AN APPRECIATION - Peter Fletcher
It was a particularly find day, I remember, in August 1939, as war clouds were gathering , that my father announced we were to pack immediately to move down to North Devon from the London area.
I recall as if it were yesterday my first introduction to Bideford Grammar School. My father and I were shown over the buildings and grounds by a very proud Redvers Paddon, the caretaker, who considered it to be ‘his’ school. Living, as he did, in the School house adjacent, his pride and love of the place was obvious; also his dear wife, who was no less important as chief cook. It was only when the perambulation was complete that we were taken to be introduced to the Headmaster, W J Langford.
I could not possible have realised at that time that I was meeting a mand with whom, in my adult life, I was to form ultimately a friendship that would last for 57 years. He rose from his desk in his study (in the north east corner of the building by the then library) to welcome us, and after a short interview I think he accepted the fact that I might be some sort of reasonable youngster, albeit an evacuee in disguise from the big city. I smile now when I remember that we came to an agreement (as he did with all evacuee attachments to the School) that he would permit me to wear my vivid purple school blazer and grey and purple cap until such time as they wore out or I grew out of them! This I did for the first two or three years, and them succumbed to the Grammar School uniform of which ultimately I became very proud to wear.
From the pupil-teacher relationship over the long years he became my mentor and dear friend. I know during the long talks we had together how joyful his memories were of Bideford and its Grammar School, and he valued dearly the contact he maintained during his life with those of his old boys, whether from Bideford or Battersea, who visited him from time to time.
Those war years at Bideford Grammar School were very special, and known perhaps to only a small section of old boys. Most I am sure have happy memories of those days, although the sharing of the buildings at times acute. For example, as a sixth former, we either had to use shelves under the east staircase or shelves outside the gymnasium as our base and for storage of our books as they had no other home.
Perhaps the firewatching presented one of the most interesting times, for I well recall as a Prefect in the sixth form sharing ‘watch’ with Roy Kinsman from Latymer (two camp beds were erected in the library). The whole purpose was to oversea the buildings at night in case a ‘lost’ German bomber might release a few incendiaries on us! On the first occasion we were on duty with Langford, he admonished me for not making his tea properly for from its taste he deduced I had not heated the teapot first with hot water, before adding hot water to the tea! When I reminded him of this lesson over the years it always brought a smiling response from him of those times. But sometimes those firewatching nights were opportunities to discuss mathematical concepts, aircraft navigational problems, matters relating to the Air Training Corps, of what the future held for young people post-war, Cherished times, and wonderful opportunities for 17 year olds to have such dialogue with their headmaster.
I was not a gifted boy in the academic sense, but I appreciated his help when I was awarded a Royal Air Force place at Cambridge University (RAF Cranwell was closed during the war) as an under-age candidate. This confirmed in me the knowledge that he genuinely cared what his old boys pursued when they left Bideford Grammar School. I was particularly touched when he found time to visit me at Cambridge in 1944, as he was interested in the combination of University and RAF subjects catapulted together to make very long days of intensive study and work.
Those of us who walked or cycled to school along Lime Grove and Belvoir will remember Lang’s (as I later began to call him) determined gait from Orchard Hill where he lived. Such was his extremely rapid smallish stride that, for some boys who attempted to walk with him, he became affectionately known as ‘Merrylegs’, for few could actually keep up with him!
Some will recall his use of the cane or ‘swish’, never given in anger of reproach, but always as a very last resort to admonish or mildly reprove some wayward boy whose outlandish behaviour contravened the modest guidelines he set in his school. I have yet to come across any recipient of this punishment who could claim it was not deserved, and its effects in later life was not to turn them into sadistic beasts as the liberal thinkers of today suggest. Lang, I am certain, administered such necessary admonishment with kindness and understanding.
So from 1946 onwards, whenever in London on business I regularly went to see him and his family in Streatham, and on occasions at Battersea Grammar School of which he was so proud. Upon his retirement to Sherborne I paid him visits whenever I could, and it was over these years there grew a mutual respect and affection for one another. He as always interested to hear of the latest news of the Grammar School in Bideford and any old boys. As a Governor, from as early as 1955, I was able to fill him in with much of the latest developments of the time, for those years had seen much change, some good, some bad, and he was always a good and interested listener.
In the last few years Lang and Doreen moved to a lovely retirement home in Castle Cary, after a long and active retirement in Sherborne in their own home. As Lang slowly became weaker I never ceased to marvel at his wonderful memory of his days in Bideford. It was only within the last year that I took him a copy of a School photograph of about 1943, and he was able to recall nearly all the boys’ names and certainly all his staff – adding various anecdotes to some! And, though in his 91st year, we sat together and he was able with slight prompting to remember all the words of the School Song. It was on these later occasions I detected a tear in his eye of memories past, of friends and boys of long ago, and of times he cherished that could never be repeated.
Undoubtedly a very gifted and industrious man, for the record of his life’s work for the benefit of young people are legion, as can be seen from his obituary elsewhere in this Bidefordian. Some are able to speak of his professional ability, and some of the help and guidance he gave so readily to young people, but I can speak of his unbounding friendship.
Throughout his life he demonstrated his Christian faith, and it is said that whilst at Trent Church, Sherborne, he derived intense pleasure from helping to serve Communion. He was no longer steady on his feet and needed guidance to the alter rail – wearing his old Headmaster’s academic gown, green with age and not a little tattered, and nothing and no-one could induce him to give up that gown! But the story reminded me vividly of some of the prayers he used in his morning assemblies, and, as an example, many will remember:
“Teach us good Lord
To serve Thee as Thou deserves;
To give, and not to count the cost;
To fight, and not to heed the wounds;
To toil, and not to see for rest;
To labour, and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that we Thy will.”
I visited Lang only a few hours before his life finally and peacefully ebbed away in the early morning of 18th December last. Gone now were the opportunities to talk and reminisce – as he so loved to do – of school days so long ago – but in that fleeting moment of time he knew I was there, not just for myself, but for all his old boys, whether from Bec, Bideford or Battersea, who will forever be in his debt – I was in my way saying thank you on behalf of us all.
Kindly provided by Mr Langford's son, Malcolm