Quirkiest school buildings

Behind every school is a set of memorable buildings. They form the backdrop of a child’s education, and it’s often the quirkiest classroom or smallest study that is remembered the most. There are just under 6,000 listed buildings on the English Heritage register relating to school sites. The Victorians were perhaps the greatest school builders of all, and, interestingly, the most recent sustainable designs, including the new building at Port Regis, feature sash-window-style ventilation, high ceilings and large atriums, as found in Victorian buildings.

‘Good-quality old buildings give a sense of space,’ says Mr Watts, ‘even if they’re not always the perfect teaching environment. Unfortunately, the buildings of the 1960s and 1970s neither inspire pupils nor offer a good space for teaching.’ English Heritage encourages schools to repair, refurbish and reuse its oldest buildings, rather than simply building more.

Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, headmaster of Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, agrees: ‘It’s almost impossible to heat our 18th-century ducal palace. It wasn’t designed to be lived in after October.’ New boilers have been installed, but, in winter, the building is always a little draughty. ‘We issue the Stoics with woolly sweaters and tell them to put on more clothes.’

‘Buildings make a deep impression on pupils for the rest of their lives,’ says Peter Dix, headmaster of Port Regis School in Dorset (www.portregis.com). Port Regis has opened an eco-friendly classroom block recently, only a stone’s throw from the state-of-the-art music centre and indoor swimming pool. ‘It’s so important to show our younger generation the importance of sustainability; with rising fuel costs, we cannot continue to build school buildings that are expensive to run.’

The new classroom block features a revolutionary natural ventilation system that operates like a lung. ‘In winter, fresh air is drawn into a vast central atrium, where it’s heated before entering the classrooms,’ says architect Brian Watts, who designed the building. ‘In summer, cool air is drawn in through the downstairs windows and warm air is drawn up through the atrium and out of the building. The ventilation system is thermostatically controlled and designed to make use of nature.’ It works in parallel with a geo-thermal heating and cooling system, negating the need for oil-fired boilers and air-conditioning.

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Other schools are pioneering sustainable buildings, which prove cheaper to construct and run than more traditional designs. ‘High ceilings, lots of light, ventilation and good acoustics should be standard in school buildings,’ says Mr Watts, who has designed pioneering buildings at Sherborne School for Girls, Sandroyd and St Anthony’s Leweston. ‘Buildings should spark imagination and enhance the learning process.’

Bedales – Memorial Library

Barns are a Bedales

(www.bedales.org.uk) speciality. In the 1980s, students rebuilt an

18th-century barn from a local village in the school grounds. An

earlier relocated barn serves as the bakehouse (students get up early

on Thursdays to make bread), and, in 2006, pupils built
a wood-frame building to use as the drama department office.


most impressive barn is, however, the Memorial Library, designed by

Ernest Gimson and built in 1921. It is an impressive essay in

Arts-and-Crafts architecture. Everything in the double-height

structure including bricks and windows has been made by hand. Even the

huge floorboards were sawn on site; apparently, there is still a sawpit

under the floor. The barn-like proportions, pitched roof and external

parapet are echoed in the Orchard Building, completed in 2005, where

60% of lessons take place.

Fettes College – Baroque gargoyles

When the architect David Bryce was commissioned to build Fettes College (www.
fettes.com) in 1870, he was given a large budget a bequest from Sir William Fettes, former Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Having recently visited France, and with an appreciation of Scottish architectural styles, Bryce’s design for the school was Scottish baronial, mixed with French château, known locally as ‘Edinburgh Loire Gothic’.

The result is one of Scotland’s greatest buildings it features soaring spires and turrets, with a tall central tower and smaller flanking towers and it’s teeming with gargoyles. According to those in the know, they serve both a decor-ative and practical purpose, acting as water spouts off parapets, walls and towers. However, their jeering faces do add an element of humour to the rather imposing building, which is rumoured to be the inspiration for J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. 

Haileybury – The Malthus Hut

Haileybury’s neo-Classical-style buildings form the largest academic quadrangle in Britain, but one of the school’s most interesting buildings buildings is a modest, pale blue, octagonal building in the grounds known as The Malthus Hut. It was used by the celebrated political economist Robert Malthus, the author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). In 1805, he was appointed professor of history and political economy at the college,  newly founded by the East India Company. He was held in great affection by the students of the college and was nicknamed ‘Pop’ or ‘Old Pop’ as an abbreviation for ‘Population Malthus’. The college closed in 1862, and an independent school was founded in its place four years later.

Stowe – New boarding houses

The boys at Stowe (www.stowe.co.uk) are green with envy for the two new boarding houses built for the girls, says headmaster Dr Wallersteiner. Rather than trying to emulate the architecture of the main school building once the palace of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, set in 750 acres of landscaped gardens and parkland with 31 listed buildings these houses are unashamedly modern with en-suite wet rooms in the dormitories. The design is playful, with Modernist touches such as a glass-clad central staircase and Classical columns in Portland stone and stucco render. ‘We didn’t want to create a carbuncle—that would have been truly offensive,’ says Dr Wallersteiner. The first of the two buildings, Queen’s House, was opened by The Queen last November.

