Take an Atlas

The Duke of Cambridge has a lot to answer for. No, not that one, but the mid-19th century landowner who refused access to the London and South Western Railway who wanted to cross the flat lands he owned near the Thames at Kingston. The aim of the company was to drive the Portsmouth bound tracks parallel to the main road that already threaded its way through the centre of this old market town with its ‘Royal’ sobriquet. In time the Kingston by pass would be built, one of the first of its kind in the country. More of that another time.


The Duke of Cambridge’s refusal required the railway company to carve out a cutting through the nearby Surbiton Hill, if it were to keep the same direction. No doubt a more expensive option at the time, but it allowed for the building of Surbiton station which is now a major commuter hub, with fast trains taking just 17 minutes to cover the 12 miles to Waterloo.


For legions of boys starting at Surbiton Grammar School in the mid-sixties, the first geography lesson was always about the school’s location on top of the hill, and the railway cutting nearby. Opposite the school gates was a small public space which overlooked the 4 lines and so was an ideal vantage point to watch steam engines thundering by. There was therefore an active Railway Society at the school.


Our geography teacher would exhort us on entering the class room to ‘take an atlas’ and for me this large flattish book on its own was a rich treasury of people and places to savour. I studied it, plotted routes, worked out contours, learnt about the weather and generally developed a long lasting interest in the world around me. Our teacher was not necessarily the most dynamic, but he could bring the atlas pages to life.


However, he had an issue. Generally mild-mannered he could be roused to fits of temper by bad behaviour in the classroom, and his response was to throw pieces of chalk (or on one occasion the blackboard rubber) in the direction of offenders with unerring accuracy. He continued to do this throughout my school years, and so I wonder if anyone ever made a complaint? Clearly such behaviour today would lead to dismissal and probable prosecution but then it seemed par for the course. He didn’t have the presence that other teachers had who could seemingly control a class with just a look, or a withering phrase.


For me he opened up a new world where I could see myself living on a bigger map, and his teaching has informed and sustained a lot of my interests. But I can’t forget that he was also flawed by his resort to violence. It was unacceptable then and still is now. Whoever we may see as inspirational, we cannot ignore or gloss over any aspects of their behaviour that causes harm.

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