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.