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High to low: Marks for Rousdon’s buildings by George Hayter

If you are anything like me you can clearly recall Rousdon’s mixed bag of varied architecture, some of it in detail.

    Most OHs will agree that the best building exterior was on the mansion itself, designed by Victorian mansion-specialist Ernest George. I award the rambling flint-and-tile jumble of styles 10 out of 10 for architectural entertainment. I have looked up several other big houses designed by Ernest George and I reckon Rousdon is his masterpiece. It’s poetic and powerful. Completed in 1878, it was the first mansion that the young George had designed and, despite it being his first, it remains, as far as I can make out, his biggest.

    I also give 10 out of 10 to a lowly room beneath the huge mansion. “The Grott” was the name given to a humble sub-basement, apparently built as a boiler room and coal store but transformed during the school’s tenancy into an intimate rehearsal and performance space for jazz and, later, rock music. Mystically reachable only by ladder.

    Full marks for architecture also go to the chemistry and physics labs, a sensitive and smart substantial two-storey extension to Ernest George’s former stables. The science library attached to the labs formed a bridge which was a particularly exciting feature.

    One more place has to have full marks, in my opinion. That’s the art school, whose four rooms, nestling in farmyard rafters and hefty beams, were always a delight to draw and paint in.

    Almost as good, with 9 points, is the handsome clock tower. Of Allhallows, you might say, the clock tower was a striking symbol.

    More controversially, the interior of boring Venning scores 9. A lot of people knock this early 1960s boarding house because of its admittedly boring suburban exterior, but the inside was exciting. The theatrical double-storey top-lit central hall and stairs led up to dormitories under shallow-pitch exposed timber roofs. An exhilarating structure to see overhead from bed.

    Next, an excursion to award 9 points to Lyme Regis, whose seaside architecture and cobb combine with beach and steep high street to create one of Britain’s loveliest holiday towns, and a pleasant escape for boarders too.

    The school hall gets 8 for its splendour, its soaring height and its medieval make-believe.

    Ernest George’s design in not perfect. Chapel quad is spoilt by being dark and dingy. The quad’s smallness and the three storeys of masonry towering above it together stop much daylight reaching down to it. In my time the south cloister, across the dingy quad from the chapel, led to the one place where even a lowly pleb could get what he wanted. Because it led to the tuckshop, that dingy cloister on the south side of chapel quad gets a generous 8 from me. Surprising architectural pleasure can come from a place’s cheerful association with tuck.

    Scoring 7 are Rousdon’s magnificent gates with their gigantic neo-Romanesque stone gate posts, and the lawn-fringed half-mile drive.

    Ramps are a great novelty for exploiting the third dimension, so the two at Rousdon earn 6. One led from the red post box (itself an architectural embellishment) down to the deliveries yard. The other pleasing ramp was outside the former Baker study in the billiards wing of the mansion.

    I give the stuffed birds 5. I didn’t like them much. Appeared decaying. But I appreciate that for naturalist Sir John Lister-Kaye OH, and probably other biology enthusiasts, those glass cases contained treasure.

    Scoring lower still is the cricket pavilion, with 4. Built in the impoverished post-war years, and a missed opportunity. It’s just a bungalow. No cricket sizzle. It needed, say, widespread glazing, a soaring canopy or perhaps even a giant bat (the willow kind).

    Also getting 4 is the white marble staircase. A lot of OHs are fond of it but to me it’s a sore thumb. And the lavish material isn’t sustained. At the first floor it turns to mere wood.

    Nearing rock bottom now. Just 2 points for the Lillies building, the utilitarian study block and later junior school built outside the library windows in the late 1960s. An eyesore next to a palace.

    Floors in the mansion’s corridors also get just 2. Mosaics leave me cold. Particularly dull when their colour is restricted to dark grey and brown.

    During my time at school new construction plumbed an aesthetic abys with the disappointing Bruce biology labs. I remember little of that eyesore’s appearance, fortunately.

    Absolute zero in the 1960s with 0 is the basement room of baths nearest chapel quad. Dismal and depressing. Thank goodness I never had to have a bath there.


This is the final instalment of 12 monthly essays written for the OH website by George Hayter (V 65-70)