To claim you’re Sussex through and through is a bold statement but what meat is there to go on the bones of such a claim I hear you ask. Well, I’m probably one of those rare beasts who can claim to have experienced education right across the county. I’m also happy to say that at least two of the schools I attended survived and I cannot fairly be blamed for the others’ demise!
Hatchlands Prep School, Cuckfield
Hatchlands Prep in Cuckfield used to sit on a plot of land in between London Lane and Broad Street not far from Warden Park. It’s a housing estate now but back in the 1970s, the school was a large old house with a selection of ramshackled old buildings, large lawns, and a wood that ran around the perimeter. It was run by a mother and daughter along with their assortment of small, yappy dogs who struck terror into the hearts of anyone under the age of 40 (that is the dogs, not the owners although they were equally terrifying).
The school uniform was a thing of beauty and included a purple (yes purple) blazer, tie and beret and when they “rebranded” in my later years there, they went from pale, grey-purple to bold as brass, in your face purple in a rich shade of violet! I loved it and to this day, will wear this shade whenever I can! What a great way to encourage creativity.
My residing memories of Hatchlands include the food which bellied out at a standard lower than slop and with a routine I can still remember … Wednesdays were leftover stew and with Thursdays came spam … surely the food of the devil! Fortunately, Monday’s sausages fitted nicely into the hole in the floor of my mother’s Morris Thousand Traveller (remember those?) so I was spared them at least. But on summer days, it was homemade jam sandwiches on the lawns under the branches of a huge old tree. What bliss. I hope they didn’t chop the tree down.
Wadhurst College for Young Ladies
The uniform at Wadhurst went to a whole new level of weird. Packed in a trunk at the beginning of every term, the four-page list of garments included at least 30 pairs of socks (hockey socks, lacrosse socks, short socks, long socks, gym socks, brown socks, white socks, it was endless) a cloak with a coloured hood and a very specific number of buttons (you had to do up a number of buttons that reflected your age) and … the undefeatable “navy blue bags”. For those that don’t know what a navy blue bag is … oh what freedom you have enjoyed. They are a very large and totally indestructible pair of unforgiving blue pants. They are worn over the top of your ordinary pants for what purpose I have absolutely no idea! But rules were rules and woe betide anyone caught on a hot, sweaty, summer day without the dual protection of their wapping big, polyester monstrosities!
As it turns out, I was not the young lady they had clearly hoped I would be, and whilst I greatly enjoyed my time there, I’m not sure the feeling was mutual. In the end, caught climbing over the wall to snog the paperboy who I cheerfully explained was my cousin – as if that made it alright (and he wasn’t by the way), we parted company and I moved on to pastures news. Wadhurst was later converted into a ballet school but more recently the beautiful old school building has been converted into housing. The school’s claim to fame was having the highest hockey pitch in the county and boy did you know it on a cold day!
St Bede’s, The Dicker
Back in the early 1980s St Bede’s was in its infancy and was headed up by an absolute legend of a man and former Ardinian. As pupils, we were a very mixed bag and I wonder if the person in admissions wasn’t a glutton for punishment. I only got in because a former PE teacher took pity on my parents and for that I’m eternally grateful. This school’s claim to fame was that it sits on an estate founded by Horatio William Bottomley (splendidly described by Wikipedia as an English financier, journalist, editor, newspaper proprietor, swindler, and Member of Parliament). After Horatio Bottomley was jailed for fraud, his estate repossessed and went on eventually to become the site of the current school in the wonderfully named Upper Dicker … not to be confused with Lower Dicker of course. The uniform for us girls was … kilts, although we had the freedom to sport them in any pattern or colour we chose. Honestly, I mean what can you do with a kilt to make it look cool? Not much I tell you, not much!
St Bede’s in those early days was a glorious place and many years later, I caught up with one of the teachers. She assured me that they knew full well we were escaping through the fire escape and across the roof to go clubbing in Eastbourne so they sat up late one night to catch us. Unfortunately, having drunk a bottle of wine to while away the wait, they fell asleep and didn’t wake up until morning when we were safely back in our beds. Now that’s my kind of education. Beyond that, I think it’s probably best to draw a veil of what else we got up to back then. But well over 30 years later and most of us still keep in touch.
From St Bede’s I moved on to Ardingly to follow in the footsteps of my father and sibling. Although I had the freedom of no uniform by then, my sense of style had been irrevocably damaged and has never really recovered. These days at Ardingly, the dorms look like a nice hotel suite but back then, each boys’ house was made up of one long corridor with beds lined up each side of the room. With four girls in each house as a newly co-ed school, we had the dubious pleasure of having to sit in the boys’ dorm every lunchtime to make polite conversation. I mean … really!!
I’ve been back many times since and much of it remains the same – the Cinder Track, perfect for smoking, and the cricket hut where a girlfriend of mine and I got accused of being intimate …we weren’t, we had just made it back from a night on the town and were freezing half to death in the hut because we couldn’t manage to break back into school! That told, 1987 feels too recent to reveal too much beyond the bare bones of life as an Ardingly border so we’ll leave it there.
These days, I sit on the other side of the fence as a parent with children at school in Sussex. I have found that I am as rebellious as a parent as I was as a pupil and have a compelling urge to kick at the system. For the main part I resist but live in envy of the blue pencil skirts, and straight trousers they’re allowed to wear. No navy blue blags, no cloaks, no berets … it barely feels like Sussex at all!