Fifty years ago, carrying a standard, I led the Echyngham family across the park of Benenden School as a scene in the school pageant, the Ballad of Benenden.
The story was written by one of the school’s founders, Kathleen Bird (the other founders being Anne Hindle and Christine Sheldon). It was the history of the house on the weald of Kent, which later became the school. The narration was between a historian who told the story, and a ballad-maker who recited poems by Miss Bird. These had a Kipling-like ring to them
Wealden iron and wealden clay,
Wealden sandstone and wealden oak,
From Henry the third till our good Queen’s day
The house was builded by wealden folk.
Anvil’s clang and chisel’s ring …
It began: ‘A thousand years ago where the House of Hemsted now stands, stood the great forest of Andred’s Weald, the King’s Forest.’ The girls acted a tableau for each of the families who lived at Hemsted House. The ‘houses’ of Benenden School were named after those families: Hemsted, Echyngham, Guldeford, Norris, Medway and Marshall (the Marshalls lived in the village and were a great help to the school in its early years).
I have memories of long summer days rehearsing the pageant in the park. And the extracts of music have stayed with me—Britten’s Gloriana Dances (numbers 3 and 6), Carmina Burana number 6 by Carl Orff, Richard Strauss’s first horn concerto, Schubert’s octet third movement. When I hear them now I am taken back to those seemingly carefree days.
Each family was led in by a standard-bearer.
The Hemsteds lived at the school from 1216-1377 when it passed to the Echynghams. The Guldeford family had the best bit because Queen Elizabeth I visited them on horseback, and knighted Thomas Guldeford. (Princess Anne had one of the horseback roles in the 1964 pageant.)
Hurrying, scurrying, hurrying, scurrying
(Benenden, Standen and Iden Green)
Ribbons and laces and bright eager faces,
Who’ll be the first to welcome the Queen? …
Sir John Norris arrived at Hemsted during Queen Anne’s reign. His grandson married Kitty Fisher of nursery-rhyme legend.
In 1857 the house passed to the Gathorne-Hardy family, later the Earl of Cranbrook, and their son Viscount Medway.
Benenden School was founded there in 1923, by the three above-mentioned women who were mistresses from Wycombe Abbey school (urged on by Dame Frances Dove, founder of Wycombe Abbey). The historian related: ‘In the cold and snowy January of 1924, a small but sturdy band of pioneers, thirty-six girls arrived.’
Shadows which fall on the walls and the grass,
Shadows of knights and ladies who pass,
Robert of Hemsted who first took its name,
James who soon after from Echyngham came,
Lady Jane Grey, soon beheaded, poor sweeting,
Guldefords illustrious the Virgin Queen greeting,
Admiral Norris courageous and haughty,
Sweet Kitty Fisher so dimpled and naughty,
Wise Gathorne Hardy, his Sovereign’s good friend,
Medway and Marshall and so the shades end.
Shadows which fall on the wall and the grass,
Gracious and loyal and true in your day,
Give kindly benison now as you pass,
Welcome us here as you go on your way.
The historian quoted from Miss Bird’s book Twenty-five years:
On 23 May 1940, the building shook with the thunder of guns over the Channel and low-flying German planes overhead, and that night the Council decided that Benenden, which was within forty miles of the German Army, was no longer safe for the school and at midnight that day 260 telegrams were sent to parents:
Council recommends temporary dispersal of School.
Miss Sheldon and Miss Hindle found temporary accommodation at the Hotel Bristol in Newquay and the school was there until 1945.
Children of the future
And so we came to the present. The six standard-bearers presented their standards to the heads of house who in turn handed them to the children of the future, who came running across the park.
The ballad-maker’s last words were from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Death of Wallenstein:
As the sun
Ere it is risen, sometimes paints its image
In the atmosphere, so often do the spirits
Of great events stride on before the events,
And in today already walks tomorrow.