Artwork by Grace Crabtree
"Before beginning the artwork, I took photographs and made drawings from life and from imagination, weaving together ideas gleaned from Douglas Northover’s poetry and David’s lyrics, my own connection to the landscape, and the folklore of the area. The paintings take different geographical locations – Chesil Beach, Arch Bridge, Southover Lane, and Freshwater Beach – along the journey of the river from source to mouth."
"I created four paintings which each relate to a different song, working in an illustrative style to help bring a sense of narrative to them. I began thinking about a history compressed in layers, like the geological landforms of the valley and coastline – a deep history, embedded in stone and sediment. Each artwork is a visual representation of past stories and voices of the valley, from the viewpoint of somebody living here now."
‘Born in the calm pool, protected from danger,
Well up from deep stone, valley cradles me tight.
Catch my breath, give a cry I tumble down freely,
I dance in the sunrise, the birth of the light.
So, where to start? Well, not at the beginning, not 1990, I think. For those readers unfamiliar with the Vale of the river Bride
I choose ‘Turn Towards Me’. This song paints a picture of my small river, from source at Bridehead to sea, twelve miles away at Freshwater where it carves through Chesil beach into Lyme Bay. It will give you a glimpse of, and an introduction to my home, the Bride and its valley.
It is the year 2004, just nudging into a new millennium and a time of great hope. A Labour government is promoting progressive education and social policy, and all seems rosy in Headteacherland. I left Burton Bradstock school a year earlier to take up a new Headship in Dorchester (but more on this in a future blog). On this memorable day I step from my house into Annings Lane and set off to walk to my old school, following the lane that runs alongside the Bride. I swear to you that I’ve worn a groove between my house and the school...could walk it in my sleep!
It is a beautiful, cloudless day, a gentle breeze carries softly the sound of waves washing sea-smoothed pebbles on Chesil beach. Early July sun sets the river shimmering and chicken waddle on the far bank, scrabbling comically for heaven knows what in the dusty soil. But my head is down. I have a deeply sad mood that cannot be lifted as much as the sunrise and scenery deserve. I feel the weight of a heavy heart, a sense of foreboding for the task that lays before me.
The mother of children who attended the school has succumbed to a terrible cancer and after a long struggle, has died. She owned a dog, a tan and white Springer Spaniel who, taking after his breed name used to bound and leap around her as they walked the banks of the river, her seeking peace as she struggled with deep sadness. My family knew her and her children as dear friends. Her qualities were immense, and the sadness she wrestled with was not self-pity, but driven by concern and grief, knowing her children will shortly be growing up without the guidance, love, care and support she thought would always be hers to give them.
I reach the end of Derby Lane and, instead of turning left toward my old school, I continue straight on, through the cool, shady limestone porch into the peace and quiet of St Mary’s Church. For you see, I’ve been asked by her family to write and deliver her eulogy, a great privilege, and a daunting responsibility.
The vicar waits for me. He has guided me over the past week in preparation and now assures me he will be behind me in the pulpit if I ‘lose it’ as I tell her story and celebrate her life in front of a church packed with friends, villagers and, most poignantly family including her devastated children, my pupils.
Well, dear reader, I do lose it. At the very end I am overwhelmed by grief. It surfaces, washes my eyes with tears and chokes my voice. I turn to the vicar to find him also overwhelmed and unable to help. Turning back, I struggle and finish, holding my gaze high on the arch of the dark oak doors behind the congregation.
Welcome to my world, dear reader (and hopefully listener). The life and times of a Headteacher with a ‘formal’ job description underpinned by expectations of educational achievement, financial probity and corporate management and an informal description that embraces the social, emotional and physical fabric of the entire school and its wider community. I loved every minute of my job, but as we all know, love embraces many emotions and carries us through challenges that at times seem overwhelming. In future blogs I aim to link songs that I have written, or the words of local poet, Douglas Northover to events that shaped me and my thirty years in the Vale of the Bride.
As for this song, ‘Turn Towards Me’ ...well it had its genesis in words and melody I composed for a Burton Bradstock school play in 1995. (More about this in a later blog) I repurposed the song after the funeral seeking to channel the emotions that came close to overwhelming me. Using threads from the eulogy I sought to shape words and phrases connecting the life and times of this wonderful woman and mother, to the River Bride’s own cycle of life.
This recording features the gentle voice of Remy, a local girl and was recorded by Robert Lee in Bridport
Coming up in my next blog…
‘These fields, these hills that feel my boots.
‘Tis here, deep down, you’ll find my roots…’
It’s the first day of the summer term 1990. After a restless night I make my way to my new school. First impressions are SO important when you start a new job, particularly when you’re the new boss and all eyes are on your every move…
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These fields, these hills that feel my boots.
‘Tis here, deep down, you’ll find my roots:
On shingled Chesil, changing sea,
the pages of my history.
Douglas Northover, Bride Valley Poet 1917-1991
This is quite a long blog, so if you’re impatient, or just here for the song, feel free to scroll down...I WONT be offended!!
Margaret Thatcher is in the final throes of her deep grip on the country. Throughout her rein the dominant role that educators and Local Authorities had held on the profession was being gradually weakened as government sought to gain control. There was no national curriculum, no parental choice, no public means of monitoring performance, no publication of examination results beyond what schools themselves chose to reveal. Computers and the internet played little part in daily school life and I relied on Roneo and Banda to duplicate worksheets...Emails were non-existent. All was set to change.
