The Woodroffe School: A hotch-potch of architecture and a building full of memories

How The Woodroffe School has developed since its foundation stone was laid in 1931 – a special feature by guest writer Sophia Moseley.

THE Woodroffe School – home to 1,075 children, it grew like topsy from the latter part of the 20th century and such is its popularity, it is not unusual for parents to rent a house in or around Lyme Regis just to get an address within the catchment area.

But I’m not interested in pupil numbers, stats or SATS (don’t get me started on that topic), I wanted to know what lies behind the façade of that renowned Arts & Crafts architectural design.

It seems the concrete of the 60s and 70s and wooden huts of the 80s mostly, making it a hotch-potch of misfits and add-ons.

The foundation stone was laid on April 29 1931 by Alban Woodroffe and it was opened by Lord Shaftesbury on May 23 1932; by September there were 144 pupils.

“If I could, I’d bulldoze the whole lot and start again,” was the opinion given by a previous incumbent during my first visit to the school in 2011.

Being an admirer of the 1920s style of building, I thought that was a bit harsh but then I didn’t have to deal with the daily challenge of maintaining a site that has had to shoehorn in additional space for the increasing number of pupils.

Dan Watts, new headteacher at the Woodroffe School in Lyme Regis

“It’s a stunning location, but it’s also the location that is part of the problem” – a slightly more sympathetic opinion given by the current headteacher, Dan Watts.

With just under two terms under his belt when I spoke to him before the coronavirus outbreak, Dan spoke positively about his new charge.

“It’s not only built on an incline but due to the geography of the area, anything we do is going to be expensive.”

Having worked in a number of different schools across the country, Dan knows how important it is to work with the local councils and government as the schemes on offer fall into and out of favour.

Gone are the days when all it took was a bit of behind the scenes manipulation (as it is alleged happened in 1923 when Woodroffe ensured there were sufficient eligible children to justify a school); for instance there’s the Private Fund Initiative (PFI) or the Priority School Building Programme (PSBP) and Dan has wisely organised termly meetings with Lyme’s mayor Brian Larcombe.

But mnemonics and geography aside, how has the Woodroffe School coped with its increasing popularity vs. its limited space to expand?

“You can tell how it’s developed overtime without looking at plans,” says Dan, “you can see the timeline of architecture and styles.”

That includes the huts that are a bit like marmite, you either love them or hate them and I’ve spoken to staff and pupils alike who say they are warm and dry so sometimes preferable to the main building!

But even if they could bulldoze the school and start afresh, that might create more problems than it solves because the latest schemes are formulae-based and calculate building capacity on student numbers and the curriculum, so there is the possibility you end up with less room or less flexible space.

Chris Sweetland, who was known as ‘Mr Starter’ from firing the starting pistol at the swimming galas, started teaching at the school in 1971 when the majority of pupils were from either a diplomatic background or military and he can remember the Emperor of Ethiopia’s son being a student who was at times a royal pain in the neck.

“All the building work has been done during holiday time so there is no disruption, other than 1981 when three new labs were built,” he said.

Local cartoonist Ian Dicks was a Woodroffe boarder during the mid 60s. His parents thought he needed a bit of toughening up having grown up with four sisters.

He remembers the dorms were the worst of the 60s concrete craze with an extension bolted onto the Georgian elegance of St Andrews.

“The walls ran with condensation during the winter and the floor was like an ice rink as you skidded across,” he said.

“There were radiators, but none of them worked and the curtains at the windows were only for show, they weren’t big enough to cover the window, and the shower had a lead tray and no curtain with a dribble of water coming out, so no one used it.”

When I told Ian the school swimming pool was no more, he was very disappointed.

“It opened just before I arrived and that’s where I learned to swim,” he said.

It seems the girls’ accommodation was luxurious in comparison and even the boys’ leisure time did nothing to raise their spirits.

Ian commented: “There was table tennis but no bats and a billiard table with the wrong balls, but you didn’t complain. Major Pearn ran the boarding house with military authority; I remember he had a very expressive pipe permanently clamped between his teeth.”

There’s no question the original school building is impressive but with the mish-mash of different architectural designs as the site has grown over the decades, it doesn’t exactly “flow”, says Dan.

“With the various building materials and designs, it can be a little challenging when it comes to maintenance, particularly as some of the eras were worse than others when it came to building methods.”

But there are now plans afoot for a new build in the summer. There will be a block built to the side of the sports hall, which means cutting into the grass bank, but unlike previous additions, this is not intended to increase capacity but to improve the quality of space for new teaching.

There are also plans to remove some of the huts, although it is undecided what will happen to the space that is left; it might be used to alleviate the squeeze on parking.

With the developers’ determination to promote interesting architectural design to harmonise with our ever-changing environment, I wonder what people will think of the latest development in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Chances are everyone will have their brains hotwired into a device of some sort and won’t even notice their surrounds… definitely don’t get me started on that topic!

Woodmead Halls
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