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Ashley Franklin visits the village of Repton - famous for its schools, fascinating past and flourishing present.
After describing Crich as 'the most famous village in Derbyshire', for its Stand, Tramway Museum and TV's Peak Practice, I now realise that this county's Capital of Mercia could challenge that honour. Furthermore, if one looks beyond Derbyshire's born and bred such as Joseph Wright, Jedediah Strutt or Ellen MacArthur, one can add a classroom-full of famous Repton residents or, more accurately, boarders. Repton's renowned public school has been home to three Archbishops of Canterbury (William Temple, Michael Ramsey and Geoffrey Fisher), cricketers C.B. Fry and Donald Carr, Olympic gold-winning athlete Harold Abrahams, poet W.H. Auden, writers Roald Dahl and Christopher Isherwood, actor Basil Rathbone and racehorse owner Robert Sangster. As a result of the recently-published 450th anniversary book Repton to the End, I shall now think of Repton every time I tune in to my favourite TV show. The book reveals that the name of Top Gear's test track driver, 'The Stig', was suggested by presenter Jeremy Clarkson and producer Andy Wilman, both old Reptonians: at Repton 'stig' is the name given to first year pupils, with its origins as much a mystery as the identity of the TV show's driver.
Before we proceed further, it needs pointing out that there is more to Repton than its famous boarding school. These words will placate long-time resident David Guest who stated that 'whilst Repton school cannot be ignored, local people appreciate it when attention is also paid to the village.' Indeed, he informed me that both the Repton Village Society and the Repton Village History Group deliberately incorporated the word village to distinguish them from the school. He also pointed out that many years ago the BBC's Down Your Way radio programme upset villagers when, 'Apart from the then vicar and a very old lady from the village, everyone interviewed was from Repton school!'
Actually, my first visit to the village, ten years ago, was not to Repton school but to the parish church of St Wystan's for a radio interview with Carlo Curley, the 'Pavarotti of the organ', prior to a recital on the church's recently installed 21-stop oak-case instrument. The gladsome sight of St Wystan's needle-slim spire is something to behold every time one approaches the village after sweeping out of Willington and crossing the River Trent. The grassland skirting the Trent exhibits a primeval air and, since learning a little of Repton's ancient history, I now picture hordes of Viking longboats marauding through the water as they did in the winter of 873, presaging a pagan presence in a kingdom where, 120 years previously, Christianity first came to these parts. Worshippers in the village, including St Wystan's vicar Peter Paine, speak of a special affection for a place of prayer dating back so many centuries. Indeed, the arrival of four Northumbrian priests in 653, to convert the Mercian royal family from their paganism so that a royal wedding could take place, made Repton the cradle of Christianity in the Midlands. Together with the heritage of the school, one wonders if Repton could claim to be the most historic village in the country, let alone county.
Any visitor to Repton will notice St Wystan's 212 foot spire, along with the medieval Cross which must be considered for the title of most attractive, historic roundabout in the country. Around here, a Wednesday market was founded in 1330, eventually turning into two annual fairs, including one - in 1848 - where a Reptonian witnessed a man selling his wife for one shilling after he had led her from Burton with a halter around her waist! One also can't fail to admire the adjoining cottages opposite the churchyard, one dated around 1600, the other 1700, especially now the roofs have been freshly thatched. Catching the thatcher working on the roof when driving through Repton last year was like glimpsing through a portal to a distant rural past.
The casual visitor can actually miss the famous old part of Repton school, as most of it is closeted away behind the Priory Arch, but the school's presence can certainly be felt in the village proper. 'The school is very conscious of its place in the heart of Repton village and therefore values its relationship with the local community most highly,' states headmaster Robert Holroyd. As he points out, it's an 'organic relationship' as the school is not enclosed within a campus but weaves in and out of the village. 'You could say that in a sense the school and village are intertwined,' Robert continues, 'partially due to the fact that the School was not constructed as a purpose-built educational institution, but evolved from a series of historic buildings that have always been at the core of the village.'
