My time at Cheltenham Grammar School

I wrote this for the Pates Alumni newsletter after a visit in November 2021 to help at the 6th form Careers evening.

When I look back to September 1969 and my first day at School, I cannot imagine what I thought I would be doing forty-two year later. I was allocated to form 1R and Hawker House and there over one hundred boys in our year. Well, the good news is that I am still here to tell my story.  Sadly, some of those who joined with me have departed this world too early. 

The experiences, lessons learnt, friendships made during those seven years at Cheltenham Grammar School have always been vital in my personal and career development. I am still in touch with several fellow classmates which is always a good sign. It was a pleasure to return to the new school this November, attending the Career Fair as an Alumni, meeting so many enthusiastic students, all looking forward to the next stage of their lives. It was also wonderful to see the ‘new’ school built on what I remember as rugby pitches and a cross country route. I am of the 3rd generation school building (after 2 in the High Street) which was built in the mid 1960’s but was sadly demolished in the mid 1990’s due to concrete cancer. 

The design of the school building in Princess Elizabeth Way, with distinct and contrasting ends was very impressive. At the eastern end the Music Room (home for the wonderful Head of Music, Bill Neve) standing like the bridge of a ship looking towards the racecourse and Cleeve Hill. At the western end looking towards GCHQ, the Dome under which housed the library and the famous stained-glass window. I have no idea why the school had a moat, other than the designers decided it would allow the immortal words to be said at Friday assembly…..”will the following boys report to the Headmasters study at 09.00 Saturday morning …in old clothes…..”  . I also have no idea why initially the corridors in the quadrangle were kept open to the elements other than to ensure in the winter months we froze waiting for the next lesson. In my last few years, they were glassed in! 

I also remember that the design of the windows were not suitable, as they hinged from the middle, one day somehow Paul Zajczyki’s school bag was hanging from the window handle and dropped a floor and smashed the glazed PE changing room window below, luckily there was one hurt, not sure how that got sorted out !!. Paul sadly died in Bristol Docks in Power boat accident in the late 1970’s.

My brother Stephen was four years older than me, so I had some expectation of what I was going to experience in those first few weeks, I am not sure for him or me whether it was good to have an elder brother in the school, but we survived, I know he kept an eye out for me!

Day one memory is of Dr Bell the Headmaster sitting quietly on the stage in a huge hall, Fred Jessop, Deputy Headmaster addressed the school in the first assembly, putting fear into us by speaking in a very dominate voice, waving the arms of cloak around in circles. Mr Jessop’s skill of ensuring he was never embarrassed by forgetting a name was a great technique, I admit I used a few times in my career. If he asked your name and you said your first name he would say “of course I know it’s Martin, but what’s your surname, you can’t expect me to remember 900 boys’ surnames names”. If you said your surname, it was the opposite.

When I look back at my school years, they were also filled with so many non-classroom activities: – CCF with RAF summer camps with Graham Parson’s, Roger Utting, using the rifle range in the basement, flying chipmunks and gliders, building my own canoe under the watchful eyes of Neil Anderson. Mr Anderson, a proud Scotsman who liked salt on his porridge, always canoed down the River Wye smoking his pipe, somehow it never got wet. A memorial field trip to the youth hostel at Elmscott in North Devon, with Alec Christie in his Bedford van (bench seats with no belts). We were the first English school to visit Bulgaria, we all allocated pen friends, the letters did continue for a while and strangely then they all stopped, the ‘authorities’ obviously weren’t happy.

With help from ‘Uggy’ Stanton, Malcolm Brown, Paddy Davies a highlight was getting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s award from Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace with my friend to this day, Graham Putnam. To be honest, it was tough and of course it should be, but for many interviews afterwards, I was able to talk to prospective employers about the awards challenges and how it shaped me. Our gold expedition was to the Brecon Beacons in July 1975, it should have been sunny, it wasn’t, I recently revisited Pen y Fan and at least this time I could admire the view rather than look at grey rain clouds. Graham and I did help the next year as assessors and that was much easier. 

1974 was a big year celebrating the 400th anniversary of Richard Pate founding the school. There was another big day in that year as well. Friday 13 December 1974, a date I will always remember, it’s the day I got suspended from school with 13 other people for ‘drinking spirits’ in Bell’s House Prefect room! It was Christmas lunch day; we had a guest, the famous Cheltenham resident and TV Antique expert Arthur Negus. The letter from Bernie Wilkinson the Headmaster, notifying my parents of my actions still hangs proudly in my study. My Dad was only upset as he had pay extra for a lunch I never enjoyed. The moto of this story is to remember that if the headmaster is taking a lesson in the house room below try to keep the noise down.  The irony of this day is that evening the Parents Teacher Association (my father was Chair) had their wine and cheese party and I understand that numerous attendees were helped home!!

Forty-Five years on from leaving Pates, I can reflect fondly on the how the school did prepare me for some parts of the future, however no one can prepare you for independent university life. In fact, my final company’s founder, Soichiro Honda once said ‘you work for yourself first and then Honda’, unknowingly, that philosophy was instilled into us by the school culture. It’s up to you to make things happen.

I struggled with O Levels and only just manged to get into 6th form. I was certainly one of those late developers and with support from many teachers and fellow students I successfully gaining my A levels in Economic (Julian Lailey), Geography (Noel Furley, Paddy Davies) and English (Bob Beal, Dennis Robinson). Geoff Dyer, the now famous author and one of my good friends was in my English class, I later realise why I couldn’t keep up with him!

I read Economics and Accountancy at Cardiff University as I had decided I wanted to be an Accountant and believed that I needed to study those subjects to be successful.  After I joined a big firm of Chartered Accountants in Cardiff, I realised that many of my fellow colleague has taken degrees with no relevance to Accountancy. Another good lesson, Deloitte were looking for the person rather than the subject. So perhaps if I had my time again, I may have read Geography as I really enjoyed that, so it showed that you can go ‘off-piste’ but still reach your goal. I reiterated this story at the recent career’s fair and said to student’s study something at university that you will enjoy. 

Qualifying to be an accountant didn’t come easy and I had numerous knock backs, but again as in many aspects of life, the challenges provided great lessons for the future. For no logical reason other than I found them interesting, I had decided that I would like to work in the following industries: – airlines, automotive or hotels. I worked for British Airways, Volvo and 

Honda Motor Company in senior finance, sales, and marketing roles, I stayed in many hotels around the world but never did get work in that sector. 

I have now retired from corporate life, but now spend my time helping individuals to think about how they are going to continue to develop themselves. Thinking back to school, I am sure that’s I wouldn’t have been so successful if I hadn’t had the support of so many teachers at the school. I owe them, I will never forget them; they shaped the lives of boys like me who started Cheltenham Grammar School in September 1969.