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School Camps

N. R. Bradshaw

"Days of fresh air in the rain and sun"

Camp at Chamonix YES! We had both. But the sun lingers clearer in the memory than the rain. Not so with our first venture. We wanted to try out the equipment we had bought with the proceeds of our first school fete and to experiment in camp procedure and organisation. Hence we thought it safest to hold our first camp near home. And so, on the first Saturday of the Summer holidays 1932, we departed for the Isle of Wight. We had secured a site in a field above the cliffs near Shanklin. To the West and North it was sheltered by rising ground. South and East we had an unbroken view to the distant horizon over Sandown Bay and the waters of the English Channel.

After a long spell of fine weather the barometer had been falling steadily for several days. But it was still fine when we left Lewes and by dusk, when we turned in for the night, the white canvas of our new tents could be clearly seen in the growing darkness while the smoke of a camp fire rose silently into the night air. Many boys were sleeping under canvas for the first time. But sleep gradually conquered excitement and soon all was still.

Morning came. Patter, patter, drip, drip! It rained all day and all Sunday too. lt was still raining on Monday. By Tuesday things were desperate. Thrown out of our stride before we were organised, and with all the difficulties of feeding sixty boys in constant rain, we should possibly have foundered but for the heroic help of the school caretaker, a former regular naval petty officer, and his wife who had accompanied us. To distract the lads from present discomforts we persuaded the owner of a Shanklin cinema to put on a special Tuesday afternoon show for our benefit. At least it would be dry and warm inside.

We all went. The details of the programme I have quite forgotten. It was our emergence at teatime, after the show was over, that is still a vivid memory. Unbelievably the sun was shining. We returned to camp in high spirits. We ate a hearty meal, having stoked up the camp fires. As darkness fell the flames lit up the faces of the boys as they sat around close by. Our immediate miseries were forgotten.

There were still six days to go before we returned. Two were completely fine. The remainder for the most part were wet. We took advantage of "Navy Week" and examined ships ranging from submarines to battleships in Portsmouth Harbour. Some boys went on a round-the-island trip by boat. Everyone bathed. But when we departed for home, I had mixed feelings on whether this first venture had been a success or failure. What did the boys feel about it? Would this be the end of camping for many of them?

For boys at a day school, with no experience of community living, I valued the contribution camping might make to a sense of corporate unity. I wanted too to take them abroad. To camp was in most cases the only way to achieve this. In the thirties, it was the only way many could afford.

And so in 1933 we went to Les Andelys, between Rouen and Paris. We camped in a field on the banks of the Seine. Here the river flowed peacefully in a majestic curve from South East to North West and was some two hundred yards wide. Beyond stretched an expanse of golden harvest fields, with occasional woods and copses. Behind the camp rose great vertical cliffs, bordering the river, and broken at intervals by wooded coombs which, we were told, sheltered wild boar. The cliffs were a fascinating study. Pale grey in early morning before the sun had broken through the mists, they became a brilliant white at mid-day, rose-coloured at sunset and silver in the moonlight. On top of one of them, overlooking the camp, stood Chateau Gaillard, Richard Coeur de Lion's "Saucy Castle," still majesticaily commanding the passage of the river and the surrounding country.

We had crossed to Dieppe from Newhaven by the night boat. There were seventy boys all told, simmering with suppressed excitement at this new adventure. Early next morning, when Englishrnen were still asleep and Frenchmen very much awake, we slowly made our way, rather tired and "stomachs hardly constant," after a choppy sea trip, first to Rouen, where hot coffee on the station cheered us up a little, and then by local train to Les Andelys.

Alas for our comfort! The weather was perfect. But we discovered that the whole of our camping gear, which had been sent on a fortnight ahead, was not at the site but still in the railway sheds at Rouen. Fortunately we were able to charter a couple of lorries which set out at once to retrieve the missing baggage. During the period of waiting the boys were glad to lie on the river bank and do nothing, while they recovered from the journey. French food, bought from the shops nearby, simple as it was on that first day, was something to savour and comment on.