St Edward’s Oxford – Geo-sustainable science block

The warden of St Edward’s Oxford (www.stedwardsoxford.co.uk), Andrew Trotman, would change the shape of the school day before installing air-conditioning at the school. The new science block is built using low-carbon micro-generation technologies and a mechanical ventilation and heat-recovery system. It will produce so much power that the school will sell some back to the National Grid. ‘The building is very aspirational, with a helix going up the middle. It’s a practical way of helping children think and learn,’ says Mr Trotman. It uses a solar photovoltaic
electrical-generation system, with solar panels mounted on the rear of the building, and even has a pioneering sprinkler system.

Repton School – The Old Mitre building

The English department at Repton (www.repton.org.uk) was once a coaching inn. The Mitre Inn was bought by the school in 1865, to accommodate new boarders; the stables were turned into studies and the inn yard was used for games. Basil Rathbone (who played Sherlock Holmes) was a member of Mitre House. By 1936, the house was in need of sub-stantial refurbishment, and it was considered more cost-effective to build a new house. The ‘new’ Mitre House, on Mitre Drive, is still in use. The old building continued to accommodate smaller groups, mainly unmarried members of staff, and RAF personnel in the Second World War. In 2006, it was transformed into the English department, with six state-of-the-art classrooms around a courtyard.

Malvern – Classical sixth-form room

Radar was invented by A. P. Rowe in the Classical Room at Malvern College (www.malvern-college.co.uk). In the Second World War, the school buildings were used for tele-
communications research; debates among Cabinet Ministers, commanders-in-chief and civilians, known as Sunday Soviet Meetings, were held in the octagonal, oak-panelled room. ‘It was a breeding ground for ideas,’ says acting headmistress Dr Welch. ‘And a chance for scientists to discuss the war effort.’ The room is now used for debating classes. It still features a map of Ancient Greece on the wall, as well as the school motto ‘Sapiens qui prospicit’ wise is he who looks ahead.

Oakham – The Wharton Pavilion, The Stumps

‘There is no such thing as a temporary building at an independent school,’ says Dr Joe Spence, headmaster of Oakham (www.oakham.rutland.sch.uk). ‘They become sacred places.’ The wooden building, which was put up at Oakham in 1934 as a ‘pre-fab’ temporary gym, is one such building. It was transformed into a smart wooden pavilion with beams and staircases, and is now Oakham’s treasured cricket pavilion and buttery, known as The Wharton Pavilion, or The Stumps. A multitude of rugby and cricket stars have used it, such as Lewis Moody and English cricket star Stuart Broad, both former pupils. It’s situated in front of the new eco-friendly science block, much to the disappointment of the architect. ‘It’s not the prettiest building, but, no doubt, Stumps will still be here when the science blocks need refurbishing,’ says the headmaster. ‘When Old Oakhamians come back, they want to know it’s still there.’

UppinghamEdward Thring’s Loo

Uppingham (www.uppingham.co.uk) is well endowed with historic

buildings: the school features the country’s oldest block of

purpose-built school studies, an original Elizabethan schoolroom, and

a château-style boarding house. However, Edward Thring’s Loo is perhaps

the quirkiest feature. Rev Edward Thring, headmaster from 1853–87, was

one of the greatest Victorian educationalists; he encouraged

extra-curricular activities, and music, and opened the first gymnasium

in an English school. He commissioned several of the school’s

buildings, most notably the Gothic Revival chapel. The building that

was once his house is now the School Common Room, but, rather quaintly,

his lavatory has been left in situ.

Worth School – Modernist Abbey church

Worth School in Sussex (www.worthschool.co.uk), formerly the country estate of Lord Cowdray, has one of Britain’s most interesting post-Second World War ecclesiastical buildings. ‘It looks like a flying saucer,’ says a former pupil. The Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey purchased the estate in 1930, and Worth School was founded in 1959. Originally, the monastic buildings were temporary wooden huts built around the walled garden of the 19th-century country house; the abbey church was consecrated in 1975 and finished in 2001. Designed by Francis Pollen, it consists of a circle inscribed in a square with a cone roof, with views across the South Downs. Built at a time when there was demand for radical reforms in church planning in accordance with research into the liturgy of the early Church, the abbey was designed to make a theological, liturgical and sociological statement.

Westonbirt – The Mercury Garden

It’s the 23-acre Grade-I listed gardens that Westonbirt (www.westonbirt.gloucs.sch.uk) girls miss most when they leave arguably the most historically significant private gardens in Gloucestershire. There are Italianate walled gardens, fountains, pools and statuary, as well as a grotto, grass amphitheatre and lake. The oldest part, known as the Mercury Garden, features a beautiful and naked statue of Mercury. ‘A lively girl once dressed the statue in her school uniform as a prank on her last day,’ says a spokesperson for the school. ‘Unfortunately, she forgot to remove her name labels, so it was easy to find the culprit and she got expelled. This was some time ago, I hasten to add, and I’m sure we’d all be much more amused than angry about it these days.’