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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.