Heather Francis - Getting nostalgic, Meridian lines and Spotting Badgers.
In this episode of College in Conversation we talk to Heather Francis, ex-secretary to the Head at Lingfield College and whose history with the school starts back in the 1980s. You'll listen to stories about our school you've never heard of before, from Alan Titchmarsh to Badger Spotting, to the Sisters of Notre Dame leaving the school and much more.
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Welcome to College in Conversation, the official podcast of Lingfield College. Join me, Matthew Harris, alumnus and host, as I talk to the staff, students, and community, showing you exactly what life is like at Lingfield.
Matt: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of College in Conversation. Now today I’m talking to a very very special guest, so… you just gave me a face there, Heather, like, “Really? Special?” So today I’ll be talking to the wonderful Heather Francis who has an amazing, long history with Lingfield College, worked here as secretary to the head, had work done at the school with her husband and it’s just… I can’t wait to talk to Heather today and find about all these wonderful stories about her time at the school. So, Heather, how are you this morning?
H: I’m fine thank you,
M: We’re tucked away in the corner of Le Clerc here in a really cold room, we can’t find the radiator and we’re sort of going back in the years anyway aren’t we with this? But it’s fabulous, I’d love to ask you a bit, Heather, about how your relationship with the School began, where did it all start?
H: Well, I was working at Sevenoaks School on appeal, which I’d for done at other schools, but our children wanted to come to Lingfield College, but then when we decided to send them here the sisters decided to leave. So we were a bit nervous about it but our good friends, Paul and Helly Yates, they said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” Anyway, we had this enormous meeting after they had joined, in the auditorium, when we were told that the nuns would be going and they didn’t really know what was going to happen, but then a board of governors was brought together and it all turned out very well.
M: It’s amazing, I’d love to hear a little bit more about the meeting itself, the atmosphere in the room, the moment of when everyone realised that was going to happen, because it’s a really important to meeting to this day because without it we probably wouldn’t have a school, and not only that, we changed the house names to Higgins, Club, Yates, and Bell in the Senior School to honour that board of governors that came together. Was there anything else about that, what was that like, in that moment where it was a packed auditorium, and you find out that news?
H: Well, it was a packed auditorium, there was a sort of hash around, and then people would stand up wanting to give their opinion and they were horrified the nuns were going, but anyway it all turned out really well, so we were pleased. At that point I was about to leave Sevenoaks school because the appeal had come to an end, so they took me on to help, having worked in a school I had the experience, so I thought, “Yippee, yes I’ll do that then!” And it’s easily down the road.
M: So that’s even better then, a shorter commute as well. So, was that directly into the role of being Secretary to the head?
H: I had just worked as a secretary in the main school office, and there were 2 of us. And then eventually when Nula Shepley came, then I was made secretary to the head.
M: That’s lovely, and we were reminiscing a bit earlier about Nula Shepley’s amazing ability, so any alumni listening to this, or people who have relationships with the school dating back to when Nula Shepley was headmistress here, that she had an uncanny ability, it was almost legendary in the county, that she would be able to remember every student’s name, past, present and recognise their parents on site. Did you ever find out how she did that?
H: I had no idea, she just had this amazing brain, and I’ll always be in awe of her.
M: An incredible, incredible human being, and we were talking about the end of her tenure here, when we had organised the wonderful Judy Dench to come to the speech night on her last year here, and Nula had no idea that was going to happen.
H: No! (laughs)
M: (laughs) It was a classic Lingfield surprise. And it was my penultimate year at the school when that happened, and it was a shared experience of myself and Heather have from different perspectives as it were.
I’d love to know what it was like working here as a staff member when your three girls were at the school, were they always asking you for favours?
H: Well, not real favours, the only favours really were lifts home which I wouldn’t give them because I was still working, so they’d come to the door looking sort of sad, so I said, “No, no, sorry you have to walk home.” Since we were only 10mins away from…
M: Yeah, come on!
H: there was no problem, but they have wonderful memories of the school, they made lots of friends here, who some of them they keep up with.
M: That’s fantastic. Whenever we have alumni events or I tour people around the school that used to come here, it’s apart from the classic school memories, of you know the headteacher was quite scary, or stuff like that, on the whole it is all positive, that family atmosphere that we have at the school is something we’ve really tried to continue here. I mean I was here as a student and back now as a staff member, it’s that same atmosphere in different clothing as it were, that pastoral care being the focus of everything, that good pastoral care leads to quality academic results, rather than pushing down on the academic and putting people’s mental health at risk. Was that the vibe when you were here?
H: It was, definitely, yes, Nula really promoted the good care of the students.
