Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Yorkshire Jester

Recalling our secondary school days, who among all of the teachers bulging out of overcrowded staff rooms, do we remember most clearly, and for what reasons?

There will always be those who, from a teenage perspective, we never seemed to get on with, or tried to wind up whenever opportunity presented itself.  I guess that even those teachers fade from memory in time.  Those I remember most clearly are the mentors who left an impression because we were in awe of their larger-than-life personality.

Known by many simply as DB,  (Mr) David Berridge and I both joined Beaumont Boys' School at the same time; he as a fresher teacher and me as a pupil in Lower One A.  David never ambled anywhere; his steps were short and fast, his body slightly swinging from left to right as if to make more efficient his journey to the next task.

To those of us who found grammar a challenge, or wondered why notable novels and plays achieved a cultural status, given seemingly impenetrable language, DB could, in turn, challenge us with the kinds of experiences we could relate to, and so help to unlock the mysteries of those works.

Then, of course, there was DB's involvement in sport, particularly rugby.  Beaumont was not a rugby-playing school, but I suspect he had a part to play in introducing it to the PE curriculum.  A rugby-playing teacher has a head-start in the "respect" stakes among teenage males, even if those wiry boys were ill-fitted for the scrum and tackle.

You rather expected your teacher to conform to fairly restrictive norms, and standing up in front of the whole school and singing a wooing solo was definitely not one of them.  But DB shared the limelight with others in (Mr) John Hope's concerts, and encouraged many individual boys to present their newly-broken voices to the world; he giving much support to the tenor section in the sixth row.

David Berridge (third from left) as Jack Point, the jester, on the stage at
Beaumont Boys' School in its 1959 production of Gilbert & Sullivan's
Yeoman of the Guard.
What you definitely would not have expected was your English teacher dressing up in colourful tudor garb with a bell on the tip of a hood playing around on stage as a buffoonish court jester.  What a laugh?  Rather, respect.  His part in Yeoman of the Guard offered him the chance to behave, within his character, just as some of us might have behaved at times on the playground.

DB might have been slightly below average height, but his standing in the school community towered, because this young man with his mellow mid-Yorkshire accent was sufficiently confident to inspire  pubescent, awkward, searching youngsters careering towards manhood.

He transferred to Marshalswick School (now Sandringham) in 1959 and no doubt continued to inspire students in that school until his retirement.

An article, celebrating his lifetime's work for and with St Albans Operatic Society, appeared recently in the Herts Advertiser.

DB died, aged 82, last week.  Thousands of former students of these two schools living in this city have good reason to remember his part in their younger lives.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Showing today

Hands up all those who remember where the Gaumont Cinema was.  Not as many as would have at one time pointed to the right place.  On the railway side of Stanhope Road.  That's the problem with memory.  It slowly drifts away from us.  Then, of course there are new generations in the city – young and incomers – who never knew the wonderful place.

It was only when I spotted an article in a copy of the Herts Advertiser from 1972 that I was taken back to those blue days, name change days (it was previously known as the Grand Palace), the discreet lighting days, and the really big poster-on-the-side-fence days.  Meanwhile, for the enjoyment of all, here is part of the article as it appeared.

"Fifty years ago Eddie Whiting's father built the Gaumont Cinema in St Albans, then called the Grand Palace Cinema.  A few days ago, to mark its golden jubilee, Mr Whiting visited St Albans from his home on the south coast.  And sadly he said, 'it is so disappointing; it looks so dejected from outside compared with the spick and span appearance it had in those days.'

Mr Whiting, now 64, who managed the cinema – where some famous stage turns gave live shows as well – recalled the early days of the building, built by his father, George Whiting, a former city councillor, at a cost of £35,000.

'My father and I had planned a small cinema for about 500 people, but the architect, Mr Harry Finn, said there was sufficient space for a larger place.'  Yellowing photographs show that the Grand Palace was a grand and comfortable place of entertainment when it was opened in 1922 with seating for 1,500.

