My primary school, in the 1950s, was incredibly strict. We lined up when the bell rang for the start of the school day and marched in smartly, swinging our arms. Anyone who swung their arms a little too wildly was severely punished.
You were always punished for breaking the rules. In the infants, you were simply smacked on the back of your legs, but in the juniors there was a cane in every classroom. It was seldom used, but it was an ever-present menace in the corner.
There were any number of petty classroom rules. You always stood up when a teacher came into the room. If you dared yawn, you were sent to run round the playground, to wake yourself up. You mustn’t ever whisper to a friend. If spotted, the teacher threw a piece of blackboard chalk at your temple with deadly accuracy. If you were very unlucky and in Mr Branson’s class, he threw the blackboard rubber too, and nearly knocked you unconscious.
It also seemed to be a school rule that all our teachers were highly eccentric. Miss Dowling was a fierce lady who taught us to make raffia baskets and cross-stitch purses. Mrs Symons was Austrian, as sweet as the pastries she brought in for a Christmas treat. Mr Townsend was the kindest father figure, encouraging us all so that we blossomed.
The quirkiest teacher of all was Miss Audric, who taught nature study. She could have been any age between 30 and 70, a startling-looking woman with hair as orange as a carrot. She wore it in old-fashioned earphones but occasionally, on sunny lunch hours, she would sit on the school lawn, undo her coiled plaits and brush her hair until it rippled, like a crazed Rapunzel. She wore hand-knitted suits, winter and summer, in eye-blinkingly bright colours: green, purple and electric blue.
One memorable sunny day, when we were all feeling dozy after lunch, she stopped drawing an oak tree on the blackboard, threw her chalk away and clapped her hands.
“Let us go and look at real oak trees, children!” she declared. “We’ll take a trip to Richmond Park.”
So we took a trip there, right that minute. No permission was sought. We broke the most fundamental rule of all: no leaving school premises until going-home time. Miss Audric marched us 40 children out of the school and all the way to the park. No one saw or stopped us. It was a good half-hour walk and our straggling crocodile must have been hard to direct across all the roads, but Miss Audric was up for it and so were we. When we got to the park, she allowed us to break ranks and charge through the grass.
She showed us hundreds of ancient oaks, herds of red and fallow deer, pointed out wildflowers and butterflies and birds, and when we eventually got tired and started whining that our feet hurt, she took us even further into the park to Pen Ponds. There was sand at the edge, almost like the seaside, and the water shone bright blue.
We didn’t hesitate. We flung off our sandals and went splashing into the water. Miss Audric undid her suspenders under cover of her woollen skirt, slipped off her lisle stockings and joined us. We splashed and sang and laughed for sheer joy.
Of course, we were all limping in our soggy sandals by the time we got back to school again, long after four o’clock. The headmaster was waiting, arms folded, and anxious parents were complaining bitterly, but Miss Audric wasn’t cowed. She swept past like a Pied Piper, triumphant. We all knew this extraordinary breaking of all the rules had been the most memorable school day of our lives.
The Primrose Railway Children (Doubleday) is published on 16 September.