In the summer of 2002, Andra and I and our children made a trip to UK so I could spend time in the Armitt Library and Museum in Ambleside, England. We had a lovely time: I spent most of the two weeks inside the Armitt while they enjoyed traveling around the area. During this visit we stayed in the cottage owned by a family we had rented from on a previous trip. I learned from the wife that her sister had attended the Beehive, the practising school for local children that was held on the campus of the House of Education, later called the Charlotte Mason College. If I have the time-period correct, she attended the school not long after World War II. I reached out to this individual and she kindly agreed to answer some questions. The following are the questions and the answers she gave.
A point for the reader to bear in mind: this student attended the Beehive long after Mason had died. If you have read thoroughly Mason’s works, you will notice deviations from her writings.
Can you describe what the Beehive and campus looked like when you were in school?
The beehive and campus don’t seem to have changed enormously in the sixty-one years since I left there to start boarding school at the age of ten. But it certainly, for me anyway, had a much more “enclosed” feeling. I don’t remember cars coming in to the grounds or the public walking through them-as I often do now. As pupils we never strayed far from the Beehive itself and on those rare occasions when we went up to the College, walking the short distance in crocodile (British for a line of school children walking in pairs), it seemed a world apart. The drive up to the Beehive from where the Armitt Library now is has always remained one of the strongest visual memories from my childhood. The earliest dream I ever remember having was when I was very young and homesick (I had to board for a few weeks whilst my mother went to look after her dying father.) In my dream I was standing at the top of the drive and I could see my mother at the bottom–but I couldn’t get to her. I still remember that dream so vividly and one of the older children fetching Miss McConkie (spelling?) because I was crying!
I am sure there was a tennis court on the left as you walk up the drive. I don’t ever remember anyone playing tennis but I feel I remember having lessons on it when the weather was good. ONe in particular when we were reading a Shakespeare play and I was very aware that we weren’t really understanding it.
What was it like to attend school at the Beehive?
I still have very strong visual memories of the Beehive. I can clearly see the four classes tucked into each corner of the room, divided by screens. Apart from the piano, the large space in the middle was empty. In that space I remember assemblies and singing and dancing games like “The Farmer’s in his Den.” What surprises me most is that apart from George, who pushed me in the river (a very humiliating experience), I remember not one name or face of any other child. I find this very strange. I have a strong sense of being with other children–I just don’t remember who they were. Likewise I remember none of the teachers.
Do you remember any funny stories about yourself or anyone who attended the school?
I suppose the two incidents that left a lasting impression on me, which I now consider amusing, but then caused me distress were: firstly, the Marmite and secondly the river incident! (I’m not sure if you have Marmite in America. It is a yeast extract with a very strong taste and is used for flavouring gravy, making a hot drink or spread (very thinly) on bread or toast. I was only about 5 or 6 when my mother went off to nurse my grandfather.) The first one happened during that time when my grandfather was ill and I was sent to board. At breakfast I came across a jar of Marmite–something I had never come across. “It’s lovely” said an older girl, “you have to spread it very, very thickly–like chocolate spread.” I love Marmite now but I still spread it as thinly as possible! And, as for the river incident, I still remember my embarrassment at walking all the way back to school in a wet dress sticking to my tubby little body and being made to strip once back at school, and being put into a bed until dry clothes were found.
Can you describe what Ambleside look like back then?
Ambleside has always been at the heart of the Lake District and therefore a centre for Lakeland tourism. Since my childhood it has evolved from a “gentle” tourist town into a more “aggressive” tourist town. But, having said that, apart from a new one-way traffic system, the destruction of the bus station and its replacement with a shopping parade, thousands of visitors, thousands of cars and endless shops selling outdoor wear, it basically hasn’t changed that much. It still feels very familiar.
Do you remember narrating passages from books?
Definitely! I think, but its hard to be absolutely sure, that we were given three things to learn off by heart each term–and which we were tested on: a piece of poetry, a hymn and a passage from the Bible. The latter was always the most difficult as there was no rhyming to help! Now whenever I sing the great Epiphany hymn
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold
I can still see myself standing beside the piano reciting the entire hymn to the gathered assembly. I love the hymn so the recitation must have gone well!
Nature Walks and Nature Notebooks
I remember both well. I can’t say I remember anything funny about them. Quite the contrary–they fostered and nurtured a love of flowers and trees. And, amongst the very happiest of my childhood memories are those of collecting wild flowers to take home and paint and name. Less happy memories are those of nature walks during midwinter. Now whenever my feet are cold I remember trudging up Nook Lane in my wellingtons and literally crying because my feet hurt with the cold–my hands too!
Picture Study is another happy memory. Each term we were given our own portfolio of works by a great artist. Week by week we studied a picture and discussed it at great length. I remember many of the artists we studied–then, as now, my favourite was Giotto. Somewhere, sometime during my life of travelling the portfolio got lost but I kept them for many years.
I remember nothing about a Century Book.
What about the school do you remember best?
I don’t think there is any one thing I remember better than another. Apart from those few weeks I boarded and was very homesick there were no very memorable occasions which stand out. I’m not sure what makes me remember the things I do remember. But, certainly I do have some very vivid memories that have persisted strongly and survived sixty-one years. We did a lot outside when the weather was good–I suppose to ease the situation of four classes in one room. I even remember singing lessons outside–”Who is Sylvia? What is She?” and “Greensleeves.” I remember singing “There is a Green Hill Far Away” in the play area outside the Beehive and thinking to myself that the Beehive was on a hill and perhaps the crucifixion site was a bit like the playground. It’s another hymn I sing that always transports back to that particular time.
There is absolutely nothing about the Beehive that I can remember that I did not like. What a fortunate child I was! I can remember no sports days, no prize givings or anything of that nature. I remember quite a lot of learning by heart–times tables, French vocabulary but I don’t remember being tested on anything apart from the Biblical and poetry recitations–none of the competition I met later!
I suppose the great excitement was when we were used as a demonstration class up at the Charlotte Mason College. We were told the day before so that our uniform was spotless and our hair washed and tidy. We were marched up to the college and sat at desks in the middle of a large hall where our teacher conducted a class with us for the benefit of the students. I don’t know about anyone else but I was always very nervous and dreaded being asked a question.
Would you want the education like you received at the Beehive for your grandchildren or other children?
I think I was lucky to have the benefit of such a sound well-balanced education. When I moved on at age ten I had a good grounding in arithmetic, could spell well and write well. The time spent in chanting times tables, in spelling tests and in learning to recite by heart stood me in good stead–as did the hours spent laboriously with Marian Richardson’s writing patterns. Our imagination was encouraged with plenty of creative writing and our critical senses with studying art. I expect the science side might have been a bit weak but the nature study was lively. There was lots of singing and music and ballet lessons in the barn. The barn was up Nook Lane and we did quite a lot up there — ballet, brownies, drama and probably PE. I do remember a production we did to celebrate the centenary of Wordsworth’s death (1850). We did a series of tableaux. I guess somebody recited his poems, whilst we tried to stay incredibly still! We were all brownies which added a social dimension to our education.
Although I was never aware of it, I think the discipline must have been excellent. Classes were back to back with only a screen dividing them but I never remember there being any problem. I don’t remember classes ever being out of order or anybody ever being punished. I think it must have been a time in my life when I felt very secure and free from anxiety. When I moved on to boarding school from the Beehive, it was a different ball game! But, that’s another story!
© 2012 Carroll Smith