Saga of the shifting wood chippings

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Zealous readers of this paper who were not utterly distracted at the end of April by general election frenzy may have noticed the news that I was leaving the Editor's chair to spend more time with my cottage.

Despite my fantasies, this has not necessarily meant that I would be spending much less time with education. By some trick of inscrutable fate, the dream cottage we found 10 years ago in the Stroud Valley is tucked in so close to the village school that our lives become more closely involved the more we take up residence on weekdays.

We always knew when something big was happening, even in the weekending days. Last year it was the Office for Standards in Education visit, heralded by the bustling Sunday arrival at the school of one of the normally confident band of teachers. "I've come in to tidy the cupboards," she explained darkly. "I hear they poke their noses into everything."

I was never unneighbourly enough to pry into the OFSTED verdict (if only because last year that would have seemed too much like a busman's weekend),but it must have been pretty good because the school's popularity and numbers are expanding so healthily that more classrooms are somehow to be created next term within the creamy Cotswold stone walls that abut on my study window.

This soaraway success may secure one more village school's future against the axe of the impoverished Gloucesters hire authority, but, sadly, it couldn't persuade a popular headteacher in his fifties to stay. Like heads in his age-bracket all over the country, he was so alarmed by the previous Government's sudden crackdown on early retirement that he announced his own departure for last Easter. Again, like many of his peer group, he was able to postpone this until the summer after the 11th-hour climb-down by one Gillian Shephard. (How quickly the former education secretary has faded into history.)

Just before the end of the summer term, we met the headteacher in a tracksuit on his way to take off in a balloon from the football pitch-cum-village-green-cum-playing field at the other end of our garden. In spite of an alarming slope and a random spread of molehills, it must have one of the most beautiful settings of any football pitch in the country, and all school and village outdoor events are staged here.

This was not the head's farewell event, though a few years back his predecessor did choose to sail away into the sunset in a balloon flight from this very field in her own flamboyant goodbye gesture, cheered on by a full village turnout. It occurs to me now that I missed a trick by not leaving any of my own retirement parties from The TES through the roof, but that was London, and hilly south Gloucestershire really is balloon country.

One of the magical things about summer evenings, especially from high plateaux like Minchinhampton or Selsey Commons (but sometimes from our own back garden), is to watch the brilliantly coloured globes scud by, and to hear the dragon's roar as another burst of flame drives the dream-machine up, up and away over the treetops.

Our latest ongoing saga with the school is more earthbound. It began at a fund-raising auction in the school hall, and features a large, but shifting, pile of wood chippings.

Carried away, as one is, by the excitement and cheap red wine of such occasions, I had bid some vast sum for an indeterminate load of said chippings, with wild plans for paths in my cottage garden. The head was grateful for our support, though both the donor from the wood mill and I began to have doubts when we held a site conference and realised that there was no way that a truck could dump the load conveniently to a garden hemmed in by playground, narrow lane and churchyard. "Perhaps in the churchyard where the teachers park their cars?" she suggested helpfully. "Not without asking the vicar," I said hastily. You have to think about all your neighbours in a village. We agreed to talk again when the next load of bark had been pulverised, and local deliveries synchronised.

Only then we returned to London for a couple of weeks, and arrived back in Gloucestershire on a Friday evening to find a note on the cottage doormat: "Your chippings are in the churchyard." Shock, horror. With sinking hearts we rushed down the lane and wildly round the churchyard, terrified that some unwieldy heap of chippings was even now desecrating the gravel or the ancient graves, and destroying our reputation with the churchwardens.

Nothing. Though perhaps there were shavings of bark near where the teachers parked their cars, which is also seriously close to the church porch. Relief mingled with bafflement and rage. Had my paths fantasy been nicked, confiscated or disposed of?

Unable to raise anyone at the wood mill, we called the new young vicar who was quite unfazed by the mystery of our missing chippings - as to be expected from a man who introduced himself to parishioners earlier this year in ginger wig and leopard-skin tights, as a lager lout in the village panto. (Not everyone recognises him in a dog collar yet.)

He hadn't seen them but would ask around. There was a wedding the next day, so perhaps someone had thought it a good idea to move them. Yes, indeed. In the end it turned out that our friend the head had spotted the wandering woodpile, guessed it was ours, and organised teams of juniors one hot afternoon to wheel barrow-loads of chippings up to a corner of the school's grassy, upper playground - hard by their own new woody path.

So now all we have to do in the holidays is to organise our own wheelbarrow, sack and shovel relays, back through the churchyard, lifting the back playground gate to gain entry. "Never mind the padlock." I hope it doesn't cause gossip in the village.

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