A-Z of English Towns: O is for Oakham (part 2)
I have fond memories of Oakham. In the early summer of 1996 I pedalled around England as a storyteller. I had a bag full of tales and yarns and a couple of dozen schools and arts centres to visit on the way. I was mourning the death of someone close and the pedalling, the performances and the faces of the children, transported by the power of story, made it an unusual but highly effective way to deal with grief. I called in on a school near Oakham and after the show we went into classrooms with high windows and made up stories with the children. I was supposed to go at lunchtime but they prevailed upon me to stay for dinner. We sat on tiny chairs and in the afternoon we made puppets and re-told some of the best stories (theirs and mine) as puppet shows. I can’t remember ever having more fun.
The next time I came found me back in teaching. We had to attend agreement trials where a bunch of drama teachers had to watch students’ work and mark it. If our marks tallied with the exam board we were deemed fit to operate. Our team leader worked at the impressive private school in the town and trips there usually saw us well victualed as well as treated to some good drama. In return he would visit our schools to see students perform their examination pieces. If the work was poor and the students had obviously little idea of the conventions of drama he would diligently take notes and watch every unchoreographed movement, every wrongly inflected line, every cliché, every awkward and pointless blackout and give constructive feedback. If the work was good he would enjoy the opening moments and then slowly nod into slumber. He always slept well at our place. Year on year we produced exceptional work. I was very lucky with my students; and the harder we worked, the luckier we got.
Twelve years or more have passed since I was last here. I cannot find the school at all. I’ve been all around the town and, had I but realised it, all around significant parts of the school. It couldn’t be more central.
I have mixed feelings about private education. They’re not all that mixed. I’m mostly opposed to it. I’ve spent a large part of my life fighting for equality of opportunity in society and striving for excellence in the state education system. I do acknowledge that there are many fine educators in the private system and that private students have as much right as anyone to develop their talents to the full. We saw some very good work here. Granted there was a distinctive house style. But the students glowed with a confidence, that many inner city students would find difficult to emulate, but which was nonetheless impressive.
We have promoted more and more public school students into positions of power in all sorts of fields. As a child of the sixties it appalls me. This isn’t what was meant to happen. The majority of the cabinet went to private schools as, more shockingly, did many in the Labour shadow cabinet. Important areas of culture, long deemed to be the preserve of the people, are being dominated by toffs. Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis went to Eton. Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow, Dan Stevens went to Tonbridge and Matthew MacFadyen went to Oakham. In pop music (once the voice of the streets) we have privately educated Chris Martin and Tom Chaplin and Jason Kay (Oakham boy!). We have comedians David Baddiel, Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall. Personally I don’t think we’d lose too much if all of these went into retirement tomorrow (and I speak as an admirer of Laurie and West). I don’t wish to deny people opportunities just because they went to a fee paying school (the fees are not inconsequential; it costs nearly £30,000 a year to send a child to Oakham as a boarder) but wouldn’t mind the same opportunities for for the (at least) equally talented students in state schools in Nottingham, Halifax, Exeter, Derby and Sheffield. A good number of my former students have gone on to make a considerable mark in theatre, dance and the arts. A lot of doors would have opened more easily for them had they gone to a private school.
A recent secretary of state for education said it was the responsibility of state school educators to match the standards being set in schools like Oakham and Uppingham and then the imbalance will correct itself. A simple logical fallacy. He sees privately educated students rising to the top in their chosen fields and draws the conclusion that they must have been better educated. It is a good deal more complicated than that.
I enjoy a saunter round the grounds and am once again amazed that more students from places like these don’t do better. The facilities are awe inspiring. The sports pitches alone would have students, that I have taught, drooling. The school has professional coaches as well as PE staff. The rugby first team are currently coached by ex Leicester captain and coach Ian Smith, assisted by Glen Gelderbloom another professional player from South Africa. The cricket team is coached by ex Lancashire, Hampshire and England player John Crawley. Another England and Lancashire batsman (and something of a boyhood hero of mine) Frank Hayes was, until recently, the director of cricket at the school. It’s the same for other sports. My question, given this coaching and these facilities, is not why they produce so many by why do they provide so few significant players?
