My Red Hill (by Richard Watson)

Arriving at Red Hill in 1975 was a revelation. Obviously I had been told about the school before going there, but I'm pretty sure that the powers that be in the Wiltshire Education Department really didn't know much about how things really worked there. I'm not entirely convinced anyone else did either.

For one reason or another my parents had sent me away to board at Cheadle Hulme School, a Grammar School with delusions of grandeur, at eight years old. I hated it from the word go and, appeals to be taken out being ignored, set about getting myself chucked out. It took six years of sustained effort - trying everything except breaking any major laws! As a result, I ended up being sent to Red Hill. I turned up being prepared to hate the place from the word go, after all it was just another boarding school, wasn't it? After the usual formalities, Larry Jane was the reception committee, as my father was in the Navy. I was put in the hands of Tiny (first name Roger?, forget last name - very tall though) and Kevin Thompson.

I'd found heaven! People were friendly and no one had any pretensions, including the staff. Some things felt a bit odd, like landings and baths with no doors but I felt really quite at home even on the first night. My time at Cheadle Hulme had left me doing the "rebel without a cause" stuff and it was soon apparent that no one at Red Hill was really interested, the few that were were rather better at it than me. This took the wind out of my sails pretty quickly and, well, I suppose I'd started adjusting.

The Buildings and Grounds

One thing that really made the place was the buildings. The dorms in the old house were all strange shapes, something that I still like today. I managed to avoid having a room in the modern wing right up until just before my last year there. It always felt like we could hide away from the world and whatever we did would not be discovered. With hindsight, how wrong we were, but no-one bothered us as long we didn't cause any real trouble. The grounds were fantastic too, with woods and all to disappear into and a football pitch to not play football on. I always did wonder about the tennis court - was that built before the school was a school, or was it a spectacularly expensive bright idea. Some of us had a go at rebuilding the old dam in the woods, but we never got very far - obviously we were not as industrious as those pupils who had actually done the job in previous years. There were trees to climb, and I had many happy hours every spring trying to do myself serious injury with the allen scythe - cutting the long grass on the old veg patch below the swimming pool. I don't know why we bothered doing this, but Rimmer would stump up the cash so it had to be done.

The swimming pool was open every summer term and was pretty popular. All that was required was to find a member of staff to supervise, and the member of staff was always called Bob Piggott. Perhaps time changes the memories, but sessions in the swimming pool seemed mostly to consist of trying to drown one another in between chucking in anything that would float to see if it could be used as some sort of warship. During the other terms my abiding memory of the pool is "green". Another curiosity of the buildings was Rimmer's house. This was quite a modern structure and had the interesting feature of being built on mobile foundations. It was definitely sliding down the hill towards Headcorn - and unless something was done subsequently, it is probably nearly there by now.


Having come from a school where the dorms typically had thirty people in them, going to rooms with two or three was far more pleasant. My first dorm was at the top of the back stairs, opposite the bathroom. I shared with Simon Bush ("Windy") and George Farquhar. George was a citizen then, and soon became a bench member. As ever, this triggered a general shunt around and I moved to the dorm at the top of the main stairs (over the front entrance). I spent a long time in there, starting off sharing with Peter Nyeste, Des Clark ("Yaw") and Michael Bell ("Diddy"). Somewhere along the line Guy Higgins arrived. My abiding memory of him is when he decided that beer-shine shampoo must have beer in it. What a mess.......another of Guy's talents was obtaining every valve radio in the place and turning them into transmitters for Radio Red Hill. Larry suggested we stop this after a while, as we were apparently transmitting over Radio 4.

