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Literary Festivals and Talks 


Oxford Literary Festival

Saturday 25th March 2023​

Sarah Barclay and Charles Spicer: Lives in the Shadow of War:

Eden's Keepers and Coffee with Hitler​

Exeter College

Winchester Books Festival 

22nd April ​2023

Sarah Barclay in conversation with Susannah Jowitt: 

love, war and gardens

Garden Museum Literary Festival 

23-24th June 2023

Parham House, Sussex

Refuge Gardens Sarah Barclay and Dr Claudia Tobin

Garden Museum

Queer Garden History 

31st October 2023


Hampshire Gardens Trust

December 2023

Love, War and Gardens

the story of Nancy Tennant and Humphrey Waterfield

BBC and local Essex Radio interviews following the installation of

Nancy Tennant's commemorative Blue Plaque - the first for a WI woman in Essex.

Hard Cheese


A shorter version of this appeared in Mail on Sunday's YOU Magazine 9 June 2024



Charles Spencer’s best-selling memoir ‘A Very Private Education’ describes in harrowing detail what it was like

for him at his 1970s traditional boys prep school. But what was it like for a girl in these very male institutions?

Arriving as part of a new intake of girls at a previously boys only school in 1975, former YOU Magazine beauty columnist and author, Sarah Barclay, looks back at the bizarre world she found. 


Leafing through some old letters the other day I came upon the remnant of a school prize. The Gardening Prize – it was the front of a WH Smith voucher for S L Barclay and G R Peake (my best friend) July 1978 – we had grown many, many strawberries. The front of the card showed a man racing on a bright red motorbike. Not perhaps what you would give two girls. But back then we were basically boys. For years we had learnt to burp on demand, make farting sounds using our armpits and if required, could flex our biceps to display a bulge worthy of any pre-pubescent bloke. Years later, feeling trapped in an urban academic girls’ day school that seemed obsessed by exam grades and Oxbridge with more than a light sprinkling of disordered eating amongst my cohort, I yearned for the space and frankly the feral atmosphere of the school. But I also have a strong memory of standing in the beautiful grounds of this idyllic looking place, staring up at the large Victorian country house that was the school, promising myself I would never forget what it was really like. 


Reading Charles Spencer’s hugely best-selling memoir, A Very Private Education, made me feel physically sick. Not simply out of pity for the poor child he was, abandoned by his mother with a father far away, but also for the unnecessary ‘toughening up’ that small children, generally boys, were expected to endure and even more disturbingly, benefit from, at an absurdly young age at traditional posh British prep school. The smells, the jargon, the routines of the world that Spencer describes in his memoir were all so familiar. For me, it was only when I had my own children that I began to realise that a Rudyard Kipling approach to childhood was not romantic or charmingly old fashioned, it was strange at best and disturbing at worst. 


By the time I had won my prize for growing strawberries I was a cheerful ten year old who loved her guinea pigs and wanted to win the WH Smith pony competition. I had a spot in the swimming team and seemed fine academically but arriving at the school four years earlier had been a different story. 



My report for the first term said that I walked around with such a solemn expression that it read, ‘I don’t think I have ever seen her smile’. I must have been worried. My husband reacted almost identically to his prep school arrival. His report said he appeared to be ‘looking for hidden traps’. 


Boarding prep schools in the 1970s were bizarre mash up of Enid Blyton and spartan training for a vanished Empire, presided over, it is fair to say, by some good teachers if you were lucky, but also equally commonly, social misfits, hopelessly bad teachers and for some children, childhood decimating perverts. Anyone could teach. 


Charles Spencer describes arriving at his school as a very young boy and feeling the absence of female warmth. Instead, he found a place of maleness and a sadistic, duplicitous headmaster whose daily routine was beating young boys. My school was equally male dominated. Only boys featured in all the school photos lining the dining room walls (unsurprising as they had only recently admitted girls) and portraits of former headmasters. Back in 1975 it was a world of boys, men, rules, jargon, and cold legs. Was it a co-incidence I ran open-armed into the hyper feminine world of fashion, beauty and glossy magazines after graduating? That eccentric, rule bending creative world was about as far from a 1970s boys prep school as it was possible to leap. 


It was so male in fact, even if you were a new girl you were called a ‘new boy’. Quite soon after arriving, we were told we all had to do ‘the new boys test’. I remember nervously wondering what this involved. The so named ‘new boys’ test made me uneasy. I was already at the school, aged seven, and it seemed very odd to have to do a test. Even more obviously I was a biological girl, not an actual boy. But as one of the so called ‘new boys’ I had to do it. 