It was 6 p.m. when the lorries returned and only three hours of daylight remained to fix things up for the night. In this time a transformation took place and we all, at last, lay down under cover, glad to go to sleep. Next day, by previous arrangement, there arrived a party of French boys from the College at Saintes with their schoolmaster, an old friend. French boys were placed in tents with English boys. On their arrival they had tended to sit apart as a separate group. In a couple of days they were ragging and playing, completely at home with their new friends. On a nearby tennis court which had been placed at our disposal, daily battles took place, England against France, for the Davis "Coop". France, more experienced and expert at tennis, usually won.

We had an unforgettable holiday. In the morning, the smoke of our camp fires rose vertically in the air while the mist still shimmered on the water. The smell of burning wood mingled with the smell of cooking. By mid-day the heat was so great that we were glad to lie in the shade and eat large quantities of tomatoes, melons and peaches. As the sun began to relent in the late afternoon we bathed luxuriously in the river. Night brought a full moon rising in splendour behind Chateau Gaillard. We sat round the camp fire and sang "Shenandoah," "Loch Lomond" and "Tom Bowling," while French peasants, attracted by these strange happenings, stood silent and half obscured in the shadows.

The hot weather lasted throughout our stay. Energetic occupations were desired by few. Leisurely exploration at Les Andelys and its architecture, tentative use of the language, Iearnt at schooi, in buying presents in the shops of the town, all were rewarding. Only the fish rcmained unfriendly and refused to be caught by the anglers in our party. Yet locals fished with enthusiasm especially on Sundays. We learnt at the last that they used ground bait. The days slipped by and seemed full enough. We were glad to go to bed at night after the romance of a camp fire. In our blankets, and lying on ground sheets, the night silence was broken from time to time by the lapping of the river, disturbed perhaps hy passing barges, whose approach was notified by the chugging of a tug and the calls to each other of the bargemen as they steered their vessels in the procession. Sometimes there where night noises within the camp itself, the crunching of bonesfrom our previous day's repasts. As one lay defenceless on the ground, with tent flaps open, one wondered whether the wild boar had come down from thc hills and would enter the tent.

Soon after our arrival at Les Andelys we had been given an official welcome and had been invited to take part in the annual fete which occurred on a Sunday during our stay. To be responsible for a decorated vehicle in the official procession was more than we wanted to undertake with our limited time and resources but we agreed to sing English songs in the square of Grand Andelys. On our arrival there we found a scene of much gaiety and attendant noise - roundabout, shooting galleries, stalls of all kinds, shouting showmen a cacophony of sound. We were due to sing at 5 p.m. On a specially erected platform, the band of the Sapeurs Pompiers, under the conductorship of Sergeant Samson, was doing its rural and enthusiastic best. They were persuaded to desist and vacate the platform in our favour. The hot and perspiring President du Syndicat d'Initiative then hurried round the square to still all competing sounds. Our first song "Shenandoah" was received with sympathetic applause. But we were not to be allowed to steal the honours of the afternoon. It was Samson's great day. Having moved his "pompiers" to another part of the Square he suddenly struck up with a lively tutune just as the boys launched our "Forty Years On." The effect was instantaneous. Roundabouts, mechanical organs, raucous showmen and every instrument of noise competed for public patronage. But the boys held bravely on, and even against such competition, the top notes of "Loch Lomond" were heard echoing round the square. Press comments next day included "ensemble parfait et d'une remarquable execution" in the Journal de Rouen and "des choeurs remarquables" in "Le Petit Parisien." So we were known to France. Samson was not mentioned.

Towards the end of our stay a trip was made to Paris. From the Arc de Triomphe we explored on foot as far as Notre Dame and so were able to see many of the best known buildings on either side of the river. Two days later we visited Rouen, so rich in Church culture. In the Cathedral, with its tomb of our Henry II and the heart of Richard I, we felt that the link with England was still very strong.

And so the time to return home arrived. New friendships had been made and great kindness experienced. Only the fish in the Seine had continued unco-operative. As one angler remarked, "they could not have belonged to the League of Nations."

The cost of the Shanklin Camp to each boy had been 30/-. For our visit to Les Andelys a charge of £4 had been made, with an extra 5/ -, which included lunch at a restaurant, for the day in Paris. We always budgeted for a small balance, to provide a reserve fund against the time when a renewal of tents and other camp gear would be necessary. It was now our turn to camp at home and we continued this policy as far as possible - a camp at home for economy reasons followed next year by a camp abroad.