Gardens Scheme. David and Jan Roberts on High Street have spent 25 years landscaping ponds and borders and have cultivated the intriguingly named Handkerchief, Toothache and Tulip trees, while Robert and Pauline Little on 10 Chestnut Way have an extraordinary and unusual variety of hedges, shrubs, trees, butterfly beds and flowers, including over 100 clematis. Stephen and Wendy Longden at Woodend, Main Street, have a 21/2 acre organic garden 'with glorious views' which was featured in Country Living last year.
There is a very successful annual Repton Village Show but there is concern that the heavily-used village hall is coming to the end of its life. Planning is underway to replace it.
It is of no surprise that there is a thriving Repton Village History Group. As David Guest affirms: 'Repton is steeped in tangible history'. Indeed, David and his wife Lilwen lived for 35 years in Tudor Lodge, a timber-framed house over 400 years old. It's one of Repton's 40 listed buildings, probably more than any other Derbyshire village. One of them, a thatched cottage on Burton Road, dates back to 1325 which could make it the oldest dwelling in the county, though my eye was particularly taken by The Grange, an imposing three-storey Queen Anne House built in 1703 by the former Lord Mayor of London, Joseph Holbrook.
It was fitting that David and Lilwen came to live in such an historic village through a visit to the Anglo-Saxon crypt in St Wystan's. 'One of the most precious survivals of late Saxon architecture in England', is Pevsner's estimation of the crypt as well as the chancel above. Measuring only 15 feet square and nine feet high, the crypt is hidden away with only a small sign pointing the way through a wooden door. Standing alone there in the half light and the hush, gazing on the simple, spirally wreathed columns and the plain, unadorned walls and floor, all dating back nearly 1300 years, I understood why village worshippers describe this mausoleum as 'awe inspiring' and 'a haven of peace in a busy world'. To any lover of religious history, it must be both humbling and moving simply to tread the same steps 'worn down by the feet of countless pilgrims', though it's hard to imagine that the remains of three Kings - Ethelbert, Ethelbald and Wiglaf - once lay in a recess of these bare unadorned walls.
It was only after 14 years of excavations ending as recently as 1988 that the crypt was verified as dating from the first half of the 8th century. These major archeological digs included some exciting discoveries, notably the vicarage lawn unearthing a Viking burial mound containing the bones of 249 people - 200 Viking men and 49 Anglo-Saxon women - their feet pointing to a missing central coffin, reckoned by an earlier dig in the 1680s to be an important Viking warrior some nine feet tall. Experts were called on to study the remains. One of three dentists who examined the teeth was Repton resident David Roberts. 'For months our house was full of Vikings, or their skulls,' declared David's wife Jan. 'It was a mammoth task, taking many months,' remembers David. The teeth of those who had died young showed next to no decay but David found that it was probably a blessing that most warriors died before their late 40s: 'Beyond that age, they would have lived a terribly uncomfortable life, ravaged by loose teeth, abscesses and rotten breath.'
Another important find was the 'Repton Stone', a fragment of a cross shaft depicting a sword and shield-wielding horseman in mail armour. If, as believed, this is King Ethelbald, it would make it the earliest large-scale pictorial representation of an English monarch. This stone can be seen in Derby Museum. Repton's history becomes richer still when you discover from the Repton Trail leaflet that a gaze through the mid-13th century archway of Repton School's Priory gatehouse reveals examples of architecture from every century from the 8th to the 20th. You'll see many vestiges of the Augustinian Priory founded in 1172. There would have been more to see had the Priory buildings not been inherited by the son of Thomas Thacker, who bought the priory after the Dissolution. It is reckoned that Gilbert Thacker, alarmed at the prospect, under Mary Tudor, of a religious house being re-established on his property, demolished the greater part of the Priory, including its magnificent church, in a single day. The vandal responsible for this desecration reportedly commented that it was necessary 'to destroy the nest, for fear the birds should build there again', and he proceeded to sell off the stones to local builders. In 1559, commissioners appointed under the will of Sir John Port of Etwall bought the surviving buildings from Thacker. For the princely sum of 37 10s, Repton School was born. Sir John Port's intention in his will was the establishment of a grammar school. As Repton to the End explains, grammar originally meant Latin with a grammar school being 'a school in which the learned languages are grammatically taught.' Schoolboys were supposed to converse only in Latin.
