BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
Stancliffe Hall, not sane, stood by itself against its woods, holding darkness within; it has stood for hundreds of years and may stand for hundreds more.
After reading the account of my years spent there, I hope you won’t think it too silly of me to apply the opening lines of Shirly Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to my former boarding school.
At 6 AM, what little sleep we managed there would end with the strident shrieking of Mrs Sharpe. Though only charged with making our baths in the morning and cups of tea in the evening, she had a hurriedness about her and always gave the impression that we were obstructing her from getting on with some imagined duty. By the fury with which she flung open our curtains, you would think that they, too, were in her way. The two-pronged attack of the bright sunlight and bitter cold of the boy’s dormitory left us dazed like frozen lobsters. Then, to continue with the seafood theme, we were prised from our sheets like clams from their shells and marched towards the morning bath.
Though the bathroom housed six of them, I would hesitate to call the place a bathroom. From the tiled walls, upon which a curious green stripe ran down the middle, to the medical-looking curtains that veiled the baths, the room had more the look of a Victorian operating theatre than anywhere fit to bathe children. It is true that when entering a boarding school, you leave any privacy at the door, and we were only seven or eight at the time, but to have the stooped silhouette of Mrs Sharpe linger against our bath curtain felt an infringement too far. The bath water could never have been much warmer than 30 degrees, but try as we might, Mrs Sharpe couldn’t be induced into letting us run our own baths. She’d justify this with utterances of ‘health and safety’, though I suspect the lukewarm bath water was just another way for her to release her anger. Her husband, the headmaster, was a philanderer, you see.
The reward for this hydrotherapy torture was a breakfast that consisted of little else than toast and marmalade. As the filthy habits of others had left the marmalade marbled with veins of butter, I often just ate the least charred pieces of toast that I could scavenge, sans spread.
Nourished on carcinogens, we then made our way to morning prayer. Mr Sharpe would sit himself at the front of the chapel looking resolutely pious whist tremulously twisting his wedding ring. Mrs Sharpe, on the other hand, made no pretence at piety. A mad rush for the toilets would signal that Maths was the first lesson of the day as Mr Gordon rarely permitted bathroom breaks, and if he did then they were timed to the second. These restrictions always struck me as rather sexist for the girls seemed more prone to needing comfort breaks than the boys and the poor lasses would spend the lesson writhing like salted slugs.
Geography was a more relaxed affair with a quiet Irish woman who was obscenely fat and reeked of vinegar. I won’t bore you with the whole day’s schedule, just to say that as Mr Jenkins was about as alive as the language itself, I was never much inspired to learn Latin. And as for IT, one got the impression that the teacher was vaguely aware of his potent halitosis, why else get so uncomfortably close when talking and artfully prolong the conversation to almost punishing lengths? One of the teachers, I was told by too many people to doubt, was relieved of his duty of observing the boys’ changing rooms for being a tad too observant. Safe to say that Stancliffe had a colourful cast of characters.
Once lessons had finished, the day pupils’ mothers would gather round Mr Sharpe in the foyer, angling for their child to become head boy or girl. My friend Alex and I would watch from a balcony above as the mothers disgraced themselves, their eyes lighting up as he waved in their direction only to find that he was instead waving to the woman behind, typically the wealthier one. He behaved particularly obsequiously towards a woman whose face had the look of having been stung by a thousand wasps, and I don’t doubt that her wallet was stung for thousands to achieve such a state. It costs a lot of money to look so ugly.
With dinner came the dread that the night was drawing in and the uncertainty of what the darkness would bring with it. Sometimes there would be ‘themed’ dinners, but they were just ways to sex up the blander ones. Bangers and mash for instance was once sold to us as a ‘WWI themed dinner’. Occasionally an old corvine woman would be seated at one end of the table with implied importance. I haven’t a clue as to who she was and don’t think her presence was ever explained to us, I only know that she took great exception to the way I ate my peas – ‘shovelling’, she decried. I never saw her touch a crumb herself, she just sat there in solemn judgment. As any of my attempts at the peas were met with her searing stare, I eventually stopped requesting them. Who knows? Maybe she was a ghost?
Then came our free time in the dormitory, and it is at this point that it will become clear why I compare Stancliffe Hall to Hill House. Although part of the hall has stood since the 15th century, much of how it looks today was built by Joseph Whitworth in 1870, intending it to be a retirement home for him and his wife. But as the wife to the architect of Hill House met a grisly death, so too did Mrs Whitworth in a lift ‘accident’. It should perhaps be noted that divorce was not so acceptable in 1870 as it is today.
The lift still existed in the basement when I was at Stancliffe and its shaft still reached up to the second floor where Mrs Whitworth met her end, closer to the boy’s dormitory than the girls. I recently spoke to my friend Alex to give his account of a strange event that happened there as he remembers it better than I. There were about four of us playing some sort of tag-like game in the boy’s dormitory. The dorm was split into two long rooms with an aisle running from one end to the other, either side of which were cubicles containing two beds. We were in the room farthest away from the entrance, hiding behind some curtains from the boy who was ‘it’ when we saw him dart towards us. But rather than tag any of us, he instead crawled into one of the nearby cubicles. This didn’t seem too odd as the boy was known to be a bit of a prankster. We searched for him beneath the beds of that cubicle only to then hear his voice come from behind asking what we were doing. With three eyes on that cubicle it was impossible for him to have slipped out without us seeing. Alex did make the point that we had the lights out that night, and though we assumed the figure running towards us was the other boy, in such lighting the figure was likely indiscernible and could have belonged to anyone, or anything.
Three years later Stancliffe Hall ceased to be a school and is now, as far as I’m aware, a wedding venue. I wish those who choose to wed on its grounds a happier marriage than that of the Whitworths.
James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.