I’m not asking that Oakham students be denied these privileges. All I ask is a level playing field. They’ve got plenty of these at Oakham! And they don’t seem to have to pick glass and dog shit off them before training can begin.
The school contributes greatly to the architecture of the town. There are plenty of other fine buildings too. The church serves its dual functions of looking formidable from close range and gentle and elegant from a distance. The castle caught me by surprise. It doesn’t look like a castle. At one time it did but the towers, the curtain wall, the keep and the moat are gone. What remains is superb. An intact Norman Great Hall of a manor house. It’s worth taking time to walk around it. The proportions are extraordinary. I don’t know how much is completely original but I do know that it is regarded as one of the most important examples of Norman architecture in the country and I can see why. The hall is best viewed from outside. Inside modern chairs desecrate any sense of history and the walls are adorned by, what seems to me, one of the most pointless collections I have ever seen. Tradition has it that any peer of the realm has to leave a horseshoe as a gift to the hall. It continues to this day. Several days before my visit a pointless royal who is married to another pointless royal had bestowed such a ceremonial shoe. I’d be more impressed if visitors had to leave a happy toy from MacDonalds. I don’t care if the custom goes back to the Wars of the Roses. Antiquity doesn’t add significance of itself.
The horseshoes are displayed facing downwards, which traditionally signifies bad luck. In Rutland horseshoes are hung this way. It is the prevent the devil sitting in the bend of the shoe. To keep such a collection in such a building is like being given the ark of the covenant and using it to house a collection of Garfield posters.
The octagonal Butter Mart is delightful. It gives the market place a sense of past present and future. The preserved stocks are always worth seeing. There are five holes in them and I ponder whether this is to fit five heads. It would be a considerable punishment if so. The victims would be almost lying on the ground and tightly packed against each other. If the holes are for the head, arms and legs of a single occupant then, unless he or she is a contortionist, it is a punishment to file under cruel and unusual. As a deterrent it may explain why there was only one instance of shoplifting in the town in June.
I’m at ease in the town. There is no great rush. People are pleasant and polite. Good food is available in the shops and restaurants. The buildings are attractive and in-keeping. There is even a man on the steps of the Victoria Hall reading a book. He’s there when I arrive and he’s still reading when it comes time for me to find my hotel.
I’m staying five miles outside the town in a still more lovely building than those I have been admiring. Launde Abbey is a Manor House and chapel dating from the time of Elizabeth the first. It stands in superb isolation in acres of parkland surrounded by woods and farmland. It makes a remarkable retreat and conference centre for the Church of England diocese of Peterborough and Leicester. If you are really lucky you can get to stay as a paying guest. I was very lucky indeed.
I am treated wonderfully. The food is good, the bed comfortable and the bathwater hot. At night I write my diary and notes in the library. The sun is setting over the western hills and not a sound can be heard. I’m surrounded by centuries old furniture and volumes that contain everything any clergyman, from 1588 to the present day, could possibly wish to know. There are 43 volumes of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. There are thousands of books. I feel very privileged.
Before breakfast I attend the morning service in the chapel (which is the oldest part of the building and which Nikolaus Pevsner described as “one of the purest monuments of the early Renaissance in England”.) I have a religious faith and wasn’t merely intruding. It was quite something to have experienced. In a similar mood of reflective contemplation I change my plans for the rest of the morning and drive to the shores of Rutland Water and visit the RSPB Birdwatching centre. I intend to stay an hour at most. It’s a reconnaissance visit to find my way around. I stay three hours and could easily have stayed all day. (Look closely and you may see the kingfisher.)
Yes, I think I could really get to like Oakham.