It was well into the 19th century before Repton grew from a grammar into a public school of distinction. The presence of Pears' School at Repton is in honour of the Headmaster Dr Steuart Adolphus Pears who arrived in 1854 with fewer than 50 boys on the register and retired 20 years later with 260 boys, nearly all of whom were boarders. As well as being described by the Chairman of the Repton Governors as 'a born schoolmaster' with 'wonderful power as the manager of Boys', he was commended for having a 'truly Christian piety, free from all oddities and peculiarities'.
You'll find no building in honour of John Macaulay (Headmaster 1832-40), described as 'a big, bullying man, a strict disciplinarian and ferocious flogger.' News of his fatal illness brought the pupils to riot, breaking bounds 'in order to get hold of cakes and ale.' Another headmaster, William Temple, will be remembered for building the school's cricket pavilion, ironic given his famously quoted view of cricket as 'organised loafing'. Repton to the End reveals a remarkable cricketing legacy: 128 Reptonians have played first-class cricket, most recently Chris Paget for Derbyshire while still at the school. Former Reptonian and Derbyshire player Chris Adams went on to captain the County Championship winning Sussex side of 2006. If a current cricketing Reptonian could go on to play for Durham, it would mean the school will have supplied every first-class county, along with nine county captains and 10 England players. One England captain who stands out as the most distinguished Reptonian cricketer, indeed sportsman, and maybe even scholar, was C.B. Fry (1872-1956), scorer of 30,000 runs for Sussex and England including 94 centuries. Charles Burgess Fry also played football for Southampton and England, rugby for Oxford, Blackheath and Barbarians (and would have surely played for England but for injury) and equalled the world long jump record 'between puffs on a cigar'. He was a man so nimble that he was reportedly able to leap backwards from a stationary standing position onto a mantelpiece. At Repton, he also carried off prizes for German, Latin prose and verse, Greek verse and French. The school archives record that he was an accomplished debater, actor and singer. He became a master at Charterhouse and, later, as a delegate to the United Nations, so impressed the Albanians with his speechwriting skills that they offered him their throne. His ashes are interred at St Wystan's, which is eminently fitting as this fine, upstanding English gentleman said himself that 'the view of the Old Priory through the School Arch as one walks towards it along the ancient wall which bounds the playing fields from the village is one of the fairest instances I know of historic England exhibited in shapely grey stone.'
It's pleasing to report that a local girl achieved the honour of making an entrance as Repton School's first female pupil. Carole Blackshaw was in her O level year at a strict, old-fashioned girls' boarding school and was looking to do her A levels 'somewhere more pleasant'. She then thought, 'There is a perfectly good school on the doorstep. Why can't I go there?' Entirely on her own initiative, she asked that same question of headmaster John Gammell. He thought, 'Why not?' The chairman of governors agreed, as long as she found a like-minded friend to keep her company. So, in 1970, Carole Blackshaw and Sally Keenan became Repton sixth formers. As Carole recalls, one of the immediate benefits was felt by drama head Mike Charlesworth: 'He was only too pleased to have the genuine article take the female leads in school plays.' Carole went on to break another glass ceiling: she now runs a successful aviation consultancy business and was Lady Mayoress of London in 2002/03.
