During my Speech Day address, I emphasised the specialness of our environment. So, as part of our 150th Year celebrations, I thought I would share a little of what I see in the 280 acres of our shared local patch, Cranleigh School. At the foot of the Surrey Hills, it has a most beautiful variety of habitat, comprising parkland, playing fields, pasture, woodland copse, hedgerow, orchard, gardens, ponds and small streams, ancient trees and recent planting. There is much to delight in and I hope, as the seasons change, that some of my musings will inspire you to look at our surroundings a little differently or more closely.
I always think of the beginning of an autumn term as a time of a gathering. After the long summer break, we come together again ready for a new season of learning, living and working at Cranleigh. I love the buzz of excitement in the first few days when energy levels are still high as stories are told and friendships rekindled or, for the new entrants, made for the first time. One way in which new Cranleighans are not so different from their contemporaries joining other schools, is a tendency to gather together in large numbers. During those early autumn sunny hours between supper and Prep, they gather on Clare?s Oak, not quite sure what to do, in little huddles or kicking balls, chatting and laughing, gradually joined by the later eaters until they disperse again.
A local patch is a term used by naturalists to describe the local area in which they live. I am very much an amateur with limited knowledge, and therefore hesitate to call myself a naturalist. Rather, I love the natural world and learning more about it.
At about the same time of day, if you look to the skies above the Trevor Abbot Sports Centre and out towards the stables and Millennium Copse, there is another gathering. House Martins perform their aerobatics in large numbers, often up to a 100, darting and changing directions, their distinctive white rumps flashing in the evening sunlight as they hawk for insects. Their wings are less elongated than the swallows we see across the pastures and the stables, held out straight for a second as they make their turns. To me, they are the spitfires and hurricanes of the bird world.
The muddy cups which surround the eaves of East House in the Quad are empty and the young have joined their parents. As the boarders go for breakfast, and the first of the day pupils arrives, the Martins gather across the front of the school. This morning, Mrs Russell-Price saw them all rise simultaneously in a great cloud, departing for their own foraging. These are the final feeds before they leave for warmer climes. Last year, they left on the 18th September. We wait to see when it will be this year. I wonder how long it took for the House Martins of 1865 to find a nest site in Woodyer’s new building. When the first Headmaster, Reverend Merriman, chose the Sussex Martlets for the Cranleigh crest, did he realise what an appropriate choice it was for his local patch? Far better than the Onslow crest ? Cranleigh is not a place for choughs!
As the Martins gather to leave, I became aware of another gathering last night (7 September). Tawny Owls, quiet for most of the summer, are beginning to sort out their new territories. Now there are not many sounds that I am glad to keep me awake at 2am on a Monday night, but this is one. Contrary to myth, a single owl does not make the sound ‘twit twoo’. This is two owls. The female call is a ‘kivec’ and the male a ‘twoo’. Tawny owls do not always duet and in the trees around Crane House I hear the females more often, especially during the winter, but last night it was most definitely the haunting ‘twoos’ of at least 3 males. Sometimes staying put for a period, then moving off over South Field. I was particularly struck by the rather wheezy hooting of one individual. It was as if the call was not well formed, or he had a hoarse throat, and even though his call was therefore not as loud, he was not going to let that stop him from making his mark, his calls more frequent than the others. It could be that he is a young owl learning to hoot rather like a boy with a breaking voice. I was pleased at least to be able to identify a separate individual. I decided not to wake Amanda and go out with a torch; I will wait until November when I know I can search for them at a more sociable hour.
School is a place of rhythm, of comings and goings, of new hierarchies and fresh gathering. Nature’s pattern is no different.