After a brief spell in a room in the new block with Richard Himson ("Doppo"), I was back at the top of the stairs with Adam Garner (strangely, his sister was in my class at Cheadle Hulme) and Dave Marsh. During this time we took to aralditing bottles to shelves and screwing them to the sloping ceiling, festooning the place with fairy lights (often wired up to the stereo like disco lights) and the like. I never did get my lights back off Colin Reading! No one ever said anything, but at the start of each term we had to start our decorations all over again. A sign on the door saying "Come to be in the be in", and the fact that the door was usually locked probably says a lot about what we did to pass the time. It was during this time that I did the nutcracker at the christmas party, wearing a pair of the nurses tights and Dave's "I'm a flower, pick me" tee-shirt. I was then made a citizen and moved down to a single room immediately below, where I stayed until I became a bench member and moved into the BM's Annexe.


Rather by accident, I did indeed receive an education while at Red Hill - though to say lessons were relaxed was something of an understatement. I'd been told that attendance was sort-of optional, but I really can't remember myself or anyone else missing many of them, not least because there was little else to do during the day - no computers, day time TV etc in those days. Morley Gayton taught geography when I first arrived. What a great man he was. He summed up 'O' level geography to me like this - "Ports are always at the end of rivers, ports always have industry nearby, and a bit further away is where everyone lives. Rivers start off small and fast, and end up big and slow. All you've got to do is remember which country each major river is in, and know a bit about contours and you'll pass". He was right. I don't really remember Morely leaving. Perhaps I missed something, but he just sort of wasn't there at the start of one term.

History was taken by Bob "Splendid" Piggott, who's approach was to teach us social history. This was much easier than dates, kings and queens and all that sort of stuff. Bob would spend lessons recounting who had stabbed whom in the back and run off with who's missus, and that about covered it. Later, history was taken over by Viv Rynne (a Brian Ferry look-alike). He had an interesting approach to exams, but got us all through.

Ivor "Zed" Holland, then Deputy Head, took us for maths. He would arrive in the classroom armed with 20 capstan full strength and an ash tray and teach us about matrices. Permanently. We had those awful SMP maths books that were supposed to encourage you by relating tales of "Fred the mathematical fly". These were probably written by the same genius that invented ITA. I failed maths the first time, though I mean no disrespect to Zed - it was my own laziness. The next year a woman called Jane something turned up to teach maths, and I did the entire 'O' level syllabus in a year with her help and encouragement. We didn't have to do matrices again, though. I can't quite remember where he fitted in time-wise, but we also had Ron Brice at some stage. He was a smashing bloke (he worked for Rolls-Royce on the RB-211 project as a holiday job when doing his degree, if I remember right). Interesting mathematical theories about space and time were his forte, and while not too helpful for exams, he certainly instilled a sense that maths could be interesting in me.

Rimmer did English Language and English Lit. Not being interested in Shakespeare, or overly impressed with "Our man in Havana" rather doomed me to failure in Lit, but I passed Language by reading a James Blish sci-fi short story the night before the exam and regurgitating it for my exam essay. Sorry, Allan! Art was "Lumpy" Mill's territory. He was really quite good at getting us to actually do something, but I suspect that the results of our efforts would have scared the hell out any passing psychiatrists. Still, we all passed the 'O' level, even though I had to endure three hours without a fag and got conned into being the (fully dressed!) life model the next year. Ray Exton taught us french. I got an F. 'Nuff said. Biology was the province of Ted Barlow. He took me on to 'A' level, but it soon became apparent that this was an exercise in futility, so we used to go out for a field trip every week. This started off going to some woods near his house and pretending to count the flora inside a square metre like you are supposed to do, but it soon got more interesting when we just went to "The Pepperbox" for a long lunch instead. Their spaghetti was pretty good. We did do some dissection of rather smelly rabbits, but I never got a look in, as Eddie Wearing was always in there first with a faintly disturbing gusto.

Chemistry! After a couple of years of being baffled by organic and inorganic and other technical stuff, Chris Harvey was told he had to go through the chemical store and get rid of any nasty substances. This he did by chucking everything in water to see what would happen. I didn't learn much about chemistry as such, but I did find out what would go bang if mixed with what. The amount of glassware that got broken was fantastic. Larry Jane did physics, and got me comfortably through 'O' level - luckily there was enough questions about condensation to get me through. Larry also had the dubious pleasure of trying to get me to 'A' level - a first for the school I think. This was also a miserable failure, on my part. This rush to the head about doing 'A' levels (I even did the UCCA admissions and University tours) might have been a complete disaster at the time, but some thirteen years after leaving I did finish up with a BSc Hons Comp Sci, and however things went educationally during my time at Red Hill, these good people laid the foundations for what followed. Good on 'em all.