Even now I remember walking down the passage toward the appointed room for this unknown test, the very particular aroma of bleach and boiling vegetables, past the musty smell of the ‘boys’ changing room hanging like a strange alien smog just at the entrance of it and arriving at the heavy wooden wooden door at the top of the main staircase, knocking and dreading what was to follow as I stepped inside. 


Welcome to my new seven year old prep school world where I was called by my surname and like a double agent spy, had an insider’s view on the dying institution that was the 1970s traditional boys boarding prep school. I would play cricket with the boys, climb trees every day and admire male World War II heroes like Douglas Badar and the Escape from Colditz gang. We would learn to recite poems, very male poems, all by men, about the Empire, or Britishness. The ultimate goal becoming ‘a man, my son’. And part of the training in that microcosm meant learning that showing your feelings was weak. 


‘Hard cheese!’ we’d all yell when something was just tough luck, or unfair. ‘Hard cheese’ could be applied to pretty much anything and oddly still can. Perhaps it was a detention, maybe it was a lost shoe. Maybe it was taking things on the chin and not showing you minded. In some ways it was a cheerful way of just ‘getting on with it’ and supressing unhappiness. But it was ‘hard cheese’ quite often.



That term in 1975, we new girls or rather ‘new boys’ wore the same shoes as the boys: brown lace ups for ‘indoors’, black lace ups for ‘outdoors’ and wellington boots for ‘mucking about’ if it was bad weather. We all had a ‘shoe number’ (mine was 119) and we were all in a ‘section’. I was in Blue Section – there were several – in different colours, like teams or little regiments. The ‘new boys test’ in fact turned out to be entirely benign – it was an IQ test. 


The building itself was the quintessential classic English prep school of the Charles Spencer Maidwell variety. A large Victorian Gothic country pile at the end of a long, long drive. There were turrets and narrow staircases as well as a large grand main one which we weren’t allowed to use. There was a long terrace on which breaktime snacks were dished out from a tray. Cold fried bread was the dream find but otherwise cold toast and marmite smeared with butter left over from breakfast. I still think it’s unspeakably delicious. 


Break times were playing entirely unsupervised in acres of what had been parkland surrounding the grand Gothic mansion. Cedar trees, open views beyond and what felt then like endless woodland. The woods extended to what felt like forever. A tangled wilderness of absolute freedom where rules did not apply. Forget ‘forest school’ or contrived climbing walls, the only vaguely formal playing area was the Edwardian sounding ‘boating pond’ a shallow concrete lined pool with a couple of mini concrete mariners. But that was really for shy boys who didn’t want to be boisterous. And boisterous we all mainly were.  Break was a break from everything. You could climb trees, make camps, roll in freshly cut grass, eat berries wondering if they would be deadly. One day a pack of us, like boys in Lord of the Flies, chased and caught a rabbit. I can’t remember if we killed it, but we quite possibly did.


We would use the boys lingo…for years I thought KV stood for something, but of course it was Latin ‘cave’ meaning ‘beware’ and it was yelled out if a ‘master’ or ‘matron’ was approaching.  It was a team effort being a prep school boy, you were part of an organism.  


Watch out, stop what you are doing, or you might get the swish but then don’t blub and don’t whatever you ever do, sneak on your friends. I remember hearing the hissing from a number of boys directed at a rumbled ‘sneak’. It was horrible. You can see how the product of an emotionally degraded childhood, is so conflicted with loyalty. You can’t shop your friends, you hold the line, stay loyal, and lie, even if it is blindingly obvious wrong has been done. You don’t have to be wildly imaginative to recognise that a certain previous blonde PM is imbued with this deep, disastrous faultline. It is too terrifying to break rank because then you are on your very, very own. And there is no going home to Mummy at the end of the day.  


And there was certainly no obvious way to speak up. One of the reasons I felt so disturbed by the Charles Spencer story was not simply because of his experiences at his school, but because the regime that harboured inadequate men stringing out their working days as prep school masters, trained children not to care about their own feelings. 


Of course not all the teachers in these schools were bad. Some of the best teachers I ever had were at my prep school. Our music teacher was a gem with huge specs and a large capable frame. She taught us how to sing properly – really sing – anything from psalms and carols to Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Even now I can’t hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony without thinking of her and her big flared nostrils exhaling the main theme teaching us to really listen. 


The Latin and Greek master was a tiny bent man with a thick foreign accent.  Some children whispered that his family had been killed in the war in a camp but, aged nine,  I couldn’t understand how that could have happened. Camps were made in the woods at ‘break’ or holiday tents. But when we saw a small blue numerical tattoo on his wrist, we realised it was something bad.  I can still hear his thick German accent and his beady delight when I had finally ‘got’ my Latin. 

