Ashwood School is located at the extreme western edge of Berkshire, so far west that some if its ground lies in the next county, Wiltshire. There is no signpost to the school which lies at the end of a long winding drive. Passing by the foot of the drive on the main road it could easily be dismissed as perhaps a farm track or maybe the entrance to an expensive private house. The main building itself is a magnificent stone built Manor House that was erected in 1772. It consists of three wings. There is the central building with its impressive flight of twenty four steps that lead up to a portico whose roof is supported by ten massive stone columns. The central section boasts two rows of sixteen windows, and a pair of main front doors that are over fourteen feet high. At each end of this block, end on so as to present a ‘U' shape if viewed from the air, are the East and West wings. Each of these wings is in effect, the same building as the central block but turned end on. A balcony runs right around the roof which also features two towers. The gardens flow down over the Berkshire hills to embrace the River Thames and gardens that were landscaped by the celebrated English landscape artist 'Capability' Brown, surround the main building.
The estate has been in private ownership since the day it was built. During world war one the then Duke of Berkshire opened up the East wing as a hospital for soldiers injured in the trenches. A great deal of pioneering plastic surgery to burns injuries took place in this hospital. During the second world war this was repeated, but the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took over the West wing over as a training centre for its agents who were parachuted into France. At the end of the war The Duke restored all the damage that his home had suffered. His title passed to his only son when The Duke died of a stroke in 1964. It was the current Duke of Berkshire who set up The Ashwood Foundation that is running the school to this day. The new Duke had enjoyed the benefits of a first class private education and also enjoyed a much envied social status. It was perhaps fortunate that he was also a deeply concerned man, acutely aware of his privileged upbringing. He set out to find a group of like minded people who shared his enthusiasm and in so doing created a very exclusive club. It certainly was not his intention at the outset but that is what happened. The members of this uniquely selective club were all extremely wealthy and all wanted to do some good with at least part of their fortunes.
The club became The Ashwood Foundation. With the considerable funds that they had at their disposal it was easy to recruit only the very best of teachers, and many were only too glad to come to Ashwood when the overall scheme of the school had been explained to them. What they found was a working environment of their dreams. The views out to the Berkshire countryside are spectacular and yet London is just forty minutes away. There are a number of towns closer, if a town is needed. Dozens of picturesque pubs are littered in the twisting country lanes - all out of bounds to the students but welcome retreats to the masters. Then there is the house itself. Walking its corridors past rooms stuffed with antique French furniture and walls hanging many rare masterpieces was more like an everlasting voyage of discovery, Scarcely a day could go by without the observation of another fine ceramic or another hidden tapestry. The masters strolled the rooms in open mouthed wonder.
Then of course there are the classrooms. The East and the West wing too were given over to the school, leaving the centre section in which the Duke lives, when he is in residence. Some of the teachers live-in, but the majority commute to the school. There are no dog-eared text books in this school, no shortage of pens or pencils. The art room is always completely stocked with every possible kind of artist's requirement. For the musically gifted there are always shiny new instruments and a Steinway piano is among the three similar instruments provided for gifted pianists. The pupil's desks are not adorned with carved initials or biro notes. Each pupil in a class designed to never be greater than ten has a desk similar to that found in any City office and the chairs are a cushioned wheeled design with padded armrests and adjustable headrests. At first glance a classroom looks more like a typing pool than a centre of learning for very gifted children.
The youngest child at the school when Daniel arrived was just seven years old; a music prodigy who spent hours at the Steinway playing works by every famous composer that ever lived. The oldest was aged fifteen and it was very rare for a pupil to stay beyond this age. Most pupils were found University places at some time between their fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, and it was quite usual for such a pupil to complete a first degree by the time he or she reached eighteen. Many went on to take a second, often at another University and it was not uncommon for a pupil from Ashwood to achieve a doctorate by the time he reached his twenty second birthday. This was the incredible concentration of talent that Daniel joined.
Daniel watched the car take his mother away with mixed emotions. He was only eight years old and although academically he was much older, in many ways he remained a child. He felt upset and alone, frightened and excited. Doctor Fisher was one hand with a cheery smile to take his latest pupil into the school. The arrival of Daniel brought their numbers to thirty nine. The most there had ever been at any one time was in 1973 when there were forty eight pupils, but the school could cater for sixty without any difficulty. Daniel walked up the flight of stone steps with Doctor Fisher, passing the stone columns as he crossed the portico.
