Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Norn Iron Day 6 - Garron Tower !!!

After the great weather we'd had so far on the trip, Thursday 14th July was due to be overcast with a chance of scattered showers. For this reason, I decided to visit my old school as my memories of it were dreary anyway so it seemed appropriate !

No seriously, it was just because I knew we could be inside a lot of the time that made my mind up. I mean, who wants to look at scenery from inside a car on a wet day ?

The previous day we'd driven the route to the school as I would've taken it when I was a kid and so this time we drove there directly from our base in Magherafelt. Now many years ago the school ceased to be a boarding school and then it ceased to be an all boys school and last year, it ceased to be an independent school. It merged with two other schools and the name changed from St. MacNissi's College to St. Killian's College although it still retains the colloquial name of Garron Tower, being that it contains a 'tower' and is located at Garron Point along the Causeway Coast Road.

As the weather was overcast all day and I'd taken many good weather photos on previous visits to today's locations, I pretty much left the cameras in the car. I did take some however, so this won't be a totally boring text post. If you want to see the others, I published a post just over 2 years ago where I described what I felt when I first went to the school as an 11 year old back in 1963. Feel free to ignore that text and just look at the photos as the weather was much better.

Right, back to now and I was pleased to see that the old sign was still there at the entrance to the steep road that led up to the school.

I'd rung before leaving England to make sure it would be ok to visit and explore the school buildings and basically to check that the main gates wouldn't be closed. I was told that they closed them at 3pm and that was why we made it our first stop of the day. As we pulled in to the reception car park, we followed the advice on this new sign and tried to find someone to 'report to'.

We walked along a warren of old and new corridors till we finally found an office and a woman came over to us. I said I'd rung a week go and was it still ok to look around the school ? The bemused woman wasn't sure what to say but in the end she said it would be fine and so we retraced our steps and returned to the main foyer, a focal point from which to explore the building we were in.

The closest corridors were just as they had been back in the day.......my day. The classrooms had changed out of all recognition but it was still slightly upsetting for me to go into one room in particular - where I'd been taught Latin and Greek by the most physically abusive priest in the school back then. I've no wish to drag up those memories so I'll leave it at that.

We went into the gym and I was able to show Daphne the stage on which the boys performed a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta every year. With only a pool of boys to chose from, it was easy to cast the younger ones in the girl's roles and the results were very professional and were well received by the parents and friends of the pupils who made the plays an annual sell out. I still remember most of the songs from those operettas so at least something good came from my time there.

After fully exploring the rest of the building, we retuned to the foyer and went outside again. We walked down the length of the main internal road and up to the playing fields, which involved climbing over a padlocked gate. We weren't to be stopped !

We went up a steep grassy hill at the side of the main gaelic football pitch to see the Calvary statues close up. The hill top gave commanding views looking back towards the school and although most of it is hidden by trees, this photo still shows how it is built on a plateau, about 200 ft (61 m) up from the sea and the coast road and with the rest of the mountain behind it.

As we came down the hill, I looked back and snapped this photo which reminds me of the end credits for The Little House On The Prairie...but that's just me !

We returned to the main path going past the large concrete playing area which is very prominent in that 3rd photo above. I remember playing on it during a study period and being caught by the dean (of discipline). It was during my A Level exams and just a few days before I was due to leave the school forever so I didn't care. I'd mostly managed to stay out of trouble, mostly, for 7 years there and in a fit of rebellion and to kind of justify all the punishment I'd been given by both teachers and priests over those years, I simply told the dean to 'give it his best shot.' I think he put me off my privilages which was usually a big deal but with so few days remaining, it was a pretty futile punishment and we both knew it.

I'd stuck it to the man and did it feel good !!

We then went down to the 1st year dormitory but the doors were locked so I've no idea what that building is used for now. We walked along the battlements which overlooked the sea and seeing the row of cannons which pointed out to repel an enemy which never appeared, I was taken back over 40 years to a time when we would perform Shakespeare plays like Julius Caesar on those very battlements. I'd recited the "friends, Romans, countrymen" speech there and I guess the speech was made a little more memorable by my standing up there above the rest of the cast.

Finally we walked round to the front of the school and I noticed that the lawn, a huge area of grass in front of the castle part of the school, wasn't in the pristine condition it always had been in my day. In fact we weren't ever allowed to walk on the lawn and a path ran around it. We students just walked ! I know.....groan.

Now the lawn looked like it was open to all and sundry which was a shame really as it forms part of the first view that visitors get of the school.

Don't get me wrong; it was no Glastonbury on a wet weekend but it just wasn't how I remembered it either.

On one corner was the old round structure that we used to call the smoker's hut as when smoking was allowed for the older boys, this was the only place they were allowed to use for a quick light up. As a result it always reeked of stale cigarettes and the inside wall (being round, there was only one !!) was covered in teenage graffiti and inaccurate anatomical drawings which always seemed to defy the normal laws of nature and scale. Although yours truly didn't smoke, my bon mots were up there somewhere and I was saddened to find the door was padlocked so I'll never know if they still exist or have been wiped out by a generous coating of whitewash.

At this point I need to insert a portion of the Wikipedia entry for the school.

