chance to sit down and properly unpick the themes that are beginning to emerge. I’ve established the two chapters I am going to start to write initially – and they will be a chapter on the Trevelyan family, to explore the genesis of Sir George’s thinking and ways of approaching the world, and a broader chapter about the short-term residential college, and specifically the Shropshire Adult Education College, in the context of adult education – marked, as it was, at its outset in 1948 by the ‘Spirit of ’45’ and the wider welfare changes in the country. Sir George fought until his retirement in 1971 to keep the course prices low, against a pincer movement of wider economic changes and ‘belt-tightening’ in the country, a reduction in grants and other financial support, the march of a managerial approach to education and sliding student attendance in the face of higher fees, which inevitably came along. The experiment of education for all in the genteel and beautiful surroundings of a stately home was starting to unravel by the time of his departure. His excursions into the New Age and the spiritual both attracted huge audiences in the late ‘60s and kept Attingham viable and, conversely, were a good reason for local funding to dwindle, as more and more people came from further afield and the claim of ‘local education for local people’ looked increasingly untenable. I do see, though, that Sir George was fighting to keep something alive – whether or not he attracted the broad student base he had originally intended – and that was a sense of education as personal and spiritual transformation and an eschewal of the market and the manager.

I will post some of the quotes from the interviews over the next few weeks. They are memorable, moving and vital, by turns. And, again, I have been struck by the huge generosity people have afforded me in giving up their time to offer their memories, as interviewees or in the form of written memoirs. There will be a College Celebration event in September – date to be announced and part of a 3 week house focus on the College – which will act as a thank you to all contributors and at which I will give an update on the research and we will hear from key interviewees. And the College is now being commemorated at Attingham in the fabric of the rooms, through exhibitions and displays, and through the College tours which are being developed so that there is an enduring memorial to the College.

Two of the beautiful zodiac mosaic panels created by students and Mollie and Jasper Kettlewell and installed at Attingham to commemorate Sir George's retirement.

Two of the beautiful zodiac mosaic panels created by students and Mollie and Jasper Kettlewell and installed at Attingham to commemorate Sir George’s retirement.

2014-10-14 11.40.05

A Season of Memory and Contemplation

A Season of Memory and Contemplation

I drove back up the long drive to Attingham for the first time in 3 months in October, a changed individual – sadder, certainly, more reflective and more inward looking. Nature has a strange way of mirroring life sometimes, of reflecting the interior journey. The leaves were clinging tenuously to the trees, the golden cattle some distance away, their heads turned to the grass, rather than nudging, inquisitively, at the boundary of the road. I still felt the old surge of optimism as I neared the house, the sense of something continuous and affirming, but was also aware of the quiet passage of time and change.

I reflected that no research project of this kind, so immersive and all-consuming, can avoid being both intensely personal as well as public and that it was probably permissible to allow a little of the personal to creep out publicly.

My work in the past has been variously public or community focused, a journey based on an external world of activism and a passion for justice and equality – all based on deep personal beliefs but very much externalised. Doing this research has allowed me to go inwards, back to the private, as well as seeking the voices of others through the interviews who have been privately marked and changed by their time at the Adult Education College. I have grappled all year with an understanding of Sir George Trevelyan and his spiritual work and philosophy, trying to establish how it connected with my own beliefs, as well as attempting to do it justice within the context of the research, without focusing on it to the exclusion of all else.  He was a man, I have found, who touched people profoundly and who manifested his own private thinking through his spiritual beliefs, his public talks and lectures, as well as his belief in education for spiritual enlightenment. This work appears to have been born out of intense introspection and ‘inward journeying’.

To return to the private for the moment, my own father has been very ill all year – and for the last two years or more, in reality. Every time I came to Shropshire I worried about being away from him. Finally, in late August, he succumbed to the terrible illness which had beset him, and which finally silenced his great and epic spirit, a man who loved life and lived it with compassion, joy and wonder. These past months, Sir George’s journey made sense in terms of my own, and my private and public worlds converged.