The huge main doors were open and they walked inside to the hallway. A sweeping staircase ran up each end of the hallway which Daniel quickly estimated was about twice the size of the ground floor of his home. Turning around to take this in he saw a minstrel gallery that ran right around the next floor level. He tipped his head back to look at the huge crystal chandelier that hung as a centre piece and he saw that some cleverly place cables suspended this from the very top of the roof. It hung in the middle of a well that went right up to an atrium. Just then a boy who looked a year or two older than Daniel came bounding down the staircase.
Doctor Fisher did not yell at the boy to slow down nor did he admonish him in any way, he simply smiled and suggested that he might care to use the stairway with a little more dignity. It was no act as Daniel was to discover. Masters very seldom, if ever, raised their voices in admonishment and it had never been known for a pupil to be disciplined in any way. One of the greatest joys for the teachers was that they always had a class that wanted to learn, and so often a class that almost taught the Master.
"Daniel, I want you to meet Jonathon", said Doctor Fisher introducing the boy who had just run down the stairs. "Jonathon is a mathematician like yourself and has been with us for a year now. Jonathon, this is Daniel Preston."
"Hello Jonathon", said Daniel uncertainly, awkwardly.
"Hi Dan", replied Jonathon immediately shortening Daniel's name and giving him a big grin.
"Jonathon, I want you to look after our new pupil here. Show him to his room, show him around, just generally make him feel welcome as you were when you first arrived", said the Doctor then turning back to Daniel said, "and if you ever need to see me about anything, anything at all, Jonathon will show you where you can find me. You can always come and talk to me. Its how we do things here. You will find us very different to any school that you are used to."
"There is one thing Sir", began Daniel hesitantly.
"Yes, ask away", beamed the Doctor, trying to reassure his nervous charge.
"What do you do about stuff like games and PE...?", his voice trailed off as he asked about his private nightmare.
"Ah well you see that is an excellent question. First of all, we are an academic based school. Do you know what that word means ?"
"Good! We do not take pupils whose talents lie on the track or the football field. That is not to say that some children are amazingly talented in that respect, it is just that this school does not pursue those kinds of endeavours. However, you cannot stay shut up in a classroom all the time, that would be very bad for you too. We encourage any kind of outdoor activity that the boys and girls may choose and we do have regular outdoor things going on. Tell me Daniel. Do you cycle, I mean can you ride a bike ?"
"Oh yes sir", replied Daniel enthusiastically.
"Excellent. Jonathon will make sure you get one. I think you might have a lot of fun riding around the grounds, and it will be good for you too. Look back out of the doorway".
Daniel turned around to look back in the direction that the Doctor was pointing.
"How far can you see ?"
"Hmm, let's think. Well I can see the horizon and we are on a hill so that must be about thirty miles because of the curve in the earth and..."
Doctor Fisher laughed and said, "yes I forgot you are another mathematician. No, it wasn't a test question although you are quite correct. Way over there, a long way over is the fence around the estate. There are woods to explore and a river but, and this is very important. Boys may only go to the river if they ask a Master first. We don't want you falling in and drowning. Go on then boys, off with you now".
Jonathon was a few inches taller than Daniel. He was a gangly boy who seemed to stand awkwardly. His hair was jet black and his eyes a similar shade of brown to Daniel's. Whilst Daniel looked pale, sickly almost, Jonathon had a light tan and a pink flush in his cheeks that spoke of the summer hours he spent in the grounds. He wore a pair of glasses that had a brown plastic frame, but the lenses were not very thick.
"C'mon then Dan, I'll show you around", he said cheerily and Daniel took to him at once.
"Doctor Fisher said there were girls here too", Daniel replied.
"Yes, that's right. There are nine of them. They're alright. You'll soon see, especially Samantha Harris."
"Is she your girlfriend then ?",asked Daniel innocently, making Jonathon laugh.
"Heavens no! She is twelve"!, answered Jonathon as if the fact that she was just two years older than him put her in a different world, "but she's very nice."
"Oh. What does she do ?"
"She does Physics. I tried it once but I don't like it much. I like maths and numbers, like you."
"Doesn't she have to do maths for that anyway ?"
"Oh yes, but its sort of, well different. Anyway, here we are. This will be your room". Jonathon had stopped at a doorway. To reach it they had crossed the main hall to a doorway at the side. The door led into the West Wing and there they had ascended another stairway and walked along a navy blue carpeted corridor, passing a half dozen doors on either side.