Otto Shaw
I only ever met Otto once, except in passing. We were all in awe of him, though he was rarely seen in school by then. One thing was for certain though - you would get the summons for sunday lunch at his house sometime in your first term. Turning up dressed sensibly and washed was a prerequisite. I received my summons one Friday, and promptly forgot all about it. On Saturday afternoon I ripped the crotch of my jeans, but could not do anything about it. On Sunday, one of the other new starters came up to me and asked if I was ready. "For what" says I. "To go to Shaw's" says he. Bugger! The linen room was closed until Monday, my shoes were muddy and I had no time to scrub up. God alone knows what Otto thought, but he never said anything. The food was excellent. Though I never really new him, I'm grateful to him. If it were not for Red Hill, who knows where I would be now.

Social Things
I think the social side of things, both inside and outside the school, was what really made the difference from my previous existence. Though there were sometimes fallings out, it always seemed as though you could find someone to chat to, or play cards or music or whatever. Even though there was a TV, I don't recall it being the centre of the universe - except for me, Dave and Adam staying up late to watch "The old grey whistle test" - with or without permission. The various clubs and committees also provided plenty to do, though the din I made in the music room probably annoyed plenty of people. Certainly the staff were a bit miffed when I forgot it was staff meeting one Wednesday and attempted to play the drums. I didn't take much notice at the time, but we really had access to a lot more toys that most kids.

The annual "Sports Day" was an interesting affair. As there wasn't enough of us to do proper games, it was a sort of "It's a knockout" affair that basically employed all the sports equipment to perform some ludicrously implausible events. One year I had the pleasure of organising it. What a fiasco. Still, everyone seemed happy. At the end of the autumn term we had the christmas party. This was always well supported by staff and pupils alike. The hall would be disguised as something else by hanging glued together paper feed sacks, painted like a castle or similar, from hop poles tied to the roof girders. First was a christmas dinner, where the bench members served the food to the other pupils, staff and assorted invited guests, followed by a number of what could loosely be described as "acts". This was an opportunity for pupils to get a few things off their chests and poke fun at anything and everything without fear of reprisals. My dance routine mentioned earlier nearly went wrong when, discovering that tights don't grip too well on a polished wooden floor, I almost ended up in the lap of the Governor from the girls Borstal up the road. Another year I did Mr. Gumby's flower arranging sketch from Monty Python. In rehearsals, it consisted of me standing there with a bunch of flowers, wearing jeans rolled up to the knees, braces, wellies and a knotted handkerchief on my head. I was then to try to stuff the overly-large bunch of flowers into a vase on a table whilst giving a commentary on what I was doing in a Gumby voice. I got a few blank looks during rehearsals, and even more on the night. Until I performed the bit of the act that I'd kept quiet about! I left the "stage", reappearing moments later with the biggest sledge hammer I could find, and proceeded to finish the flower arrangement with it, much to the detriment of the flowers, the vase and the table. Rimmer just sat there looking at the pile of wood and china with a look that was either "What the hell was that all about", "That was a perfectly serviceable table" or "I'd better not show any reaction in front of the invited guests."

Another annual event was Paul Olden's tennis tournament. Everyone used to take part, but as none of us could play except Paul, the result was pretty much a formality. Even sabotage and some questionable umpiring could not help, but the banter was something else. Poor Paul used to get quite wound up. I've no idea how it happened, but one Wednesday John Holmes ("Smiley") and I went to Grafty Green village hall to join a country dance club. I suspect that we were just looking for an excuse to get out for an evening and try our luck at getting served in a couple of pubs. Well, it worked, and on the first night we both acquired girlfriends to boot. One night we were out very late, and Larry gated us. The next night we met our girlfriends on the public footpath that ran along the bottom of the football pitch. Larry was on duty again, and gave us a right, er, talking-to about breaking the gating. We both said that we had done no such thing as the path was in the grounds. He tried hard to give us a dressing down about bench members behaving responsibly, but I don't think his heart was in it.