M: Absolutely, yes. Well, I’d love to talk a bit mor about your husband, Peter, specifically in 1987, what he and you did here on the Senior School site following that famous storm of that year. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
H: Well Peter and I had become Surrey Tree Wardens for the Lingfield Parish Council and we were doing bits around the village in the area and because of the wonderful area of woodland that you had here, then it was an obvious place especially after the ‘87 storm when everything blew down. I remember coming down here and I couldn’t believe the number of trees that were lying on the ground. We decided to start it off and that was good. A whole load of parents came and helped us and other Surrey Tree Wardens came and helped as well, so we came down on a Saturday morning, and I’ve got a lovely photograph somewhere of us sitting outside the head office, the balcony outside the heads office, looking absolutely knackered, having a drink and a sandwich.
M: Of water, of course.
H: Of course, yes.
M: It’s lovely, you showed me a wonderful photograph before we started recording here of you marshalling the troops as were, getting them in line and keeping them on task.
H: Yes, there was slightly raised area which was very useful, because we used to put them below and I could stand on top, or the tree warden representative could come along from Surrey and would talk to them as well.
M: That’s lovely.
H: So, they knew what they were doing. Some thought they just had to clear everything away, but that wasn’t it. We had to put it in piles so that the wildlife could go in. A lot of them thought it was their tidy garden, you know, but it wasn’t.
M: It’s like, “Clean your bedroom.” “Right we’ll just shove it all under the bed and that’s done then.” “No no no, you have to organise it.” I love that. You have a real passion for ecology and wildlife, and it’s something the school is really trying to work on, with eco captains in both the Senior and Prep school so that legacy is long continuing and hopefully will only grow and you mentioned about Alan Titchmarsh and his visit to the school which would never have happened without you. I’d love to hear about how that come about and what it was like to have someone with that kind of national reputation on the school grounds.
H: Well, we know that we have the meridian line which going through the school, through the woodland, and when I heard that he was doing a walk on the whole of the meridian through England, I thought, “Ah, right, okay.” So, I met him up at Crowhurst, I did tell him what I was going to do…
M: (laughing) You didn’t just jump him. “Alan! Come with me!”
H: (laughing) Yes, so we had a chat under the Crowhurst yew in Crowhurst churchyard, and then we walked all the way down through to Lingfield and he planted a tree, and it’s on the meridian, just before it goes out onto the main road under the bridge. And he was very good, so it was good to have him there.
M: That’s lovely. And we do have that photograph, it’s somewhere in the alumni records, we have it in that wonderful history book that Paul Yates wrote on the school. You showed me one of those today, so it’s an event we definitely have a record of in the school. It’s lovey to see and I forgot about the meridian line running through the school because there’s a stone a think that is by the bridge that separates the Prep and Senior sites that says the meridian line runs through the school, so I’d forgotten about that.
H: Well, there was one where we planted the tree, but that seems to have disappeared.
M: I’ll go looking for it. It’s probably being used as a paperweight somewhere. We’ll find that at some point.
M: Let’s stick on the greenery. I think its such a fantastic thing to keep talking about. And the land that we bought from the farmers which is now the AstroTurf, the pavilion area, and the football pitches about when we bought that land, how we did it and the unspoken or rather spoken arrangement between the farmers and the school.
H: Yes, Robert Young owned the land and he was a parent at the school, and he agreed to, I think it was to rent it in the beginning, but he did sell it in the end, I think, he must have done, yes. So, we had planted a hedge between the woodland area and his land but it then went when the school achieved the land, so that was good. But it’s just made such a… well. The woodland is still there. It is really good, and I am really pleased with that we did in those days. Because we spent many a Saturday morning with parents and staff clearing it out and replanting.
M: It’s fantastic. The student body are obviously, I mean, some obviously when you’re here, you almost don’t know how grateful you are for these things until you leave the school. But I know so many students are actively appreciative of the fact there’s so much green space here. When we tour parents around the school, it’s something they always mention about it’s almost hidden away, the school, by trees and the open space that if you’re on break time you want a bit of quiet, there’s always a place you can go with your mates to have a chat, or sometimes back in my days, sneak off and we’ll have those sweets we shouldn’t have brought into school in the forest somewhere, but I love, you mentioned to me before, how the fields where the football fields are will always remain fields because of what the farmers said. What did they say again?
H: They said they didn’t want them to be turned into buildings, that was the main thing, which they haven’t been. So, there’s just the pavilion there.
M: It’s great. There’s just the pavilion for changing rooms and teas, and bar that it’s a huge amount of green space and over the summer it’s absolutely jam packed with students.
H: We did have… My husband and I came and watched badgers one night.
H: Down at the bottom, near the railway line because we’d seen their holes and we thought, “Right, okay.” So, we sat there and we did see a badger. (laughs)
M: That must have taken some real patience. I don’t think I’d have been able to do that.
H: It was, yes. I’m sure they could have smelt us.