The first thing that Daniel noticed was that his bedroom(?) was bigger than the living room of his home. All this space just for him! There was a wooden framed bed, a wardrobe and a small chest of drawers. At the side of the bed there was a bedside cupboard on top of which sat a lamp and a clock-radio. In the middle of the floor, standing on the oblong of carpet that covered most of the polished floorboards, there was a table and two chairs. Set beneath a window that looked out onto the Berkshire countryside there was a large desk. The suitcase that his mother had packed so carefully was already in the room, waiting for him.
"Ah, I see that Harry has brought your case up", said Jonathon.
"Who's Harry ?", asked Daniel as he looked around the room.
"Harry is like a caretaker I suppose. He does odd jobs around here. You'll like Harry, everybody does. You can unpack later if you like. Let me show you the rest. My room is right across the corridor there, opposite yours", said Jonathon pointing to his own door. "All the rooms in this wing are for the boys."
"This wing ?".It was a new word for Daniel. He knew that birds and aeroplanes had wings, but buildings too ?
"Yes. Its what they call a sort of house on the end of another house, if you see what I mean. Because we are on the West end, we are the West wing. There is another wing called the East wing, but we are not allowed over there. Its for the girls", he said with a sort of conspiratorial wink. "The house in the middle is where The Duke lives and we mustn't go there either, although I have never seen him. Some of the masters live in a smaller house that used to be a gated lodge."
"The Duke ? Who is he ?"
"He is the man who started Ashwood. Doctor Fisher says that when he does come here he always meets the boys, and the girls. Ah, at the end here are our bathrooms. You can see there is one on each side so its never a rush, but you do have to be washed and dressed if you want breakfast. Its another one of the rules. I bet you think we have lots of rules. I know I did when I first came here but there are not that many really and you soon get used to it."
"Do they cane you if you make a mistake", asked Daniel nervously who had already worked his way through ‘Tom Brown's Schooldays' and was worried that this school might be the same.
"I should say not!", exclaimed Jonathon, "mind you nobody I know has ever done anything so bad that they ought to be caned and even if they did, well I've never seen a cane."
"Oh, that's okay then", said Daniel.
At the end of the corridor there was another set of stairs, much narrower than the flight they had taken up at the other end. They went down these stairs, through another door, and emerged into a corridor that was much the same as the one they had left.
"How do you find your way around?", asked Daniel, "all these doors and passages. Don't you ever get lost ?"
"Its easy after a day or two and anyway, look at the carpet. If its blue you are on our floor, if its green you are on the bottom floor."
"Is there a red one too?"
"Yes there is, but if you find yourself there, best to get out fast because that means you are on the Girl's floor! This is where we eat." Jonathon opened another door.
The door opened into a long hall that ran down the length of that wing. At one end there was a stage and a number of black painted spotlights hung from the ceiling. There were ten tables, each with six chairs around it. There was no special order to the layout, it was very informal. Along one side were stainless steel counters and hotplates that looked to Daniel like the ones in the Dinner room at his old school. He could smell some lovely things and saw that most of the metal dishes were filled with steaming food. A large lady dressed in a white uniform was bustling around filling the food trays and stacking plates.
"Hello Cook", said Jonathon greeting the woman, "this is a new boy. His name is Daniel".
The woman stopped her work and smiled warmly, "hello Daniel. I bet you're hungry eh ?"
"Yes, yes I am Miss", he replied.
"Well as its you first day why don't you and Jonathon have some lunch now. I have to open up in ten minutes anyway. Go on boys, help yourself", she said with another jolly smile.
Daniel turned to Jonathon, "Lunch ? ", he said, surprised.
"Yes, we have dinner later, about five usually. The girls eat here too and we sometimes eat with them. Its fine to play with the girls if you like but we must never, ever, go to their wing, but I already told you that. Anyway, who wants to play with a girl. Yeuk! I went fishing with one once and she screamed when I got my maggots out" he laughed, and so did Daniel.
