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Finding a home, I never knew: Archivist Abroad

Before I begin this article, there is one thing you must know about me – I am dreadful at Geography. My terrible map-reading skills are second only, compared to my even worse Maths skills (apologies Mr Carruthers).  This is important to note, as when someone suggested a holiday to the Lake District this summer, I agreed without really knowing (geographically) where I was going; impressive, I know! Whilst I had visited the Lakes before, had I solely been tasked with navigating us there, I doubt we would have made it past the M25.

Before we left London, we tried to plan a few trips ahead of time. It was during this time, that my brother, reading through a walking guidebook, called out for me to come take a look at a specific walk. Now I wasn’t being shown the walk itself, but the village where this walk was based. It was a small town, along the Cumbrian coast, that I had been wanting to visit for years. I brushed him off initially, thinking it was too far from where we were staying – again, terrible geography skills! – but following a quick internet search, we discovered it was only fifty minutes away. I was giddy with anticipation! Thankfully no persuasion was required to get everyone on board with a day trip. To an outsider, my excitement might seem a tad silly, but I don’t mind; finally, I would get to see the town I had so longed to see, the place I had heard and read about for years – St Bees.

Growing up at Mill Hill, I must have heard the name ‘St Bees’ dozens, if not hundreds of times. I’m sure many Old Millhillians will know the story by heart now, but I will jog our collective memories just in case. During World War Two, a mass evacuation of children from London was authorised. However, even before war was declared, Headmasters Arthur Rooker-Roberts (of Belmont) and Dr Thomas Derry (of Mill Hill School) could see the trouble brewing across the Channel. In September 1938, before the Munich Agreement, and almost a year before war broke out, Rooker-Roberts authorised the evacuation of Belmont to St Helen’s, Cockermouth, Cumbria (which I also managed to squeeze in a fly-by visit to!). Dr Derry was more reluctant to leave London, although the Court of Governors had already brokered a contract with St Bees (a village along the coast, about an hour from Cockermouth), just in case. Finally, at the outbreak of war in September 1939, Dr Derry put the evacuation plan into action. Pianos and other such goods were sent ahead of the boys and staff, who arrived a few days later, fresh off the train from Euston. Parents would be kept up to date through letters and meetings back in London.

Despite the harrowing circumstances, it seemed that school life carried on as relatively normally at St Bees. The boys remained in the same Houses, which were now located in various sites across the town, and classes continued. Being so far away from London, the only real reminder of the War, was the dreadful rationing going on, particularly with regards to food. Before the establishment of their own vegetable gardens at St Bees, mealtimes were hardly the highlight of their time away – although the new tradition of communal dining at the Seacote Hotel’s dining room was a novel experience! Previously, boys had eaten their meals in their individual houses, with each house having their own kitchen and dining room. Mill Hill remained at St Bees until the end of the war in 1945, although Belmont opted to return a year later, in 1946.

Upon my arrival, over eighty years after Mill Hill did, I was struck by just how isolated St Bees is. I knew from my research it was a small coastal town, but glancing along the beachfront, I could see that the next village was quite some miles down the coast and during the drive in, it was quite some time from the next inland community. I imagined it may have felt somewhat surreal for the boys, arriving in this tiny, seaside town, before the reality of their new lives for the next few years settled in. I remember hearing tales from my grandparents about the wartime evacuation and how lonely it was for my relatives to be sent to random families in the countryside, away from their loved ones. I’m glad that the boys at Mill Hill and Belmont were at least able to spend their time away from home with friends and with the community they knew.

Returning to the present, having finally arrived at my long-awaited destination and armed with notebooks filled with my scribbles of research, I set off on my very own ‘Mill Hill on the Sea’ treasure hunt, hoping to track down different locations from time of the School’s evacuation. Whilst wandering around the town, to my joyous surprise, I found that most of the buildings remain, and even in recognisable form after all these years! The main School hub, the Seacote Hotel, stands ever so proud looking out across to the sea, though there have been some extensions and a new blue paint job since then – it is still a hotel. During the War, I believe it suspended or at least partially suspended its business to allow Mill Hill to use its premises. Throughout the School’s time at St Bees, the Seacote housed School House (and later Burton Bank), several classrooms, the Scriptorium, and the Headmaster’s study. It also served as the School’s theatre for the pupils’ various drama productions, such as ‘The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse’ (1944). The hotel’s fields round the back were used for Rugby practice, although they and the old tennis courts have since been replaced by new houses and a caravan park. In front of the Seacote, lies St Bees beach. whilst I would have loved to have had a closer look, it was inaccessible during my visit due to extreme winds. Utilised for sporting practices, such as running and single handed hockey, the long sandy stretch of coast was also the setting for the School’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance(1941), along its rocky edges.