It is April 1990 and the early sun casts deep shadows. I make my way down Church Street to my new school, my second Headship at the grand old age of 38. Like anyone starting a new job I am conflicted, my excitement at the new challenge tempered by a nervously churning stomach! The old and relatively unmodernised Victorian schoolhouse is on my right, and in front of me a small bridge stretches over a stream...I am drawn to its calming sight and sound, a chance to have a moment of peace, to draw breath before I tumble headlong into my new life!
In the 1800’s a mill leat was channelled off the river Bride as it approached Burton Bradstock to power flax mills that back in the day, along with farming, milling and fishing provided the villagers with livelihoods. Flowing through the village, the waters of the leat wash my new school’s foundations, and it is here that, on my first morning as the new Headteacher, the river and I meet formally, the start of a long and rich relationship. I walk past the school gates to the clapper bridge and we nod in friendly fashion to each other and become firm companions.
I turn, and rather nervously walk through the front gates of Burton Bradstock School, a building largely unchanged from Victorian times. Across the lane from the school, the windows of Rose Cottage glitter and wink beneath its thatched fringe. I walk around the side of the school, running my hand over the cool, dull-gold limestone walls imprinted with fossil shells, past the ancient, wheezing boiler and into a wooden shed bolted to the side of the school. My office. I drop my bag and glance out of the window. The view is dominated by St Mary’s Church boundary wall, gravestones lined up to stand guard over the churchyard. Beside them stands a huge tree, its roots forcing the wall to bulge into the playground. I head back out to walk the school before the working day begins.
I greet the children on the gate as they arrive, strangers to me as I am to them. Some smile shyly, some keep their eyes cast down and a few, not many, look at me and encouraged by a curious mum, wish me a good morning. A child rings the old handbell to start the day, I turn to the sound, catch my breath and it begins.
I make my way tentatively to the only classroom big enough to hold an assembly in. The school files in, children and staff, quiet, apprehensive. I’ve planned this carefully. I wish the children and staff to begin to colour me in, to glimpse my character and values through my behaviour. I smile, welcome them in and quietly take my old melodeon out of its case, pull open creaking bellows and breathe air into leathery lungs. I draw out a long note, air forced across slender steel reeds. I have caught their attention! More on the melodeon in later blogs, but that first contact is so important. I tell them its history, how it connects to my family and they see I’m a musician, an entertainer. I play a tune, tell a story and finish with a prayer (for this, you see, is a Church school). They leave having had their first glimpse of the person behind the label ‘headteacher’. We will find out much more about each other over the coming months.
My journey to the valley has been circuitous. Born in Ilkeston, a Derbyshire iron and coal town, my childhood garden overlooked the railyards and blast furnaces of Stanton Ironworks. We moved to Exeter when I was ten as my GP dad took on a city practice. I swapped Stanton for Dartmoor, clinker for gorse and granite and found a love of open skies that I have never lost.
I trained to be a teacher and grew in the profession in Buckinghamshire before moving to Dorset with my young family. The Vale of the Bride today is populated with incomers (including me!) and locals, many of them able to trace their roots back for generations, their ancestors having farmed and fished the valley and coastline. The children of these locals and incomers sit in front of me and I will care for every one of them. However, I shall discover over the next few years that It is the locals that I’m really drawn to and on reflection I’m sure this is because of the contrast between their history, their roots so embedded in the village and valley and my nomadic existence.
...and so to this week’s song. ‘Roots’ is a poem by Douglas Northover who lived in the valley on and off for seventy four years. He expressed his love for the valley in poetry, and the collection of his poems’ This Gentle Place’ was published by the Village Society. More on Douglas and his impact on me in future blogs.
These fields, these hills that feel my boots,
‘Tis here, deep down, you’ll find my roots:
On shingled Chesil, changing sea,
The pages of my history.
Here by season’s luminate
You’ll find the pages of my fate:
With autumn leaves and winter’s plough
A primrose bank, a lowing cow.
Summer’s darting mackerel shoal
The wheeling terns which dive below.
When done at last with earthly fears,
Quiet lay me with my peers,
Where I may hear upon the breeze
The distant sound of breaking seas
Many of my future blogs will be drawn from the monthly articles I wrote for the local parish magazine, the Bride Valley News. Below is the very first paragraph I wrote... Bride Valley News June 1990
Few of us are privileged to watch their own child during their first day at school and few children have the opportunity to watch their dad’s first day as Headteacher. My daughter Elisabeth and I both shared this unique experience at the start of term. I have watched Elisabeth settle in quickly to a happy, caring school environment and the support I have received from staff, parents and Governors has given me a sense of belonging that has made the move much easier. A big thank you from all of the Powell family to all who have made the start of our life in the Bride Valley so enjoyable.
Let me leave you with this, a postcard sent to me by a teacher friend when I left my first Headship in High Wycombe.
As I said, more on the squeezebox in future blogs!
Coming up in Blog 3… I realise I’ve been handed a ‘hospital pass’ as a new school is planned and the village is in uproar!
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