I have been struck for some time by Sir George’s bravery in opening up the subject of death for public debate and discussion. He began to take tentative steps towards education for spiritual enlightenment early in the 1950s with a course entitled What Can we Believe? He followed this up with his seminal and influential course ‘Death and Becoming’ in the early 60s. This was the first of Sir George’s courses which looked overtly at the interior life, or the development of the self from a spiritual perspective. This course took the subject to a whole new level, dealing, as it did, with challenging perceptions of death. This was groundbreaking at the time and attracted a record number of attendees (170), many of whom gained great personal succour from the course.

The personal dimension to this very public course was that his father, Sir Charles Trevelyan, and also Gwen Orgill, Domestic Bursar, with whom he had worked closely and creatively, died around this time.  Sir George was dealing with a great deal of personal grief, through meditation and deep introspection. He said, ‘I knew without any shadow of doubt that the spark of divinity in us cannot possibly die…this can bring an absolute certainty and subjective proof of the eternal spirit in each of us’. (George Trevelyan, 1991, Exploration into God, Gateway Books).

Such a course certainly attracted comment from the Board of the College and from outside press and public. It was challenging and, to some degree, controversial.

Sir George had had his own moment of epiphany in 1942 at a lecture entitled “What Rudolf Steiner Meant”, given by Johannes Stein, a devotee of Rudolf Steiner who had created the philosophy of Anthroposophy, which postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development; the relating of the spirit of man to the spirit in the universe. Like Alice Bailey, a leading exponent of the New Age, who was also influenced by anthroposophy, Sir George challenged the materialist concept of death as a fear-inducing state of non-being or the precursor to a Christian state of Heaven or Hell. Alice Bailey describes it, instead, as the ‘Bringer of Changes’, a period of transition, in which the physical and the astral planes connect and a ‘continuity of consciousness’ is achieved. Like Steiner, Sir George tackled the subject of death overtly, as a means of eradicating much of the crippling, abstract fear we reserve for it. He enabled conversations about it, to help foster positive relationships with dying. As anthroposophy asserts, death is a natural aspect of life and it merits the same attention we give other aspects of our humanity.  Steiner himself argued that human beings do not just continue through an ongoing consciousness but that they are reincarnated into new forms.

Coming much closer to the present day, Irvin D. Yalom, writer, psychotherapist and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, in his brilliant book – ‘Staring at the Sun – Overcoming the Dread of Death’ – offers a different perspective on death but continues the tradition of challenging perceptions and asking difficult questions. Here, both Christian concepts of an afterlife and the tradition of continuing consciousness and reincarnation are configured as part of human ‘death anxiety’.  He asserts, instead, that the time after death, as with the time before we are born, are states of non-being. ‘Transiency is forever’. How we do continue, he argues, is through the ‘rippling effect’.  He states that ‘rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates – often without our conscious intent or knowledge – concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level’(2008, p.83).  Yes, we rejoin nature through our scattered molecules, building new life but we also create something that will be passed on and enlarge the life of others.

In this moment, I do not know precisely where I stand. I am still thinking and contemplating and may never know definitively but I do understand the need to grapple with the question of what happens to us when we die. How do we continue, if we continue?

Stephen Spender, quoted in Sir George’s marvellous book on poetry – ‘Magic Casements – the Use of Poetry in the Expanding of Consciousness’ (1980, Conventure Ltd, London, p. 46) – describes how the truly great – those ‘who fought for life’ and ‘wore at their hearts the fire’s centre’ – are never lost, echoed in the wind, in the air, their names listed by ‘the waving grass’. Both my father – John Brian Clancy, 1937 – 2014 – and Sir George stared at the sun and ‘travelled a short while’ towards it.

Stephen Spender

The Truly Great (excerpt)

……What is precious is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in the worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields

See how these names are listed by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre:

Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,

And left the vivid air signified with their honour.

John Brian Clancy

Summer 2014 – Being a ‘Backward Traveller’


George Ewart Evans, the great oral historian, wrote brilliantly of the experience of interviewing and recording people’s memories as ‘being a backwards traveller’, suggestive of a respectul, careful process of archaeological re-discovery, as well as a sense of time travel. This is a phrase I have found myself constantly returning to over the last two months as I have started to interview people about the College.