And the brilliant teacher who taught us when we were eight, who told us about birds, nature, trees and the Battle of Hastings. Eventually her lost love she had met abroad years earlier arrived at the school to claim her, she married him and left. I couldn’t imagine how other children would learn about all the lovely things she had taught us as well.

But. There were other truly awful teachers. Dreadful oddballs, washed-up retired army and navy colonels and commanders from the war, who variously bullied, humiliated and flirted. One eventually ran off with a pupil’s mother after repeatedly chatting up other mothers at pick up times and dumping his wife. 


Some were vain, others boorish, others creepy and just a teeny weeny little bit too physical. But of course as a child you don’t know what you are seeing. I remember thinking it was rather odd that one master would cup his crotch when rising from the table after sitting with us in the dining room. But as far as I know, we remained innocents. But spin it either way, whether they were good or bad at teaching, they were complicit in an extraordinary world of accepted corporal punishment. 


It was all a bit of an experiment I suppose in a weird post Empire world. The idea that girls could actually be boys. You are equal to boys so therefore you will go to their school and be treated like them - but it was hardly a modern education. It was a model of institutional privation practised for generations by the ruling class and the values of it needed rapid assimilation to ensure survival. Caning was the only area where we were not equal to the boys. Only boys would present their backsides (as one master called them) for the ultimate discipline. We called it ‘the swish’. Swish was a noun and a verb. The cane was a swish but you would also be ‘swished’.


The ‘pigs table’ was for those yet to learn acceptable table manners in the dining room. The food was generally bland to revolting. Thick slices of liver with tubes protruding, spam fritters (oddly the batter crumbs were considered such a delicacy they were presented in a separate aluminium dish and we devoured them). We had to eat everything on our plates but if you didn’t like it you were allowed to put your index finger on the table to indicate a small helping. Fried potatoes in salad cream, warm tinned tomatoes, ‘dead man’s shoulder’ (mince and suet roly-poly), red jam which can’t have been anywhere near the appointed fruit, puddings of ‘frog spawn’, (tapioca) and something we called ‘George’s Sick’ which I think was a sort of tinned fruit salad in watery custard. There was a lot of custard. 


But we ate it all up because we were hungry and it wasn’t completely inedible. I can still eat anything put in front of me today and don’t really understand anyone who claims they ‘can’t’ eat something on the basis of not liking it enough. 


I used my experiences - and those of close relations - to flesh out my descriptions of prep school in years past for 'Eden’s Keepers'. In fact it’s fair to say that I had a better insight into what made one of the main subjects ‘different’ or as he said ‘a queer foreign spoken object’ at his school having been one of the few girls at my ‘boys’ prep school. The man I wrote about swerved the profound moulding process by arriving at his prep school at the age of ten and became a maverick and independent thinker. 


‘The compulsion of the British upper classes to do as they had been done by as far as childhood was concerned found its most stark expression in their effective abandonment of extremely young boys. Lucky if you were in a pack of brothers, a natural protection unit, to warn a newcomer of predatory masters and unkind regimes, not so lucky if you were an eldest or only son arriving at a large Victorian country house on a damp September afternoon.’ 


“The thing about smoking”, said one of the ex-army ‘masters’ one day, as he smoked his way through one of our (hopeless) French lessons, “is that it is much better to use a cigarette holder which also filters the smoke”. He was a vain man who boasted about cricket, his cigarettes and white cigarette holder, with slicked black thinning hair, a small moustache and an oily unpleasantness that singled out some for unwarranted praise and humiliated others seemingly undeservingly with withering putdowns. He had favourites and those he openly despised for no apparent reason. But he was far from the worst. Before I arrived at the school, boys talked in fear about one master who apparently had a vicious temper. His way to discipline one boy had been to dangle him upside down by his ankles outside a first floor classroom window and give him a good shake. 


The boys talked about naked swimming on Sundays with a master. I think it was supposed to be fun. I now hope it wasn’t true but I have a horrible feeling it was. I didn’t board at the school so was at home on Sundays (the only day of the week) but as a child I remember wondering why the boys (girls weren’t included) didn’t have to wear swimming trunks like they normally would in the week. Was there some sort of religious reason? Was swimming naked together supposed to be a treat? Did the master also swim with them with his bare bits and bobs?  The Sunday swimming treat master did leave in a bit of a hurry. It is a long time ago but in my memory at least he was there one minute and along with another mercurial tweedy oddball, gone the next. 


