"Mountains My Lab" Part 4

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Apr 24, 2019

Jim Milledge has just completed a memoir entitled "Mountains My Lab". Although not intended for publication, Jim has given us permission to reproduce extracts on our blog. During 2019 and 2020 we'll bring you images and text that describe the extraordinary life of one of mountain medicine's leading figures.

Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 can be found in earlier posts.

In Part 4 Jim describes his school years and his early visits to Snowdonia...

Rydal School

Rydal was, I suppose, one of the best in the second division of public schools. It had a Methodist foundation and drew its boys predominantly from the upper middle class of Merseyside with a sprinkling of local North Wales boys. Lancashire accents were common and Manchester United and Liverpool were the football teams most supported.  In the Junior School we worked towards the Common Entrance Exam, which provided a good all round education. I was not much good at schoolwork. Terry and I were in the same form; I was amongst the oldest and he the youngest. However he was always in the top three in the class and I was bumping along in the bottom group. I know now that I was moderately dyslexic but, of course, that diagnosis was not known then. However, I was good at sport, especially football (soccer), and was popular and so was rarely teased about my poor reading and appalling spelling.

We were very fortunate in having a number of good, caring teachers. I especially remember two in the Junior School, John Lewis and Earnest Bradfield. Bradfield taught English and in my last year at Rydal Prep, I remember doing Julius Caesar in considerable depth and enjoying it immensely. I still remember many of the speeches we learnt from that play.

Rydal School

Hill Walking

By my second year, Uncle Greville had joined the Army and was posted to India (at his request) so both Terry and I had our fathers abroad. Perhaps that was why, one summer holidays, these two teachers invited Terry and I to spend a day with them on the hills near Capel Curig. I guess we got there by bus from home, and then we all climbed the Glyders, both three thousand foot peaks, and returned to their hotel for tea. Uncle Greville had taken us three children out on two occasions hill walking on the Carneddau when I was about 12 and I loved it. Terry and I used to walk up on the hills behind Penmaenmawr on our own or with family or friends. But it was not until we moved up to the Senior School that we got into serious hill walking. The Headmaster’s secretary was a characterful single lady named Hester Norris. She was a mountaineer who had done some alpine climbing before the war with guides. Now she formed a “Hill Walkers” club in the school of which Terry and I were enthusiastic founder members. Almost every trip we made into the mountains of Snowdonia was memorable.

On one occasion we walked up on the Glyders from Lake Ogwen, past the Devil’s Kitchen, onto the plateau above it, in standard Welsh weather; that is to say, rain and mist. We stopped for lunch and as the weather was so bad we decided to head back down to Ogwen. We boys started off in the direction we thought we had come but Hester consulted her compass and pointed out we were almost 180° wrong. We were surprised but realised that we had learned an important lesson in navigating in bad weather: how easy it is to loose one’s sense of direction! So we plodded off in the direction of her compass course. The lie of the land didn’t seem right but eventually we started to descend and got down below the mist. We were surprised to see that the valley we were looking at was quite unlike the valleys of Idwal and Ogwen. Soon we realised we were coming down into the Llanberis valley! Hester had been reading the South pointing end of her compass needle as North!

Another fine day in the summer term we cycled from Colwyn Bay to Pen-y-Pass and did the Snowdon Horseshoe before cycling back. That was the first of many times I have done that wonderful walk, I guess I was 15 at the time, and each time I top the rise at Bwlych Goch I remember that first time when the view of Lliwedd and Llyn Llydaw is suddenly before you: quite breath taking. During the famously cold winter of 1946-7 we did a walk over the Carneddau in a foot or so of snow. There was a wire fence with wooden posts along the whale back ridge. The snow had built up on the posts forming fantastic gargoyle-like structures 3-4 feet in all dimensions.

Reading, Listening, Singing

Our two physics masters, Fisher and Britain were quite influential on me. Doc Brit was my House Master and, at that time, a bachelor. He allowed us free use of his library encouraging me to read such authors as Aldous Huxley, D.H. and TE Lawrence, and James Joyce. The two of them also ran a “Listener’s Society” on Sunday evenings when boys took it in turn to select and present a program of classical music using records from the two master’s record collections. I am sure my subsequent love of music and literature stems in large part from these influences as well as from my Mother. I also enjoyed singing in the school choir under two good music masters.


