Soham Grammarians: Recollections in Tranquillity

John Humphreys, 1953-1957

If anyone had told me back in 1953 that one day I was destined to become a highly-trained physical education teacher in one of the more superior grammar schools in the country, I would have laughed sardonically. I never enjoyed games at school.

I recollect R.A.T. speaking from the depths of his sheepskin coat and a great number of scarves sending us out on our regular cross-country run. A blizzard raged and the dreaded Horse Fen Drove - its glutinous mire speckled with the abandoned, half-submerged gymshoes of previous victims like a trench at Ypres with old tin hats - emanated a malignant sense of gloomy foreboding to us as we shivered at the start. It was like awaiting the fall of the executioner's axe, that hoarse shout to 'Go', except that the axe, presumably, was followed by blissful oblivion.

Cross-country was anything but that, and it had the added terror of the knowledge that the survivors would be sent round again next week. Indeed, axe or noose would have been far preferable to that weary lumbering slog through the elements and well over the 'threshold of pain' about which we hear so much these days. Doctor Watson, that tireless and loyal chronicler of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes could not have regarded the treacherous, bottomless and insatiable Grimstone Mire in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' with any less foreboding than we unlucky lads regarded the wilds of Soham Fen.

The film called The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner should have engaged my services as a consultant. I was always lonely; not, I should add, the loneliness of the leader thrusting ahead to victory and the plaudits of the crowd, but the loneliness of one who struggled in last to find the school deserted, the showers cold and a fifteen mile walk home in my weakened state which merited, in my opinion at the time, a stern visit to the Headmaster by the N.S.P.C.C. inspector.

It is true that the boredom was relieved at one point on the course by the formidable figure of the late Mr. Thomas, warmly cocooned against the searing wind, astride his bicycle and wielding a short but whippy stick cut from the adjacent hedgerow and suitable for use from his mounted position whence he was unable to give his full swing its proper delivery. Under the stimulus of this added incentive I usually managed to break into a lumbering jog-trot for the mile or so of road running which quickly drained my summer-level reservoirs of strength. Suffering from a combination of exposure, exhaustion and terror I struggled on (downhill this time), braved the level crossing and the risk of being mown down by a ten mile-an-hour, one-truck milk train and so home, collapsing as I arrived into a heap like an insignificant casualty during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Perhaps I have described too black a day. I must in the name of justice point out that sometimes a weekly wander through the countryside could be quite pleasant, especially if the weather was nice. One could rest on a mossy bank now and then and pick a few blackberries, watch birds (I owe my present love of birds to cross-country runs) or just ruminate darkly on the fate one would have liked to allot to the misguided nineteenth century public athleticist who decided that, along with cold baths and cricket, cross-country runs prepared a man to run the Empire and lead a patrol against the Fuzzy­Wuzzies. What its relevance was to a lad who was destined to become a shelf-stacker in Tesco's never became quite clear.

You may infer from the foregoing that I banned cross-country runs from my own school the moment I became head of physical education. Not a bit of it! Admittedly I had no Horse Fen with which to subdue my charges, but at least my course is designed so that I can circumnavigate it and indeed supervise it from the comfort of my car - especially on cold days!