There was once an English actor who enjoyed a long career in British films called Wilfrid Hyde White. Always the polished English gentleman, well groomed, frightfully well spoken. A familiar face for years. Couldn't act for toffee. He had been to drama school though. He said he had learned two things from drama school: 1. He could not act. 2. It did not matter. For which he was always grateful. And we were always grateful to him, simply for being such a delightful man.
I have been a history teacher for a long time. Do I expect my pupils to remember all the facts I taught them? Of course not. But that, as Mr Hyde-White would have said, does not matter. What matters is that History makes you grateful – grateful that you live in the twenty-first century, and not in any of the others that came before.
By the same token, pupils at West Buckland School today can be grateful that there is only one big cross-country run per year. In the (bad) old days, if you added up all the junior runs and the senior runs, it came to fifteen. Imagine – fifteen cross-country runs.
Like the Exmoor, they all had names – the Bray, the Beeches, the Tuck, the Leary, the Westacott, the Stoodleigh, and so on. One or two had less romantic names – the Railway, the North-West, and the somewhat sinister Long (which, according to Robert Clarke, who was in charge of the runs, was even worse than the Exmoor).
As one might expect, such a tradition has thrown up its star performers. Arthur Pearce, who left in 1908, won thirteen out of fourteen races. A boy called Cecil Farmer, during the First World War, won nineteen out of twenty, and would have won the twentieth but for an accident. Incidentally, he also won eight events out of nine in the School Sports of 1917 – all in one afternoon. Herbert Tully, between 1931 and 1936, won the Under-13 Exmoor twice, the Under-15 Exmoor twice, and the 'Exmoor' Exmoor twice. Thirty years later, his son also won the Exmoor. In the 1950's, J R Jones won four Exmoors – on the trot, as you might say. So we are grateful for our stars.
Over the years, all the other runs have gone. (Thank God, eh?) But the Exmoor survives. It has been cancelled only twice in 150 years – once in the arctic winter of 1947, when the Taw froze; and once in 2001, because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. It is far and away the oldest tradition in the School's history, and the boys (and girls too now) are proud of it.
It involves a six-mile walk to the Poltimore Arms for the start, and a nine-mile run back from Five Barrows to the School (if you are a senior boy, that is - if you are a junior or a girl, you do rather less). It is the oldest, longest, roughest, toughest, regular, scheduled, compulsory school cross-country run in the length and breadth of England. Well, that's what we've been saying since 1859, and nobody has come up yet with anything to disprove it. West Buckland may not be famous for very much, but a lot of people in the educational world have heard of the school with 'that run'.
Because of this, the School fancied that it might be able to drum up some publicity with the hundredth Exmoor. They invited television news teams to West Buckland to film it all. The BBC crew made the runners start twice because they needed time to get somewhere else. The ITV crew got tangled up with a flock of sheep, and missed the finish, and made the first seven or eight runners finish again. The whole school crowded round the telly in the evening to watch. The BBC provided sixty seconds. ITV forgot about it altogether. But that, as they say, is show business. Mr Hyde-White would surely have understood.