My feelings about the Lent Term are well known. This term has the ability to bite you on the nose, to throw up the unexpected, to lull you into a false sense of security and then laugh at you.
Having got to half term we thought our challenges were over for the moment. But then The Beast from the East teamed up with Storm Emma to dump Siberian quantities of snow onto Taunton in a few hours and things suddenly got interesting. To their credit, the forecasters predicted it exactly. I took our dogs for a walk on the Thursday, just as the snow started falling heavily – up into the Blackdown Hills. And only just made it back down again. I knew that Sarah and I were hosting about 20 school prefects for supper the following evening and that we had not yet bought the groceries. Should I nip off and do the shop now? Nah, it could wait until tomorrow. Big mistake. The next day all roads were impassable. The only possible conclusion was that the prefects’ dinner would have to be postponed. But I reckoned without the determination of my School Captains, who came to me at break and insisted they would walk with me to Sainsbury’s to do the shopping and then help all afternoon with the cooking.
So we grabbed our bright red plastic sled, and tramped into town. Taunton folk were using the middle of the road as the only way to get about – there were no cars. Nor were there very much by way of supplies in the supermarket. We bought up all the remaining beef mince. There was no bread, so we bought bags of flour. We loaded it all onto the sled and slithered home. Toby, Charly, Harry and I spent a most enjoyable afternoon cooking – lasagne from scratch, home-made bread, huge bowls of salad. Sarah rustled up some fruit pies. The dinner was enormous fun.
We tend not to shut the school when there’s a crisis. We can’t, really. We have over 300 boarders with us and we have to keep them fed and entertained. So we forged ahead. Pupils were allowed to wear their own, warm clothes to school. Some day pupils, anticipating snow, had decided to stay with us overnight in any case. Several families made epic 4X4 journeys to get their children in for school. Others (but actually surprisingly few) sensibly stayed at home and picked up work sent to them by email. Jonty Lawford, my indefatigable Deputy Head, Academic, worked miracles in deploying the staff he had. Even I was roped in. I taught physics for the first time in 20 years! Paths were cleared, catering staff trudged in through the snow (at least one walked for two hours to get to us), volunteers lent a hand in the kitchens. We kept it all going.
And it was huge, wonderful, life-affirming fun. There is something about a crisis that stirs a fire in people in this country – I’ve noticed it before. Of course our St Petersburg pupils and our Canadian Head of History were looking at all of this and saying “you call this snow?” But it doesn’t happen often, and when it does it always catches the country off guard. And we all rally together and remind ourselves what it is to be resilient, comradely, neighbourly human beings. I was so sad when the snow melted.
On the Monday all was pretty much back to normal. That Friday I headed off to London to support our swimming team as they took part in the annual Bath and Otter Relay, held at the Olympic Aquatic Centre. Now when the Olympics were on in 2012, Sarah and I applied for lots of tickets, and got nothing. So in a fit of pique we went to France and sulked under an olive tree. I had never been to the Olympic Park at Stratford. Wow. What an impressive sight. And what a beautiful building the aquatic centre is. I spent the day watching our swimmers in the oppressive steaminess of the pool, and wandering outside in the bitter cold having a look around the park and the new shopping centres (and, yes, the restaurants too). And not surprisingly the lingering cold which had bugged me for two weeks, which I was confident had bid adieu and was on its way out, returned with a renewed vengeance. We drove back from North London to Taunton on Friday evening, in the torrential rain, in a crowded minibus, a journey of over five hours. Much to the amusement of my family and colleagues, my voice has now entirely disappeared. More of which later.
And then, as if the term had not already been exciting enough, last Monday I received The Call. From the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the body that keeps us on the straight and narrow. They operate a three-yearly cycle of inspections and it was three years, to the day, that they had last visited us. We were, sort of, expecting the call this term, but had become rather blasé about it after an earlier false alarm (something to do with a spike in traffic on our policies page). Anyway, there I was feeling like death warmed up in my office last Monday, when the very nice chap from ISI said – you’re being inspected, starting tomorrow.
I know you’re meant to take it all in your stride. I know we were confident that all paperwork was in place (not least because of the earlier false alarm – what a Godsend!), but there is no way of avoiding the very real sense of dread that an inspection inspires. I have written about inspection before: the modern style is swift and terrible. The importance undeniable. Once again, my senior team swung into action and proved themselves magnificent in a crisis. Once again the staff and pupils rose to the occasion and did all they possibly could to give the best impression of this great place.
And, I am pleased, to say, they succeeded. We came out of it well. I look forward to sharing the final report with our parents and staff. Not surprisingly, the inspectors were bowled over by the pupils – their enthusiasm and loyalty and wide-ranging interests clearly made a mark.
So that little bit of excitement came and went last week…and by the end of it my voice had given up the ghost. Which was a problem, given that I was meant to be singing in the Evensong service on Sunday evening. This would be the last Evensong service at which Jim Campbell, our wonderful College Organist of over 30 years, would be playing. Jim’s wife, Margie, has been appointed as Provost of Oban, and commuting from the far northwest of Scotland is probably too much even for the resourceful Mr Campbell. But in the end I had to withdraw and ended up in the congregation for once…which was really quite a pleasure. The skeleton choir (several others had been knocked low by various bugs) sang beautifully.
And of course it snowed again. Apparently this is the Mini Beast from the East. Here we are at the spring equinox and the ground is covered in snow. The cricket season starts in a few weeks’ time.
Not having a voice is a challenge for a Headmaster in the final week of term. Assemblies follow in quick succession. I have a speech to make at the grand opening of our indoor cricket school. There are lessons to teach and visiting families to meet. There is a Fourth Form parents’ meeting on Friday afternoon. Unless some kind throat pixie cures me overnight, I’ll be adding to the general fun and joy of the end of term events with an unwholesome, rather sepulchral croak.
I wish you all a very happy Easter break.