Back to the old school, literally.
One tweet I made on the way to work, more than anything set the tone for this post:
This time 28 years ago, in a taxi to the (now late great) Ewing School, West Didsbury. Day 2 of a 4 day assessment. #happydays
— Stuart Vallantine (@Atlantean7001) April 23, 2014
I was sat on a 330 bound for Bredbury, quite a far cry from passing Levenshulme on the second of the four most important days of my life. Instead of the dulcet tones of James H. Reeve on Piccadilly Radio, my soundtrack was the roar of Enviro400 engine and the odd bit of chatter.
The reason for my post is owing to the fact it is 28 years from now since my four day assessment. And the same days of the week as in 1986. Interestingly, the weather outside the Bredbury branch of Morrisons was pretty similar to that of West Didsbury back then. Only without Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done With Me Lately? as an earworm.
Returning to the 2010s, I met up with two former Ewing School pupils. On alighting my bus (the X41 to Altrincham). I walked to Central Road expecting to see my school in a post-nuclear war state of dilapidation. I walked up, and something amazed me.
There was minibuses in the staff car park, where Brenda used to park her Morris Minor, next to Marjorie’s blue Austin Maestro, or Jeni’s Nissan Prairie. The first thing which came to my mind; ‘had Ewing School been reprieved?’. At first, I thought it became a Free School headed by local residents and the odd former pupil. Then my fellows arrived. They too were amazed. Yours truly had to ask if it was still open, so I rang the bell half expecting a terse ‘no’.
Luckily for us, this wasn’t so. We found that the former Ewing School had been redeployed as an overflow SEN unit for the Birches School. Instead of 55 pupils (1990 numbers), 15 pupils in all – the entire number of pupils in the First Group in 1988. We were allowed in and given a tour around our former school. Unfortunately for us, we were unable to visit some parts, owing to issues with asbestos, nor have a good wander around the playground. Even so, memories came flooding back. A lot of people in Didsbury had been asking if the school was reopening or reopened, with some people having a look around.
Unfortunately for me and my fellows (Louise and Andrew), Marty McFly’s vehicle of choice wasn’t a GMT standard Leyland Atlantean with a three aperture indicator layout. Nor was it the Training Bus which excited me when I saw it on Palatine Road from the school playground. He obviously didn’t get a PSV licence from Bennett Street training centre, nor drive the odd 221 to Tennyson Avenue. It certainly wasn’t Marjorie’s Datsun which she had before the Maestro either.
We couldn’t quite get to 1987, but we still managed to take a few pictures.
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After starting my three years at the Ewing School, and on finishing in 1990, the external doors were always light orange. The window panels were coated in dark brown instead of the blue, which was applied in the late nineties. Each morning from 0845 to 0920 or thereabouts would see Central Road laden with taxis, escorted minibuses, coaches and private cars.
On our visit, one thing we noticed was the size of the reception area. I remember the lobby area only being slightly wider than the double door, with a wooden bench. The secretary (Barbara, during my three years there) had her own cubicle facing the headteacher’s office (Mr. Williams back then). To the left of the toilets was the Staff Room, whereas the right hand side was formerly a classroom for the Upper Group. That was, before then, the audiologist’s laboratory, with interconnecting doors to the headteacher’s office.
The original foyer area, close to where I stood taking the photograph above, would often see parents sat on the wooden bench. Between 1515 and 1540, the taxis and buses would commence their return journeys.
During my time in the First Group, ‘The Home Corner’ was always positioned by this window. As seen here, there is no semblance of plastic tea sets nor Wendy House walls. This part of the classroom would either be a make-believe house, or a cave, depending on the topic or time of the year.
The last time I entered this classroom, there was a lot of little tables with colour groups derived from the 1-2-3 and Away reading books. There was four teachers and fifteen pupils with each teacher leading a colour group. To the centre left of this image was one of two speech therapy rooms for small groups or one-to-one therapy. Directly right, a storeroom and a unisex toilet block.
