David Wilding, my father, was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) in his late 20s, was warned that he might be blind within 5 years, but happily kept his sight (albeit ever decreasing) for another 50. In 1960, he left the comfort of employed work to set up Claires Court with his wife, Josephine, here in Maidenhead, where Hugh and I were two of the 19 founding pupils. Of course it took huge courage to start a new business, but more than that, it took imagination, insight, knowledge and, of course, vision to plan a new school. During the ’60s, that ‘vision’ moved on to plan the building of a new school for 250 pupils at Ridgeway, acquired in 1964 to be the boarding house. Sadly the costs of providing the infrastructure for such a school were beyond belief; in due course, an alternative, to build speculatively two houses in what then was the kitchen garden and use the profits from their sale to build a senior wing down on the Ray Mill Road East site proved more achievable. The teaching wing was opened during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year, my second as a member of the teaching staff in the newly expanded senior school.
Both my brother and I thank our lucky stars that ‘RP’ did not pass down the family gene, and we see well enough for all those things sight is needed for, driving and the like. At the time of writing, our Dad is really not well at all, but surviving in his beloved North Norfolk village of Letheringsett, and he very much hopes to ‘see’ me over half-term. I have been totting up the whole host of ‘news’ he needs to know, because believe you me, he still has a very clear head for minute detail about the school he founded and still very much cares for.
He’ll want to know about cricket developments, team results and so forth, and will be really tickled by the notion that the staff are now fielding a cricket team in the local knock-out Julian Cup, first match this coming Tuesday evening against Taplow Cricket Club. He asks about rowing in the summer too, and the imminent racing at the National Schools regatta in Nottingham is one we all look forward to hearing results from – the boys and girls have worked very hard and have excellent chances to ‘medal’ this coming weekend. He really misses being able to travel to Maidenhead; the recent Rowing Dinner attended by 150 of the Boat Club and their parents was a spectacular success, with Sydney Olympian Miriam Batten-Luke in attendance as guest of honour to assist us in raising some £7,000 of new funds towards the onward development of our equipment.
He’ll be delighted to hear of the donations being made to the charities the six school councils resolved to support through their 3for3 fundraising. The details are impressive: Alexander Devine £3,600; Kids in Sport £2,600; Daisy’s Dream £1,000; MENCAP £1,000; Diabetes UK £1000; Rosie’s Rainbow Fund £1,500; and Thames Valley Adventure Playground £1,577.34, giving rise to a total of £12,277.34. All three of us know that the boys and girls work really hard to raise the funds, to do something different and make a difference!
My father has a lovely turn of phrase, such as “Exams, like the poor, are always with us” and he knows that pupils need to excel in exams so that they can move on to their next steps in life. Yet I never forget him joke with Henry Cooper, the British heavyweight boxer, about success at school. Henry was a Claires Court parent in the ’70s, and was asked to open the Claires Court Sports Hall. Henry simply looked down at his hands, smiled wickedly and said “Both at school and in employment, I found I was better working with my hands!”
And of course Dad, like many others, will ask me about the progress of our current plans to build a new campus, sufficient to accommodate our somewhat expanded vision of his ‘Claires Court’. I’ll reply very positively:
“The election is over, we have a settled government for the next five years, and we can see that our local authority have a body of councillors, largely re-elected, with whom I hope we can do business. We have completed our designs for new Junior Girls, Senior Boys, Senior Girls and Sixth Form schools, new kitchen and dining spaces, a cultural centre for Music and Drama, and a new double size sports hall to accommodate the myriad sports and activities we now run. Our overall investment is on the order of £30 million and I hope that we will have plans lodged this August with fingers crossed for a March 2016 build start and September 2017 opening.”
Of course my father won’t be able to see anything, and has no expectation of being able to travel south to visit to see our ‘vision’ become reality. But I know he will be able to sense our excitement that such proposals bring to fruition a dream we as a family have had for almost 50 years, one I can genuinely say has been mine as Man and Boy. While it was the boarding house, Ridgeway was also our family home long before it became a junior school. If our plans are able to progress, obviously leaving the original Claires Court will be a huge personal wrench. Like our father though, Hugh and I believe that there is a greater good to be achieved, for Claires Court to become a ‘destination’ school for all of our children, one of such scale and substance as to be sufficient for all of our possible dreams combined.
Dad will of course bring me back down to earth. “What do you think of Kevin Pietersen being sidelined? Fancy England losing four wickets before lunch at Lord’s on Thursday. Talking of which, where’s my lunch?”
I thank the Lord for BBC Radio, a saviour not just for the blind, but very definitely a service that conjures up sufficient ‘pictures’ to illuminate the world in which we live through words alone. As I leave my father to his lunch and ball-by-ball commentary on Test Match Special, I’ll know he’ll be in good hands, permitting me and my bro’ to get on with the ‘visioning’. Unlike RP, that thankfully does seem to run in the family.