GRENVILLE COTTAGE (built c.1865 demolished January 2004)
Grenville Cottage is no more. Once the site had been sold to W.E. Black, a Buckinghamshire development firm, by Bucks County Council it descended into dereliction, and became a danger to local schoolchildren who were attracted by the cover that it offered for activities not condoned by adults. We now await a new estate of housing and wonder whether the ancient right of way “Dark Alley” will be lost in translation
Grenville Cottage was one of four Victorian villas built in the 1860’s along the southern side of Buckingham’s “new” Chandos Rd, properties built for those who wanted exclusion from the bustling streets of the town’s centre coupled with easy access to the new railway. Brookfield, once The Mount, the stone-clad King of these gentlemen’s residences remains largely unaltered externally; red-brick Rotherfield House offers only hints of its glory days, and poor Chandos Lodge was razed in the early 1960’s. Grenville Cottage was distinctive for its “yellow” bricks, imported via Buckingham’s new-fangled railway from Northants or Leicestershire. When the Buckingham Society heard that Grenville was at risk two years ago, it attempted to have the building listed. Sadly, though the building had local interest, the quality of its architecture did not gain it national protected status.
The remaining members of the Embleton clan will mourn Grenville – for them it was a grand “home”. When the Latin School outgrew its 1907 Chandos Rd buildings, it acquired the adjoining Grenville Cottage as its School Library and Headmaster’s house. George Embleton moved there in 1948 with his first wife. Grenville was the first home of George’s daughters: Rosemary and Jane. George went out from Grenville to marry Edna Robinson one St. George’s Day. It was in Grenville Cottage that Edna first sharpened her culinary skills, and shaped herself into one of the leading hostesses of North Bucks. Edna’s sister, Jean, will remember Grenville vividly, for one day she sallied forth through its grand portico as Miss Robinson returning later as Mrs Vernon Taylor. That captures why Grenville’s passing matters: for 150 years it has been a stage on which lives were transformed, a memory-house of real people. With its demolition we have lost a key to unlock how we lived and felt.
Until recently the grounds showed the strong interest that the Latin School took in rural education before World War II. There were brick pig sties built against the wall along Brookfield Lane, hen houses grouped through an expansive apple orchard, greenhouses, and outbuildings that became the home to the Young Farmers’ Club. The Cottage’s main façade faced Chandos Road and was set on the top of rising ground behind a fine gravel path fringed by an expansive and well-planted rockery. To one side was a walled garden laid out as a vegetable parterre fringed by beautiful box hedging. In the 1950’s that vegetable garden was lovingly tended by “Mr Timms” a brilliant gardener of the old school whose family ran a Nursery in the Akeley area, I believe. A seedling from one of those box shrubs has taken root some yards away and is now a proud thirty-foot high box tree. Long after Mr Timms retired one fruit of his labours flourished – a huge row of giant rhubarb. In season, the Tuesday Market in Town was regularly supplied with its great pink sticks ( a perk of the job for he school’s ground staff), that still left plenty over to make Mrs Pickering’s weekly rhubarb crumble that ensured that Sennacot was not on the Boarding House Matron’s list of medical supplies. On the other side of the house were notable specimen trees including several walnuts, a tree that has a long history in Buckingham, apricots and a fig in the gateway that resisted all efforts to eliminate it.
This building will be missed by generations of sixth form students and their teachers at the Latin School; after the school and its Headmaster moved to Brookfield on a very wet day in September 1962 Grenville Cottage became a warren for sixth formers. They loved it for its relaxed atmosphere, its nooks and its crannies, and for its curious fire escape – a wooden ladder complete with rules on how it should be employed. “Grenville” was the Latin School’s “Other Place”, an outpost of Empire where different rules obtained. Senior Staff armed to the teeth with regulations from the “Main Block” would take five closely-observed minutes to arrive, precious time used to paste the façade of school rules over the cracks of licence. To be fair, George Embleton tacitly accepted that his rod reached no further than Brookfield Lane, but it suited him to keep powers in reserve. So, under the liberal leadership of distinguished scholars such as Jim Robertson (Historian, Buckingham Town Cricket Club and lately retired from Liverpool College) and Andy Cooper (RS, Buckingham Town Football Club and today a Deputy Headteacher at RLS), girls and boys rough-cut by imposed rules were smoothed by rubbing up against each other into responsible adults.
For many years Grenville’s myriad of small, idiosyncratically shaped rooms was the main sixth form teaching base. True to its name its atmosphere was cottage-like – most teachers taught in front of their room’s original period fireplace writing upon a small blackboard perched precariously on its mantelpiece. Not so easy when you’re a 4 foot 10 inch high, mini-skirted teacher with arms in strict proportion! But, the informality, the casual collection of ill-assorted chairs, the lack of flat surfaces upon which to write were in delightful contract to the rectilinear order of the main school built lego-like from 10 metre square units fit for the magic class number of 30 pupils. The ill fit between Grenville’s geometry and apparent academic needs was at the root of its success. Small groups were enforced by the tiny spaces that gave the teacher no space to call their own Such intimacy almost inevitably leads to a different contract – not teacher plus pupils but a scholarly group learning together. You could say “School Out, University In”. Neither did Grenville possess teaching resources – props that support teacher and taught. If a teacher wanted to play a language tape, then (s)he would have to carry the tape-player 500 metres from the Main Block. If the teacher was not Tamara Press then it was more likely that the prop would be jettisoned. Even OHPs , that ubiquitous tool of late 20th century teaching, were in short supply and the teacher who had pre-packed his lesson on a set of vu-foils some years before had to freshly translate his ancient effort that was probably past its “sell-by date” into “chalk ‘n talk”. Did all that make for less effective lessons? I will not answer that for fear of revealing the prejudice of a retired teacher of the old school!