Garron Tower was built as a summer residence by Frances Anne Vane, Marchioness of Londonderry. She had inherited this part of the Antrim estates from her mother, Anne Katherine MacDonnell, Countess of Antrim who had married Sir Henry Vane-Tempest of County Durham. The Tower and grounds were purchased by McNeill's Hotel in Larne in 1915 and were acquired by the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor in 1950 for use as a boarding school for boys. The history of Garron Tower dates from 1850, but its life as a school began in September 1951 when the Most Rev. Daniel Mageean D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, officially opened the building as "a diocesan grammar school for boys" and named it St. MacNissi's College.

I've done this because the next bit is relevant to this historical reference. The smoker's hut lay at the start of a series of steps leading up to a dog's grave. This dog, Urisk, belonged to the original owner and as the headstone inscription is much weathered and thus hard to read, I'll add it here and save anyone trying to work it out from a photo.

Here Urisk lies and let the truth be told, This faithful dog was blind, infirm and old.
Deaf to all else his mistress' voice he knew, Blind though he was, his step to her was true.
So strong an instinct by affection fed, Endured till Urisk's vital spirit fled.
Stoop grandeur from thy throne ye sons of pride, To whom no want is known, nor wish denied.
A moment pause, and blush, if blush you can, To find dogs more virtue than in man.
And share, 'midst all your luxury and pelf', one thought for others out of ten for self

Lovely. I still think "Here lies Urisk. He was a dog" would've been just as good and saved a lot of carving.

The path was very overgrown and not as easy to negociate as it had been in my time there. Near the top, where lay the grave and therefore the dog's remains, the sun cast a pleasing light through the greenery and so I positioned Daphne and Stephen carefully and took a photo. Awwwww.

Back down again and it was almost time to leave. We walked around the lawn, past more cannons and up to the front of the castle facade. Turning left, we came to an archway and a tower where the nun who taught music....ah....taught. Again the door was locked and so I wasn't able to go up the stairs to the large music room where a few of us had spent many happy times polishing the wooden floor by standing on yellow dusters and doing an early Torvill and Dean impression to bring it to a potentially bone breaking shine.

These were pre 'Health & Safety' days, remember.

By now we were back at the car in front of the main reception area and while we got ready to leave, I took a final photo....of the school church. Yes, again it had been locked !

We returned down to the Causeway Coast Road, the A2, via the other road and passed the playing fields, the cliffs where I'd honed my climbing skills and the White Lady rock formation that was just a few yards from the sea.

Our route north then took us to White Park Bay and despite the overcast weather which held a hint of rain, we drove down to the small car park and then walked down to the beach. A few hardy souls had done the same thing as without the sun to warm us all, it was pretty chilly on the sand. The views were still spectacular but once again, there are better ones on that old blog post link above I posted earlier.

When the rain came, it was obviously on for the rest of the day so we headed to Ballymoney, my old home town, to explore a bit. We parked half way down Main Street as I wanted to show my friends W & J Walkers, an amazing store that was old even in my day. It has a narrow frontage which belies its internal size and I'm sure it was the inspiration for Dr. Who's Tardis. It goes on and on till you're convinced you'll exit outside the town's boundary.

I've always loved how the layout of the stock has been very carefully planned with small tourist type items of dust catching souvenirs giving way to larger pieces of china, glass and silverware. Then comes general household items found in most hardware stores from cutlery and kitchen tools to microwaves, cookers and fridges. These units lead on to the DIY section with paint pots of every colour you can imagine and every handy tool and item of equipment known to man. Finally, for those who have the stamina to get that far, comes the carpet area with full rolls lining both sides of a narrow pathway.

Aladdin's cave doesn't do it justice and it was wonderful to explore it again and I even spent £1.40p on two nail brushes which I use to scrub baked potatoes !

We walked around the main shopping area, ducking into shops when the rain came. I was delighted to see that our butcher's shop was still there, Olphert's, and I popped in to have a quick word with the son of the owner who still remembered me through my parents. We'd bought all our meat from Olphert's when I was growing up and my mum still did so until 2004 when she left Ballymoney for the nursing home where she died a month later. I vividly remember us calling for bacon and sausages on the way home from church every Sunday morning and then dad 'slinging the pan' to cook up his version of an Ulster Fry with eggs and soda bread added to the meat.

Back in the shop, I could've done without the parting firm handshake as the owner's son had just been packaging mince and passed a few grams onto me. Free meat. I shouldn't really complain. Pity he hadn't been cutting steak !

After a while we were getting tired (and wet) walking in the drizzle and headed back to the car. Our touring was done for the day and we headed for Magherafelt and supper.

It hadn't been a scenery day but it had been memorable none the less. Many memories had been awakened within me, some good, some bad.

And let's face it; it still beat working !

The next day we finally went to the area's most famous tourist attraction and the only World Heritage Site in Ireland, the Giant's Causeway. And someone forgot their camera !

To be continued.........


Daphne said...

It was a fascinating day, though the school's stunning location made me even more angry that you had such a grim time there, and I'd like to go back in time and punch some people. Now, having seen round it, it looks like a very good school. Then - and I'm ignoring the academic side - it certainly wasn't.
It was also great to read your 2009 post, having been to the places mentioned.
Interesting though it was to see the dog's grave, that poem about the dog is a strong contender for Worst Poem Ever Written in Northern Ireland.

Debby said...

You just position anyone on the dogs grave eh?? I thought I was the only one!

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