A little further up the main, curved road from the Seacote Hotel, sits Tomlin House, again relatively unchanged by the decades. The former site of Winterstoke House, it was once a B&B for a short stint during the 2010s, but it is once again a private residence, now with a reddish pink facade. It was surreal to see the House in person, given how many hours I had spent scanning Winterstoke House photos back in London. Although it was seemed smaller in person, seeing the little gate out front, where the Winterstoke boys stood, was still a true delight for me. Walking along the main road, I passed Eaglesfield House, a relatively large home that was once a former prep School. Burton Bank and Collinson House were situated here for a short time during the evacuation. The building looked relatively unchanged from the photos taken during the War; although now I believe it has been renovated into flats, due to its large size. I noted through the School records, that the smaller houses were sporadically moved around St Bees, to different buildings, due to the fluctuating pupil numbers. The list of pupils on roll severely fluctuated during the School’s stay, possibly due to students leaving early to join up or being conscripted – or perhaps due to the sometimes-difficult logistical nature of getting pupils up to the Cumbrian coast.

The next target on my list, took me some time to track down. The formidable former Abbot’s Court Hotel proved especially difficult to find, given that it is no longer a hotel but a private residence (so no help from Google!). That and the fact that OM Roderick Braithwaite’s map of Mill Hill locations at St Bees, in his history of Mill Hill “Strikingly Alive”, wasn’t overly accurate with distances. Nevertheless, I can’t complain; Roderick’s book proved invaluable to my research, so he has my deepest gratitude. Again, if I had tried to track these sites down myself, with my dreadful geography skills, I probably would have somehow ended up in the sea!

When I came across a formidable, gothic building at the crest of the hill, I knew I had found my prize. Despite a lack of public access, balancing precariously on the fence across the road, I was able to get a decent look at the former Headmaster’s residence during Mill Hill’s time at St Bees. The former hotel housed three successive Headmasters, Arthur James Rooker-Roberts (who took over after Dr Derry’s departure), Maurice Jacks who took over following Arthur’s untimely death in 1943, and then the Reverend John Whale who succeeded Jacks. Monitors and Sports Team photos were taken in front of this formidable house during Mill Hill’s time at St Bees, hence how I was able to recognise it. It was noted by former evacuated boys, that the austere house suited the equally stern Headmaster Rooker-Roberts, who had specifically chosen the site after Dr Derry’s departure.

It was quite a trek to get to my next destination, St Bees School (not to be confused with St Bees Village School) but it was well worth it! Although the School was obviously closed for the Summer, I was able to get brief glances at the site, which had so generously lent Mill Hill use of its classrooms and grounds during their time evacuated away. I even caught a glimpse of their Chapel, which houses a beautiful stained-glass window of our crest, commemorating our bond throughout the decades. It was again, quite an odd experience to see the School with my own eyes, having read about it and studied photos of it already. Thankfully the next destination on my list was quite literally, just across the road. The Priory Church stands tall and proud into the sky, it looked exactly like the old Library stamps I had come across in the archives. During Mill Hill’s time away, the Library stamps – used to mark new additions to the Library collection – were changed to reflect the School’s new location. A little further down the hill, past the Priory Cemetery, sits the Priory Paddock. This is a joint creation between St Bees and the evacuated alumni and opened in 2015, to commemorate the wonderful relationship that remains between Mill Hill and St Bees. I am happy to report that the Paddock continues to beautifully flower every year!

Now, I could go on and on about all the different locations I found during my whistle-stop tour of St Bees, but then we’d be here all day, and I’m sure no one wants that! So, a quick round-up of the rest. The other sites on my list included the beautiful St Bees railway station, where the pupils and staff pulled into all those decades ago, The Retreat, which housed Headmaster Dr Derry, Grindal House which served as the first Tuck Shop, the Queen’s Hotel (the former staff ‘Common Room’…) and even the small hut which housed the Mill Hill and St Bees Home Guard, all still stand today. My only gripe was that I was unable to find the exact Seacroft house, where Ridgeway House was located, although I was able to find Seacroft Drive, where it was situated.

As I spent the day, racing around St Bees on my mad treasure hunt, I felt quite emotional. Visiting the sites where the boys lived for so many years, seeing the now wild fields where they played rugby and cricket, as well as the beaches where they ran alongside the waves, truly brought the photos I’d looked at and studied to life. Even though the decades have passed, to see strong links and reminders of Mill Hill and St Bee’s connection makes me happy to know that despite such a harrowing time, a true and beautiful friendship was able to blossom. And that it remains in bloom to this very day.

Ms Forte