Drinking coffee in the girls’ school staffroom

On Wednesday this week, I and some of my colleagues at the Trust had the pleasure of visiting Henrietta Barnett School, the prestigious girls’ grammar school located on Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Central Square. Formerly The Institute, the school is in a beautiful 100-year-old building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which overlooks the Central Square’s two churches and a wonderful arrangement of flowerbeds and trees, all also originally designed by Lutyens.

The school has recently had a brand-new wing added, designed by Hopkins, and we were pleased to be given a brief tour by the school’s deputy head.

We were visiting the school for Lauren Geisler to deliver a lecture to the year 7s about the Suburb, with regards to its geography, architecture, and to its founder, Henrietta Barnett – the school’s namesake.

Lauren’s talk was well-received by the 90-odd girls aged 11-12, and if the enthusiastic question-and-answer session that followed was anything to go by, I’d say it was a great success. Questions after a talk are interesting and often quite revealing – about the nature of the audience, and the kinds of topics that were picked up on. Some of the girls were intrigued as to the Trust’s (and Barnet’s) powers to restrict building work deemed unsatisfactory, and about where the money for the Suburb came from in the first place.

But the best question had to be from the girl who queried: if Henrietta Barnett was “kind of… sort of… well, dead,” then why such care and attention was spent on keeping the Suburb as she had first devised it more than 100 years ago. An amusing way of putting it, but a salient point (one of many, in fact) which highlighted the need for such educational and informative outreach activities from the Trust, in and around the Suburb.

It was heartening to see the girls being so receptive of their school’s ‘architecture day’; when the deputy head flashed up a few examples of innovative school buildings recently erected around the capital, gasps of awe and delight could be heard. I hope it also helped them to further appreciate their own building – not just the original part, but the innovative new extension.

As a new extension to a beautiful old building in a protected conservation area, it was bound to attract controversy. But in my opinion, the work was done to such a high standard, and in a way which compliments Lutyens’ original, that the result is a harmonious union of new and old. The new build houses state-of-the-art drama and music equipment, including a music room that looked more like an IT suite, replete as it is with wall-to-wall iMacs, and several soundproofed practise and rehearsal spaces.

It all made me feel like I’d left school thousands of years ago; I remember us getting our first proper IT rooms in secondary school, which were to replace the handful of computers dotted around other classrooms. I can still remember using green-screen BBC computers in the middle of primary school, even.

After a warm welcome, an engaging tour, and a very successful lecture, it was time to split the girls into groups for a Suburb walking tour. We wanted to point out some of the areas of interest that Lauren had brought up, and it became clear that although these girls go to school on the Suburb, few of them were aware of its significance.

The nature of the school’s selective intake policy means that many of the pupils (and staff) don’t live on the Suburb, being bussed and driven in from surrounding boroughs and counties. It was therefore a great opportunity to show them some of the architectural and geographical oddities and attractions quite literally on their doorstep.

Split up into more manageable-sized groups, the girls were led around a circular walk by various Trust staff and volunteers, along with some of their teachers. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of a group and merely tagged along with one led by Ruth Ash. I was ready to jump in if I could, but fortunately my main tasks were ferrying the girls across the busier roads and just enjoying the tour myself.

The walk was good fun, and it was again interesting to hear what the girls had picked up on. Some were asking about a house featured in one of the Harry Potter films, while others were more impressed by the number and value of several sports cars in the driveway of a certain television personality. One girl was driven to ask about the Trust’s policy on dog mess removal – after finding a rather unholy amount on one section of pavement.

It was a short-ish walk, but a good length and enough to introduce some of the varied architecture and sights available. The girls returned to school for lunch and another talk, this time from a Hopkins architect (I rather wish I could’ve stayed for that one myself!), while the staff sloped back to the Trust office to see what lay in store for our Wednesday afternoon.

As an exercise in promoting not only the Suburb but also the invaluable work the Trust does to preserve it – along with it being a fun and informative morning – I’d say it was a huge success. Lessons were learnt, too, and it’s all useful experience for similar events in the future, such as Open House.

For me personally, it was yet another in a long line of interesting, unique opportunities that working with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust has offered me; drinking coffee in a school staffroom is something I’d never done before – let alone in a girls’ school!

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