It’s a Leo thing apparently; the trait I have of leaving some things to the last possible minute. At school even with all the holidays to do my homework, it would still be done Sunday night before term started again. At secondary school even though it was a 9am start we weren’t officially late until registration finished at 0925. I guess the leeway was in place in case a school bus ever arrived late. Being the only Catholic school for miles around 90% of the students were coached in from across Surrey. For those that walked to school the system could be played, sometimes I would crawl out of bed at the last possible moment, walk the 15 minutes to school and be there for what I reasoned was ‘in good time’ which was about 0923.
The school had the grand title of Saint Peters and Merrow Grange RC Comprehensive, so named as it was 2 schools separated by a 200 yard walk down a quiet lane. Until 1971 the upper school had been a convent school for girls (Merrow Grange) and the lower school a boy’s school (St. Peters). There were extra-long breaks between classes as we often had to walk between the two buildings. Merrow Grange was a mock Tudor manor house with a grand wooden staircase and floors that creaked beautifully when trodden on. The school had a good reputation for music and the music teacher Mr Carter had the grandest room of all. It was big enough to use as a recital room, with a vaulted ceiling, balcony and huge leaded bay windows. He must have loved coming to work; I certainly did as he was my form tutor for two years.
Students were banned from climbing the tiny circular staircase to the balcony, but if left unsupervised momentarily, we boys would take our chances. The stairs lead further up to the mythical attic where we supposedly would have been expelled if ever caught there. Sadly it was padlocked and I never got in. The Grange also housed a convent with ancient nuns within. As newbies aged 11 and 12 the older boys as a rite of passage scared us with the legend of a ghostly Blue Nun that wandered the attic rooms at night carrying a light. In hindsight ‘Blue Nun’ was also the brand name of a popular wine but we fell for it.
Merrow Grange was built in 1868 and one owner was a keen botanist planting Sequoia/Giant Redwoods and other exotics throughout the then 45 acres gardens. The gardens were landscaped with Pulhamite an artificial stone. Sunken paths, ponds and artificial hills were created which are now all overgrown. The most interesting part was nicknamed ‘the caves’, again we were strictly forbidden to enter. It’s actually a Grade II listed grotto with a sunken fernery covered by an iron work glazed roof. A winding staircase leads down to a dark tunnel with only one way in/out. When the Pulhamite was mixed 100 years ago something alike to glitter was added and by candle or torchlight the walls shimmer magically.
We would jump the school fence at weekends to explore the overgrown gardens and caves, night time made it more adventurous. I tried my first and last ever can of Carlsberg Special Brew at the Grange, the old Unwins off-licence was run by a great guy – Graham I think he was called. Chain smoked like a good-un he did and had no problems with us aged 14-15 buying a few cans of beer and 10 fags of a weekend.
Once my mate John Fergus went and hid in the tunnel. We searched for him but gave up; we had almost reached the exit when the sod terrified us by screaming ghoulishly from behind us with a torch held under his chin making his face glow red. John had discovered a tiny cave in the roof of the tunnel and had hidden up there whilst we passed underneath. Then Gollum like he clambered down to scare the living daylights out of us. Happy days!