On the centre right, double doors led to a small playground. Directly ahead of the entrance was a brick built sandpit and four apartments. As the Ewing School was built with residential provision, this necessitated a quartet of apartments for some staff, who would man the school for 24 hours. They would be a point of emergency contact for its boarders as well as a secure presence.
On the right hand side, the sink would often be used for washing paint trays. Just off camera was a storytelling corner with an L-shaped continuous carpeted bench seat. In more recent times, this had been made into a classroom, and extended into a storeroom, accessed from an external entrance in the small playground.
With a need to cater for 55 pupils on a daily basis, and around two dozen residential pupils each weekday night, the kitchen and canteen entrances were in effect the school’s loading bay. Immediately left of the kitchen was the laundry, where the residents’ sheets were washed, as were the tea towels. On the right hand side, where the wheelie bins are, was the shower block. Entry was gained from the canteen or via two entrances from the car park and the playground. Right opposite the showers is the plant room and heating system.
On our visit, the staff room had moved into the former laundry. Its original use was made redundant by the discontinuation of residential facilities.
Sadly, thanks to issues with asbestos, the residential block was out of bounds. Before its original use ceased, the ground floor housed the Reception Group classrooms, Sylvia and Ceri’s domain. There was also a small kitchen and a speech therapy room. Both the first floor and second floor housed the residents’ rooms and bathrooms. Access to the residential block was gained by two sets of stairs, one next to the canteen.
The residential block looked out to a small playing field. Out of shot were four climbing frames. One had a slide, shaped like the gasholder on Windmill Lane, Denton, which I used to see en route. The second was made up of Kee Klamps, used mainly for swinging on. The other two were of the spiral ladder style. A hard court, directly right of the residential block, was marked for playground games.
Though obviously much depleted in terms of tables owing to smaller pupil numbers, the canteen still echoes to the sound of Mrs Butterworth serving cabbage, or Ada grappling with the new potatoes. Half past twelve meant dinner time at the Ewing School; during my time there, the brick walls were left unpainted in a very 1970s shade of brown. Each formica table was headed by a teacher who would serve both the main course, the dessert and classes of water. On special occasions, orange squash.
Like a restaurant or hotel dining room, there would be serviettes, and vegetables were served in Pyrex glass bowls. This was more consistent with sitting for dinner in a social environment rather than a school canteen. Plus you could even ask for seconds; on one occasion, I buzzed and ODed on the butterscotch mousse – and actually had thirds. 26 years on, I have yet to see anything similarly moreish.
In 1989, I moved from the First Group to the Middle Group. The teacher to pupil ratio was lower and we had small ‘form rooms’. There was an open plan section of the Middle Group with three smaller rooms. Two was originally used for speech therapy, though one of them would be Rita’s form room. The one speech therapy room belonged to Jeni. Mrs Butterworth had the biggest of the three small rooms, with access via a concertina door. Next to her room was two toilets, with an entrance to the playground or school gardens.
On our 2013 visit, we found the former Middle Group classroom was revamped, as a conventional style classroom. Access to the back classrooms of the Upper Group (the workshop, kitchen and dining area and a standard classroom) was out of bounds. In spite of refurbishment, they failed to get rid of the Piccadilly Radio sticker with its 1986 logo. Another building was added to the edge of Mrs Butterworth’s former classroom as seen below.
If you attended the Ewing School at any point till the early 1990s, you would notice some major differences. One, is the absence of the parquet floor; another, the omission of curtains. Ahead of the window was the school gardens. Some spare ground became gardens, primarily for pupils in the Middle Group and Upper Group classes. On a once weekly basis, pupils would pick up basic gardening skills, encouraging some appreciation of their immediate surroundings. There would be little plots with one plot per two pupils. If we grew vegetables, we could take home our offerings!