Daniel followed Jonathon to collect a white plastic tray, then a china plate and then some cutlery. There was a much bigger choice than he had ever seen at his School and everything looked so much nicer - and this was only lunch. In the end he chose sausages and mashed potato followed by a big dish of apple crumble covered in thick yellow custard. The custard was sweet, smooth and creamy, not at all like the insipid watery excuse that he was accustomed too. There was a thick crunchy brown topping to the crumble which covered large chunks of fresh apple. The mashed potato was not the grey lump mess that the school served up but was fluffy and buttery and the sausages tasted of meat instead of something more like sawdust. They swam in an onion gravy so unlike his school's coagulated sticky brown goo. It was, Daniel concluded, delicious and when he finished the very last trace of custard he accidentally belched. His face went bright red and his had flew up to cover his mouth as he said, "Oh! I beg you pardon", in the manner that his mother had taught him, but Jonathon thought it was hilarious and asked him to do it again, which he couldn't.
By the time they had finished eating the other pupils had all arrived and were lining up at the counter to get their food. It was a strange sight when seen for the first time, to see almost forty schoolchildren of ages that spread from seven years old to fifteen, all queuing politely and taking their turn. There was none of the usual bigger boy pushing out a smaller boy or trying to shove the girls aside. They talked as that waited their turn but even that was a sort of low buzz of conversation and not some shouted chaos of a sink school. A couple of the children looked over inquisitively at Daniel, but that was all. In some ways it might have been unnerving for an adult to see this behaviour, but it was just another aspect of the school itself, and the advanced intellect of the pupils. If it gave an illusion that these children were not quite like others on their age it was of course right, but underneath the pranks and mischief that all kids get up to was far from absent, but when it surfaced (and it frequently did) it was never malicious. Somehow, they all knew that here they were all equal.
The next port of call for the two boys was outside, but it was a warm sunny day and it would be good to take a look around to see what other secrets this place held. Jonathon led the way again, down a shingle path that went through the middle of some wide flower beds full of towering Rhododendron bushes that grew several feet above the boys. To Daniel it felt like he was venturing into some Amazonian jungle. At the back of the flower beds there was a long low bicycle shed. There were lots of bikes inside of all shapes styles and sizes. They all looked shiny and smart, not brand new but certainly well cared for. Jonathon selected one and said to Daniel, "go on, pick one."
"But whose are they ? What if I take one that belongs to a big boy ?", asked Daniel uncertainly.
"Oh its not like that here. We all use them whenever we want. I do like this one best if nobody else has it, but nobody can say ‘that one's mine'. Its another one of the rules."
Daniel looked at all the machines until he saw one that he thought he could ride, and then he pulled it out of its stand and got on. No sooner was he steady than Jonathon started off down the path. Daniel followed.
They emerged from the gardens that surround Ashwood Manor into the rolling hills of the estate. It seemed huge to Daniel and the air had a strange smell to it, he thought, until he realised that the air did not have a smell and that was the point, it was clean and sweet almost, not like the dirty smoke filled air of the city. The path led down through some grassy meadows and Daniel could see some woods up ahead. They cycled on into the woods and eventually came to a small clearing where Jonathon stopped. He had not been cycling fast and Daniel was only a few feet behind him. Already the short run had put a flush of colour into Daniel's cheeks.
"Its okay to come down here but you really should tell somebody when you go out", said Jonathon. I like to come here sometimes because its so quiet, If you sit really still then you can see squirrels and Deer too".
"Deer ? What with antlers ?", asked Daniel nervously.
"They are only little Deer. They come right to you if you bring something to feed them. Have you ever seen Bambi ?"
"The cartoon ? Yes."
"They are just like that. They won't hurt you."
"Oh", said Daniel, still a bit doubtful.
Jonathon pointed to where the path left the clearing on the other side. "Down there is the river. I will show you for just a minute because we are not really supposed to go there so don't tell. Okay ?" Daniel nodded and they rode down the last section of the path. At the end of the path there was a narrow wooden bridge. The river was about as wide as the main road that had brought Daniel to the school. Its waters looked clear as it bubbled over some small stones and under the bridge. Daniel was entranced with the place and completely forgot that he should not be there.
"Some of the older boys come fishing here, they are allowed. If they go and you ask them they usually let us tag along too."
"I've never been fishing."
"Hasn't your dad taken you ?"
"I don't have a dad", said Daniel, his face looking suddenly sad.
"Oh, sorry Daniel, I didn't know."
"He is in heaven with my brother."
"You had a brother too ?" replied Jonathon.
"Sort of. My mum said I had a twin brother but when I was born he went to heaven."
