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.