I went to a school with a proper fucking garden. When I was eight and a sea away from my parents the extent of my privilege didn’t occur to me. There I was, in my pajamas, pissed off about the fact that the former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation had sent me out of Lower White Dormitory for talking. I was unaware that most kids of eight didn’t go to a school where there was a jungle, a lake, flowing water, acres of grass, redwood trees and future politicians playing cricket in the Sussex sunshine. They even built a theatre when I was there. The maths teacher directed the shows and he was dead inside and preferred blonde boys. But the theatre still inspired me.
The redwood tree is my biggest takeaway, though. I’m not likely to go into politics, or any of the other industries which are colonised by graduates from that place. There’s one more actor that I know of from Ashdown House – a good man and doing fucking well. Contemporary with me. I can stretch towards his career and maybe touch the edges of it. He waited for me after a premier once where I was in the film and he wasn’t. I was a bit starstruck even though it was supposed to be my movie night. He was a prefect when I was a little one, and even went to the same drama school as me. I’ve never heard him talk about his background though and so I’m gonna be discreet for him and not connect his name with my beautiful tiny school in Sussex.
I love that tall red tree.
A Sequoiadendron – frequently colonised as a “Wellingtonia” in the UK to honour the Iron Duke who died in 1852 around the time most of the first saplings were brought to the UK. My childhood love for this tree is what took me to drive hundreds of miles up the 1 from San Francisco over a year ago, and then to hike into the depths of a reserve that may well be ashes now.
The school has just been closed forever. The trust that owned it lost too much money and had to drop a school. They chose this one despite the incumbent Prime Minister and his brother being alumni. I was driving through Forest Row and thought I’d take what may well be a last chance look at the place before something happens to it. There’s still a deer skull in the porch. It’s still made out of that incredible stone with wide ranging views over Sussex to the forest. And the Wellingtonia is still there, next to the stand of rhododendron that’s now inhabited by chickens.
I didn’t spend long there. I barely saw a soul. I stayed long enough for a quick clamber and to grab some souvenirs of pine cones in case the next time I’m passing, the way is barred by a huge iron gate.
It’s a beautiful place, a peaceful place and a possible place. Many powerful lives have been launched from the calm there, many good lives, many kind lives.
Should you be that billionaire philanthropist I’ve been waiting for all my life, let’s talk about how we can get hold of that magical property in the heart of powerful land in Forest Row and turn it into an artistic spiritual Wonderland with a destination theatre and facilities for so many people to make so many things in peace and beauty. It could be a thriving community. It needs to be filled with life there. A place takes on the power of its use, and this place has been charged up with launching many small lucky lives into the world. I struggled with boarding. But memory is kind.