Due to my nice record at Darlington Street school my parents decided to enter me for a direct grant grammar school some miles away: Bolton School for Girls, an all girls school housed in an imposing red sandstone building up on Chorley New Road in Bolton. I was somewhat terrified and nervous but excited about this and felt so small amongst the crowds of girls taking the entrance exam when the day came. I breezed through the 11+ exam, basically an IQ test, which I found easy and actually fun. This would qualify me for any grammar school but Bolton required an additional exam as well as an interview with the headmistress and deputy head.

Bolton School

I felt the exam went very nicely, nothing seemed out of my reach but I was almost wetting myself when it came to the interviews. Mrs Higginson, the head, was a dear. Actually I don't remember if she was Mrs. or Miss after all this time. I do remember that she reminded me of a loving grandmother and seemed anxious to put me at my ease as quickly as possible and make the experience as pleasant as she could. We reviewed some of the test- all I remember was that in one exercise I had to draw how a prism of cheese looked in a mirror and she commented I got it right which naturally made me feel pleased and helped my nerves immensely. She asked me to read a piece about a couple of boys hunting birds with catapults and wanted to hear what I had to say about it. Again, they must have done their research to know I'd feel quite strongly about that one! I have no idea how successfully I expressed that, but clearly that's what they were after.

The deputy headmistress made little or no effort to be reassuring but that does seem to be a feature of deputy heads everywhere. Their sternness acts as a counterpoint to the head's more ethereal relationship with the girls. Again I had a wonderful break since Mrs. S. had a stuffed waxwing on her desk and a print of a Sir Peter Scott wildfowl painting on the wall, both of which I recognized. This started an enthusiastic discussion about the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds of which I was already a member, thanks to Mr. Fearick's encouragement. Apart from that I only remember being asked to categorize some sea shells which was right up my street.

Some time later I was delighted but not tremendously surprised to receive the news. I was in!

First order of business was to visit the clothing store basement that stocked the uniform I'd need. This was a tiresome trip for my mother and accompanied by some cynical sounding grumbling about how expensive everything was. Still, she was not out to spoil it for me, we both understood it was one of those tedious chores and secretly I actually revelled in the fresh maroon fabrics and fancy school tie- and learn to tie it just like a man. That was something I found quite hilarious. Back then schools used nibs and ink so I would also need a good fountain pen and some practise. I must admit I never quite mastered good penmanship and my writing was awful. Mr. Fearick had tought us all cursive writing at Darlington street so at least I had the basics down but learning how to avoid blots and keep the script legible when I was thinking far faster than I could get it down was always a struggle.

School finally began and we were inducted into T3 with Mrs T. an imposing buxom middle aged lady that reminded me of a Roman matron. She would be our form mistress as well as our teacher for French and English, and later latin. She would also occasionally give us long lectures on whatever current problem might be bothering her. We were expected to sit silently and seriously through these and take them all to heart, which I did. I was too young yet to get the urge to giggle through such speeches.

She also taught me how to eat an orange. I scandalized her one lunchtime by eating my orange in the innovative way my grandmother or mother taught me, I forget which. I would cut it in slices from the top, then cut a nick in the edge of each slice, opening out the whole slice as a row of neat little orange triangles which I'd eat along the row like a squirrel, the juices often spilling onto my chin. Mrs T.showed me how to score the peel, remove it in six neat leaf shapes, separate out the individual segments and then, only then, must the juices be allowed release and only in the mouth. Well, occasionally since I've done it like that but to this day I much prefer my mother's method. It's a good thing Mrs. T.never saw my mother eat a pomegranate with a safety pin.

I love getting new books at the beginning of school year and always resolved to keep them as beautiful as possible but my aesthetic standards lapsed as the year progressed. Academically, though, I threw myself into my studies and enjoyed the process. In those days and in that school I never heard the word 'nerd' or 'geek', ever. It was normal for most girls to want to do decently in school.

My second falling off the chair moment came at the end of the first year. The first, as the dear reader might remember, was when I almost fell off my chair when it was announced I was top of the form in Darlington street. I managed that again most exams except for two of them when Gary P. passed me. I did not mind, we were friends most of the time. Back to Bolton. I clearly remember all of us sitting in the lab when Mrs (or was it Miss?) K.announced I was top in science. I was immensely pleased! I should have seen it coming though, all the other really academic girls in that class excelled in arts. This all sounds like self congratulation but the reader has to remember that my parents tended to treat me as if I were a little slow and I came to believe this over the years.

