We went to Thirsk, our next nearest market town this week, to the cinema. Nothing remarkable about that – to anyone but me.
I last went to the Ritz almost exactly 60 years ago, my very first visit to this, or any other cinema. I’d gone with the whole school – about 40 of us – to see the newsreel showing the Queen’s coronation. I remember queuing with all my classmates, quietly and slightly over-awed, outside this vast building and going up dark stairs to an even darker and cavernous auditorium. I remember the excitement of seeing that screen, so large it filled our entire view, with its flickering black and white images of the Queen’s horse-drawn carriage processing with regiments of bearskin-helmeted soldiers marching before her. But I can’t remember how we got there or how we got back: yet it must have been quite an expedition from our village school in Sandhutton, some 2-3 miles away, normally connected to Thirsk only by a twice-weekly bus.
So it was quite a shock the other day to discover that the Ritz is far from palatial in size. In these days of the multi-plex, it has room for only one screen. It feels small, intimate and cosily shabby, much loved by its team of volunteers of a certain age.
As part of our day out, we simply had to visit Sandhutton, the village where I’d spent several years and begun my school career. It looked much the same as I’d remembered it. There was the endearingly small parish church (I remember cathedral-like proportions) at one end of the village green, the pub at the other: it’s like a stage set for the Archers. Nowadays, the farm labourers who were our near neighbours seem thin on the ground. We called in at the village shop and found it selling an eclectic collection of fine wines, decent cheeses and craft-bakery cakes rather than more workaday essentials.
And my school, originally outside the village, but now joined to it by a street of modern housing, has become a community hall.
Back in the early 1950’s, my mother was head of a two-teacher school, and we lived in the school house behind. Now it’s a handsome family dwelling. It always was, but it looks as though the privy is no longer at the bottom of the garden. Nor is the school’s row of outdoor toilets still in use.
The school had two classes. I was in the one for 5 – 8 year olds. Our teacher was Miss Burnett, and a recently found photo confirms that she was slender, white-haired and elderly. The high point of the day for the little ones was when we gathered round the school wireless to listen to that day’s broadcast of ‘Listen with Mother’. That same wireless broadcast ‘Music and Movement’ twice a week, and we pushed our desks to one side to prance around pretending to be storm-tossed trees, nymphs or dragons.
My mother had the 9 – 15 year olds. Those who passed their 11+ could go off to Grammar School. Few passed, and none went to the Grammar School in any case, as they were expected to leave school at 15 and get farm work. There were days designated as holidays from school when the older children went potato-picking.
And in those post-war vitamin C starved days, we would have whole afternoons when the entire school would go rosehip-gathering for the syrup producers such as Delrosa. Expert pickers could aspire to a tin badge for their efforts, but we 5 year olds had no hope of this exciting prize and our work went unrewarded.
I wasn’t at Sandhutton school for very long. My father was Polish, and like many of his countrymen had fled to Britain and joined the RAF during the war. Unable to find a job locally afterwards, despite his degree and excellent English, he’d gone to London. When he found work, he sent for us. London became my home until I left school.
My father’s work turned into his life-long business. My mother was able to return to her preferred option, teaching Classics in a Grammar School. And I tried to keep my head above water in a large inner-city primary school with as many children in a single class as we’d had in the whole of Sandhutton school: oh, and to lose my northern accent pdq.