My own experience of Attingham and staying here is immersive on a personal level and I have felt something of its transformational power over the changing seasons. In May, I arrived to a swathe of yellow buttercups and to sunlit oak trees, to the sight of rabbits playing in the grass, pheasants chasing one another under the Tower window where I sit to work and squirrels engaging in their endless game of hide and seek. This month I discovered the Mile Walk for myself and wandered around the Deer Park, sat by the river and imagined I was back in the past, during Sir George and the College’s time, only the thrum of the busy traffic in the distance placing me in the 21st century. This, and the sense of deep privilege afforded me by talking to people who experienced the College, will stay with me for a very long time.

I have now talked to a wide variety of people who remember the SAEC, from former students who were here in the earliest days of the College, including one who was part of the very first course on English Folk Dance, to tutors who remembered the excitement and energy of the courses created here, to former staff who came here for their first jobs. All have contributed enthusiastically and have been prepared to be interviewed or to send in written recollections. The transformative effect of Attingham and of the College, and its continued impact on people’s lives, has been a recurrent theme throughout the interviews and memoirs.

A press interview with Toby Neal from the Shropshire Star resulted in a flurry of interest from people writing in with memories of the College, by email and by letter. It was genuinely exciting to come here this week to a small pile of letters. For me, there is something powerfully human and intimate about opening an envelope and reading people’s words in their own hand, something that brings memories alive. Some responses have been anecdotal snapshots , adding important colour and texture to the College, and others have been longer reflections. One of my favourite concerns a walk on the Wrekin with Sir George, sent in by Peter Selwyn -Smith:
‘I remember a climb up the side of the Wrekin (not on the proper path) and pointing out to Sir George a sign that said ‘PRIVATE no admittance’, and wondered whether we should go on. He said ‘My dear boy, I never read anything which says Private; that would be most rude’ and so we went over the fence and on.’

Marcia Taylor, nee Richards, former Head Cook, wrote about the egalitarian nature of working here and of the famous speakers and lecturers:
‘My days at Attingham were happy days. We worked hard but when we had time off we could join in with the students…..
Some big names had lectures at Attingham. One night we came back to find Sir George and Patrick Moore on the front lawn star gazing, with a big excited shout from both of them – ‘there it is, there’s the Great Bear!’

Jancis Mander wrote about the experience of being a residential student, evoking the fun and spontaneous nature of the dormitory experience brilliantly:
‘One of the earliest courses was on folk dance and song, led for a weekend by teaching staff of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDS and S). This was in 1949 and, because I was 16, I was able to attend. I was in a dormitory of six girls where our sleep was disturbed by a dive bombing bat. Next morning, we woke to find all of our wardrobes were in a row in the middle of the room and all six of us had our hair tied to our bedheads; none of us had known!
In 1954, in a different dorm, we were just off to sleep when the door burst open and a jet of water was played on us by Nibs Matthews, course director, Roger Orgill, the housekeeper’s son, and others.’

Over the last two months, too, a group of committed and highly skilled volunteers have come forwards whose enthusiasm and passion for the College years make the backward journey both more convivial for me and provide a great resource for pursuing further lines of research. Members of the group are variously examining the course programmes, and the course themes which emerged, spanning the whole 28 years of the College, the Visitors books – which provide an incredible insight into the background, homes and professions of the students and their tutors, as well as into the high profile speakers – and the scrapbooks, full of photographs, press cuttings and course materials.

What is emerging is a melting pot of drama, arts, music, thought and innovation made transformative and enduring by its people.

The Journey Continued – Winter to Spring


English Folk Dance Society summer school 1948

Arriving at Attingham this morning, to the slow purposeful grazing of a group of horned cattle enjoying the newly lush grass and in no hurry to clear the road, to the blinking of daffodils and primulas, yellow in the sunlight, and to winter trees softened by a haze of green, it felt as if Spring had most definitely arrived, and as if overnight. During the winter, in my first few months working on my research into the Shropshire Adult Education College, the wind tore around the Park and the rain poured and poured. I struggled to imagine the summer here, the College students celebrating the simple joys of being alive, the sheer physicality of many of the courses here – dancing, painting, sculpting, performing plays outdoors, enjoying walks in the Park grounds and in the Wrekin Hills. Suddenly it all felt very real today.