M: It’s lovely that the wildlife is still on the School with the Prep School they did an episode of Springwatch, I was telling you about their birdboxes and they put cameras out and they saw a charm of foxes and a mother fox with cubs and stuff like that and the students were so engaged with the wildlife here. It’s so lovely to see, we mainly build up rather than out these days so we keep the greenery whilst still being able to expand the school so it’s really really great.
You’ve got quite a history with the library at the school here actually, it’s such an amazing part of the building and I’d love for you to talk more about a certain life event that you held here at the library which you told me earlier, “Well, I had access to it so I was gonna do that!” I’d love to hear more about that.
H: Yes, well we had… I come from a very large family. My father was the eldest of 6 children and they all had family around the country, so we did have family reunions but at one point people couldn’t really come to them so we said we had this area which lots of people can come into, so we did and we had it in the library, which was a great day, it was lovely.
M: It’s such a wonderful space. The big double doors I don’t think those will ever change. Miss Fallows, the librarian, I know opens them in the summer and shuts them at winter and uses the space so effectively. It used to be part of the dormitory area but was it the study are for the students at the time?
H: I think it was partly, yes, but I remember an old lady in the village coming to me one and I don’t know we got talking about Notre Dame, but she said to me, “I was one of the first students there”, pupils she called it, so I said, “Really?” and she said, “Yes.” So, I said, “Well, would you like to come down and have a look?” So we went down there and we went into the library because that was the main room where they were taught and she looked around she said, “Gosh it’s got a lot smaller now hasn’t it?”
M: Was that rather, she’s just grown up?
H: Yes, exactly, yes, it means she was very old at the time. So, I think she was one of the original pupils.
M: We spoke as well about the auditorium about how that meeting took place with the board of governors forming, and how that area of the school has pretty much not changed since the 1960s. and that there’s a real nostalgia in that space, there’s a lot of feelings in the air of the history in that room, and we were talking about how Heather worked at the school when I was a pupil here, that all the plays we saw there and battle of the bands, dance productions, all these things happening in that same space. Were there any particular shows that if I ask you off the top of your head, any plays that you remember or events that happened there, that spring to mind?
H: Well, I can’t remember the names, but I do remember our children being in the plays. I’ve got a picture somewhere of them standing there, sort of…
H: Petrified! That’s right, yes, that’s right. Having the official photograph taken. They enjoyed it, they really loved it here.
M: When they joined, did they stay the whole way through here until they then left?
H: Yes they did.
M: That’s amazing. What were their age gaps?
H: Erm… very short.
M: Sorry, I’ve sprung quick maths on you there.
H: 18 months between.
M: I’d love to ask you, you told me a wonderful story, if you can retell it, about Arthur. And I’ll say no more, if you can give us the full audiobook narration, as it were, of this story, because I think it’s so sweet.
H: Well, Arthur was one of the maintenance men, and he was retiring and he used to go around just tidying up, sweeping, doing all sorts of things and he was always reliable, and it came to his retirement day, and they got the whole school together in the auditorium and they said, “You’ve got to be absolutely silent.” And they had pulled the curtains across, and they said, “Arthur, you’ve got to come down because there something wrong with the curtains in the auditorium.” So he was take down and he was taken through the back entrance up onto the stage, and how the school got to be so quiet…
M: (laughing) We were saying, “Please, can you share these tricks with us today!” That would be incredibly useful!
H: So he went onto the stage and whoever it was that took him up there said, “Look, there’s something wrong with them. It won’t pull, the curtains won’t open properly.”
M: Some quality acting going on there.
H: “Can you pull the cords?” So, he did, and the curtains opened the whole school roared, clapping, and shouting and hooraying. He was completely overwhelmed of course. He had been there, I can’t remember how many years he had been there, but he had been there a very long time.
M: It’s fantastic to get such an overwhelming reception from the entire staff and student body for an individual really shows the effect that person has had on the entire school, and you know while the majority of teachers here have a huge amount of students that will support them through their time here not everyone is everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s just the way it is but you do get these occasional human beings that go through your life whether that be at school or work that are universally loved for whatever reason. You said he was a maintenance man, but he didn’t do much maintenance, he was just a man.
H: Of course, nobody saw him because he was always wondering around the school.
M: (laughing) Nothing to do! I bet when you told him about the curtains, he was like, “Oh for goodness’ sake, do I have to do some work?!”
M: It’s so lovely. Well, it’s been a joy to talk to you this morning, Heather, it really has. It’s so nostalgic and wonderful and great to see how the work that you did at Lingfield in spirit is being continued these days. So, I really have to thank you for coming in this morning and you are always welcome at the school, whenever you want, you come back and visit and we can go through some more stories in the future I’m sure. So thank you so much.
H: It’s a delight for me to see it thriving in the way it is.
M: Thank you for taking the time to listen to our podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and look forward to welcoming you back for another conversation at Lingfield College very soon.
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