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


Steven Parkes (QM 1961-7) remembers one of the first weekends at The Coach House

Farchynys had been officially opened in 1963, when I was in my Third Year – but not being a particularly outdoorsy-adventurish type, I had resisted all invitations to take part in any of the weekend activities that were on offer there.I had steadfastly avoided it, mainly on the grounds that going on an early-morning, arduous, cross-country assault course on a Welsh mountainside held very little appeal to my more artistic and stay-at-home nature!
         I had now reached my Fifth Year, however, and it was beginning to be noticed on high that there were still some boys who had never been to Farchynys yet!
As it was an extra-curricular activity (just like Saturday-morning rugby matches that I had steadfastly refused to attend), it couldn’t be made compulsory – but it was still becoming awkward and embarrassing when we were all asked “Who hasn’t been to Farchynys yet?”   
         Some of the masters were actively trying to encourage new visitors by expounding on the different themes to some of the forthcoming weekends.  Apparently, they weren’t all of an arduous, cross-country nature – there were some CCF weekends (I was in the RAF Section) and then, I noticed, there was a History one coming up, where we would be taken to visit a couple of ruined castles in the area.   That sounded almost pleasant!
I bit the bullet and put my name down for the History weekend that was coming up, along with three of my good mates.
        Two weeks later we were heading off, in the school minibus, along with a group of my pals and accompanied by Mr. Leach, a History Master, and the American ‘Doc’ Nunes (pronounced ‘New-niss’) – who I seem to remember taught English rather than History, though I could be wrong – and their wives.    Having their wives there was nice – it gave us the rare opportunity to see these Masters in a more human light with their other halves, plus, it was good to have that extra feminine touch to an otherwise male-dominated weekend!
        We arrived there at 7.00pm.   I imagine that we would’ve had something to eat at that time of day – everybody mucked-in helping in the large, newly-built kitchen.   Part of the discipline there, it appeared, was that we were required to assist the main cooks (usually, the Masters’ wives) in preparing the food.
       This was something quite alien and new to me – I’d only ever learned how to cook an omelette at home – but it was also very interesting too.   My main memory of working in that kitchen was being shown by Mrs. Nunes how to gradually feed a big bunch of dried spaghetti sticks into a large saucepan of boiling water, watching them soften and curve round the sides of the pot as they went further and further in.
       My diary says we went for a ramble in the evening and then I managed to grab a single bed!   I don’t know if that means some lads had to share double beds, or if it meant bunks?   I can’t remember after all this time, but I feel pretty sure it would’ve been bunks.   We were all in a dormitory, of course, though I can’t remember if it was big enough to take all of us lads together, or if there were two dorms.  The two members of staff and their respective wives must’ve had a double room each.
       I do remember, when we were washing and doing our morning ablutions, how amazingly soft the water was there! The tap water in Walsall was notoriously hard and full of dissolved lime scale, but there, it was a pure as could be – so much so, that it brought me out in a kind of allergic rash!  The skin of my fingers came up in lots of little lumps.   No discolouration, nor any redness, but just all these little lumps that were quite itchy, too!
 Steve QM Profile Pic 1961[1]On Saturday, we were taken to visit Harlech Castle and then Caernarvon Castle, which I thought was great!   I’d always enjoyed visiting old castles when I’d been younger.   The nearest one at home was, of course, Dudley Castle, in the grounds of the Zoo, though there wasn’t much left of that!
         Walking round these castles was far, far better than straggling along on a tough cross-country hike, or climbing to the top of nearby Cadair Idris, as a lot of the other weekend parties had to do!   If I had to come to Farchynys, this was the way to do it – oh yes!   It was more like being on a family holiday!
           Mr. Leach was an alright sort of bloke, though I have to say he was one of those masters who didn’t particularly stand out in my memory.   ‘Doc’ Nunes, on the other hand, was an extremely memorable character – the sort you never forget, actually!
For a start, he was an American – and that was unusual enough at a traditional, English Grammar School like ours.   I would say that he and Mr. Leach were probably of a similar age… I can only take a rough guess and say… probably… late twenties to early thirties, perhaps?   He had neat, black hair and – unusually for those times – wore a short, neat beard, so that was two things that made him stand out straightaway:  beard and American accent. He also had a highly developed sense of humour, I recall.
On that Saturday evening, a few of us went into Barmouth for a bit of free time.  We were, no doubt, given a lift into there by one or other of the Masters.   A couple of the lads went off chasing some local girls – to no avail, I might add – and then we all met up again later on and bought ourselves a few bottles of beer, to secretly take back with us, and we also got ourselves some chips. ‘Doc’ came to pick us up in the minibus about 10.30 and he went mad to see we’d all got ourselves packets of chips!
       “Where’s my chips I want some chips!” he declared in his inimitable accent, before going off to the chip shop himself to get himself a portion, once we were installed safely in the minibus. He then sat with us and scoffed them all himself before he began the journey back to Farchynys.
       “Don’t tell my wife!” he cautioned everybody.   He was a real card, that one!
That night, we secretly drank our contraband beer in our dormitory, while sitting in bed.   I suppose – if we had to do it – that was probably the safest possible time and place to do it in – just before we lay down in bed!   I’ve never been a beer-drinker, apart from those early, teenaged experiments.   I simply found I didn’t like it – nor the feeling of intoxication it always produced.   I know I’m an oddity in that – but there it is. 
I still don’t regard myself as teetotal, I will have the very rare odd tipple now and then, but I still don’t like it very much and it doesn’t particularly like me, either.
I don’t remember coming home the next day (Sunday).   My diary just says:  “Came back this afternoon.  Left at 2.00, got back to school 7.00.”
And that was all I wrote about my one and only trip to Farchynys.
It had been a very good and (in some ways) memorable experience, but I was far too lazy by nature to ever want to do it again.