And I have spent the last month immersed in a set of archive recordings which vividly re-create the days of the College and its own physical rhythms, through the testimony of people who worked here – as Cooks, Gardeners, and Laundry workers, as Secretary and Deputy Warden to Sir George Trevelyan – and those who lived here, through the memories of Sir George’s daughter, Catriona Tyson, about growing up at Attingham. The recordings describe a hardworking but amiable and friendly work environment and a group of devoted people, who lovingly tended the Park, the house and the College. From the start, Sir George sought the interest and help of local people in preparing the building for use as a College. Ruth Nesfield-Cookson, Sir George’s Secretary from 1961-71, described it:

‘George had gone from door to door in and around Shrewsbury, publicizing the birth of the College and thus local people came together to help with the physical work of preparing the building for use’.

Buildings were painted and whitewashed, the laundry started up in earnest as the courses began, with volumes of washing pulled up to the top floor of the building on pulleys. The Cooks worked long hours preparing excellent, if simple, food. Catriona Tyson describes the mad bustle of the College, how it was ‘bursting at the seams’ with students and how the original kitchen served all, with the food carried up on metal industrial trolleys, with huge stoves bubbling away, and managed by the Head Cook with 5 or 6 girls helping.

There were courses on sheep farming, and garden produce was grown in Attingham’s fine walled gardens. There was a sense of real communion with the land, which was borne out later by Sir George’s key role in supporting the growth and development of the Soil Association. The Gardeners remember Sir George fondly, both for his respect for them and their roles, and for his kindness.

A story is beginning to emerge in my mind of the College in its early days and also how it evolved. If you would like to help me develop these thoughts, undertake pieces of research or support/contribute to the oral history recordings I will be undertaking over the summer, please contact me on

I will also be leading a volunteer briefing session on the College here at Attingham on the morning of 8th May, if you would like to find out more about volunteering with me.

Attingham as the Shropshire Adult Education College, 1948 – 1976 – Opening the Box on the Past

Sir George Trevelyan, Warden of the Shropshire Adult Education College, mid flow!

Sir George Trevelyan, Warden of the Shropshire Adult Education College, mid flow!

At the start of this year, I began my research on the Shropshire Adult Education College after months waiting excitedly to start, combining my time between finishing off in my job of 6 years and contemplating  a brand new life as a researcher. In preparation, I had been reading about the College, a short-term residential college with a rich abundance of diverse, ground-breaking and challenging courses, and its charismatic Warden for 23 years, Sir George Trevelyan.

In the cold of a January day I arrived at Attingham for the first time in my new role and fell immediately under the spell of the Hall as I entered the impressive gateway and followed the graceful sweep of the entrance road to the building itself, austere and elegant, in the distance. I imagined the sensation of being a student here, in the early days following the war, the ferment of courses, conversation and debate aimed at people from all walks of life and with all manner of interests. What was it like to learn in such a setting?

Starting in on the College archives – a series of boxes full of newspaper articles, photographs, college records and reports – an impression of Trevelyan the man begins to form.

Sir George and tutor at Geology for Everyman course

Sir George and tutor at Geology for Everyman course

Trevelyan shaped, crafted and imprinted his vision onto the college, with the support (most of the time! ) of a Board of Governors made up of Shropshire County Council, the University of Birmingham, the Walker Trust and Lady Berwick herself. He was one of 132 applicants for the post of Warden and was nervous and tongue-tied, by his own account, but his love of public education and his own unusual provenance as a former lecturer at Gordonstoun – the Scottish public school, an Army tutor and a craftsman and furniture maker apparently set him apart. Initially, there were places for only 30 students and the net was cast wide to attract local people from, amongst others, technical colleges and institutes, youth clubs, women’s organisations and interest groups, such as the local Archaeological and drama clubs. Courses spanned History, Sociology and Psychology – such as England in 1790, the Age of Attingham;  the Human Situation and Problems of the Adolescent in Modern Society – as well as Music, the Arts and Drama and practical ‘country living’ courses such as bee keeping.

The palpable energy and commitment to the college, the drive to keep costs as low as possible, the all-embracing ethos that ‘no-one need be deterred by the feeling that he or she is not a scholar’ (Trevelyan) create a sense in me of a pioneering and important educational project. And my next step is to focus on the real stories and experiences of people who were students at the college.

So, can you or anyone you know help me with stories, artefacts, memories of the College? If so, please contact me on

You will help make the College come to life!