Millfield was said to have been the most expensive school in England, perhaps it still is. The school, which was situated eight miles by road away from our village, had a boarding house on our village green. The house was a large building behind high gates and walls. In days long past, it had served as the rectory of the once prosperous living of High Ham.
The boarders travelled to Street each morning and back to the village each evening. They inhabited a world entirely different from those of us from the village. Sophisticated, affluent, travelled, confident, composed, they were as far removed from us as could possibly have been imagined. “Miffies,” we called them, although they would have been completely indifferent to the thoughts of rustic yokel youths.
In retrospect, it is impossible to measure the gap in wealth. It was being sent to boarding school at the age of fourteen that made me realize how wide the gap could become.
My school was a small institution now closed for more than thirty years. The pupils were not sent by affluent families, but by county councils concerned to further the education of sick and delicate boys. The fees were around £2,000 a year, a sum comparable to the fees paid for public schools. It was entirely understandable when the county council attempted to withdraw me from the school a year before I was due to finish: I refused to be withdrawn.
The experience of being away at school taught me how much of the richness of community life was missed by those who attended schools like Millfield. There was a growing apart from the people among whom we had lived, a sense of becoming an outsider, of being someone who no longer shared the same set of memories as childhood friends, of no longer having credibility with those who grew strong and hardened with work on family farms.
The wealth of identity, the wealth of rootedness, the wealth of connection, the wealth of having a sense of place; these are the sorts of wealth that cannot be measured. The people who possessed such wealth were the boys from the village.
When it came to assessing who was immeasurably poorer, the local boys would have had no doubt that it was those who were far from home, those whose parents sent them away at an early age, those who spent their evenings and weekends behind high walls.