First Night, November 3rd, 1968

It is fifty years to the day since I first saw the Mawddach glinting in the late Autumn sun. Our trusty blue Commer minibus, complete with transversal bench seating had successfully navigated the pass at Dinas Mawddwy and the hair-pin riffs of Fiddler’s Elbow, and with the aluminium catering trays of Mrs Watkins’ fried fish and baked-bean-splattered mash still skidding around our feet, had come to a temporary stop in Bontddu to pick up the milk. Shortly afterwards, we had arrived at the majestic but dangerously uneven main drive to Farchynys.

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I hadn’t been lucky enough to visit during my first year at Queen Mary’s, but aged 12 and accelerated into the Alpha stream, I was one of a party of third formers visiting the Coach House under the charge of George Brudenell, our easy going Year Master and his Physics Department chum, the ever-wry Ernie Watson. One of them pointed out the two granite and slate buildings perched half hidden and forbidding on the hill to our left of the Dolgellau to Barmouth road. Then, with assorted bumps and skids-on-gravel, the minibus had made it up the drive, passed the rhododendrons of the Hall and stopped outside the Coach House.

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No sooner had the front door been unlocked then I experienced the Coach House’s unique aroma: a mélange of damp, overcooked vegetable and burned carbon. As the more experienced hands raced upstairs to secure the best bunk positions in the dorm, others were pushing refectory tables together to make one giant table tennis court, while an enterprising Prefect was opening up the weekend tuck-shop, packed for travel in a large biscuit tin. This contained the Kit Kats, Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels necessary to maintain morale over the coming hours.

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The darkness came, and for boys from an industrial town, this was a darkness absolute and rare -the kind that torches and fireworks are made for. But for now, it was time for supper and the return of the fried fish, mash and baked beans which like us had made it all the way from Sutton Road in Walsall.

It was later that evening, after the group had done the washing-up that I made the first strategic error of my Marian career. I casually let it be known that in the morning we should check the post-box as there might be something for me as it was my birthday. The possibility of receiving some extra spending money had clouded my better judgement and I soon discovered that sharing this piece of information was not conducive to either a peaceful or an undisturbed night’s sleep in the dorm.  It was an unforgettable first night at Farchynys.

 

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Minibuses : Ancient and Modern

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A brand new minibus  being handed over to Richard Langton, the Head  by Andrew Donaldson and Seema Sikka of the Queen Mary’s Association who raised £22000 to fund it and rather splendid it is too. A far cry from the from the first minibus of early days of Farchynys as this extract form the book illustrates:

From the very first meeting of the QMGS Welsh Centre Management Committee in April 1963, transport was on the agenda. “Possible options to be explored for transferring parties to the Mawddach included by train, by hired bus or by school transport.” Fairly immediately it became clear that a minibus was the only feasible option and looking into the capital cost of hiring, buying and insuring one became a key task of the Committee. After test drives of three alternative models, a Commer 14-seater with slatted seats became the favoured choice and was purchased for £836 3s 6d. Thus, did White-Knuckle Coachways come into existence.

  As a valuable new asset, a standing order was passed that “no boy in the school would be allowed to drive except in the event of absolute emergency”. That didn’t stop boys playing with the letters of the Minibus and rebranding it as a Rommec. QM has owned many minibuses over fifty years and the White-Knuckle Coachways rides have become a defining part of the experience.

 

 

July 2nd, 1554 and All That

I am by now well accustomed to being asked questions prompted by the title of my book. “What exactly is the Mawddach? this is usually said in a brittle Anglo-Saxon fashion that makes it sound like a dark territory of Middle Earth rather than beautiful estuary in Merioneth, and so provides me with a perfect opportunity to deliver a short Welsh lesson followed by a quiz.

I am also frequently asked “What is a Marian?”, often with an equally puzzled expression. When I have explained that it is not a typographical error for Martian, but the name given to past and present students of Queen Mary’s Grammar School, I then have to explain that this Queen Mary, is not Mary, Queen of Scots, but in fact her cousin, Mary Tudor, our first queen regnant; and I soon find myself slipping into that familiar narrative by referring to her as ‘that Bloody Mary’, who burned all the Protestants at the stake and lost Calais – not a brilliant backstory, perhaps, for the Founder of our school.

But especially in July, when we celebrate our foundation, I think it’s time to cut Mary some slack and to loudly  declaimVivatRegina! Incidentally, our school wasn’t her only foundation. In the educational ruins of the English Brexit from the Catholic Church, Mary also founded schools in Clitheroe, Leominster, Boston, Ripon and Basingstoke.

It was on Mary’s way to Winchester to marry Phillip, the Habsburg Prince of Spain, that two Walsall brothers, George and Nicholas Hawe, along with two other well-positioned notables with reputations at court, petitioned the Queen to let them build a school to fill the gap left by the destruction of local Chantry chapels. The result, was the granting on July 2ndof the Letters Patent which laid down a school“be created and established for the teaching, erudition and instruction of boys and youths…. which shall be called The Free Grammar School of Queen Mary at Walsall.”

So, was this the reputational high point of the only British monarch we call after a family name rather than a regnal number? David Fink, in his magisterial history of the school draws on Venetian ambassadorial dispatches to imagine a marvellous scene at the moment of signature and then adds:

“With the rest of Mary’s life, a Marian is in something of a quandary, not to say dilemma. He must be truthful and not gloss over distressing facts; at the same time, his gratitude must lead him to a favourable interpretation wherever possible.”

Sixty years after David Fink wrote these words, the dilemma has been made much easier to resolve by the fruits of recent scholarship.  Three strong academic biographies and Eamon Duffy’s Fires of Faithhave paved the way for a significant reappraisal of Mary and her reign. Duffy’s book includes a forensic re-examination of Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, the famous account of the Protestant Martyrs, which through the centuries has caused the Marian regime so much reputational damage: much of which, today, we might well label as “fake news.”

Mary, far from being the inept and hopeless religious fundamentalist, appears for today’s scholars to be confident and decisive, full of courage as well as conviction, and possessing great political nous. She was also for a Tudor – and despite mistreatment by a quite appalling father – very likeable – she was generous to friends, fond of fine clothes (my favourite portrait is the 1544 by Master John), and apparently, addicted to gambling with cards and dice.

Mary’s personal motto was Veritas Temporis Filia– Truth is the daughter of time – which seems incredibly appropriate for a queen we are only now beginning to understand. Thanks for founding us, Mary, and starting all our journeys to the Mawddach.

 

Vivat Regina Maria! Floreat Reginae Schola Mariae!

 

July 2nd, 2018