Site Unseen: The Conduit, Sherborne

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The Independent Online
Schooldays are traditionally supposed to be the worst days of your life, particularly if you are sent away to an expensive boys' "public" school.

A spartan diet, brutal discipline inflicted via the buttocks by demented sadists, rampant homosexuality - all part of the manifold delights for which parents voluntarily shell out huge sums of money.

Charles Dickens's scathing exposure of Dotheboys Hall in his novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839) might never have been written for all the effect it has had on these expensive private establishments. You won't find many ex- public schoolboys disputing this stereotype of misery and deprivation, but I am one of them. Packed off to Sherborne School in Dorset at the tender age of 13, I had a wonderful time. Lots of sport, plus the odd ogle at members of the nearby girls' school whom we ungallantly called the "brown cows" because of their less than flattering uniform.

Okay, so not every loo had a door - in order to discourage self-abuse and consequent blindness - but what the hell. Here was an old Dorset town with all the virtues of the past (shop assistants who called you sir, no road rage, many pubs), combined with those of the present (little in- breeding and an efficient train service to London). Best of all were the surroundings, particularly the Abbey and the hilly Dorset scenery, not so enticing, admittedly, when sent off on a compulsory "Tour de Dorset" bike ride.

The Abbey has been in the news recently because of plans to replace Pugin's "Mr Blobby" west window - for my money the sooner this undistinguished and leaky window is removed the better - but goes back to Saxon foundations. It was requisitioned by Henry VIII in 1539 and many of its buildings were sold off and destroyed.

However one intriguing medieval remnant does still survive. At the bottom of Cheap Street is the Conduit, a stone hexagonal structure which was once used by the monks as their washroom. In later years it was pressed into non-ecclesiastical service as a police station and even a bank.

It just so happens that the Conduit was on the way back from our favourite pub in nearby Long Street, called The Castle (now a health centre). The Scrumpy cider guaranteed we were oblivious to the dangers of being caught by a master, and it was a tradition that we returned via the Conduit.

It is best at this distance of 20 years to draw a discreet veil over what we used to do inside the Conduit, but let's just say that Flashman himself would have been very much at home; but then I'll bet some of the cheekier monks had done much the same thing centuries before.

The Conduit is in Cheap Street, Sherborne, Dorset

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