And so, after Les Andelys in 1933 we went to North Wales in 1934. The Welsh mountains would be in rugged contrast to the peaceful Sussex Downs with which the boys were familiar. Our camp was about half a mile from the sea, near the Mawdach estuary. A wonderful sweep of clean firm sand offered every temptation to bathe. A mountain stream splashed and gurgled past the camp site. Cader Idris towered majestically behind us and within reach by road or rail was Edward I's circle of castles, with Harlech as a nodal point.

For a second time, when camping at home, fortune failed us. I had arranged for a small party of senior boys to leave Lewes a day in advance of the main contingent to make essential preparations. These occupied a bell tent, while I slept in a small ridge tent near by. The boys turned in early, tired after their long journey from Sussex. I decided to do likewise. I felt it might be my last carefree night before the camp was over. As usual a fire was burning, and I placed a large dixy of water near it. I little thought it was to come in useful.

At about 1 a.m. I awoke and was aware that someone had entered my tent. It was one of the Advance Party. "Could you come to our tent, Sir? Brown is ill." I got up, slipped slacks over my pyjamas and put on a sweater, when the same lad entered a second time. "Oh, Sir, do come at once. Brown has got a knife." A knife? I drove my feet into my gum boots and rushed outside. As I emerged, so did the boys. Clouds were scudding across a moonlit sky and ghostly figures darted hither and thither. "Bob, you fool, what are you doing'?" cried Brown's twin brother. Bob's answer was to break through his encircling companions and rush off in the direction of the sea. "Come on chaps, head him off,' I cried, and set off in pursuit. Soon I found myself outstripping the boys, probably because I had protection for my feet. The boys had none and were, I suspected, scared at what had taken place. As I overtook the fugitive I also recalled "Brown has got a knife." Soon I had caught up. "Brown, what are you doing? Where are you going?" Brown stopped dead, turned and blinked at me. "I don't know, Sir." I led him back to his tent. In the flight we had scaled a couple of stone walls, capped with barbed wire, separating fields. Brown's pyjamas were badly torn and his legs gashed. We found warm water in the dixy to bathe Brown's legs and were able to put him to bed in a reserve set of pyjamas. Poor Brown. He got a "first" at Cambridge but lost his life, as did his twin brother, in the Second World War. [Editor's Note: In fact they were the Barnes brothers]

Our misfortunes were not over. The main party arrived late next afternoon. On the following morning a lad was brought to me complaining of feeling unwell. An examination left no doubt. The boy was suffering from measles and had obviously been unfit when he set out from home. Measles under canvas in a wet part of the country! I made several telephone calls in a forlorn attempt to get the boy into a hospital or nursing home. Understandably, no one would take him. Instead, a rather officious M.O. arrived and informed me that we were not to leave our camp site for the period of the visit. I made no comment. None was deserved. I cleared the tent in which the boy had slept the previous night of other occupants. A member of the staff volunteered to sleep with him to prevent him, during a probably restless night, rolling from his groundsheet onto the damp grass. Meanwhile I sent a telegram to the boy's home, asking his parents to fetch him away by road. "Coming at once," was the reply. My relief was short lived. Next day his mother arrived. She had come to stay! So we had a lady to wait on and look after as well as a sick boy. There was also the pressing anxiety that one by one other boys might go down with measles and that we should be tied down indefinitely. Some days were likely to elapse before fresh cases occurred, and we enjoyed the amenities the locality offered, including an exhilarating climb of Cader Idris and a visit to Harlech. The morning of our departure arrived. So far we had escaped. I paraded the boys and examined their throats. I was suspicious of one or two but all declared themselves fit. So I let them go. Some were victims as soon as they reached home.

