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An Australian visitor's reflections on Grand Day 2007

One Grand Day is much the same as another, perhaps. The inspecting officer with his or her entourage, parents, former students and their families, and sundry visitors appear, witness the school's annual devotion to its military heritage and take their leave. Although unchanging in form and custom, the ceremonial 'trooping of the colours' is but one aspect of Grand Day. Another is the opportunity for old boys and girls to see for themselves what changes have been wrought since they were students. Occasionally, a correspondent captures with elegance and style  the changes that have occurred since he left the school.
          We are indebted to Phil Roberts (M 1963-69), Hon. General Secretary of the Downunder Dukies, for this account of his visit to 2007 Grand Day with his family.
I left [Australia] at the end of June and have been back a month or so to a pile of work as you might imagine so 'matters Dukies' have taken a bit of a back seat. In fact, I tried to contact Ray [Pearson] last week to check on how he was faring. I'm not sure if you know but he hurt his back while he was in England (lifting a heavy suitcase, I think) and ended up being incapacitated to the point where he had to get an assisted flight to his daughter's home in Spain as his sister in England was unable to look after him. I haven't been able to make contact as yet but will keep trying.
Band and drums prepare to march on to parade
          Landing in England in July the first thing we did was to head to Dover to arrive the day before Grand Day. My wife and daughter were with me and it was their first visit to the UK; they found everything strange and fascinating. Ted [Grant] and Ray were both staying at the Swingate Hotel along with a fair-sized group of other old boys including Ray Howorth. For my sins, I was staying the first night at the County Hotel in town along with another Aussie, Mike Hickling who was at school with me in the 1960s. It was grim I have to say and was delighted when we could move to the Swingate the next day.
          The morning of Grand Day dawned as fine as could be with a glorious blue sky, which looked fantastic from our bedroom window. The only problem was that stepping outside felt to this poor, soft Aussie that I'd been magically transported to Antarctica. The wind was bitter and my blazer and flannels only just managed to stop me freezing. I exaggerate a little, of course, but you get the idea.
          It was a strange feeling to be returning to the school for the first time since the 1970s when I briefly popped in during the summer holidays on my last trip to England. I left school in mid-1969 and it was a bit like going back through a time warp. Many things were different of course not the least of which has been the addition of girls and the resultant changes to houses etc. Some of the buildingd looked to me as though they could do with a few quid being spent on them but on the whole it looked pretty much as it did nearly 40 years ago. Ray Pearson came with us and we parked on the main asphalt parade square directed by efficient Redcaps. My daughter was goggle-eyed to see the square marked out for hockey and netball. Not so much the netball, but she found it hard to believe that we actually played hockey on such an unforgiving surface. It produced many decent gravel rashes as I recall.
          The tuck shop was the first port of call and I was slightly saddened to learn that the sub- post office lost it's official status some time ago; you can longer get mail stamped there. Still it was very nice to stand back and watch my 11 year old daughter buying a couple of liquorice straps over the counter like me in 'the olden days'.
          One of the consistent feelings I had throughout our trip around England was that most things seemed smaller than I remembered them, such as streets, old family homes, even distances between places. But not so with the Duke of Yorks. The entire place seemed so massive and its sheer size was something I'd never given much thought to all those years ago. What a place! My wife was suitably impressed and my daughter's exclamation when we went into the dining hall I'll remember forever. She looked around and up and down and said rather breathlessly "Wow! It looks like something out of Harry Potter!" I suppose I'd have to take that as a positive summary, wouldn't you agree?
          A visit to Clive House (my pal Mike is ex-Clive - I'm a Marlborough man myself) was interesting as it's now a senior girls House as that felt slightly odd seeing the old once austere day-room decorated in feminine fashion with hair dryers and bits of girls' clothing lying around. The housemistress was a great hostess and proudly mentioned that Clive had won the drill competition that year and would be on parade as the Escort to the Colours. The dorms are so very different to our day in that it's all private cubicles and study areas now. A great improvement although I suppose the duty boy NCO walking up and down the dorm after lights out reading aloud The Day of The Triffids to eager 12 year olds wouldn't be possible anymore – sad!
          A brief gathering in the marquee for old boys and girls and distinguished visitors for a  cuppa and a bite to eat was followed by the great event itself. The Connaught Fields looked magnificent and with the gathering of proud parents, grandparents and sundry others gathered in the bleachers it was a colourful and festive sight. I was lucky enough to bump into at least a dozen 1960s Old Boys who remembered me and that was good for the soul. One Graham Chipperfield was attending his umpteenth Grand Day to see his third and last daughter graduate. She was the junior bandmaster on parade and he beamed with pride. His own mother claimed she'd been coming to Grand Day for 40 years; firstly with her sons then her grand children. Quite amazing really.
          The band and drums were as impressive a sight as ever and could belt out a stirring march as well as any I've heard. I wondered if any of the instruments dated back to the 60s - like my piccolo for example. It's funny how you have these thoughts isn't it? The various and assorted colour guards marched onto the parade ground to the sound of clicking and whirring cameras that was almost as loud as the band and it was great to see so much effort being put in. Of course the ranks and files weren't as straight nor the shoes as shiny nor even were the berets worn as precisely as in my day - but don't all ex-Dukies say that? The visiting General was Sir Freddie Viggars, KCB CMG MBE, the current Adjutant-General who I hope was suitably impressed by what he saw. It was heart warming to see on the whole that the spectacle was the same as ever even though some Old Boys muttered darkly to the effect that they wondered for how much longer. Doomsayers say I.
          One of the highlights for me was a visit to the school museum which frankly was very impressive; a highlight because I didn't know it existed and stumbled across it by accident. My wife on her part loved the chapel and couldn't quite get her head around the fact that we were in there up to 5 times a week. No wonder I can still sing a hymn even if my visits to church these days are limited to weddings and funerals.
          I had to wrench myself away as the day drew to a close with Sir Freddie Viggars being helicoptered away and the students packed into station wagons, people movers and a liberal sprinkling of black BMWs. Fortunately the great mood wasn't lost as a group of like-minded souls gathered in the bar at the Swingate to enjoy the moment. I peeked across into a dark corner and wouldn't have taken too much persuading that the ghosts of Chas Connell and Dai Rees (legendary masters in the 50's & 60's) were in there supping pints.
          We gathered later, about 15 or so of us in the terrific restaurant the pub now boasts and laughed and told stories till goodness knows what time.
          Next day in the breakfast room Ray Howorth, Ted Grant, myself and our wives were treated to a virtuoso stand up comedy routine from Ray Pearson who came down to breakfast complaining he could find his choppers which seemed to have gone missing in the middle of the night. Somehow it's not possible to capture the humour writing about it, but I have to tell you it was a very funny few minutes. Fortunately a housemaid found the missing gnashers when servicing his room !!
          I hope that this effort in some way fills in the gap left by us all being away and I'll be sure to encourage Ray to drop you line when I catch up with him.

© Phil Roberts 2007

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