Tag Archives: Caerphilly

The day I stayed out of School Assembly

Every morning at school, we’d file into the main hall for Assembly, the youngest boys in the front rows, the oldest at the back. After the Upper Sixth Form and Lower Sixth Form boys had taken their places, members of the teaching staff would file in via the walkway in the centre of the room, between the rows of chairs and thence onto the stage, thus facing the assembled ‘congregation’. Finally, the headmaster would take his place on the platform, mounting the steps to the left and taking a central position, rather like a priest.

This daily ritual would include the often passionate singing of wonderful Welsh hymns, accompanied by the powerful school organ, a memory I treasure and something I’ll never forget. Here’s one of my favourite hymns, sung by the Morriston Orpheus Choir.

It was fundamentally a religious ceremony, incorporating a Bible reading and prayers. Needless to say, most of the hymns had religious content. The whole process would usually end with the singing of another rousing Welsh language hymn – and then the boys would file out again and prepare for lessons. This was back in the 1960s. It was taken for granted that everyone had an identical Christian faith, apart from one group: Roman Catholics were allowed to be absent and stay in a designated room for the duration of Assembly. There was no room for scepticism.

And, for all I know, this procedure still goes on at what was then the boys-only Caerphilly Grammar-Technical School but is now the coeducational (mixed sex) comprehensive, St Martins School.

I remember it all so well. But I also remember my own epiphany moment when I decided that there was no God. Alongside lessons in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that offered rational explanations for so many aspects of existence – including Darwin‘s theory of evolution, complex chemical theories and Einstein‘s theory of relativity, none of which bore any relation to anything in the Bible – I was expected to believe in what I came to regard as nonsensical cant. I was also taught Religious Education, during which Bible stories were presented as historical fact.

And one day I decided that I wasn’t going to take part in Assembly anymore. My hard-working father had died suddenly of a severe brain infection at the age of 38. I was fourteen and my younger brother seven years of age. Thus my mother was left to bring up two young boys on her own. I did have time to pray for my Dad’s recovery, even though I was already quite sceptical about the existence of a god. But clearly the prayers I’d said when Dad was on his death bed in hospital were a meaningless gesture.

I’d mused about the idea for some time; but I remember the very point in the very road where I experienced the realisation that I’d been hoodwinked – like a reverse revelation. All those school assemblies, all the beautiful hymns, all those Sunday school attendances at St Catherine’s (recently rebuilt), reading the gospels religiously and saying all those prayers – it was all just a waste of time. Furthermore, I felt that I’d been brainwashed. Yet daily attendance at school assembly was compulsory.

Being in that hall every morning and going through such a meaningless ceremony began to feel like I was having salt rubbed into my wound. As I saw it, I was being forced to thank God for taking away my beloved Dad. I fairly quickly concluded that there was no god – and that even if there had been, he wouldn’t deserve any praise from me. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to absent myself from Assembly. So, one morning, that’s what I did. I stayed in my classroom … aware that my absence would bring the full weight of school discipline crashing down on my head.

By the way, I was delighted to read, last week, that a couple in Burford, West Oxfordshire, had won a concession by Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) after challenging their policy of collective compulsory worship.

Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory collective worship in school assembly on human rights grounds. They’d discovered that their children’s school insisted that their kids pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes during assemblies at academy school Burford Primary School, despite the school’s having no religious character. Bible stories were presented as fact. In addition, their children were made to attend past school leavers’ ceremonies held in a local church, during which students were presented with a bible as a ‘guide to life.’

Backed by Humanists UK, the couple withdrew their application for judicial review after ODST agreed to provide “a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers”.

As soon as it was discovered I had stayed out of Assembly I was given a severe reprimand by my form master – but, much more dramatically, I was sent to the Headmaster’s office. Actually, from what I recall Mr Bell-Jones (left) gave me quite a mild talking-to. But he did leave me in no doubt that I’d get into severe hot water if I repeated my protest. So I never did.

But my opinion hasn’t changed after all these years, and I’m not in such a small minority anymore. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over half – 53% – of all UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.

With these figures in mind, I wonder how much compulsory worship is still in operation in UK schools currently.

I pat myself on the back for having stayed out of Assembly that morning. I feel just as strongly that no religion should be forced on any child. What’s more I had no hesitation in completely agreeing with Stephen Fry‘s sentiments around the notion of meeting God, in his memorable interview with the late Gay Byrne.



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Three Clares: (1) Gilbert de Clare

The name ‘Clare’ seems to have followed me around for as long as I can remember …

Gilbert de Clare was responsible for the construction of a building which played a very important part in my childhood.

Though no-one could ever replace Dylan Thomas as my favourite poet, I’m also fascinated by the life and poetry of John Clare, whose work first came to my attention about twenty years ago. I studied his poems whilst working on my Masters and I’ve viewed the John Clare exhibit at Peterborough Museum on a number of occasions. A visit to his cottage in Helpston, formerly Helpstone, originally in Northamptonshire but now in Cambridgeshire, is on my current ‘to do’ list.