Following this success, all four of us joined the Headcorn Morris dancing club and we had the perfect excuse to go and get smashed every Thursday, dumping our bikes in favour of Smiley's girlfriend's Reily Elf. Doppo was also a member, and later two or three others joined. Happy days! Bob Piggott was also in the Morris side, but he just let us get on with it. I suppose in these modern, PC, times we'd never get away with it, but it did no-one any harm and we did learn to drink proper beer. At the start of my final year, much to my surprise, I acquired a motorbike. On turning up with it at the beginning of term, Rimmer announced that pupils were not allowed to have them. After a few seconds thought he added "Except bench members - you'd better keep it in the shed by the pool with Bob Piggott's". Amazingly, since I used to go to Morris do's on it, I never had an accident. I gather that someone pulled the same stunt the next year but was less successful at avoiding trees and the rule got changed back again. Cheers, Allan!

Another event that used to get out of hand was "The wide game". Community members would be given some clues that would enable them to find objects that the bench members, citizens and staff had hidden around the locality. Bringing them back would gain them points, the more awkward the object the more points were to be had. After a head start, the community members would be hunted down by the others, and each time they were caught they would lose points. Quite what the locals made of this I don't know. People would come back with all sorts of stuff that had nothing to do with us in an attempt to gain points. Occasionally, it only happened once while I was at the school the roles would be reversed, except for the staff. As this happened when I was a BM, I'm afraid rather than running all round the countryside we just went to "The Pepperbox" and sat at the bar. I don't quite know what the landlord made of it, but we heard the orange transit pull up outside and all nonchalantly headed for the toilet. After a suitable interval we crept back in - success, they had gone. "Evening, gents" said Ted as he finished his pint - "consider yourselves caught" - and left. Leaving three or four half-drunk pints on the bar was our downfall, apparently.

When I first arrived, the cook was a tallish chap with glasses - I don't think he had a name, we just referred to him as "Get out of my kitchen". He used to say this even when we were doing the washing up or Tin Sinks. Karl took over at some stage, and Peter Nyeste and I used to hang around the kitchen quite a lot. He would chat quite happily about his time flying tanks for the Navy during the war, and make pots of tea while handing out Guards cigarettes. Luckily, in return we would help him out with the cooking and preparation which came in handy as he started having quite a lot time off. Being an early riser and doing the wake up calls, I quite often had to cook breakfast and lunch for seventy, and not a certificate in sight. Luckily, no-one died and any complaints were studiously ignored. When doing the cooking, one could admire these blokes as they managed to produce pretty good meals on a budget of bugger-all. Another advantage of hanging around the kitchen was having access to tea, coffee, sugar and milk. Not quite the currency that tobacco was, but nonetheless a useful resource. One of the great perks of being a bench member was that you could get the staff supper job. This involved collecting the plates etc and left over food from the staff room when they had finished. On a good day very few staff would turn up and you could have a very nice supper indeed - and get paid.

The Courts and things
This was an aspect of the school that was much underrated by outsiders. When one joined the school as a community member it all seemed a bit weird, but the need to keep hold of some cash to buy fags certainly focused the mind on self discipline - I only got into debt once. Richard Kalina was my supervisor. By the time I'd progressed to bench member I found that taking responsibility for the actions of others was far harder work than just looking after number one. I'm not sure I was a good BM, as I never quite got rid of my anti-authority steak - I still haven't. All-in-all, I benefitted greatly from my time at Red Hill. I also rather enjoyed it! I've missed loads of names, both staff and pupils, out of this - not least because I'm terrible at names, but rest assured, everyone contributed to it being a great time. Keep on adjusting.

Richard Watson (February 2003)
RHS 1975-1979