Two girls made a huge impact on me in my first year at Bolton, the girl in front of me and the girl behind me. We were at first all seated in alphabetical order. Fortune threw us together. Carol C. was a radiantly pretty girl, dark straight hair to her shoulders, an olive complexion and a constant lively bright eyed mischievous look to her. I really wanted to be her friend when I discovered she took the same school bus and lived an easy walk away. I thought it would be such fun to chatter with this vivacious girl all the long miles to and from school each day. She lived in Ellesmere Park, the handsome suburb across the train tracks, and got on the bus at Worsely which threw us together for nearly ten miles each day. Worsely's main feature was Bridgewater canal which always amused me. The view from the bus would open up onto a very picturesque scene, Worsely's old English buildings by the canal backed with tall trees- and the canal's water as red as tomato soup, probably from leeched iron ores, but I digress. The main difficulty I had with Carol was my incredibly thin skin. I really had little ability to deal with teasing of any kind and Carol's was incessant and occasionally a little cruel to my ears, though she constantly reassured me that it was all in jest and I shouldn't be sensitive about it. We made an arrangement that she'd stick up her thumb when she didn't mean what she said, and at times she'd remember but on occasion she'd forget and I'd end up in tears from some stupid remark I'd taken the wrong way.

Carol decided to take me in hand and thicken the tender skin of my psyche and for that I'd have to master not only taking it but dishing it out in the same spirit. In the course of time this got into a bit of a habit and I was soon dishing out tidbits of teasing to other people on the bus including a somewhat overweight and serious girl called Judy. In truth I respected Judy and meant her no harm but my wisecracks finally made her speak up. She appealed to my more sensitive nature, questioned whether I was just a follower of Carol's or an independent person and generally shamed me into promising to lay off her. I was actually impressed and somewhat relieved she responded in this way. I think she sensed I never really intended to be cruel. After that we were friends though apparently I'd lost a bit of favour with Carol's set for some reason and was pretty much excluded from then on. That hurt a lot at the time but I had the consolation of finding another clique I came to like a great deal better. Some years later I accidentally met Carol on a cliffside walk in Pembrokeshire. We must have been about 16 at the time, she was looking even prettier and seemed genuinely happy to see me. That was the last time and though the encounter was brief it felt good the pain was left behind.

The girl who sat behind me is my friend to this day. That is Jill D, a serious and academic person with whom I found I had much in common. I felt we were sisters in spirit and in fact a couple of years later I asked her if our spirits are released from our bodies after we die, would she like to roam the earth with me as spirits and explore? She told me tactfully that she could not really make such commitments so far in advance because she might want to do that with someone else, a future husband for example. I'd totally forgotten that possibility, for myself too, and accepted her words.

It was Jill who recommended that I read 'The Lord of the Rings' and generally introduced me to the world of epic fantasy. Mrs. T. had forced us all to read 'The Hobbit', a school habit that never fails to put 'school taste' in a book forever, in this case, T. flavoured school taste and is almost aversion therapy for reading any sequels. Jill wasn't giving up and insisted till I finally agreed to read it for the sake of friendship. Great move. I had committed something of a faux pas when we first started Bolton. Mrs. T. wanted to start a little class library and invited us to contribute any books we might like to share. My arm shot up. "Are Enid Blyton's books OK?' I thought she was about to have a fit. After she mastered herself she replied through almost clenched teeth and very pointedly, 'No Enid Blyton is NOT "Ok" ' I knew I had scandalized her on this one more than with my orange. I was innocent to the controversy that raged over Blyton's supposed racism re her 'gollywog' character, and had not read those childish tales but thoroughly enjoyed her 'adventure' series from a very early age.

