For all of us it was 40 years since we left, and for some of us 50 years since we started, so returning to Culford School after such a long time was surely going to stir quite a mixed bag of emotions as the Class of 79 reassembled.
But, as fast as the clouds and rain rolled away to reveal Culford Park in all its glory, so too did any doubts that this was going to be a fabulous day of rekindling friendships, exploring our old stomping ground and indulging in a little unabashed nostalgia.
How thrilling it was as, one by one, familiar faces appeared round the old library’s wooden door to begin several decades’ worth of catching up. Fortunately Robin Howlett had made this process a great deal easier with his very professionally produced booklet but, certainly for me, there were still a few faces where recognition needed a little bit of prompting.
Those initial exchanges over, it was time for a tour of the school, with John Humphries as our guide. First to the assembly hall – built shortly after we left. It replaced a nest of rooms and corridors that I seem to remember included some staff quarters on one floor and the old tuck shop and a short-lived 5th form youth club in the basement. Somewhere down there too was a cellar where we would stow our trunks at the beginning of every term.
John’s tour took us through the recently created theatre and on into a wing of Culford Hall that I think used to be dormitories and offices and is now music rooms. We were also taken through the impressive new library and the refaced Skinner building – which Peter Richards reminded me was the venue for our Form One entrance examination more than 50 years ago.
Finally, we were taken through the art centre (full marks to John for managing to keep our chattering group in tow) where Tessa Richardson explained its redevelopment.
It was heartening and impressive to see how much the school’s facilities had improved since the 1970s but perhaps the most evocative part of the tour – especially for the boys – was trailing through that music wing with its creaking floors and narrow stairs.
With us on the tour was Anthony Fullwood. His presence and, of course, that of John Humphries and Alan Dures were reminders that our years at Culford were about a great deal more than the friends we made. Inevitably, it was only after we left that we fully appreciated the commitment of the School’s staff and we can all name teachers who had a big impact on us, not only in the classroom, but as housemasters and tutors and on the sports fields or the stage.
Breaking away from the tour, I took a minute or two to look inside Culford’s beautiful church. Momentarily alone, it was sobering to think that it was half a century since I had first trooped in there one Sunday morning with the rest of the Form One boarders. My youth and much of my middle age have clattered by since then and yet the interior of the church appeared exactly as I remembered it.
Back in the sunshine, we regrouped on the South Front for a glass of Prosecco before gathering in ‘The Well’ outside the headmaster’s office – a well-remembered spot for some! John reminded us that there used to be a bench here where prospective parents would be sat alongside insubordinate pupils awaiting their own appointment with the head. Here we squeezed together for a photo before drinks and canapes in the old main hall.
One of the many rooms that I never ventured into in the 1970s was at the end of the corridor off the main hall. Once the staff room, this was now the stately setting for our lunch and the chance for some lengthier conversations with those around us. Certainly the food was of a very different calibre to what the Culford kitchens used to produce!
We had speeches, a quiz, prizes and thank yous… which brings me to my own set of thank yous. Firstly to our inexhaustible host, tour guide and quizmaster, John Humphries. Secondly to Samantha Salisbury and Annie Harrison for arranging such a brilliant day and making us feel so welcome back at the old place. Apparently, with nearly 70 of us showing up, it was the biggest year reunion the school has held so far. Finally, we all owe a big debt to Martin Hayman, Tim Mares and Camilla Veale for making it all happen, bringing old friends together from all over the country, indeed, all over the world.
And so it was time to head our separate ways, though many of us took the opportunity to further explore the school and park. Some also gathered that evening at the Mason’s Arms in Bury St Edmunds to carry on catching up… and looking back.
Before leaving Culford I wandered down to the Iron Bridge, a stunning spot from which to appreciate the work that has been done on the estate under the supervision of Martin Freeman. Indeed, many of us commented on how much smarter the whole school appeared, whether it was Culford Hall itself or the parkland with its magnificent oaks and copper beeches, glorious old trees that we used to sit beneath in the summer terms, awaiting a turn at the crease.
Words by Charles Warren.