I am moving along a series of narrow underground tunnels, set out in a zig-zag fashion. There are low wooden benches lining the tunnels and dim lights set at intervals, just about lightening the gloomy interior. Here and
there on the walls are chalk marks depicting algebraic equations, a roughly drawn rounders pitch, a sum which looks, at first glance, strangely incorrect.
immersed in the past, experiencing life as it would have been for the schoolgirls of Maidstone Girls Grammar School during the scary years of the Second World War when the sound of an air raid siren would send them - and their teachers - scurrying underground.
There, rather than huddling together in the fear of what might befall them, the girls found their teachers would simply pick up on the lesson they had been teaching before the siren sounded. Life would go on. Even the school dinners would be brought down for
the girls’ consumption by the school’s kitchen staff.
Before my trip into the past, I listened to a talk by former headteacher, Mary Smith, the author
of a book called A Schoolgirl’s War, which the Eldest of the Darling Daughters gave me for Christmas last year. Ever since reading it, I have been wanting to meet the author and visit the tunnels. The book draws on the memories of no fewer than fifty-three
schoolgirls of the time plus a veritable treasure trove of lively, funny, highly evocative illustrations by Helen Keen, who was the school’s art teacher at the time.
The occasion for my visit is the school’s 130th anniversary. Leaving Mr B in the company of my lovely friends Sue and Roger (there’s a footie match on, apparently, so nobody will miss me) I head off for Kent where granddaughter Eleanor meets
me, makes me a quick cup of coffee after my long(ish) journey and then chauffeurs me to the school where we arrive exactly on time. Eleanor has not long passed her driving test but, as I tell her later, I felt totally safe being driven by her. I didn’t
have to press down on my imaginary brake pedal once on the journey there or back.
The Eldest of the Darling Daughters shows me her new office, shares a cream tea
with me in the Main Hall and introduces me to Mary Smith before she starts her short talk, held in a blissfully air-conditioned classroom. It’s a good plan to listen to the talk before going into the tunnels; it brings the experience alive when actually
going “down below.” For example, the tunnels are so narrow that when the girls were sitting along the benches, there was no room for the teacher to pass along the row of pupils - “Legs left!” she would have to call so that the girls
would swing their legs leftward and so open up a gangway through which the teacher could pass.
Primary school pupils visit the tunnels these days; to make
their experience as true to life as possible, they start off with a lesson in an ordinary classroom before a siren sounds, signalling a rush into the tunnels where the lesson continues as if there had been no interruption. They are even served up with a school
dinner from the wartime period. According to Mary Smith some are freaked out, though not by the tunnels - they’re worried they will be forced to eat boiled cabbage...
We are shown through the tunnels by a confident young sixth former who makes sure to point out all the things we have heard about in the preceding talk. That apparently incorrect sum is there on the wall for us to see - it looks as if the writer has
wrongly calculated that 66 plus 26 equals 90. It was one of the Old Girls who pointed out that it is, in fact, a sum in shillings and pence (or Proper Money, as we used to call it when decimalisation was first introduced) in which six shillings and sixpence
plus two shillings and sixpence adds up to nine shillings.
I sit in the sunshine and enjoy an outdoors performance of that hilarious scene from A Midsummer
Night’s Dream where the characters act out the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and Queen Titania falls in love with Bottom who has been turned into a donkey. I marvel at the imaginative work of the art students and study an exhibition of school archives.
I meet one of my former Brownies, all grown up - an unexpected and lovely surprise encounter. I enter two competitions, one involving guessing the name of an extremely large toy dog, the other guessing where treasure is hidden on a map of the world. Eleanor
suggests I choose Basil as the dog’s name, based on the fact that this was the name of Mr B’s cousin’s dog who recently died; and Sweden as the country where the treasure is hidden, based on the fact that Sweden has just been defeated by
England in the World Cup quarter final. Unsurprisingly I don’t win either competition...
I have had a truly splendid afternoon I reflect as I drive homewards.
I’m thinking of the many teachers I know among my family and friends and how those wartime teachers kept their pupils feeling safe and secure, despite the wailing of air raid sirens and the constant threat of bombs overhead. Many of the Old Girls Mary
Smith talked to told her that at home they felt scared, seeing the fear in their parents’ eyes, whereas at school they felt safer under the calm discipline of their teachers - who must have been every bit as frightened but carried on regardless.
Congratulations on your 130th anniversary MGGS - and may you long continue to keep alive the story of the Schoolgirls’ War.