And then there’s Clare Means, a young singer/songwriter based in Santa Monica, California, whose compositions and performances as a musician and busker never cease to entertain and amaze me on most days, together with many of her 62,000+ (at the time of writing) other followers on the Periscope app.




Caerphilly Castle was built by Gilbert de Clare, construction starting in around 1268 and finishing swiftly, for good reason, by 1271.

The castle – a photographer’s dream – dominates the South Wales town of Caerphilly, where I was brought up from about the age of two, having been born in Cardiff. Who needs Disneyland, when you’ve got the second largest castle in Britain on your doorstep? I lived less than 100 yards from the perimeter of this huge, imposing, complicated structure. Before the administrators moved in with their ticket machines, signposts and guide books, my young friends and I were free to roam around this amazing building, exploring every inch, having fantastic battles, building rafts and riding floating logs around the moats, fishing for perch, roach and carp or, late in an autumn evening, squeezing through a crack in the side of a dank, creepy, dripping tower to see whether the ghost of the Green Lady would come out to haunt the ramparts.

Aerial view
Caerphilly Castle (CD35)

The middle of the thirteenth century was a highly unstable and turbulent time in the history of England and Wales.

Gilbert de Clare, seventh earl of Gloucester, was known as a fiery one, variously called “Red Gilbert” and “the red earl”, not only because of his red hair but also because of his fiery approach to battles.

Gilbert de Clare … fiery one

Although an extremely rich English nobleman who had inherited vast estates, he was caught up in two major power struggles – one between a group of barons (led by Simon de Montfort) and the English king Henry III (the Barons War lasted from 1264-67), and the other between Welsh rebels under the leadership of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the King and lords loyal to the King, lords who in the early 1260s were losing control of much of Wales, despite the fact that many had built forts and castles up and down the land, mostly funded by the King. But the King’s problems were compounded in 1264, when Simon de Montfort agreed an alliance with Llewellyn, who by now was threatening to take control of the remainder of Wales.

Whilst de Clare had fought against the King at the Battle of Lewes, a real turning point in the history of British democracy – and subsequently been excommunicated by the pope – in 1264 he changed sides and began to fight on the side of the King. No doubt he saw great danger in the massive progress of the Welsh in taking back so much territory and seemingly threatening his own lands in and around Glamorgan (its Welsh name being Morgannwg). He could have ‘taken the high ground’ and built his castle on the side of one of the valleys in the area. But by building it at the centre point of the Caerphilly basin, he was able to take advantage of the River Rhymney, which flows through the basin, to create defensive lakes (or moats, as they’re known), right around the castle. (The Rhymney, pronounced “Rumney”, is named after the town further up the valley; it’s the one referred to in the Byrds‘ song “Bells of Rhymney“, though their pronunciation is wrong, of course!).

The castle wasn’t only a fortification to protect de Clare and his family, his generals and his soldiers. It was also a home, complete with bakery, kitchens and a huge dining hall. Noblemen in this era enjoyed putting on huge banquets and being regally entertained by travelling minstrels. Had they lived in the area at this time, John Clare and Clare Means might well have found themselves ordered to come to the banqueting hall (see photo below) to entertain de Clare and his guests. Entertainment was a very important diversion for the constantly warring ennobled class. (They often employed ‘silentiaries’ to quieten any unwanted distractions made by their guests – de Clare had no time for trolls!).

The castle’s massive size and innovative design are not its only distinguishing features. The fact that it was built and paid for by de Clare himself was quite unusual. The bigger castles were almost always funded by the King. With Caerphilly Castle, it appeared that expense was no object: it is reputed to have cost £19,000 (about $US25,000) – an enormous amount of money in those days.

The town of Caerphilly grew up to the south of the castle. The castle changed hands quite a few times as a result of power struggles and religious demands, though ultimately it was passed on to other generations of the de Clare family, including notably to another Gilbert de Clare who was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Eventually the building fell into decline. The sluice gates stopped working and much (though not all) of the water drained away from the moats.

But … fast forward … when I was still a young boy, a process of major restoration work began, including the rebuilding of the sluices and a great deal of repair to the fabric of the castle. The moats were re-filled and many of the towers and other features were brought back to their former glory, though not the castle’s famous leaning tower.

How ironic that a building that had once been a focal point of high drama, intrigue and bloodshed should end up as a playground for children like myself and my friends – and like these young lads, pictured below on one of the restored moats.

All things must pass …




Image credits:

Caerphilly aerial.jpg – By Cadw [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Caerphilly Castle – By LlGC ~ NLW [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Caerphilly Castle 3 – By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Caerphilly Castle 3 Uploaded by berichard) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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