There were other sticky moments. The maths master who offered me a kiss if I got my geometry right – no chance – I was hopeless – but it was nevertheless inappropriate at best and grotesque at worse and I remember the feeling of being alone with him in the little room he had summoned me to, and me staring at my protractor hoping the one to one extra maths session would soon be over. But unlike the unfortunate Charles Spencer, I didn’t get the kiss and I wasn’t caned for getting things wrong. 


I used to wonder what it would be like to be bad enough to have to go into the headmaster’s study and get ‘the swish’. It sounds appalling now but there was a sort of glamour to it. 

Like announcing the prize winners or members of a team, the names of the soon to be ‘swished’ boys would be read out either at lunch or in the morning and the punishment duly applied. I remember boys swaggering around after a beating…one boy, a jolly little fellow, chanting “six of the best, six of the best!” I was never sure what the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ was. I don’t doubt some children found it frightening but it seemed to be rather like food you didn’t like eating, it was something to be got through and moved on from. 





Charles Spencer talked about boys at Maidwell carrying knives, the boys at my school carried penknives, the coolest being Swiss army knives with multiple functions. Ideally they would include a small tiny knife for winkling out a splinter perhaps; a pair of mini scissors; even a can opener. The idea you could be stranded anywhere (basically the woods as we didn’t really go anywhere this was the 1970s after all) and had everything you might possibly need to survive just in your pocket was thrilling. What independence! What agency! I don’t remember girls having pen knives but I am sure we could have done if we had wanted to. In reality they were for sharpening pencils or doing things with cartridges. No one ever stabbed anyone else in the same way no one ever attempted to stab anyone with their fork at mealtimes. 


But displaying emotion, or even worse, sorrow, was regarded as real weakness and was exploited. The ‘wets’ were weak and social outcasts. Crying was reduced to ‘blubbing’. Being ‘wet’ was a personality defect. This is the lasting scar for most children of this form of education and, even now, it is still regarded as self-indulgent by many of them to admit to pain or unhappiness. So bravo to Charles Spencer again. Calling out wrong is not self-indulgent. 


But in general, in spite of the oddness of much of it now, in my school at least, the children seemed fine. I remember being surprised at a particularly tiny boy bouncing into the gym looking thrilled to be back at school with his friends at the start of term. For some children, boarding would have been infinitely preferable to being at home feeling lonely and ignored by emotionally deficient parents. 

And now…I look back. It is hard to disentangle the good from the less obviously bad. Was it bad that we played unsupervised every day? Did it matter we were given revolting food if it didn’t make us ill? Was it such a bad thing to learn that life is difficult sometimes and you just have to get on with it, not feel too sorry for yourself and that things tend to work out fine even if it isn’t perfect? 


But the shame of emotional weakness and vulnerability is the real poison that runs deep in this group of people. Keeping true feelings hidden is regarded still by some as a form of superior mental discipline. I see it again and again with men of Charles Spencer’s vintage and it feels like a big deal if they open up emotionally, which is why he has been so brave writing his book. He isn’t simply talking about the past openly, he is standing away from the nonsense of pretending you don’t care about something, when in fact you really do. 


But there is also danger here. That the dysfunction of this old fashioned education system is conflated with the abilities or judgement of anyone who went through it. The generation reared on Kipling, Reach For The Sky and ‘swishing’ as the ultimate punishment, may appear to have tough, apparently impervious exteriors, but when they actually open up, most, in my experience, have the tender warmth and sweetness of the children they once were. 


A shorter version of this appeared in YOU Magazine The Mail on Sunday 9.6.24 -

UK Country Living December 2022


I had a lovely time writing, commissioning, editing and creatively directing health and  beauty pages for many years. Here are a few favourites from The Mail on Sunday's YOU Magazine.

Below, the cover of my first book, Faking It!

Published by Carlton in 1999.

For further archive pieces on a variety of subjects written by me, try Google. 


Writing Faking It! was both cathartic and a means of escaping a fearsome magazine editor at the end of the last millennium. I took a six week sabbatical and out it all came. Serialised in the Daily Mail, banded onto the cover of Elle, Faking It! was unusual at the time. Up until then beauty writing was a serious matter: ernest, didactic and expert, usually with aspirational photography to back up the 'advice'. Faking It! is a text heavy, subversive, funny and conspiratorial conversation with the sisterhood. Fat legs on the beach? Who really cares, but certainly don't starve yourself or worry, just dig some hollows in the sand and plunge your thighs inside them, enjoying the trickery.

Tackling  the 'good girl' tendency to try to be perfect which corrosively can last a lifetime, head on, Faking It! embraced the opposite: the slap dash, the good enough and the upbeat. 

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