Reverend Costain was head when I went to the Senior School (see below). He retired after my second year there. We were fortunate in the new Headmaster. Donald Hughes was a man ahead of his time. He abolished corporal punishment on his arrival in 1946, long before it disappeared in most Public Schools, though before that, only the Headmaster gave the cane, and only occasionally for the more serious offences. Hughes had a quiet way and was able to get on the same wavelength with boys. One regret I have, is that in leaving school after the lower sixth form, I did not get to know him in the way that my cousin Terry did in the two years he stayed on after I left.

As I said, I was not much good at academic work at school. One day, towards the end of the summer term when I was approaching 16, an Old Boy came to school looking for a possible recruit for his family jam-making firm in Liverpool. We had a very active Old Boys Association. He asked the then Headmaster, Rev. Costain, if he could recommend a suitable boy. I think Costain has a soft spot for me, perhaps because my parents were missionaries and interned under the Japanese. Academic distinction was not required for this job but the ability to “fit in” and be, “a good chap” was, so he recommended me. I visited the firm and saw how jam was made on an industrial scale. It was explained to me about the job, that the hours were not long and the holidays generous, as was the likely pay. I must say I was tempted but I eventually decided that, to choose a life’s work on the basis that one would have plenty of time not doing it, was not a very good reason. So I thanked them and turned the offer down.

Lliwedd and Llyn Glaslyn

I Decide To Try For Medicine

As I came to choose my subjects for the fifth form and School Certificate I had to decide what I wanted to do. I don’t remember discussing it with anyone other than perhaps my school friend Mike Kendrick. I went through a phase in which I would not consider Medicine since people seemed to assume I would choose that because my father, four uncles and an aunt were in the profession. But then I thought, it was cutting off my nose to spite my face, to not choose something that I wanted to do, just because folk expected it and I wanted to show my independence!

The only slight problem was the matter of exams and competition for Medical School places. Anyway, I thought I would at least give it a try and so opted for the appropriate subjects in the Fifth form and surprisingly, did well enough at School Cert. (as the exam was called, taken at aged 15/16) to go on into the Sixth Form. There I took Chemistry, Physics, Zoology and Botany, considered then the standard subjects for Medicine. However, knowing I was likely to be weak when it came to Higher School Certificate (now A levels) and in competition for Medical School places I researched the scene and found that at my Mother’s old University, Birmingham, they offered an entrance at “1st MB level”. This was equivalent to Higher School Cert. and was aimed, I think, mainly at men coming out of the armed forces after the war and who had not done the correct HSC subjects. Anyway I thought I could have two goes if I applied for this after only one year in the Sixth Form. If I did not get in I could try again next year. Fortunately I did make it; possibly due to the fact that in those days admission was entirely in the gift of the Sub-Dean, Prof. Charlie Smout, who, besides being a professor of Anatomy, was a lay Methodist Minister. Perhaps the fact that I came from a Methodist school and my parents were missionaries, helped.

Holidays and Home Life

I have written about my life at school but equally important was my life at home during the school holidays. These were years of war and immediate post war. Nansi, my Aunt, was a wonderful mother substitute. For most of the war our household consisted of Nansi (Greville was in the army in India) Grandpa and Grandma Thomas and we three children, Jill, Terry and myself. We had a good sized garden where Grandpa grew vegetables. There was an orchard with apples, a pear and a Siberian crab apple tree. Nansi made jam from the fruit and from blackberries we picked from the hills and hedgerows. This all helped to feed us- a difficult job for Nansi with rationing. In many households the working menfolk would have a midday meal at work. The garden which had a grid of paths separating orchard from vegetable patches, gave us a great place to play in our adolescent years and an excellent imagination inventing acted our games in which Terry and I took leading roles

