Stunning location, many original features, in need of some upgrading...

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
Custodians of a dilapidated school in Worcestershire are hoping for a multi-million pound makeover courtesy of television viewers, reports Emily Clark

The Old Grammar School, on the edge of the King's Norton parish graveyard, is cold and dark even on a summer's day and there is a pungent smell of damp and dust. Hundreds of boys - and a few girls - have stared at these warped oak beams and trodden the creaky timber floor boards over the years.

Their carved initials still mark the woodwork.

For at least 350 years the building served this Worcestershire community and it remains a breathtaking piece of living history. It was built as a house on stilts around 1434, with just one room and an outside staircase; a second room was added underneath when it became a school. Although a Grade II* listed building, it is in a dilapidated state and on English Heritage's "at risk" register.

Enter the Reverend Heather Flack, King's Norton's parish team vicar, who wants to save the Old Grammar School through the BBC's Restoration programme, hosted by Griff Rhys Jones. Viewers choose the most deserving of 21 properties for a cash prize, collected through the 50p cost of each telephone call and, this year, boosted by pound;2.5 million from the Heritage Lottery fund. Miss Flack's campaign has an ironic twist, as women were not welcome in the school for most of its lifetime and were derided by previous owners.

Thomas Hall is the most notable. A Puritan minister and schoolmaster in 1625, he was paid pound;10 a year to be of "honeste conversacon" and of "virtue, sobriety and discretion". (Hall's predecessor, Tobias Gyles, had not matched up to expectations and was chased from the village by locals wielding cudgels, scythes and pitchforks. Parish records reveal that boys had been found "loitering and playing on days fit to have been at their books".) Schoolboys in the 17th century suffered a strict regime. Hall was held in high regard for his disciplinary codes, and students travelled from Wales, Northumberland and Ireland to learn from him. He had a vision - to convert the "rude and ignorant people, drunkards", who made up his parish. He amassed a collection of 600 books which is now housed in the Birmingham Reference Library, and urged the boys to "get a library before a wife".

Histories reveal that he scorned recreation, festivals, "filthy speeches and lascivious gestures". In his last will and testament, Hall thanked God for not making him a "wicked woman" like his "shrewish housekeeper". He thought women should be covered, with only their hands and faces showing, and wrote a treatise on "The loathsomeness of long haire" with an appendix against "painted spots and naked breasts".

"Hall would not have approved of me," says Miss Flack," nor of many of the people here; they were drunkards. But that did not mean he did not love them. He had a passion to see them change and he did change the community with the school."

When girls were eventually allowed to attend, in the 19th century, they were confined to the upper storey. It was closed in 1875 when a new boys'

school was established nearby, and was sold to the church for pound;10 in 1911. The school, the church and a former pub called the Saracen's Head form a medieval village oasis on the outskirts of Birmingham. Miss Flack wants to restore both houses and turn them into community facilities for parish and secular use.

Annette Clarke, executive producer of Restoration, says: "The most successful buildings in the series are those the public can identify with.

We have never featured a school before - but it certainly has that everyman quality about it.

"What we love about the Old Grammar School is that the issues that affected it in the 17th century are relevant today. It was a failing school - the special measures in those days were more lynch mob than Ofsted. The story of the man who turned it around is pretty inspiring - he was a Puritan Mr Chips. Not much has changed inside it since his time."

Open days on August 7 and 8. The school features in Restoration's penultimate programme on August 3. The final is on August 8. In last year's series, 2.3 million television viewers raised pound;3.5 million to restore the Victoria Baths in Manchester. For details on how to vote for the Old Grammar School visit the Restoration website at historyprogrammesrestoration

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