Those dog-days of August can weigh heavy in some years. So it was, with a new academic year soon to start, I decided to play pre-term truant for a day this week and go for a walk around the Cumbrian town of Sedbergh. I’d vaguely heard of a public school of the same name, but didn’t know – until I arrived there – that the school pretty much is the town.
It has been there since its foundation in 1525, so I suppose it has earned the right to flex its muscles a bit. After all, if the locals can’t afford to send their own kids there (and at £10,500 a year for boarders – after paying the £750.00 registration fee, buying the uniform and sundry other expenses – such as Combined Cadet Force annual camp fee – of which more later, the fees are on the steep side), a fair few earn their living from the place. The school is so intertwined with the town that the signposts mingle as well: one minute you’re looking at a sign for the Tourist Information Centre and the parish church, the next you’re being directed to the Bursary and Headteacher’s Office. There is also a fair degree of latitude when it comes to public footpaths, and I wandered along the edge of playing fields as the current crop of ruby-playing Sedberghians were learning how to beat next term’s opponents into a bloody pulp, and along the banks of the rivers Dee and Rawthey that mark the furthest extent of the school grounds. The ethos of the place proved to be fascinating too. Founded before the Reformation by Roger Lupton, a local man who became Provost of Eton and endowed the school with scholarships to St John’s College, Cambridge University, the school boasts strong links to the Church of England, with a chapel that is larger than many English parish churches. The prospectus throws up a few anomalies here, however. While all pupils have to attend chapel, and are encouraged to both sing hymns in a way that’s ‘strong and heartfelt‘ and allow themselves to be prepared for confirmation into the Anglican Church, they are also expected to sign up wholesale to either the Navy, Army or Air Force sections of the Combined Cadet Force as soon as they start Year 9 (13-14). In addition, those who play percussion or wind instruments are automatically enrolled into the school’s Corps of Drums. Exception from this Eton Rifles form of junior conscription is at the Head’s discretion and must be sought in writing by parents. All have to attend annual military camp – the bill being added to the last invoice sent to parents/guardians for the current school year. All in all, this struck me as a rather 1950s anachronistic playing out of the old cries of ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition‘ or ‘We come in peace, shoot to kill’.
A more peaceful alternative so such ‘robust’ (or even rather confused Christian theology) can be found nearby: the hamlet of Briggflats is home to England’s third oldest Quaker Meeting House, where peace is very firmly on the agenda, and lusty hymn singing most certainly not – the silence reigns supreme.