Having spent the past 30 years of my life studiously avoiding Sherborne, I find myself back there not just once, but twice within a month. It’s not that I dislike Sherborne – it is in fact a very pretty town, in an antiquated, old fashioned sort of way. It's the town of tea shops, or certainly used to be, and a bewildering number of privately-owned shops selling all sorts of curiosities you would never find anywhere else. As for its residents, it is the original “dormitory town” in that for many years it has boasted 4 independent boarding schools – possibly 5 – plus the usual state schools.
Sherborne primarily holds for me a lot of memories from my childhood, not all of them terribly happy ones I must admit. I didn’t live there, my best friend from my school years did though and I spent 9 long years there until I reached 16, when I was granted leave by my father to escape. As you will have guessed by now, Sherborne is the town where my parents chose to send me to be educated, following in my elder sister’s footsteps – sort of! My father, being a serving Officer in Her Majesty’s Forces at the time, was often posted abroad and boarding school provided the stability which the peripatetic lifestyle of the armed forces couldn’t fulfil. Well, that was the intention anyway. Sadly, the year group I ended up in was one of the worst years in the history of the school for bullying. But I digress.
My parents had originally intended to send me and my sister to my mother’s old school at Effingham in the leafy county of Surrey, but as both her sisters were there as Catholic nuns they decided it wouldn’t be terribly fair on any of us, so they chose the sister convent located in Sherborne.
However …… as I approached my secondary school years, the Order to which my dear sainted aunts belonged decided to “post” the elder of the two – Helen – or Mother Clare as she was publicly known, to my school in Sherborne. There then ensued 5 years of what must have seemed like torture to my aunt. Having been instructed by my parents that I was not to let on to anyone who Mother Clare was, word got out pretty much straight away before I had even a chance to say “Boo”, and for 5 years I was constantly asked the question “What’s Mother Clare’s real name?” I never let on, except to my closest friends.
I did rebel against my poor aunt though, and she certainly never showed any favouritism, or at least she tried not to! What those 5 years did give us though was a closeness that was brought to an abrupt end by an aggressive form of breast cancer in the mid-1980’s, and I still go through phases where I miss my Aunt’s advice and wisdom. My other aunt – Sue – or Sister Catherine, meanwhile remained at Effingham until she passed away exactly 20 years later, to the day, from the same illness. It was not long after Aunt Sue passed away that my symptoms of Parkinson’s started – at the time I didn’t register what they were, having attributed the twitchy little finger to spending too much time at the keyboard, and the sleepless nights to a lifelong affliction of chronic insomnia, normally brought on by stress.
These days both schools are run by members of the lay community and have retained their Catholic status. The dwindling population of aging nuns from both Convents are all now amalgamated at one site in the centre of Sherborne town. Two of those nuns are Sister John and Sister Francis, who were originally at Effingham, then at Sherborne, and I have known them both all my life. At times they almost seemed to be part of our extended family, especially as my sister, brother and I used to spend 2 weeks of our summer holidays every year at Effingham, having pretty much free rein to do as we pleased. One memory which sticks in my mind above all others, was that every year, or so it seemed, Sister John would pile us all in to the back of a Landrover, and take off at breakneck speed down the lanes to see the “Sound of Music”, which was inevitably showing at a local cinema. Oh happy days! When I married my husband in 1985, Sister John came to our wedding along with Aunt Sue – unfortunately Aunt Helen was too ill to make the journey. After Aunt Sue passed away, I kept in touch with Sister John, primarily by letter.
So why return twice to a town in rural Dorset which holds so many memories? And why return twice within a month? Simple – we have friends who live about 5 miles from the town, and we spent a lovely weekend with them at the beginning of March – a weekend that was postponed twice from last summer! (The original postponement was because of post-operative complications following a hysterectomy, which ended up with my spending 5 days in Dorchester hospital, and then postponed again from earlier this year for a myriad of reasons.) During our weekend with our friends, I returned to the site of what had been the Junior section of my old school – which is now divided up in to a number of private apartments, with housing built on the playing field behind. At the time I debated whether to knock on the door of the terraced house which comprises what remains of St Antony’s Convent, where the nuns now live, but I decided to leave that for another day – another day where I would first forewarn the good ladies rather than pitch up on their doorstep unannounced with two children, husband and friends in tow. But that day has come around somewhat sooner than I anticipated.
Later on today I return to Sherborne, this time on my own, and this time for the funeral of Sister John, who passed away at the age of 88 a couple of weeks ago. It’s time for me to go back to Sherborne, it’s time for me to pay my last respects to a lovely lady.
Requiescant in pace Sister John.