My life at the Caldecott Community covered a span of thirty-five years: a long time even measured by the standards of those pre-war years. This information is often greeted now with incredulity, then horror, then a reluctant grudging admiration that anyone in their right mind could stay for so long in one place: but there were others who had already been at the Community for some years before I came and who left after I did.
I first arrived one wintry February afternoon in 1936. The Community was then housed in The Mote; a huge imposing late Georgian mansion standing firmly and solidly in the middle of many acres of park-land, whose western boundaries touched the outskirts of Maidstone. There was a fine view to the south, open park and magnificent trees to a distant lake. I was not to know then that every blade of grass, speck of gravel on the drives, and shape and size of every tree and bush would become as familiar to me as the shoes I walked in.
I went in at the double-front door; the house seemed entirely silent. I had expected to be met, if not exactly on the door-step, but at least in the front hall, by the sound of children's voices; there was in fact no sound at all nor was anyone to be seen.
The first living object that met me was a very large and very beautiful Golden Retriever dog who advanced slowly down the long wide hall to see what I was. The dog stood and surveyed me very deliberately for some seconds, sniffed, then apparently satisfied with what it saw and smelt, sat down at my side and with me, just waited: the dog calmly, and I, with considerable trepidation.
A young woman suddenly appeared in a door-way, gave one look and went away very quickly, shutting the door firmly behind her.
The Hall, which looked simply enormous, had long 13th century windows and a great many doors; it had two trestle tables, both laid for a meal, I saw. Well, I thought, if there are knives and forks, someone must eventually come and use them.
As I was wondering what to do for the best, another door suddenly opened and the Director of the Community appeared. This was Leila Rendel, whom I had first seen when I was a child of five, seventeen years ago, and then once later when I was a school-girl.
My aunt was initially responsible for my going to the Caldecott Community. I had been very uncertain as to what I wanted to do after leaving schools I had tried one profession and disliked it and I was therefore at a loose end when it was suggested that I went to the Community on a term's probation; this I accepted, as the only thing I was then quite certain about was that I liked children and was interested in them.
As I remember, Leila Rendel seemed to the eyes of a five-year-old child, awe inspiring and massive; she was followed always by an equally massive and awe-inspiring dog: there was to be a continuous succession of these dogs for the next forty years. They were always Golden Retrievers who lived to great ages and were as much a part of the establishment as the building itself; they gave invaluable assistance to the general running and well-being of the whole household.
Apart from the fact that her hair, in the course of time, changed from black to grey, to white, and a good deal of weight was added to her figure, Leila Rendel looked much the same to me then, and later, as she had done to the original child.
My first real introduction to the Community, after a greeting and renewal of acquaintance from “Miss Leila” as I understood she was always known as, came when she took me to see Ethel Davies who, she said, was "taking rest”. I thought she had left out the 'a' and I had a vision of some woman sitting comfortably with her feet up: when I did see her she was certainly sitting, but with her feet firmly on the ground, where I learnt later, they were always to be found.
She was in a not very comfortable-looking wicker-cane chair in an enormous room, or so it seemed to me; on the floor of which, lying in neat orderly rows on red rugs, were some twenty small boys and girls, all dressed alike in grey and blue; they were reading. It was, to my eyes, a very impressive sight and I liked the look cf it; there was total silence while forty eyes stared unblinkingly at us as we stood in the door-way. These children, I found, were to be my charge, my work. Well, I thought, in my poor green ignorance, this looks fairly simple. I shall enjoy taking 'Rest' every day for about forty minutes after the mid-day dinner: we shall all be pleasantly tired after the mid-morning walk that I had heard they were to be taken on after school, and be ready to have a nice rest on those gay red rugs and all with good children's books to read.
It is difficult to understand now, after thirty-six years of experience, how anyone could be so crass or so plain downright ignorant of the ways of children, or so downright stupid, I came to think later.