We had visited France. We decided that our next foreign objective should be Germany. Hence we camped at Oberwesel for a fortnight. Oberwesel is a picturesque walled town on the most beautiful part of the Rhine Gorge. On a cliff near the camp site stood the ruins of the twelfth century Schloss Schonburg formerly the home of Marshal Schonburg, who was killed fighting for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Again we camped on the river bank alongside the town sports ground, with its football pitch, running track and jumping pits, visible evidence of the emphasis being given in Hitler's Germany to physical fitness. As it flows through the gorge the river is still a giant compared with English rivers but much reduced from its majestic breadth above the gorge. Precipitous slopes, terraced and covered with vines, came down to the waters' edge. Large tugs struggled slowly past the camp as they dragged heavily laden barges up stream. A couple of miles away was the Pfalz, a medieval stronghold in mid-stream, formerly used to collect tolls from the river traffic. Round the bend below the camp site was the Lorelei Rock with its romantic association. Each morning, we went down to the water to make our ablutions while breakfast sizzled over the camp fire.

We had gone to Germany in 1935. The Hitler regime was in its infancy. The worst was yet to come. When we arrived, we had found the Union Jack and the Swastika flying side by side at the entrance to the camp site. Oberwesel was agog with preparations for its annual river carnival and the town was bedecked with flags. The principal Nazi newspaper reported that we had come from Sussex to take part in these celebrations. Proceedings began on Saturday night. We joined in a procession round the town of all local organisations. At 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, shots from a barge on the river proclaimed that the celebrations continued. A choir of German boys immediately broke into song, so effectively in the still morning air that we resolved on one thing: we would not be lured into singing in public as we had been in France two years previously.

A crowd of about five thousand collected on the sports ground in the afternoon and listened to speeches in praise of the new regime. We were greeted as "honoured English guests" and told that the great mission of our two peoples was to unite the European nations. "Heil Hitler!" Five thousand hands shot up in salute. I circumspectly raised my hat in tribute to our hosts. I could not bring myself to give the Nazi salute.

A procession of boats, each illustrating a stage in Oberwesel's development, followed. We noted a crew of Norse heroes, whose shields bore the swastika as an emblem. A boat of legendary Rhine maidens sang as they passed. A group of jovial medieval wine-merchants made merry round a large cask of Rhenish wine. In a tilting match the combatants stood in the bows of opposing boats and tried to thrust each other with long poles into the water.

At night the principal buildings were floodlit with red flares. The castle on the cliff, swathed in red light and drifts of smoke, was a magnificent sight. From the blackness of the river twinkled the lights of a steamer, whose passengers had come to see the illuminations. The camp fell asleep while drinking and dancing were still taking place in a large marquee.

During our visit we were entertained by the principal local grower of Rhenish wine, who was also an important National Socialist. We entered his marvellous cellars, where there were vats holding 3,000 gallons of wine. We toasted Herr Hitler and King George and left with bottles of his choicest vintages.

At the carnival, the marine section of the Hitler Youth had come from Cologne in their smart uniforms to take part. They visited the camp and expressed a wish to make friends with the English schoolboys. The result was an exodus to the river, where German lads coached our bigger boys in the painful art of rowing the heavy boats with which they were equipped, and the call of "in oot", "in oot", sounded over the water. There came also the inevitable challenge from Oberwesel bovs to a football match. Our party was a mixed collection of age and size, with no qualifying demands in football skill. We played on a hard-baked pitch in a broiling sun. We lost, two goals to nil, but felt we had put up a good performance. We also found that we could teach nothing to our opponents in sportsmanship. A penalty was given against us for accidental hands. The German lad, to emphasise it was accidental, deliberately tapped the ball to our goalkeeper.

From our camp we watched the busy life of the river with its pleasure steamers full of gaiety, bands and dancing on board. We went to aristocratic Wiesbaden and drank the waters. On our journey we saw a majestically wide and placid Rhine where islands mirrored their trees in the shining surface and German youths with bronzed bodies were skimming across in frail canoes. At Coblenz, with tree-shaded terraces on the river front, we were able to climb to the Emperor William Monument and gaze at the impressive junction of Rhine and Moselle below. We went to the ruins of the Rheinfels at St. Goar, where we nearly came to grief when the human chain broke, as we crawled through a pitch-black underground tunnel. At the Lorelei itself we were able to view the wondrous panorama of river, gorge, and tableland but found no trace of the beautiful maiden whose song is supposed to have enticed sailors and fishermen to their doom.

