My mother was not surprised when, in 1939, her parents decided to take her out of the simple day school in Gibraltar in order to send her to Poles, a Catholic boarding school in Hertfordshire, England, but she always remained mystified by the timing. Why in April? she wondered out loud to me years later. Why not when the school year began or at least the winter term? In any case, the only good thing about it was that another girl named Patricia Stourton, nicknamed Bee, (my mother was always called Tish), arrived as a new girl on the exact same day. Their bond was instant and lifelong. Bee was my godmother and in 2004, I took my mother to the island of Guernsey so she could be there for Bee’s 80th birthday celebration.
And now, ten years later, I’ve decided to travel to all the places in England where my mother lived or went to school. So at three this afternoon, with my loyal and plucky husband at the wheel, we turned down Poles Lane and drove up to the front door of what used to be the Poles Convent, and is now the Hanbury Manor, a Marriott Hotel and Spa. My first reaction? Pure unbridled relief at having survived at least twenty roundabouts driving on the left hand side of the road.
I asked that we be put in the Manor House to insure we would be sleeping in the section of the hotel that housed the entire convent school. Might we be staying in a room my mother once occupied? It’s certainly possible, although the redecoration makes it hard to imagine. In those days, she didn’t have sumptuous tasseled curtains framing the windows of her dormitory room or wall-to-wall carpeting or a mini-bar or even a lift to carry the girls to their quarters. The shared bathrooms, down a long hallway, were always cold. In fact there was no heat at all in the school. You just added another layer of woollies if you had them.
Poles was run by a society of nuns called the Faithful Companions of Jesus. (My mother and Bee nicknamed them the Frightful Chums.) Our bedroom looks out on the sculpted greens of an eighteen-hole golf course. Remarkably enough, my mother looked out on the same scene as Henry King, the retired diamond merchant who bought the house from the Hanburys, the original owners, added the golf course. Sadly, Mr. King’s son was killed in World War I, and he himself died in 1920. The family seemed dogged by tragedy as the next year, their daughter, Muriel, died of severe burns when the smoker she was using to calm the bees in their hives, malfunctioned and set her on fire. Soon after her death, her widowed mother put the house on the market. The Faithful Companions bought it two years later to set up Poles Convent.
My mother spent three years here. She dislocated her knee doing a spontaneous pirouette on a stone floor while waiting for lunch one day. The nuns told her to take two aspirin and stop complaining which is probably the reason why her favorite phrase was always NO POINT FUSSING. She prayed daily in the chapel, now used as a dining hall. She stood in front of this magnificent tree
My grandmother yanked her out of Poles in April of 1940 in the hopes of getting her out of England during the war, but no sooner had she and her brother and her mother returned to Gibraltar, then they were evacuated right back to England. So on May 30,1940, she found herself, once again, behind the sheltering walls of Poles where despite the nuns’ strict rule against radios or news of any kind, they could occasionally hear the bombs dropping thirty miles south in London. When the bombs got too close, the girls were all instructed to zip themselves into their combat suits, (which looked just like the one Winston Churchill often wore) so the nuns could herd them all down to the safety of the basement.
I’ve found two lovely ladies in the Marriott gift shop who are the only ones here who know anything about Poles Convent which closed in 1986. I hope to do some more exploring with their help.