Memoir – Fairthorne Manor
One dull, grey, winter morning during a French lesson, the head teacher came into our classroom and, as was done in those times, we all jumped to attention and chimed out, “Good morning, Miss”, even if our scowling expressions were not accordant. After telling us to sit down she announced that twelve students had been chosen to spend a week at Fairthorne Manor. Having never heard of the place and never having had good news from the head mistress, we all looked at each other afraid she was going to send us to a sort of penal colony or worse. She went on to say that Fairthorne Manor was a large mansion in Hampshire standing on the estuary of the River Hamble. The Manor, having been uninhabited for years, had recently been put to use as a holiday-cum college where young children from the cities would be taken to learn canoeing and sailing.
At this our ears pricked up and we all began looking daggers at the others, hoping we were on the list and not them. This “holiday” was to take place in June and would cost nothing to the children’s families as the school would pay any dues. Finally, after telling us in many words that it was a wonderful opportunity for those who had been chosen, the head mistress began reading out the list of names.
I had little hope of being named and, as the list was in alphabetical order and my name begins with a W, I sat back and philosophically and hypocritically congratulated the friends who had been lucky. The eleventh name was Steven Vine and the twelfth Linda White. Could it really be happening to me? Those children who had been left out tried to put on a brave face and, even if we could tell how disappointed and envious they were, we brazenly went on celebrating for the rest of the French lesson. Fourteen year olds can often be completely insensitive.
During the following days and months we could hardly speak of anything else and, on the day we were to leave, our excitement had reached a pitch. Our cases had been packed by our loving Mums, with added tit-bits if we should feel the pangs of hunger during the trip. We all climbed onto the coach which would deliver us to Fairthorne Manor and our adventure was beginning.
On arrival at the Manor we were allotted our rooms, six beds in each dormitory. We chose our beds, unpacked our sparse belongings and went to explore. The boy’s dormitory was just across the landing and, being boys, they had managed to reduce it to a pit after just ten minutes. We had been given thirty minutes to get ourselves sorted out and were then to go down to the hall where we would be given instructions and have explanations as to what we would be doing in the next few days.
Running down the wide staircase which separated the ground floor from the rest of the Manor we assembled in a large room where we were introduced to the head instructor and his team. We were told about the activities we would be having, canoeing, sailing, swimming in the river, compass reading and, finally, a picnic on the beach which we would reach by motor boat. We were then escorted around the Manor and told where to go and where not to go, especially if we were alone. We were taken to see the canoes, the sailing boats and last of all the beautiful park and gardens, an inheritance of the Manor’s many owners in years gone by.
That evening, after dinner we all traipsed up to bed to sleep like logs for the rest of the night, the excitement and novelty had taken its toll.
Awakened the next morning by a clanging bell, we all jumped out of bed and ran down to breakfast where the head instructor told us what we were about to embark on. My best friend and I, together with the others who had chosen canoeing, were led down to the river and each consigned a canoe and paddle. If you have ever tried fitting yourself into a canoe without immediately capsizing, you will understand how difficult our first encounter with a canoe was. Only one of us finished up in the river and, strangely enough it was not me. Our instructor showed us how to use the paddle to go forwards and backwards and, after just a few tries and even less minutes, told us to follow him.
Canoeists we see on television make it all seem so ridiculously easy to go straight, turn at ninety degrees, even roll over with their canoe and manage to resurface without drowning. The one thing I had difficulty doing was not only elementary but necessary. However hard I tried I just could not go straight. While the instructor led the others, just like Mummy duck with her little ducklings following behind, I began zigzagging backwards and forwards from one muddy river bank to the other. The front of the canoe would stick steadfastly in the mud and, with great difficulty, I would use the paddles to get back out, only to head almost immediately to the other side of the river and stick in the muddy bank there. After just a few minutes our mummy duck instructor, followed by his ducklings, had disappeared behind a bend in the river. I continued my zigzagging, hoping they were waiting for me behind the bend, only to discover how un-loyal they were when, having reached the bend, the river was void of canoes. I continued zigzagging for about half an hour and, finally, saw them on the horizon, resting about half a mile in front of me. I waved, sure that having seen me they would wait. However it was not to be so. As soon as the instructor realized I was still alive he shouted and off they went again. My zigzagging went on for the rest of the morning only to find respite at lunch time. The whole group had stopped on a sand bank, they had left their canoes in the sand and were digesting the sandwiches which the instructor had brought with him. I was greeted with laughs and cheering, given a sandwich and a glass of water, told to get back into my canoe and off we all went once more. Unfortunately, neither the sandwich and water, the jeering from my friends, the tips given to me by the instructor nor the so called rest had changed anything and I passed the rest of the day zigzagging along the river, meeting frogs and toads at the river banks. At the end of the day my arms felt like lead, I had a sore back where the canoe had rubbed for the entire day and had decided that canoeing just was not for me. For the next two days I continued zigzagging but, nevertheless, I slowly managed to make each zig and each zag go a little further along the river until, finally, miracles do happen, I was not the ugly duckling anymore and joined the group happily paddling along behind the instructor. Having covered more ground, or water, than the others by the time I had learnt to go straight I was more experienced than the rest of them.