A visitor to the camp early one morning, while breakfast was still cooking had been one of Hitler's "Brownshirts." "Got a fag mate?" he asked. I had to confess that I only smoked a pipe, but commented upon his command of colloquial English, and asked how he came by it. "I come from Newcastle" he replied. "Then what are you doing here in that rigout?" I said. "My parents are German. I was born in an internment carnp in England in the last war. My parents have made me come over here to do my two years service, so that I can claim German citizenship, if wanted, in the future." "And what will you do when the two years are up?" "Beat it back" he replied, "as fast as I can go." "But Hitler appears to have done a lot to improve employment in Germany" I commented. "If you put a million and a half in armament factories and the same number in the forces, you will soon cut down unemployment." I felt the reply gave much to think about as did the motivation of the German parents who had compelled the youth to enter Hitler's retinue.

But our visit was drawing to an end. Following the football match, German lads had joined us at a carnp fire and again showed us their accomplishments as vocalists. The burgomaster invited the staff to spend an evening at his beautiful house overlooking the river. Toasts were drunk and the Mayor entertained us with songs. So we departed with an official letter of farewell, expressing the hope that the visit had promoted Anglo-German friendship. "We would rejoice heartily if the friendly relations engendered between you and the old Rhenish town of Oberwesel should have permanence stretching beyond the days of your stay here."

Camps continued to be organised until the outbreak of war and were revived when peace returned. Stratford-on-Avon became a favourite place for "home" camps. A field by the river afforded facilities for aquatic activities. The productions at the Memorial Theatre extended the experience of boys whose knowledge of "professional theatre" was, in some cases, limited to the Christmas pantomime at Brighton. Stratford also provided an excellent centre for a variety of excursions. We explored the colleges at Oxford, hoping to stimulate a desire to go there. The Morris works at Cowley opened the eyes of Sussex lads to the methods and conditions of mass production. From Stratford it was easy to organise excursions by coach to Chipping Campden and the Cotswold country, to the Malverns, where one had magnificent views over the wide expanse stretching towards the distant mountains of Wales. Tewkesbury with its wonderful abbey, Worcester, Evesham and Warwick were also within easy reach.

Mr Tayler, Joy Larwill, Kathleen Tayler, Mr Gillam - Chamonix Before the war broke out, we had gone abroad to Chamonix and viewed the wonderful snows of the Mont Blanc range as well as negotiating the Mer de Glace and similar hazards [The photos of the camp at Chamonix and Mr Tayler, Joy Larwill, Kathleen Tayler and Mr Gillam can be seen on this page]. While there, a visit was paid to Geneva and the new League of Nations building. We camped too at Thury Harcourt, a little town in a picturesque part of Normandy, situated on the river Orne, and the scene of fierce fighting a few years later. From there, we visited Bayeux with its Cathedral and its tapestry and Caen, a veritable museum of church architecture, with three buildings of cathedral size.

The war came and school camps ceased. Boys were aiding the war effort on Sussex farms or at camps for Army, Navy or Air Force cadets. In 1947, the first postwar camp was organised. The connection with Blois had been made and our camp was held ten miles away at the Chateau de Chaumont, in the Loire Valley. Further yearly camps were held at Stratford and Chamonix and this feature of school life lasted until 1952 when it ceased, largely due to competition of other school holiday activities. The School Scouts and Cadets had camps of their own, while a visit to Blois at Easter and a return visit by the French boys in July, absorbed the energies of some members of the Staff. Small hiking parties went to Scotland and the Lake District while a member of the History staff, keen on architecture, organised short vacation holidays in parts of England richest in Cathedrals or Castles. The size of such parties was of necessity restricted, and very valuable, as they undoubtedly were, one wondered whether such expeditions created in each boy a corporate realisation of belonging to a community. However that may be, it is appropriate to record that during the advance of the allied forces on Germany in 1944, the Headmaster received from an Old Boy a hurriedly scribbled note, "Have just crossed the Seine near Les Andelys. Happy memories!"

So they were, and so they are still.

"How we rejoiced as we struggled and panted,
Twenty, and thirty and forty years on."

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