Jill lived quite close to the school and introduced me to her set, all living in the Bolton area. In truth we were all discovering each other, I have no idea who met whom first. There was Judith, artistic, beautiful cat loving and tremendously confident. I was in awe of that natural savoir faire of hers. There was Sarah, a girl I thought was probably the most fascinatingly creative girl I'd ever met. I noticed her first in an arts and crafts class. As we worked on our project Sarah would tell us stories, long rambling and wonderfully imaginative yarns that surpassed anything I ever remember spouting in earlier years. I was mesmerized. There was Jill L, a very quiet, reserved girl that I instincitively felt a need to respect by not trying to push my frienship upon her. As a result I never got close to her at all but I also never offended or hurt her , I hope, and that seemed like a reasonable compromise. There was Imogen, a girl I hardly knew at all but sensed could be very interesting in a drama production, and there was Heather 'Gollum', named by herself for a slight protrusion of the eyes. Jill also referred to herself as Jill 'Gollum' for the same reason and it was a mild 'in joke' amongst us. Heather was my preferred partner at chess club and our games were such fun! We joked our way through them all, psyching out each other and making each and every game an epic production. I don't think either of us kept track of who won most games or indeed how many of them we actually finished. We just loved playing and joking with each other. I was never a great strategist and preferred a game that put no pressure or expectations on me. I have seldom played since because no-one has matched Heather's perfect chess partner attitude. Nothing could match those glorious games we didn't care about too much. There was also Sharon K., a good natured girl with a sweet elfin beauty I could not help admiring.

Back to Jill. Visiting her was something of a big deal since Bolton was about twelve miles from Eccles, buses were slow along the mostly urban route and to see her I'd generally have to inconvenience dad to drive me over there or back. We were not much into sleep-overs after school, not that I remember, and visits were usually saved for short vacations. Jill's mother was a kindly quiet Scottish lady who had kept a slender figure and made the best conceivable chocolate fudge as well as many other delicious dishes. Jill's younger brothers, Robert and David, were such fun at the table. They knew so many crazy jokes and when I struggled to get the hang of their home made skateboard they teased my lack of coordination without mercy. It was times like that I was glad I'd been friends with Carol! I found Jill's dad a very intriguing person. He'd spent many years in India and that showed in his established tan, but I thought he was quite handsome in a rough and rugged way. He was keen eyed, keen eared and had an incisive tongue, and ruled his family like a benevolent dictator. I honestly thought he was one of the sexiest men I'd ever met though I never let on.

The highlight of the Bolton experience was Cautley. This was a beautiful boarding house in the Yorkshire Dales, large enough to accommodate a whole class of girls for a week of hiking and visiting the sites of the Dales and surrounding area. While there we were supposed to write a 'log book', a written account of our experiences. Apart from the experience itself one big motivator was the famed 'excellent book'. Any student who managed three excellent homework assignments in a row would receive the honour of being called to the headmistress's office and sign her name in the 'Excellent Book', a coveted honour for any serious student. This was generally quite difficult to accomplish but we also learned that one excellent Cautley Log book could accomplish this hat trick all by itself. I decided my log would make it to that list and that I'd be paying attention enough through the Cautley week in order to get my effort as good as I could make it. The rest of the experience was pure fresh air and fun. I cannot recall now all the places we visited and sadly, I left my log books behind years ago. I do recall Great Dummacks, the high fen nearest to Cautley, and the wonderful hike to the top. It was one of those deceptive hills that curve repeatedly out of sight and fool you into thinking that you're close to the summit until you see yet another rise just beyond. The summit itself is just over 2000 feet high and, though a nice work out, not overly strenuous or at all dangerous for a bunch of 12 and 13 year old girls.

This site gives great pics of the area.

The only other feature of the trip I remember was the delicious mint confection which is a special feature of the town of Kendal, the famous Kendal mint cake. I cannot remember now a single other thing apart from reenacting scenes from Lord of the Rings with Jill, pretending I was Frodo, she was Sam and we were walking to Rivendell, and Sarah performing 'Big Spender' on our last night party which totally scandalized Mrs. H., our gymn teacher. Mrs. H. came up great Dummacks with us and that was the first time I noticed she was actually a pleasant human being and not the sadistic tyrant of the gymnasium. Of course, she was never that but I was singularly unmotivated there. Carol had urged me to shape up and work on my physical repertoire so that I would not make our class a laughing stock. Her pleas fell on deaf ears, I could not have cared less. I did not believe in Carol's dire predictions since I was determined that I would not be part of any performance in which I would embarass anyone. I'd emigrate first. I do remember a couple of other things about Cautley though I cannot remember which anecdotes belonged to which year since we were there both in 3rd form and lower fourth. There was some jealous feud over who should bunk with whom and someone's feelings got hurt but I don't recall the petty details.