Mike Charlesworth himself can be seen playing the role of the Chaplain in the 1983 TV version of Goodbye Mr Chips, filmed at Repton School, as it was so famously in 1939 when Robert Donat won the Best Actor Oscar ahead of Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier and James Stewart. Although the novel was inspired by the Ley's School, Cambridge, a spot of insider dealing ensured this MGM motion picture was filmed at Repton: Eric Maschwitz, the screenplay co-writer, was a former Reptonian.
On my walk around Repton, I fortuitously stumbled upon the one surviving village extra from the 1939 film, when I called in at the salon Hairs and Graces, run for 32 years by Judith Everington. After musing on whether Judith owned the only hairdressers in the land with an oak-beamed ceiling, she introduced me to her charming mother, 90-year old Edna Melen who spoke with girlish glee of how her father's Repton connections brought her a walk-on part in Mr Chips. 'I only remember me, my father and another girl from the village called Eileen being hired as extras. I was the envy of all my friends. We were supposed to earn 1 a day, though the money was given to a Repton schoolboy who was poor. I didn't mind, though, we spent three memorable days and got lovely, free lunches. We didn't see anything of Robert Donat but then girls of our age weren't as star struck as they are today.' And, after three days of filming, how much of her ended up on film? 'All of about two seconds,' said Edna with a resigned smile. However, young Edna did eventually get more than two seconds of fame in the village: she was Repton's last May Queen. In adult years, she and her baker husband gained great renown for the quality of their bread. They also had the honour of supplying all the Repton School houses.
In a collection of reminiscences donated to the Repton Village website, the late Iris Bentley recalls Melen's as one of three bakeries in Repton - 'they baked the loveliest bread and their cakes were supreme'. Iris also recalls a post First World War Repton which included 22 working farms. Only two now remain, though as recently as the 1950s the potato harvest was so important that residents recall the local school being closed for a week to allow children to help in the fields. Iris also remembers Repton having five grocery shops, four cobblers, three wheelwrights, three tailors, two blacksmiths and a basket-maker. The basket-maker was Seth Pearson who, in an earlier era, would have been one of about ten local basket-makers exploiting the Main Street osier beds and producing malt skips for the Burton breweries, gardeners' baskets and travelling hampers. Such was the quality of Seth's workmanship that Iris was still using a clothes basket woven nearly 60 years earlier. Repton baskets were shipped far and wide across the country.
There's quality workmanship to be found in today's Repton which is also finding satisfied customers worldwide, albeit of a different kind. Instead of osier beds, Main Street now has engine test beds. Hidden away up a long lane off Main Street sits Zytek which offers 'advanced automotive technologies' for both race and road vehicles, petrol and electric driven. Operations Director John Manchester reveals that Zytek is one of the top independent engine manufacturers in the world, with the 70 employees at the Repton site designing and manufacturing racing engines. John spoke of local opposition to Zytek's arrival in 1998 - the idea of a company producing racing engines introduced fears about noise - but any qualms over the issue were soon quelled when it was realised that Zytek was building on a dilapidated eye-sore and its engines would be well off the road, so to speak. 'We didn't want to impact on Repton in any way,' says John. 'In fact, ten years on, some villagers still don't know we're here.' If you're one of them, you can now boast with local pride that Repton-made Zytek engines were in the first and second-placed cars at the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hour Race, and the company's new KER (Kinetic Energy Recovery) system is poised for action in Formula 1 next season, though the name of the team is still hush-hush.
While modern technological industries prosper, the more traditional waver. In recent years, Repton has lost a pharmacy, doctor's surgery, newsagent, grocer and two of its three butchers shops. The remaining butcher, Neil Redshaw, is one of those cherished retailers who treats his shop as a social centre: more than mere butcher, he is both conversationalist and listening-post, with an easy acquaintanceship with customers borne out of 25 years service. 'I've grown up with these people,' he pointed out, 'and if you have a good chinwag with them, they come back.' Rosie Carpenter paused in her chinwag with Neil to tell me that he was a 'fantastic traditional butcher' and he has certainly got an impressive range of meats including pigeon breasts, wild boar, venison, guinea fowl and haggis. He's also in great demand as a provider of hog roasts, attending nearly 40 functions across the UK last summer.