Grandma and Alzheimer’s

My grandmother, during these years became progressively more demented with Alzheimer’s disease. She was strong physically, which in some ways made matters worse because she would wander. She was a great walker and many-a-time we kids would be sent out to find Grandma. Fortunately, she was well known and as we followed her trail the townsfolk would happily tell us, “O yes, we saw Mrs Thomas go past about twenty minutes ago”. “Why didn’t you stop her!” we would think but have to say, “Thanks very much” and hurry on! Later on she became physically ill with breast cancer and became bed ridden. The burden on Nansi must have been immense. One of the few times I remember her getting irritated with her father was when he would ask from his chair, smoking his pipe and reading his newspaper, “Has mother’s tray gone up?” She would reply under her breath, “Yes, it grew legs and trotted up stairs on its own!” Later Grandma became incontinent and the washing load became enormous. Fortunately we had what would now be called a utility room in the basement, which was ground floor at the back. Here we later got one of the very early washing machines, built like a battleship. But through most of this time Nansi had to do the washing by hand with a tub and a dolly. We were recruited, sometimes to turn the mangle and help peg out the clothes. 

Hills and Sea

For us children, Penmaenmawr was a wonderful place in which to grow up. The sea was 15 minutes walk down hill and Jubilee Walk, round our local hill, Moel Llys (bilberry hill) about half an hour up hill in the other direction. From the age of about 10 we were allowed to roam up these hills or down to the sea on our own.

Jill (10), Jim (9) and Terry (8) out on the hills behind Penmaenmawr in our school uniforms (1940).

Terry Nearly Drowns

We had a near tragedy about this time when the three of us went swimming on our own. Jill, aged 11 and I aged 10 could swim but Terry, 9, could only manage a few strokes. The tide was coming in as we went down the shingle bank into the sea and waded through a slight trough onto a sand bank. We played happily in the waves up to our chests in water. When we had had enough, we started back to shore but suddenly found ourselves out of our depth. The tide had come in and we were in the trough. Jill and I were quite happy and urged Terry to keep swimming. I could see his head coming back and the occasional wave washing over face. Jill swam to shore to get help and I attempted to life-save Terry. I had learned to do this in theory but found myself holding his head on my chest swimming on my back but pointing out to sea. Each time I tried to turn us round, the waves knocked me back. However, I was able to keep him up until rescue came. Jill had found a man, an off duty policeman, who came running in and scooped up Terry in his arms, carrying him to shore. Terry was unconscious by now but soon revived. Looking back, I am amazed that this incident did not affect our freedom to go swimming on our own.

Terry and I were both fond of poetry, especially if it had a good rhythm and told a story, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. We both had no difficulty in learning and remembering verse and reciting it to each other. A piece from Punch from just after the war I think, has stuck in my head. Detergents, as we now call them had just been discovered and the press release must have explained that their action was to “Make water wetter”. Punch’s take on this news was:-

Whilst Empires fall and temples totter

They’re busy making wetter water

O all the things that they could better*

They go and make the water wetter!!

*Improve the taste of beer for instance. 

Growing up during the war seemed quite natural to us kids. Food and clothing rationing was a fact of life and news of the progress of the war part of it. But living in North Wales, we were oblivious of any direct, frightening aspect of war. The nearest we came to any experience of war was listening to German aircraft flying over us, at night, as we sat in the changing room of our school boarding house, the nearest we had to an air raid shelter. This precaution, of getting us up at night to shelter there, was soon given up as unnecessary, since it was clear the Germans were not going to waste bombs on us on their way to the Liverpool Docks. Near our home in Penmaenmawr was an Army training camp and they trained the soldiers on the hills above the town. Auntie Nansie used to entertain men from this camp in our home and the most appreciated offer was that of a hot bath!

A story from school from this time told of the discussion in the staff common room when news of the fall of France had just come through. The two history masters were discussing the situation in sombre terms. Was it graver than when we faced invasion from France under Napoleon? They decided, yes, it probably was. Then the games master walked in. “Have you heard the news Bunch (Mr Bumphry)? France has fallen”. “Well” he answered. “That’s a bloody good job. Now we can get on and finish the war without ‘em”. 

Part 5 can be found here.

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