I do remember the mean trick I played on Sarah. I can't believe now that I actually did this. She had mentioned she hated the idea of the eye of the evil lord Sauron, the blazing eye in the top of Baraddur which searched the earth. Inspired with mischief I set to work to draw the best picture I could make of such an eye, working to express as much evil as possible in the pupil and iris, and decorating the whole ball with lurid yellow, red and orange flames. Then, when Sarah was asleep I had it taped to the underside of the bunk-bed right above her head so that she'd see it very soon after she woke in the morning. I forget who I got to do the taping ,a couple of other girls got into the spirit of the joke and though some of them commented on how evil it was, we were all sure that Sarah was psychologically strong enough not to have a heart attack or anything like that.

I was not there to witness her scream or however she reacted but did learn she was NOT amused and it took some time for me to brave the glowers and try to find out if she could ever forgive me!

Well, even with that guilt weighing on my soul I was delighted to be able to sign the excellent book for both Cautley log books. My strategy was simple. Give the teacher what she wants. Mrs T. was an English teacher so it made sense to write lots of descriptive passages and try to woo her with my eloquence. In our second year our form mistress was an art teacher, Mrs. S. (or was it Miss S?). My lower fourth log book was therefore well endowed with illustrations, most of which I drew myself quite lovingly. I put more into that log book than I'd put into her classes all year, (much of which was spent creating the 'death tree', with Jill, a papier mache cross between a dead tree and a skeleton hand kind of thing. We lovingly painted this with several layers of black paint while we chatted about pretty much anything) . Since I loved both writing and drawing, (especially drawing ducks and beautiful country locations and such) I knew my chances of Cautley log book success were good.

Academically I had a great two years. I could not surpass Jill and Judith generally but could just about pass them in the sciences and math, and both times managed to secure the 'school prize' for the top three students of the class. This meant shaking hands with the guest of honour on Speech Day (which I seem to remember one year was Lord Balfour of Burleigh) and hoping one's smile didn't freeze off or fall off the stage in excitement. Otherwise, of course, Speech Day was the most soporifically boring day known to mankind. It was hard to know who was being tortured by it more, the staff, the girls or the suffering parents in the audience. Still, I knew it was worth the torment for my parents to give them that moment of glory when their daughter staggered across the stage, almost fainting with fright, and stagger off again with a pink face and a book in her hand.

Another highlight of Bolton, (if one doesn't count the installation of the school organ in all its glory and red and blue housing- a delight for our music teacher who revelled in very nice Bach solos on it) as I was saying, another highlight was scripture, in particular, Miss C, our teacher for our lower fourth year. I positively adored Miss C in the way that disciples adore their mentor. She was obviously a passionately devout Christian and tought the scriptures with love, as a vocation and not just a job. I felt inspired by her and wanted to please her by letting her know I understood the teachings, which I did pretty much. I could not bring myself to ever tell her that I was in fact an atheist and had dropped Christianity for good a few years before. At least- I was an atheist when I started her class. I left it an agnostic. She'd never make me a Christian but I think we both recognized how much we shared in terms of values and insight. I had a few pretty profound spiritual dreams that year. I liked her end-of-year comment on my report .. 'has an unusual grasp of her essentials' or something like that. That was good enough for me, I felt we had accomplished a rapport.

As far as games and gymn were concerned, as I have said, I could not have cared less. I was one of the very few girls able to climb all the way up a plain rope and felt quite pleased with myself at that but it was simply because I was quite light, just barely strong enough to lift that, had little fear of heights and had Jill to instruct me in the basics of the foot grip. In gymn we were supposed to wear leotards. Both Carol and Jill looked good in them, Jill had great stomach muscle control, both had decent legs, the right amount of curve for our age and I had neither feature. I felt lumpy within the black material, pale and bony beyond it. My lower legs had a mild curvature, perhaps caused by a mild case of rickets common in the north of England and perhaps exacerbated by my hormone condition. Mum had hastened to correct it with cod liver oil capsules but not quite in time to make me perfect in a leotard. That and my knobbly knees and almost white flesh and twiggy proportions made me painfully self conscious.

