The school librarian

For the last year or so on Twitter, I’ve been on the scrounge for children’s books for a primary school library (still going, if you fancy donating any books, we’ll smother you with thank you tweets), but despite this, I’d forgotten that I used to be a school librarian when I was a kid. I was rummaging about in some old boxes at home when I found my old badge; it took me back thirty years, and alerted me to a privilege that I wasn’t aware of at the time.

My old school, St Gabriel’s (Sandleford Priory) was, and still is, gorgeous. Of course, when I was there, I just thought of it as “school” — but it was actually a pretty interesting place.

Originally an old Augustine priory from 1200, it was rebuilt in the late 1700s as a Gothic country house. There were battlements, facades, thick, grey stone walls, high ceilings and lots of draughts.  Elizabeth Montagu started the Blue Stocking high society gatherings there, a movement which included men initially but was noted historically for the emergence of literate and educated women.

There are references to a school on the site from 1929, but the estate was sold in 1947 and the current school established in 1948.

Sandleford Priory (west front), Sandleford, Greenham, Newbury, Berkshire, England
Photo by Rodolph, via Wikimedia Commons


If I were a schoolgirl there now, I’d take hundreds of pictures of the interior of the building.

My favourite room was to the east of the main entrance: Punch’s room, where a large picture of the old Montagu family (Edward and Elizabeth) dominated the wall, including the phased-out silhouette of a tiny boy, Punch (their son, real name John), who died aged 15 months, rumour had it in the lake although we didn’t know for sure. We believed that his ghost roamed the gardens, and we all wanted to see him, hug him, and somehow make things better.

It may have been this picture?

Edward Haytley's portrait of the Montagu Family at Sandleford Priory, Newtown, near Newbury, Berkshire, GB, circa 1744
This is the Montagu family at Sandleford by Edward Haytley, c. 1744, and appears to show a shadow child beside the woman. Edward Montagu and Elizabeth were married in 1742, had John (Punch) in 1743, and he died in 1744 (Wiki) – after which his image was painted over. I can’t guarantee my memories from 30 years ago but this image rings bells and fits the dates around Punch’s too-short life. The painting was several feet across, and dominated the wall. Click the image above to see the larger Wiki Commons version (and if you click again, a huge version in which the infant is more visible).

Punch’s room opened into the beautiful music room and a further hall (was this the old chapel, in which there was once an inclusa / anchoress?) where French windows led onto the lawns overlooking rolling fields, and leading around to the swimming pool and the lake (Brown’s Pond).

I wish I had photos of us in the grounds, licking half-melted 20p chocolate bars from our fingers and dipping our tongues in sherbet (actually fruit drink powder) from the vending machine while pretending to concentrate on outdoor art class. I might have snapped the moment when two battling stags swam the lake and galloped across the lawn beside us, or the summer fair when we rowed over the lake in little tub boats, or pictures of us with our heads down in the beautiful high-ceilinged classrooms, discussing the hired box of Mr Bleaney but really wishing we were allowed to recite This Be The Verse.

At the time, though, photos came on Kodachrome film and we just didn’t take our cameras to school. I have a couple of blurred, filmy pictures of my friends and me in the 5th form common room, just before we left, but nothing of the house.

In the absence of a photo, I found this painting: The Library at Sandleford Priory, early 20th Century watercolour by EM Southby. I can’t tell if it’s the same room, but it could be. Anyway, this is the Sandleford library. Gorgeous? Gorgeous.

I remember the day when Mrs Copeland made me librarian. She taught us Silas Marner, Cider with Rosie, and Macbeth. She was calm, friendly and very cool, and she made us think. I loved her lessons and when she made me librarian, I felt a flutter of pride, but was also baffled. I was really sporty; could I do books?

The library, when I was there, was in a room at the northern end of the main house, upstairs. It wasn’t a huge room but it was classically beautiful — the walls clad with old oak bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Many of the books were cloth-bound. Tall sash windows overlooked the tennis courts, hockey pitch and sweeping driveway. In the corner, there was a little staircase.

What did a librarian do? Wasn’t that, like, a dust monitor? A sort of… dunno… well, there were books on shelves and my job was to keep them there? Or something. Anyway, hockey!

The day came when everyone else went out to play, and I got to go to the library and learn about the Dewey decimal system. My job was mainly to put used books back on the shelves, which wasn’t too hard, and to suggest new books that people would like in the library (vague memories of my classmates staring at me blankly, and a copy of Stig of the Dump). Once I’d finished tidying the library, I peered out of the window and daydreamed. I scuffed about a bit and looked at the carved wood. And then I spotted the little staircase.

It wasn’t like the other stairwells in the building, most of which were wide and a bit grand. This one was little and pokey, just wide enough for me, so I snuck up it and found myself in a tiny corridor with a couple of little attic rooms branching off. And in these rooms were all the old books, stacked in dusty heaps.

I can’t remember which books I read up in that little attic room, on my own, peering out of the tiny window up in the gables, while my friends played like tiny specks on the field below. I was like Bastian in The Neverending Story, in a world of my own. And this became my eyrie for the year; my time out from reality when I could hurl a few books back into place in the library below and then disappear into a place that barely anyone knew.

Stepping through the back of a wardrobe

I wasn’t the world’s greatest librarian, but the library allowed me to escape into the world of books and from then on, I was a child in Narnia, with my own private wardrobe. I only have to think of it to go back there. I’m not sure anyone else ever went there again. Does it still exist? Or is it something else now; when I left, did I carry it away with me…?

Before I left, I did grab a couple of friends — said, ‘Come with me after lunch, come and look, I’ve found a magic room!’ And I took them up the staircase and shared my little nest. They got it. They got it and they loved it too.

I was pottering in a very different school library last year, 250 miles to the west; a ground-floor room in a 1950s build, full of colour, bursting with the vibrancy of young children. No sweeping landscapes or huge history but still a legacy as important as any library, the opportunity for a child to learn how to step into other worlds (and back). It’s active and alive, not dusty or forgotten, and I imagine that’s a good thing. Still though, the hustle of daily life sometimes masks the magic of a library’s quiet. I wonder if we have the balance right, in these days when everything has to be fun and engaging, rather than perhaps reflective or even creatively quiet?

I’m not part of a school any more, I’m not a librarian any more. But I still have this magic door in my mind, a tiny staircase and a set of windows opening out into the sky, and I still peer down and want to call out to the children, ‘Come here, look! Look! I’ve found a magic room!’

1 Chad was the saint who, if a gale started while he was reading, would close his book and prostrate himself to beg for God’s mercy on humanity. Ref: Wiki. Lucky he didn’t live in Cornwall; he’d have spent his life on the floor. 

The houses at school were named after Aiden (yellow), Alban (red), Bede (blue) and Chad (sparkling, emerald green and by far the coolest). 

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