I was a pretty good at escaping while at school in Letchworth – preferably at night, out of windows and down fire escapes. I don’t mean that I wanted to escape from the school – far from it – but that I wanted to escape from my dormitory for the purpose of unauthorised meetings with boys.
I made a trial run at the age of about 13, before I had any real interest in the male of the species. This was just sheer naughtiness, giving in to the temptation of being where we shouldn’t, and I was not alone on this occasion. We went into a teacher's bedroom and climbed out of the window and onto the roof. Of course we were discovered, and received a severe talking to by the house father. (Boarding houses were run by married couples.) But I think what made the biggest impression on me was not the fierceness of the wigginghe gave us, but the long, long time he sat at the piano afterwards, playing sombre music, with stern disappointment on his face. He was a man I liked and respected, and I did not care to have upset him so much.
But that didn’t stop me a year or two later, when I wanted to leave my bedroom and make my way to where my particular 'crush' of the moment was sleeping. It was a school designed to give us the maximum advantage of fresh air, in addition to the vegetarian diet and Quaker principles, and in the senior school the boys slept in wooden huts or brick ‘cells’, built outside the main building. Hence the need for escape routes. When I returned for an old scholars’ reunion in 1997, I took great delight in photographing the two routes which I remembered, one from a first-floor dormitory and over a balcony, and one from a second-floor bathroom and down a fire-escape. I have marked the exit points on the pictures here.
On the first occasion the unfortunate youth did not know I was coming – I have always been inclined to pick my own quarry and start the chase myself – but he put a good face on it, got out of bed and suggested we take a walk. There was a school field, of course, and lawns, kitchen gardens and an orchard. I think it must have been September, as the apples were ripe on the trees and starting to fall. The scene was wreathed in mist, and lit by a gentle luminosity from the moon. My romantic heart created an occasion of real magic, which glimmers imperishably in my memory.
Regrettably, the young man never really took a fancy to me – (saw him at that reunion, bald as a coot. Oh! where are all the golden boys and girls?) – and he asked another boy to take me off his hands, though I didn’t find that out till much later. This other fella also suggested a walk, so off I went again.Another occasion of the utmost magic: an October night with a wild wind blowing, and copper coloured clouds scudding across a lurid moon. We took our romantic walk, believe it or not, along the Great North Road, which must have been a deal more rural in the 1940s than it is today. We cuddled a bit, and talked, and as far as I was concerned I was hooked for the rest of my school days, though once again I failed to hold his attention. (Clearly, I was going to be a late developer!) The other day I found a sonnet I wrote after that walk along the Great North Road. Urrghh! It was sickening - I won’t inflict it on you.
Footnote - Strange customs develop in a closed community: acknowledged pairs would exchange friendship pins, and the girl would wear her boy’s jacket over her shoulders. When she no longer wore it you knew the girl had been ‘dropped’! (Roll on Women's Lib!)