The cinema opened with three-hour shows, a big picture plus variety entertainment, and two houses per day.  'We booked 14 big pictures for the cinema, and the first one was Squibs, featuring Betty Balfour and Fred Groves.  The stars made a personal appearance for the opening.'

The cinema was a great success and was playing to packed houses with the prices at 6d, 9d, 1/3d downstairs, and upstairs was 1/10d and 2/4d [all prices less than 15p in today's money!].  Of course, there was a 14-piece orchestra with Dave Purviss from the Palace Theatre, Luton, as the conductor, and also a tea room."

The cinema was long with a seemingly endless number of quite short rows gently sweeping down to the Granville Road end.  The frontage was very impressive with a portico in a Greek style with pillars holding up the curved roof.  To complete the style a Greek figure sculpture on a shallow plinth stood between the two entrance doorways under the portico.

I do not recall the sculpture at all, and presume that it was moved before World War Two.  Was it moved inside for greater protection, perhaps up to the tearoom; or did it disappear from the building altogether?  If anyone knows the answer to that question do please contact the site:

We can no longer enjoy entertainment at the Gaumont
for the building is no longer standing.  After a period as a bingo hall it was demolished, to be replaced with blocks of flats called Chatsworth Court.

Photos courtesy HALS.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Place on The Hill

Camp Hill, from a 19th century painting by John
Buckingham.  Courtesy St Albans' Museums
Camp Hill.  That's the historical name given to the former isolated community along Camp Road between Campfield Road and Cell Barnes Lane.  If you began your eighteenth century journey on foot from Hatfield Road, you would take a gentle downhill path as far as the chalk pits at today's Dellfield, you would need to summon strength to then climb the steeper side of the valley to the cottages and workshops on the level ground at the top.   The reason for this topographical exercise is the crossing of a small stream in time past, though quite when this ceased to flow on the surface is unclear.

The reason for your journey might be to return to your home on the Hill, or to one of the distant farms at Hill End, Tyttenhanger Green, Cell Barnes or Beastneys.   There would be no other likely reason for taking this route, and to confirm such remoteness the lane east of Cell Barnes Lane would be narrow and winding, which would funnel farm workers leading cattle and sheep between the pastures and cropped fields on each side.

Before leaving The Hill we might have paused for a drink and a chat at the Old Camp Beer House, on land now occupied by Baker's Close, the pub today having moved several hundred yards eastwards.  Opposite the beer house a horse and cart might be waiting in a short lay-by, giving way to a cart making its exhausting way uphill below the tree canopied and narrow lane.

This is how the road between The Hill and Hill End would have appeared until the sale of Beaumonts Farm on the north side in 1899 and the subsequent growth of a large housing estate, the Camp estate, on its fields – no-one seemed to talk about the Green Belt then and there were no letters of complaint about the eating up of the countryside in the Herts Advertiser; only the perennial topic of mud and puddles, and pitch-black streets.

During the succeeding century or so has developed a community which deserves to be better known and understood.  The layout mirrors Fleetville's Slade estate between Brampton Road and Hatfield Road.  Camp Road – still called Camp Lane until the 1930s – although a little wider today, has not lost its curves and twists of earlier centuries, most notoriously at the Beresford bend.

Fleetville Diaries, the local history group for greater Fleetville, has brought together 45 photographs for an exhibition, now showing at the Museum of St Albans.  Each enlarged picture is accompanied by a narrative, describing its context in the story of Camp, or The Camp, by which it is sometimes referred.

The full title of the exhibition: Camp: the Place on The Hill, Where the Militia Trained, refers to the original community's alleged origins.  When various militias were raised during the 17th and 18th centuries this was an area of temporary encampments set up specifically for training the would-be combatants.  The last time land here was used for such a purpose was in the First World War.  Thereafter land south of Camp Road was opened up for allotments, the other, more peaceable activity Camp district has been known for.

Camp: the Place on The Hill Where the Militia Trained is showing at the Community Gallery, the Museum of St Albans, until Sunday 31st January.  The Museum is open every day from 10 am to 5 pm (2 pm to 5 pm on Sundays).  Entry is free.