Mr Joshi's Spar store is another social hub, run by a most personable man who appreciates that he isn't any villager's 'main supermarket shop' but is still a vital resource: 'I provide them with the comfortable knowledge that if they run out of something, it's not tragic... we're here.'
What IS tragic about rural life is that a reported 27 pubs are closing every week in the UK, and Repton has added to that list recently with the closure of the Red Lion. However, Repton has been revitalised by two refurbished taverns: The Boot Inn, run by Alkesh and Susie Majevadia and The Bulls Head, run by Richard and Loren Pope. After 27 years in the office end of the pub business, Richard Pope had a burning desire to run his own inn. Maybe only his chutzpah could have converted The Bulls Head, which had been closed for 21/2 years, and turned it into a place that, according to one grateful villager, 'changed the face of Repton'. A downstairs pub area retains its natural character but has quality grub - 'local and fresh' - smiling bar staff, stylish cowhide bar panels and a 'Wine Wall' with 63 wines ranging in price from 10 to 500. A special cognac at 60 a shot is a pointer to the sophisticated, theatrically lit upstairs restaurant where I tasted head chef David Humphries' belly pork and wondered if I would ever dine on anything as succulent again. He's a renowned fish specialist, too. The Bulls Head also has a massive summer terrace which will soon stage another Derbyshire Beer Festival following the recent success of its first.
Alkesh and Susie have performed similarly shrewd wonders at The Boot, retaining the traditional character of the lounge bar in this 17th century coaching inn but bringing a fresh classy ambience to the main bar. Like The Bulls Head, they wanted 'a place where women feel comfortable'. I ate a delicious pie using Redshaw's steak from The Boot's 'home cooked pub grub' menu, and what will also allow it to stride on is the three star AA rating its accommodation rooms have gained since Alkesh and Susie took over. Further down the road, the busy Brook Farm Tea Rooms and Restaurant is a pretty picture, a converted barn set off by a stream and four gaggling geese. For 18 years, Kathy Grogan and her team have been dishing up food abiding by its motto: 'If it can be homemade, it is.' Specialties include hot puddings and 'unrivalled' Sunday lunches.
Brook Farm lies close to a part of Repton you wouldn't glimpse if you went to soak up the school, church and other historical and architectural attractions which include St Wystan's Independent School for ages 2 to 11, a beacon of excellence founded 80 years ago by Lady Fisher, wife of the then Headmaster of Repton School. However, away from that affluent heart of Repton, amidst a modest estate, is Repton Primary School. This is no ordinary school. In the five years that Leah Coster has been headteacher, her interest in music has combined with that of the school's influential musical co-ordinator Claire Stones to pioneer a musical ethos to the remarkable extent whereby of the 220 pupils, 175 play a musical instrument. Two former pupils gained music scholarships to Repton and Foremarke, two current pupils have attained Grade 6 Clarinet and Grade 5 Trumpet, and there is a 50-piece orchestra. Can any state primary school in the UK, possibly the world, match those astonishing statistics? As I listened to these inspiring children strike up a tune, I realised I had a further abiding memory of Repton to take with me along with C.B. Fry, St Wystan's spire and that Bull's Head belly pork.
Repton to the End, edited by John Plowright, Master of Scholars at Repton, is published in hardback by Third Millennium Publishing and available from Repton School Shop, priced 37.50, tel: 01283 559323.
Repton's Open Gardens event is on 21st and 22nd June, with gardens open 2 till 6 pm. As part of the National Gardens Scheme, Robert and Pauline Little's garden, 10 Chestnut Way, is open 25th and 26th May, 1 to 5 pm. David and Jan Roberts' garden, 37 High Street, is open on 8th June, 2 to 5.30 pm. Stephen and Wendy Longden's garden, 134 Main Street is open 25th May, 13th July, 10th August, 1-5pm.