Close to the extension – now demolished – was a garage, which during my time there, was used as a shed for garden equipment. Behind the garage was a concrete pond and a barbecue area. In 1989, another pond was created by pupils of the Middle Group under the guidance of Mrs Butterworth.
What threw me on my visit was the emptiness of the hall; not even a piano. I could imagine the hall reverberating to Jeni’s piano playing on Friday assembly, or Sylvia’s pre-dinner time dancing sessions (with her beside the upright piano). Back in my era, the woodwork was unpainted and varnished. Its floor, a parquet floor suitable for sitting down, dancing or conducting P.E. lessons on.
Another noticeable change is the door to the right of this image. This led to the caretaker’s office. Instead, as seen here, a classroom – the same classroom which extends into the former storytelling corner of the First Group’s room. Directly opposite was a fixed climbing frame, used for P.E. Left of the former caretaker’s door was the storeroom for P.E. equipment (which if my memory serves me right, had concertina doors).
Directly right to the car park entrance was the headteacher’s and deputy headteacher’s house. Again, for similar reasons to the flats on the left hand side of the building. It was a typical early 1970s house; during my time at the Ewing School, this was the humble abode of then headteacher and deputy, Douglas Williams and Hilary Butterworth. They were the only two members of staff whom we had to refer to as Mr [Williams] and Mrs [Butterworth]. Everybody else – teachers, the caretaker, midday supervisors and the cook – on first name terms.
From the car park, a path led to the headteachers’ house, with access to the playing fields from the back garden. To pay for refurbishment work in the late 1990s and early 2000s (the Middle Group extension and re-roofed former residential block), both the headteachers’ house and the four apartments were sold to builders, with red brick apartments on the side. The left apartments encroached on the small playground, which also had a low embankment.
Other parts of the Ewing School:
Following recent refurbishment, there was a number of rooms I remember which have since gone, or out of view of the photos featured here:
- The Library: Ewing School’s library wasn’t a library in the public library sense with stamps and tickets. Instead, it was more like a study’s library in an alcove, some 8 x 6 feet with a collection of academic books. Pupils in the Middle Group would instead go to – accompanied by Jeni Mobbs – Didsbury library on Wilmslow Road. This has been absorbed by one of the classrooms.
- Audio Visual Room: a fire sometime in the early to mid 1990s, saw to the end of this room’s original use. Again, absorbed by the same classroom which leads to the former storytelling corner of the First Group’s classroom. In its original purpose, there was three rows of bench seats like a lecture theatre. This was often used for watching educational videos, and as a storage area for the Ewing School’s television and video equipment.
- Home Economics suite: nearest to the small playground and the Central Road bus terminus was the HE suite, often used for baking. It comprised of two fitted kitchens with full size electric cookers, a broom cupboard and a dining area for eight people. It was also used for ‘Ewing Seasons’, an occasional gift shop with wares made in the workshop using a trolley.
- Workshop: again, near the bus terminus, this was next to the HE suite and often the domain of the Upper Group. It was mainly used for woodworking and crafts.
- Language laboratory: one of the Upper Group classrooms, next to the headteacher’s office, was used by the audiologist. It was split into two parts akin to a recording studio, with a small number of desks featuring headphone sockets. In the late 1980s as technology improved, portable devices enabled students to be assessed in other parts of the school, for instance in the residential block or one of the speech therapy rooms.
- The brick sandpit: the smaller playground featured an overhead cover and a storage shed. It was dominated by a circular brick sandpit used in the summer months.
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For us, it seemed emotional to return to our old school. Even if it involved wearing protective clothing and face masks, we would have welcomed the chance to explore the ‘out of bounds’ area.
Needless to say, we were surprised to be granted entry. Therefore we thank the staff of Birches School for letting us look around and make as best possible, a temporary return journey to 1987.
Most importantly, if like myself, you happened to have spent ‘the happiest days of your life’ at the Ewing School, feel free to comment. More anecdotes the merrier!
S.V., 24 April 2014.