Susan May lived at Beach Tree Farm and walked the mile to school and back every day. Here she remembers what really were the best days of her life
When did you attend the old Upton Noble School?
I started in September 1953 at the age of five. My Grandma, Rose Butler, and my dad, Jim May, decided to move to Beech Tree Farm in 1950 when I was 18 months old.
Did any other members of your family attend?
My brother, David, was eight, and he ended up going for a few years before he went on to Bruton. He passed his 13-plus exam and completed his education at Brymore.
Do you have any first day memories?
I can’t remember my first day, but I do remember Mrs Sharp, my first teacher, and when she retired a Miss Byneon took over. They were both lovely and kind. On that first day I would have worn my own clothes as we never had a school uniform.
What can you recall about your classmates?
David Nicholls and Ronald Wheeler were two of the boys I sat with. I wasn’t that quick at maths and would copy their work.
When I started school, Sir Anthony and Lady Dewey lived in the village and their son and daughter attended school too.
My closest friends were Margaret and Marion Dowding. I would spend the summer holidays at Stalls Farm, and would walk across the fields to meet all the Dowding children. We would play around the farm and walk in my brother, David’s wood. They were such happy, carefree days.
When I look back, though, it must have been so hard teaching five to 11-year-olds all together. The poor teacher had to teach so many different levels in such a short space of time.
Describe a typical school day
Our morning always began with prayers and religious studies. I use to love listening to the Bible readings as the teacher always made them seem so real and alive.
Our day would be made up of maths, English, reading, art, nature and physical education —which would be rounders in the summer.
We went for regular walks, picking flowers and then returning to school to dissect and examine what we had found. We learnt all the names for each part of the plant — I’m not sure that I can remember them now.
We always had a mid-morning break and a bottle of school milk. Hot lunches were brought in to us as there were no catering facilities. Mrs Hunt, who lived close to the Gould family, would came and help the teacher, giving us lunch after which she would wash up. In the summer she would take us for a walk to give the teacher a lunch-time break. We would either walk along Bruton Lane, up Bull’s Lane, or up to the garage along Gunnings Lane, where we would cross over the main road and go into the field, playing roly poly down the bank.
What other memories do you have?
We sat in age groups, I think at tables. There was a big blackboard and a stove, in which the teacher would put coal to keep us warm. There was also a big white sink at one end of the building.
The teacher would boil a kettle on top of the stove and I remember walking along to the Walters family’s house to collect water from their well so that the teacher could make herself a cup of tea.
The girls had the cloakroom to the right as you entered the building, while the boys used the left hand side. When I started at the school the toilets were the old ‘no flush’ variety. I used to hate them as they weren’t very clean. Thankfully, they put in flush ones before I left. The toilets were built back to back, so during play time the boys played in their yard and the girls in theirs. We never mixed.
The uncanny thing is that the building doesn’t look much different today from the outside.
How did you get to school?
I would walk through the fields. My granny would watch me as I crossed the back field over the stile and then Mrs Brunt would wait for me. She lived in one of the cottages at the bottom of Lower Street. I took Elizabeth Brunt to school with me. After the Brunts left the village, Mrs Pole would watch out for me. I adored the Poles, who were lovely old people. Mrs Pole always gave me a piece of cake to eat on my way home from school.
What memories do you have of the village?
There was a regular Sunday school party which was fabulous fun. We played games and were given a lovely tea in the Manor House kitchen.
There was a sweet shop in the house across from the old chapel, while the post office was run by a Mrs Gillbanks in the front of her house half way down Chapel Street. It later moved to Mrs Nicholls’ house, close to the Lamb Inn, along Church Street.
I would knock at the door of every house in the village as I went collecting for the Methodist children’s home. Everyone gave me a donation.
Mrs Hannam, who lived next to Mrs Pole, was a fabulous cake decorator. She did all the WI celebration cakes, including one which had a lady in a crinoline dress in different coloured icing. She inspired quite a few of us to take up cake decoration, which I still do today. When she gave up, she gave her things away to the few of us who were keen decorators. I still have those few things 50 years later.
When I went to collect the well water from the Walters house they would invariably be busy making cheese. It was all done by hand in those days. The sisters would stir the milk using long wooden paddles. They kept a daily diary of their cheese making, as well as everything that happened in the village, from who married, who died, how much everything cost or sold for and what the weather did. Sadly, Harvey, the sole survivor of the family, ended his days living with cousins and he was made to burn all the diaries in case they upset anyone in years to come. It was so sad as they would have been a wonderful historical record, and hardly likely to offend.
Were you sad to leave Upton Noble school?
Yes definitely. The last day was really sad. And today only two former pupils, Jane Nicholls and Heather Dyer (nee Skinner), still live in Upton Noble. Numbers had dwindled by the time I left. There were only about 14 of us by the end, compared to 22 when I started. I went on to the Saviour Convent School, Langhorne Park, Shepton Mallet, and sadly my time there was not at all happy — not anything like the happy days I had enjoyed at Upton Noble School.
What happened to the building after the school closed?
We use to have bingo and cheese and wine evenings, as well as other social gatherings and the WI, which my mum, Betty May, attended. The whole village got along well together and as a family we were lucky in that we were involved with both Upton Noble and Witham, where I went to join the church choir because Upton didn’t have its own.
Can you sum up your childhood?
Looking back mine was a charmed childhood with loads of love, summers of sunshine, the chiming of church bells in the distance, wild bird song and the sweet smell of hay, honeysuckle and wild roses. Although I got married and moved away to North Wales, Somerset will always hold a very special place in my heart. There are moments when I still miss it, more than 40 years after I left.