Jonathon though about this for a moment. He was only two years older than Daniel but much wiser already in the ways of the world, his knowledge expanding all the time under the efforts of the Masters as would Daniel's, very soon. Jonathon understood the birth process quite well and he understood more or less what Daniel was really saying but for now he decided with a wisdom beyond his years that it might be best for Daniel to still think of his father and brother in heaven, where for all he knew they might well be. The idea of ‘death' could wait he decided. "Come on, we had better go back into the wood before we are caught", he said.
For the rest of the afternoon the two boys explored the grounds. Daniel had never cycled so far in his life and was tired and hungry by the time they returned their mounts to the cycle shed. Another thing had happened during that afternoon; Daniel and Jonathon had decided they were going to be friends, good friends as long as they were at the school. If lunch had surprised Daniel, dinner amazed him with two extra courses of soup and cheese. By the time he had stuffed himself again he was really tired. He followed Jonathon back to the upper floor and his room. Once inside he found that the bed had been made and all his things had been put away. His empty suitcase was on top of the wardrobe. He yawned, fell onto the soft bed and was fast asleep in minutes.
The next day was Sunday. At eight ‘o' clock Jonathon. In his usual exuberant way, bounded into Daniel's room without so much as a knock on the door. He shook the sleeping boy and said, "Wake up you sleepy head! I missed you at breakfast - I thought you had gone down on your own. If you hurry you can still get something !" Daniel did not need telling again, he could not believe that he had slept for so long and he was still wearing the clothes he arrived in. He ran down the corridor and had the fastest wash of his life and then once again, Jonathon led the way to the dining room. Breakfast was another feast but Daniel had a good appetite.
"You had better get changed now", said Jonathon when Daniel had finished, "we have to go to church soon."
"Is there a church here too ?"
"Its called a Chapel. We have to go every Sunday for an hour. Its okay", said Jonathon without his usual enthusiasm. "There are a couple of Jewish boys who don't go and one of the girls is from Iraq so she doesn't go either."
"A girl from Iraq ? Does she speak English ?"
"Oh yes, very good English."
"What does she do ?"
"She is into chemistry, test tubes and stuff. I think its boring but it is fun to work out some of the formulas they use."
"You'll have to show me sometime", said Daniel with interest.
"Yes, I will", he promised.
Once the weekend had passed the real life of the school embraced Daniel. He was soon caught up in his studies which went far beyond his gift and love for mathematics. Most evenings he spent with Jonathon and some of the other boys with whom he had made friends. He found it strange to be in a school where so many of the things that had troubled him before were now gone. There was no school bully and although there was the odd scuffle or two, the antagonists soon seemed to settle their differences and make friends again. His mother came every other weekend and was amazed at the changes in her son. She was always sad to leave him but could see with her own eyes what an amazing future he was being groomed for, although she never in her wildest dreams realised to what dizzy heights he would reach.
When Christmas came in 1980, Daniel had completed almost five months at Ashwood. Most of the children went home for Christmas and Daniel was looking forward to Christmas at home too. There were three children whose parents for one reason or another had left them at the school (the father of the Iraqi girl could not get a visa to England), and two who were orphans. These children were taken in by some of the masters and spent a Christmas with their families. On the day that his mother was coming, Daniel stood on the steps of the house, looking down the driveway for the car. Jonathon stood there with him and said that his father was coming too, and his face had a sly sort of grin. Suddenly Jonathon said, "there he is! I see him."
Daniel looked down the empty drive. "Don't be silly. There is nobody coming".
"Yes there is, over there !", said Jonathon pointing to the sky.
A few minutes later a black speck grew and then the throbbing beat of helicopter blades drowned out all conversation. A large helicopter landed on the grass lawn in front of the Manor house. A door in the side opened and a man jumped out who ran across to the school steps. He was just like a larger version of Jonathon but instead of brown rimmed spectacles he wore dark sunglasses. "Hello son!", he said with obvious delight.
"Hello dad! ", replied Jonathon, "this is my friend Daniel", he said nodding to him.
"Hello Daniel. Are you waiting for your parents too ?"
"Yes, Mister Steele", Daniel replied.
"Well you have a nice Christmas young man. I am afraid that Jonathon and I have to be going."
Moments after they lifted off, Daniel's mother arrived to pick him up but he was still staring open mouthed into the sky at his departing friend whose father owned his own helicopter.