Some rooms were dedicated – the History department established its own Library in Grenville, a bastion should the School’s main library suffer “dumbing down”. Economics and Business Studies created the ambience of a Boardroom through a purpose-built rectangular table with a hollow centre. Grenville developed its own boffins’ area where long-haired, intense males built the school’s first computers in preparation for voluntary twilight lessons in A-level Computer Science. There was always a tension between downstairs – the social scene, and upstairs – the Academy. The noise of hot-air rose naturally up into lessons, but the control system – the bursting in of an exasperated teacher upon the coffee-swilling herd admiring the latest wall-painting – “CHE LIVES VII” – was constrained by the maze of doors, narrow twisting corridors and rattling banisters.
Grenville Cottage was the face that RLS turned to Buckingham Secondary School. Brookfield Lane saw the dividing of the ways; those selected for secondary modern education turned left, those judged capable of “grammar” either turned sharp right into Grenville or carried on to the ivory towers of Brookfield. Brookfield Lane was the peace line, for whilst on one side some felt resentment and there was cockiness on the other, few students felt hatred to their cousins and primary playmates on the other side of the road. Unpleasant incidents were rare and frequently motivated by opportunity rather than malice. A typical sport, as practised by Buckingham’s present Mayor, Robin Stuchbury, was to merge into a class in the “wrong” school to see how long it would take the teacher to spot the odd man out.
It was from an upstairs Grenville window that one RLS sixth- former shot a shot-putter. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And so it was. But it was funny / awful. In those days the Secondary School had an athletics practice area and sandpit adjoining Brookfield Lane. That particular lunchtime a lad was practising shot putting. Over in Grenville, senior students were examining a smuggled-in weapon – an air gun. Over-excitement and a sight for sore eyes- heaving buttocks- caused one of the lads to pull the trigger. Inevitably, Grenville’s rear-gunner hit his target resulting in one shocked shot-putter shot in the foot by his shot. The shot pupil recovered but the crack marksman, who shared a name with Karl Marx, was given the “bum’s rush” into the world of work.
A time there was when Grenville was almost burned down by the writer. It was November 1979 and the Latin school had a new resident Headmaster, largely unversed in the arts of Boarding. The writer was Head of Chemistry and he possessed an unenviable store of waste organic solvents.
“Headmaster, we always hold a Bonfire and Fireworks Party for the Boarders, usually in the grounds of Grenville.”
“Excellent, Ed, I love fireworks, I’ll look forward to it. I’ll get Gay [the Head’s wife] to make some ginger-bread and toffee apples.”
“That will be marvellous, Headmaster.”
New Heads sweep clean. That year an order had gone out across the whole of RLS: that sheds and out-houses should be cleared of old books, desks and chairs. Most of those outhouses were at Grenville. The Boarders’ fire grew and grew and grew until some said it stood as high as Grenville itself. But the God of Fire was sad, he was weeping and his rainfall never ceased, driven before a strong wind.
“Ed’ll fix it lads, let’s go to the Labs and fetch some solvents.”
The volatile mixture was poured under, in, through and over the great pile that was leaning Pisa-like towards the cottage.
“LEAVE IT TO ME”
“I’M A CHEMIST”
Lighting a bonfire is not usually rocket science but lighting that one was. Fiery projectiles flew, leading tongues of livid fire that licked every part of Grenville’s complex roof.
The Chemist, who knew that the roof was stuffed with ancient hay, prayed!
The Headmaster’s face, although illumined by the bright yellow light of the flames seemed as blanched as the finest stick of celery. Peter Luff still remembers the letter that he penned in his mind that night to the Chief Education Officer, Roy Harding, revealing how he, the new Headmaster, had permitted Grenville Cottage to be burnt down.
“Nice One, Sir” was repeated along the straggling lines of open-mouthed Boarders, like a mantra, full of fearful, awed reverence.
Well, everybody knows the happy end to that story. But in some ways it would have been nice for Grenville to go out with a bang and not a whimper. The years that followed were decline intermingled with fall-out: an ill-conceived joint Vocational Centre that foundered as its unmarried parents bickered, was followed by Grenville’s conversion into a temporary primary school extension. Once back in RLS hands it was a largely unloved, under-used outpost, worth more dead than alive. Grenville became a dump – one room was used to house defunct computers- a space subsequently transformed by one pupil into his personal love nest! Across the way, a rapidly expanding Buckingham School that had disposed of so much of its own land in favour of community projects such as a Sports Hall, a Youth Centre, a Swimming Pool and, last, but not least, an Astro-Turf pitch, turned green with envy.
Buckingham School screamed, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, it’s Bucks County Council property.”
Many local Councillors, who characterised RLS as the Grammar School for Milton Keynes, yelled in enthusiastic agreement.
“Sorry, it’s ours to sell but not ours to give,” said the other school, “If we sell it, we’ll be able to erect our own Sports Hall.”
The end of the story is a fine RLS Sports Hall, and a new residential housing estate.Grenville Cottage has gone up in a black pall of smoke that hung over the campus for a week or more but the Ghosts of Grenville still chill the air in the corridors of power across North Bucks that re-echo to fragments of a chorus that may sound like, “Money, Money, Money!