In March 2003 I visited Sandwich for only the second time in forty-four years. On the whole it was reassuringly unchanged, which is hardly surprising for a town that has been well established for hundreds of years. However I did notice a few small differences which may be of some interest to those, like me, who spent their formative years at Manwoods.
Sandwich is not really on the way to anywhere and therefore not the easiest place to find. Driving out of Canterbury late one evening I searched in vain for a helpful signpost, and finding none I wound up touring much of north east Kent. Eventually, following a sign for Pfizers Pharmaceuticals, I found myself driving south from Ramsgate past this enormous complex. On a lower sixth visit in the fifties it had been a modest manufacturing facility, but now it was a gigantic enterprise and the largest employer in this tip of Kent. "I'll soon cross the Sandwich toll bridge" I thought, but progress has forced the main drag in a sweeping arc west of the town. Taking a left at random I soon found myself among familiar streets, but faced with a one-way maze that denied me straightforward access to my hotel.
After a comfortable night at the King's Arms, where I sneaked my first clandestine half of mild at the age of sixteen, another OM joined me to walk and remember the town. It seemed to be the same sleepy place of old. Nobody was in any great hurry and the cold sunny Spring morning was invigorating but unlikely to attract any but the most determined tourist. A 20 mph speed limit and a one-way system to challenge Hampton Court maze combined to keep traffic to a minimum. One street was so narrow that I could straddle the curbs, but it still had a neat if narrow set of double yellow lines in both gutters. Surely one set down the middle would have sufficed!
The toll bridge I had anticipated the previous evening was still in place and carrying local traffic across the River Stour, but it no longer required a toll of one penny. The quay was as I remembered it, now full of little pleasure craft instead of the Scandinavian timber boats that somehow used to navigate the narrow waterway from the sea. The famous old Fisher Gate provided access to an Army Cadet shooting range via its slippery cobbled way, yet it remains in excellent condition. The Bell Hotel looked rather grander than before, no doubt still offering victual solace to boarders on exeat weekends.
Where I live the corner shop has all but disappeared; Sandwich has them aplenty. The bank where I changed a US ten dollar bill for three pounds ten shillings still had its magnificent facade, although the bank manager who quizzed me about its provenance has certainly long since departed. The chemist shop actually smelled like one, and the junk shop where I sold my bike for thirty bob has now aspired to full antique status. Jezzards tobacconist shop was no longer, but the bookshop opposite was still there. Every time we turned a corner I expected change, and mostly I was wrong. I bought five premium bonds in the post office when they were first introduced; perhaps I should have cashed them there and then, as they have yielded nothing in almost half a century.
Sandwich is not short of churches. St Mary's has been disused for as long as I can remember but it was open to visitors, empty but in splendid condition.
St Peter's, the Manwood's school chapel for most of my schooldays, was locked but accessible by asking for the key at the adjacent greengrocer's shop. Little of note remains inside save the organ and a commemorative plaque to my old headmaster E P Oakes. He helped me with double maths and encouraged me to apply to university, a watershed in my life for which I shall be forever grateful.
The parish church of St Clements is the oldest and most impressive, with a Norman tower and even some old Saxon carvings. It is a sad commentary on our times that it was firmly locked.
As two Old Manwoodians, we were drawn inexorably towards the school. On our way to the ramparts we passed the house that had been rented by the Commandant of the USAF base at Manston, and recalled his wrath when a Hammer and Sickle flag had been raised over Sandwich by some of our contemporaries. After we crossed the familiar footbridge and turned left into Manwood Road I could hardly believe that it was still unpaved, save for a short section directly in front of the school.
Manwoods now has almost nine hundred pupils, over half of them girls, and so there are new buildings on many of the open spaces we had enjoyed. Manwood Road has become the school car park, solid with vehicles on both sides. The outer quad has vanished under an administration block grafted like a carbuncle in front of the original entrance. However it does have an impressive crest over the entrance, reproduced on my Manwoods welcome page, incorporating the badge we wore so proudly on our school blazers. We were unexpectedly greeted by both the Bursar and the current Head, furnished with visitors' badges and invited to roam. There is now a new hall and an adjacent dining room, the old hall is the gym, and the old old hall is a split level library. An elegant new science block has been built where the air-raid shelters once were, a hideous two-story grey building has appeared next to the old dining hall and the latter has become the craft room. Fred's shed (Freddie Lowe's woodwork room) has completely disappeared, but amazingly the lathe on which I turned my black oak fruit bowl has been retained.
The school has a lively feel, and we were delighted to see that the pupils still display the courtesy and consideration beaten into us as boys. The Lodge (girls) and the Grange (boys) still host a small cohort of about fifty boarders, although both buildings are showing their age. Yet another cricket pavilion has been built on the Farrer Field, housing team photographs including some familiar faces and a wonderful shot of "Bones" Treleaven, the chief caretaker and groundsman of our day.
As we walked back to the King's Arms for lunch we reflected on the many benefits of our Manwoods education, and hoped that today's pupils would feel similarly grateful when they returned in another half a century to relive their own youthful memories.
Brian Halling ~ March 2003