Another attraction of Bolton school was the car park walk, a forbidden activity and therefore a necessary accomplishment on a one-off basis. Bolton School for Girls was separated from Bolton School for Boys by an arch in the building structure itself to admit vehicles, and the staff car park just beyond it. Girls were not supposed to hang around the car park and possibly be noticed by boys were were also not supposed to be hanging around there. I did not see the harm in walking past a few cars for a few minutes and possibly be noticed so I decided to try it just once. I totally forget who got me into that but whoever it was went along with me for 'moral support' and we walked the forbidden pavements for a few minutes, deliberately not looking across the car park and trying to feign nonchalance. I was all a tremble even though I'd attended a co-ed school barely two years before but now I was taller, prettier, my hair was longer and dark blonde and I was wearing a posh school uniform. That made everything different. A day or so later I got the 'news' that had somehow been passed along some kind of underground grapevine. Critchley had noticed me and wanted to meet me. Critchley. I imagined a pimple faced lanky twit with a bobbing Adam's apple and decided there and then that this silliness would go no further. I was not going to meet this 'Critchley' and he could just suffer.

I did suffer an embarassing moment of a similar kind but it was also rather funny. (Come to think of it, why did the school object to the car park when we were anyway being bussed with the boys?) I had noticed a vaguely good looking boy on the Eccles school bus by the name of Dave. I just liked to admire him from a distance and giggle behind my hand because I really had no intention of getting any closer despite my little crush. As far as he was concerned, he told me one day that he was fine with being my friend but didn't want me to act silly, my shy giggling just annoyed him. I shrugged him off, I wasn't looking for any connection there. Then at the end of one arduous school week I declared loudly and happily just before the Worsely bus stop, the one with the pretty view of the tomato ketchup canal:

'Friday at last!' stretching out my arms in an almost raptured physical expression.

Suddenly everyone was staring at me, including Dave.

'What?!' I said, looking around.

They all thought it was amazing and hilarious that quiet Hilary who had been so careful to cover up her crush was now delivering such a pleasured 'bye Dave!' .

'I didn't, I said 'Friday!' I protested.

'oh yeah, sure you did, but you said Bye Dave, everyone heard you!"

I tried denying it a few more times but they were all having fun laughing at the whole thing and insisting on their version that I had to give up.

Sarah, Judith, Jill and myself and a few others, I'm not sure who exactly, decided to club together and subscribe to 'Fate and Fortune' magazine, a popular publication about E.S.P. and such matters. None of us believed a word of it exactly but we were all utterly fascinated and open minded about the possibilities. I think we wanted to believe in these powers and got it to see if we could be convinced, if there was anything in it we could point at and say, 'yes! this looks supernatural!' . Of course part of my own fascination was related to the ghost of the rectory since we were living there at the time.

I also conducted a survey of all the girls in our class to find out people's experiences that might possibly be psychic. I was really quite amazed to find that almost everyone I questioned had some remarkable story of apparent telepathy or clairvoyance in their family, when I took her aside and got her confidence. This reinforced my conviction that there was far more going on in the world than was currently explained by science.

There was a feeling of imminent enlightenment, an 'age of aquarius' just beyond the horizon of mankind. I sensed a dawning of a higher state of consciousness and that excited me. This was the dawning of the 'New Age' movement and that was clearly visible to us in the early '70s though quite honestly I'm disappointed in the direction it has gone since then, I find much of it fake and full of foolish notions and wishful thinking as well as too many people on personality trips. Only a very small proportion of people in the movement have reached a higher state of consciousness, and I mean without drugs, the rest have become distracted with the frills of the movement, crystals and other marketed goods, but I digress.

This was also the time of the popularity of Uri Geller and his 'spoon/fork bending' stunts on national T.V. Plenty kids were trying to bend forks and spoons including myself of course though with no success. Naturally I was sceptical, even cynical of claimed successes. I did have a peculiar success in starting a clock but it was just as likely I'd managed to jiggle it back into another three quarters of an hour of functioning when I moved it rather than started it with the sheer force of my mind. I was not convinced. I wanted to believe but needed far more conclusive evidence.

We tried a telepathic experiment, myself and a couple of other of us. We would all try to think of a definite shape at a certain time in the evening, draw it or at least remember it, and report next day at school what we 'saw'. I was not entirely impressed with results, some girls had been busy with other things but a few of us had hit on something like blue or yellow triangles so I declared the experiment a success, with reservations. I wasn't closing the book, especially with the 'haunting' going on in the rectory. I very much wanted to understand these things and they all seemed just beyond my grasp. Beyond, but so close that I could almost taste them. Such knowledge can be like that, always alluring and drawing me on.

Copyright © 2008 Gila Atwood

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