I feel like I was a little harsh on St Bees when I last wrote about it. The beach was not the prettiest I have ever seen, it’s true, but it was a sunny day and the village was gorgeous and there were hulking sandstone cliffs that I nearly slid off of and into the Irish Sea. Since I’ve been back in London I’ve been doing some research into the history of the village and I’ve learned a lot – St Bees is the only Heritage Coast between Wales & Scotland for example. And St Bees Man was found in 1981 – a perfectly preserved body of a medieval knight. And shipwrecks. Lots of shipwrecks.
But the most interesting thing I discovered was the story of the evacuation of Mill Hill Boys school. Whilst walking around the grounds of the priory church in the village, and getting lost in the Priory Paddock, I found a bench tucked half behind a wall and a bush that bore the following inscription:
And my brain piped up ‘Ere! That’s just like the Mill Hill that’s round down your way innit?’ and I wondered if it was the same, and if the village had a link to London, 325 miles to the south and worlds away in terms of landscape.
So I Googled it, which is what we do in this day and age rather than setting foot in a library (must visit a library soon), and I found this page, which details the evacuation of the boys of Mill Hill School to St Bees in 1939, because their school building in north London was to be used as a Military Hospital for the duration of the Second World War. These boys, who had quite likely never seen somewhere so remote or been so far away from home before, remained in St Bees until the close of the war in 1945, and fully integrated themselves into village life – playing against local teams at rugby and contributing to the Home Guard.
“About 250 Boys and staff arrived on the evening of Friday 22nd September at St. Bees railway station and marched in the black-out to a variety of locations in the village. In the morning they woke up to find they were in a schoolboy’s heaven. The open spaces, the beach, the fells, the Head, and the distance from parents, was all a dream come true. Mrs Ada Dodding, a well- known resident of St. Bees, came with them as a house-maid. Interviewed in the the 1990’s she said ” We arrived in darkness, but in the morning I opened the curtains and there was the sea! I knew I was going to stay here”. She did, for the next 50 years.”
I love stumbling on tiny clues to pieces of local history, and if it hadn’t been for my bizarre fascination with bench dedication plaques (as if Cemetery Club wasn’t a weird enough fascination!) I would never have wandered close enough to see the words ‘Mill Hill’ and would never have learned about this particular wartime journey.