They say you can never go back. Well you can. But it will have changed and nostalgia will be all that remains. On a recent trip to England which I left for the United States more than 50 years ago, I got to visit the primary school that my sister and I attended when we were seven or eight years old.
The school still stands in Worminghall, a village about a third the size of Escalon nestled in the Cotswold Hills near Oxford. My brother-in-law stopped the car in front of a red brick building with the steep-pitched roof and church-like windows common to schools built a hundred years ago. It felt strange to stand in the same spot where I played as a boy so many years ago and so many miles from my home in California.
The building is no longer a school but converted for use as a community hall with the lawns around it open to local families as a children’s playground.
My sister and I once lived next door to the schoolhouse because our mother was teacher-principal and the house came with the job. It was part of her pay, somewhat in the same way a church pastor is given a parsonage next to his church.
Poking around, we walked to the back of the former school to look at the play yard. It was all grass now but crossed by the remains of a stone flagged pathway leading to what we suspected were once the earth closets accepted as toilets in those times. They now appeared to be used for storage.
The building stands at a sharp bend in the road. In my memory there was a garden across the way crammed with large red, yellow and blue hollyhocks. We couldn’t find that garden. Graveled driveways and expensive cars stood where I remember flowers and humbler houses.
We drove to the end of the road. It still fades out at a gray stone church and a farm yard which is now firmly gated and called an estate. In my boyhood, the gate usually stood open and you simply sloshed through the mud and pushed past the cows to climb a style and reach open country.
For a seven-year-old boy that was almost the end of the world.
Later during my trip to England, we visited Bristol where I attended high school while growing up in the southwest corner of the country. Bristol Grammar School was still in operation and looking just as I remembered it, more like a medieval fortress than a school.
Founded in 1532 by a rich wool merchant, it was largely rebuilt in Victorian times and has battlements on the roof line, a main door worthy of a castle and a great hall reminiscent of a cathedral.
I couldn’t find the squash courts, but encountered the assistant principal who offered to start mailing me in California the annual newsletter for former pupils.
The only large changes I could see were mobile classrooms encroaching on the sports fields where I learned to play rugby and realignment of the staircase sweeping up to the great hall. The hall itself where the school used to gather about 1,000 students under one roof still looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie.
Later I learned Harry Potter film makers used Christchurch College in Oxford to shoot the staircase scenes. But college officials would not let them use the dining hall itself for fear of disruption to the daily life of the college.
The English are like that. The country is crammed with history and its ancient architecture integrated into modern living. Where a Californian would say tear it down, pave it over, build a new one, the Englishman will say adapt it, go around it, integrate it into a modern building. So the English continue to live happily, if somewhat a little cramped in the same space and buildings they have occupied for hundreds of years.
A visitor to its castles and churches will tread stone stairs worn by the feet of armored knights or tonsured monks. Entering old houses or bars known as public houses (“pubs”), they must duck their heads beneath heavy, wooden beams put up when the average man was several inches shorter.
For the driver, the road often swerves abruptly to go around a village green, often with a statue of some historical figure like that of King Alfred who fought off Danish invaders in 1200 A.D. Or the road can narrow to a single lane stone bridge designed for horses and farm carts not for cars.
In the countryside around Oxford, the picturesque villages with cottages of weathered Cotswold stone strung with bowls of flowers are everywhere and draw thousands of tourists each year. In the cities, architects have set houses ranging in style from Elizabethan to Victorian to 20th Century side by side and even raised modern skyscrapers of steel and glass to overlook city center buildings of stone developed many centuries ago.
Sometimes the architectural mix works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the aim is to avoid demolition and try to adapt, blend and modernize. As a historical city of great beauty, Oxford controls development with great care especially among the spires and towers of the university colleges. But the need for modern facilities like science laboratories leads to anomalies like bare concrete walls and straight lines conflicting with the ornamented stone of older buildings.
My son has a theory on the preference of Californians for ignoring history and tearing down buildings. “They just haven’t been around long enough. They haven’t any buildings they value,” he said.
John Branch is a retired former staff member for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News and The Escalon Times. He continues to contribute occasional columns.