The next morning the instructor led us into a very narrow stream off the river where he told us we would have to back out as there was nowhere we could turn our canoes around. The stream was covered with brambles which got entwined in our hair and clothes almost pulling us out of our canoes. My friend David, a little, rather naughty boy, got yanked out of his canoe by the thorns and capsized. One minute he was behind me and the next he was nowhere to be seen until, after what seemed ages, he splutteringly resurfaced. He was a secret smoker and had brought a packet of cigarettes with him which he had kept well hidden in his pocket. At lunch, on the sand bank he lay the cigarettes out in a line to dry on a dead tree trunk which had been brought down the river by the current. Unfortunately for David his solicitude did not have a good result as, when he went to retrieve them, he found fifteen sorry looking cigarettes laying on the tree trunk and fifteen filters unhappily fallen to the ground.
David also told us that he had heard a ghost inhabited the Manor, which walked the corridors at midnight. Naturally, that same night we all decided to stay awake until midnight and await the ghost’s appearance. Tired, trembling from the cold and just a little afraid we hid behind the doors and peeped into the corridor. Some were convinced they had seen the ghost, others were skeptical and I, on my part, must admit I saw nothing.
The last afternoon of our holiday we were given a lesson on compass reading as, after dinner, there would be a nighttime compass reading competition in the park. We made up couples and were given a torch, a compass and a piece of paper with directions. We were told we had to reach lights which had been scattered around the grounds. At each light we would find cards to be collected and shown to the judges on arrival at the Manor.
My friend Rose and I found the first two lights quite easily, duly picked up the cards and then went North-West. Everybody else seemed to be going in the opposite direction and when I remarked on this Rose said that they were all making a mistake and that we were the only ones going the right way. So as not to argue I let her have her way and for some minutes we walked along the pitch dark driveway of the Manor but could see no lights at all. Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves walking out of the grounds and along the road. Here I endeavoured, once again, to convince Rose that we had made a mistake but she would have nothing of it. We only had one torch and she was holding it tightly so what could I do but follow her. We saw lights in the distance and continued walking away from the Manor. At one point we saw a light on the other side of a field, climbed over a fence into a muddy field only to hear a chorus of “moos” not very far away. We quickly jumped back over the fence and went on our way, spotting lights in the distance. We later discovered that the lights we were trying to approach were in the local village about three miles away.
Over an hour later, when we had finally discovered our terrible mistake and were frightened both of the dark night and of what would happen to us when we finally got back to the Manor, we began our return journey towards “home”. Suddenly a car drew up beside us and the voice of our instructor bellowed, “Get into the car quickly and behave yourselves. Do you realize that I am responsible for you and that you could have come to a bad end.”
At one o’ clock in the morning we arrived at the Manor only to find that all of the others had been back for the last two hours, had been given sandwiches and a hot cocoa and were happily sleeping in bed. We who, at that point, really needed some sustenance were, instead, punished and sent to bed with nothing.
Some years later my younger brother, at the age of eight or nine, was also given the chance to taste the countryside and Fairthorne Manor.
I still have the letter he sent to our mother.
“It’s horrible here. The food is awful we haven’t done any sailing or canoeing and it’s raining”.
The writing then changes in form, as if he had left the letter for a couple of days and then taken it up again.
“Well, it’s not too bad here now. Yesterday we went sailing today we did some canoeing and the instructor is quite nice. They gave us chips for dinner”.