Bye-bye Benenden

‘Benenden trains its daughters well’. So said Alastair Best of The Field when profiling me 37 years ago. We’ll let history be the judge of that.

It is 50 years ago today that I left Benenden School, but of course it doesn’t seem like it. I was there for five years and was homesick for quite a lot of the time, because I loved my home life at Denham. However, it got better towards the end and, assisted by my diary, I remember my last weeks there pretty well.


After we had finished A levels I spent time doing my garden (this was a small plot behind my house, Echyngham). It had many imports from Wrango (which won me the Purver cup for gardening that year). I also played the piano a lot; tried (impossibly) to beat Gill Bostock at breast stroke, and not be an embarrassment when swimming against beefy Roedean girls; and encouraged somewhat truculent Echyngham friends to sing a Bach Brandenberg concerto á la swingle singers.

My garden in 1970, the tree (which I inherited) was always a problem. Sadly, the gardens have gone now.

There was a school dance at Canterbury where I met a ‘rather conservative’ chap called Andrew Campbell. When he told me he lived near Durham I immediately said ‘then your nearest national park will be Northumberland’ (which may not be correct); this was hardly an encouragement to further conversation, but national parks were already my obsession.

In my final year at Benenden we were allowed to have a study. For my last term I shared with Jane Hepburn-Scott and Jane Micklethwaite. It was a lot of fun, and I could decorate my part of the study as I wished (mostly with pictures of, and posters about, Dartmoor).

My part of the study

Near the end of term one of the music teachers, Nancy Bennett, asked me to pull out the stops while she played the organ at the school service in Benenden church. This was novel and I loved it, while well aware of the risk of getting it wrong and filling the church with sound at the wrong moment. It was made more challenging because I had to wear my boater (parallel to the ground) throughout, while running from one side of the organ to the other.

Benenden church

Looking back at school reports, I realise that the headmistress, Betty Clarke, knew me better than I thought. We each had to go to her study for a farewell. She was never forthcoming and conversation with her was hard work (fortunately we had a common interest in dachshunds). On my last day she congratulated me on my determination, and said that I ‘didn’t dabble’, and that it was important never to give up. Other staff made similar comments. I think I have followed that advice.

Leaving Wrango for my first term at Benenden, 19 September 1967

I returned last month for a fiftieth reunion, beautifully organised by the school. The old hall with the tiers, where we practised public speaking, has been demolished and replaced by a splendid new hall with state-of-the-art music school, designed by Guy Holloway.

Everywhere I looked were Yamaha pianos. I was anxious to find the Bechstein grand, which, when I was practising for grade 8, I would (before breakfast) wheel out on to the stage of the great hall, and play to the empty space. I have never forgotten it. The director of music, Edward Whiting, remembered it but said it could no longer be tuned. That is so sad, but at least he did remember it, and I hope it has gone to a good home where tuning isn’t essential.

I like the Beethoven quotation: ‘Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy’.

The Beethoven bridge

We looked around the hall and enjoyed a superlative concert, ending with tea on the terrace where, 53 years ago, the pageant took place. As standard bearer for the Echyngham family I led the way across the park to the terrace, and passed the banner to James de Echyngham and his wife (Caroline Diver and Sarah Firth), who then passed it to the children of the future.

About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Denham, Devon, Memories, National parks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bye-bye Benenden

  1. Kate what would we do without your steadfast campaigning and determination? There is still so much to fight for not least climate change. It’s so easy to feel powerless and stick one’s head in the sand. I feel overwhelmed by the rapidification of life and the challenges we have to face.Thank you for everything.

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