Tors de Force
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 by Richard Biggs
I write this on my way to Lambeth Palace. Yet another trip to London, this time to attend the launch of a new book published by the Woodard Corporation on Schools for Human Flourishing. On the way back I'll report on how it went.
In the meantime...what an extraordinary week it has been. Last Tuesday I caught an early flight to Manchester for the annual Boarding Schools Association (BSA) conference, held in the historic Midland Hotel, right in the middle of that city. I had never been to Manchester before and didn't quite know what to expect. Certainly not the vibrant city and baking sunshine I discovered. What a wonderful town. Clearly much renovated and rejuvenated and smartened up and yuppified since its decline (apparently) in the 70s and 80s following the collapse of its traditional industries. I wandered round (in between attending lectures and meetings, of course...) in a happy daze. We had a dinner amongst Lowry paintings at the Lowry Centre. More revelations: the man could paint properly! He painted matchstick men and women not because he couldn't paint any other way but because he chose that style. Some of his earlier, and later, work is quite sophisticated and un-Lowry-ish. Ben Fogle spoke about the positive influence that boarding (he was a pupil at Bryanston) had on his character. We heard from Tony Little, ex-Headmaster of Eton, and schools' minister Nick Gibb. The mood was optimistic and the company good fun - this is the most enjoyable of the various conferences I attend; boarding school heads are a very jolly, upbeat breed. We have to be.
One small blip was that, along with several other Heads, I had not brought my DJ with me for what we discovered, rather late in the day, was a black tie dinner. The small print to that effect was very small indeed. My lounge suit was a dark one, so my first thought was to head out into streets of Manchester and buy a black tie. M&S only had clip-ons. So I remonstrated with the manager. Genuinely - a real row amongst the menswear section. He said (insert Mancunian accent) "there's no call for proper bow ties up here, sir" and I said "you should be ashamed of yourself". Then my wonderful PA, Fiona, called me to say that she had located the nearest Moss Bros, that they stayed open until 6pm and that they were expecting me. When I arrived (guided street by street over the phone by said wonderful PA) they said "we've seen a lot of Headmasters this afternoon". I think there was a secret deal struck between Moss Bros and the BSA. Anyway, all worked out, somewhat expensively, in the end. We dined in style, surrounded by great art and overlooking the Manchester skyline, with the lights of Old Trafford twinkling in the distance.
The weekend was a highlight of the year. We are one of the longest-standing Ten Tors schools in the UK. Our teams have been tramping across the moors every year since the inception of the event, well equipped, expertly trained and keenly aware of the King's tradition in this challenge. We entered four teams this year - the organisers kindly allowed us an extra 35 mile group, to reflect our reputation and the enthusiasm amongst the Fourth Form for the event. For Sarah and me this was a particularly meaningful occasion as, amongst the 55 mile team was our son, Henry, who turned 18 on the second day of the hike. He had completed the 35 mile challenge three years earlier, vowing never to set foot on Dartmoor again. But off he went with his mates, to lug an absurdly large pack over an unfeasibly large distance. I saw the teams off early on Saturday. It is an impressive sight; the padre reads the Ten Tors prayer, the cannons boom and three thousand teenagers come sweeping down the hill, across the stream and off onto the moor. Within minutes they have been swallowed up and the parents and team managers head back to camp for a well-earned breakfast.
You can follow the progress of each team on the Ten Tors website. After the first tor our 55 milers didn't seem to register for the rest of the morning and we began to imagine the worst. It turned out to be a problem with a clicker not sending a signal to base...soon sorted out. All four teams completed intact and on good form. We scooped Henry off the moor and drove him home, installed him in a garden chair, put a beer in his hand, invited housemates around and enjoyed a lovely barbecue on a glorious spring evening. To his infinite credit Henry even raised himself to join in a game of garden cricket.
Also on Sunday we hosted our annual prep schools athletics festival. A number of prep school heads and their wives joined us for lunch in our garden (a picture of sun-drenched West Country loveliness, it must be said) and then tottered down to watch the athletics. Which was another great success. I spent the afternoon handing out medals and having my photograph taken with the winners. Quite often, when interviewing boys and girls thinking of coming to King's, I am slightly taken aback by the news that I am on their kitchen walls. "We see you every day, Headmaster". Poor family; I always feel for them.
Also, on the weekend, of course, we played a lot of sport at King's. Following on from the wonderful success of our girls' football team (they are national independent schools champions and also Somerset champions) our 1st XI cricket side are doing rather well. A certain Tom Banton, who joined us this year and plays his county cricket in Warwickshire, has already scored nearly 500 runs, and May has only just started. He has scored a century in each of the three Saturday matches so far this term. On the last two Saturday block fixtures we have won every cricket match - every team at every age level.
The 4th XI, however, have a tough task ahead of them if they hope to win this coming Saturday, as they face the well-honed machine that is the Dads' XI. We (the Dads) are looking for revenge after being rather soundly beaten last year. And the Headmaster is determined that this year he will not be bowled for a duck by his son. Hopefully said son will still be limping around by then, beset by Ten Tors blisters.
Now on my way back from Lambeth Palace. A brief glimpse into the world of the ecclesiastical stratosphere, and utterly lovely. I have several copies of the book in my clutches - it looks a good read. Most impressive of the speakers was Peter Green, once Head of Ardingly (hence the Woodard connection), now at Rugby. I scribbled down notes as fast as I could....several good assemblies and at least one sermon in there.
I'll offer one quote: You may be the best ice sculptor in the world, but you'll never know if you live in a desert.