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2009 : 1959 Founder Members 50-Year Reunion Review

1959 Founder Members 50-Year Reunion

The big day finally arrived – Tuesday 21st September 2009.

Worth – magnificent in late summer sunshine – is still approached by the same broad drive that we all took on another sunny day 50 years ago (and with similar trepidation) to begin the work of building a new senior school from scratch, based on the preparatory school most of whose 250 boys went on to Downside.  There were 34 of us in that first year, and today, 21 of the 30 of us still living returned.

I arrived with my old friend Chris Frederick.  The first to greet us in the reception hall were the very same Fr Kevin and Olivia (“Oh, when mine eyes did see Olivia first….”).  To start the day Fr Kevin and Fr Stephen concelebrated Mass in the west side chapel of the Abbey Church.  The server was Jeremy Best – the first boy through the door in 1959 – now a retired international banker.  The readings focused on thanksgiving for God’s love and blessings, surely received in abundance by everyone present.  It was the right moment to commemorate our deceased founder members Michael Aris, Nicholas Byrne, Simon Kenny and Anthony Shelmerdine.

Then there was coffee on the lawn outside the Cowdray Room (the former monks’ refectory and before that Viscount Cowdray’s breakfast room) and the Headmaster’s room, now occupied by Gino Carminati, who exchanged some good stories with us of times past and present – and from whom we learned that the school will soon number 600 students.

Members of the Sixth Form (Years 12 and 13 these days) had kindly volunteered (or been volunteered, no change there) to show us round the school in groups of three.  In my group was Mike Gilpin (the first Head Boy and top of the school leader board in Reception, he had flown transatlantic from Vermont where he has a manufacturing company); and Julian Lee (all the way from Turner’s Hill, who is no stranger to prosperity since performing his memorable Sir Toby Belch all those years ago).  We were most capably led and entertained on our tour by Jessica Coffin, the first Head Girl of the 32 who joined the Sixth Form last year.  The old Austin House on the hill has been converted into St Mary’s House for girls, where boarders enjoy what one visitor described as mini-suites.  All boarders now have broadband internet access.

As we walked through the main school, the new Gervase House and Patrick Lamb Centre, St Mary’s House, the Tower buildings, performing arts centre, science and technology labs, playing fields, sports hall and grounds; we were left feeling that something truly great and enduring has been created at Worth which far exceeds the sum of its many parts; all accomplished by the ora et labora Benedictine discipline and tradition of the Community, the many lay teachers and staff, and the contributions of thousands of benefactors.

By this time the chimes of the Tower Clock (which some of us remember being exactly the same in 1954 prehistory) drew us back to the same lawn for champagne and the group photograph.  We were lined up in the same positions as the original 1959 photo – now in the old locker room opposite the Reception Hall, under Head Masters Fr Maurice, Fr Dominic, Fr Kevin, Fr Stephen and Fr Christopher.  The strict order not to fall off the chairs was obeyed by all; habit of a lifetime.

The atmosphere was convivial, comradely, celebratory, gay (as in hussar) a little unreal perhaps, but primarily very, very special.  No shortage of conversation topics – we shared amazement that so many of us had made it, incomprehension that those absent and still living could possibly have anything more important to do on this special day, and exchanged information on whole careers and generations described in two minutes.  Bernard (Malvolio) Elkington was hardly recognisable un-gartered.

And then there was Luncheon.  In the brightly sunlit Cowdray Room a single long table was superbly laid for 30, the colours of Worth resplendent in blue delphinium and gold gerbera flower arrangements.  I had the good fortune to be sitting between Terry (Sebastian) Delaney, who is organising the transport infrastructure for the 2012 London Olympics; and Nick Butterworth, Chairman of Worth Society, who works long and hard with Olivia to ensure the success of this and many other Worth Society events.

Emma Hickmott, the School’s Catering Manager and her team had created a repast – indeed a feast – which would win any of them instant appointment as head chefs at any restaurant in London.  It was well worth waiting 50 years for.  After Grace, offered by Abbot Christopher, we enjoyed the freshest imaginable pigeon and foie gras salsa salad, perfectly offset by a citrus and gooseberry Pouilly-Fumé ‘Les Griottes’ 2008, followed by filet de boeuf with classic vegetables and a fine 2004 Rioja, Marques de Riscal Reserva, all cherry and blackberry.  Taylor 2002 accompanied myriad cheeses and a dessert of peaches, raspberries and ice-cream.  Truly a time for Chaucerian Tales and Fun.

To remind the founder members of the excellence of their vintage, there was an opportunity to taste a quite youthful Hospices de Beaune 1959 – one of the finest Burgundy years of the century, still tannic and cedary as Worth itself.

During the feast Fr Kevin let us into a 50-year old secret.  As the 28 first term boys were arriving at Worth in September 1959, he and Headmaster Fr Dominic were shaking in their shoes with apprehension (he actually used a higher-impact expression which I doubt The Blue Paper would print!).  They were painfully conscious that for their adventure of setting up a senior school as proposed by the first Abbot Victor in 1957, the community was poorly equipped, with no expertise, no money and no facilities.  We then heard from Sir David Bell – the second Head Boy – that if the boys had realised this and called Abbot Victor’s bluff, we could have taken over and run the place ourselves.  Might have been tricky that – I wondered if he remembered Fr Kevin sending the whole school to Headmaster Dominic for talking in prep, who promptly beat every boy in turn!

Suddenly coffee was served and the Reunion Lunch was almost over.  Chris Frederick had asked if Fr Charles, not well enough to join the lunch, could see us briefly.  Fr Stephen took Chris and I to visit him in the Monastery where we chatted for a few minutes.  Chris then produced a bouquet of flowers and we walked over to the Abbey Cemetery where he laid them on the grave of Fr Fabian, our Housemaster.  Fr Stephen then said a prayer at Chris’s invitation.  It was a moving moment in the sunshine, on that beautiful lawn where rest the monks who devoted their lives to Worth; along with some of the students whose lives tragically ended during their education.

The visitors had dispersed and it was time to leave.

What a debt we owe to Nick, Olivia and all their colleagues for the enterprise, energy and hard work which made the occasion possible, not to mention the detective work tracking down all but two of the surviving founder members (Anthony Doherty and Michael Lewen).

Returning to the outside world I am sure every Founder Member was thinking or expressing the same sentiment as I was – thank you, Abbot, Community and School for this wonderful day, et floreat Worth, in saecula saeculorum!

Rodney Bligh (C’64)

September 2009

Anyone educated at Worth will recognise four references to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They recall a 1961 production by Peter (Wiggy) Whigham in which most founder members acted. Wiggy is remembered as a brilliant English teacher and poet (if a somewhat short-tempered master who twice threw boys out of his classroom windows).