The School at the Top of the Dale by Gervase Phinn – A school story set in Yorkshire in the recent past

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Great characters leading a plot which holds few mysteries, but enormous satisfaction, set in the beautiful and challenging Yorkshire Dales, means a delightful read. Gervase Phinn is a prolific author who can please audiences with his books of reminisces about schools and teaching in Yorkshire in less sophisticated, pre high tech times. His four novels which have featured Elizabeth Stirling, “The Little Village School Series” have provided much enjoyment for readers, and now what looks like a series featuring a neighbouring school with a minor character from the existing series has begun strongly and most enjoyably. Romance, likable and unlikable characters, children with their honest views hilariously expressed all set in a landscape of farms and stunning countryside make for a read which I enjoyed hugely.

Tom Dwyer is a newly qualified teacher whose previous career as a professional footballer has made him keen on teaching sports, but also getting to know each child in his class. Risingdale is a small village in an area of great beauty, but also the hard realities of challenging weather and tough agricultural conditions. Tom is at first bewildered by the small school, the apparently laid back headteacher, and the small and eccentric staff. The people in the village are a mixed lot, with a pub with strong staff and disappointing food, and a rumour network which sometimes jumps to disturbing conclusions. The local landowners are certainly distinctive characters, with a kindly baronet married to a difficult wife and a feckless son. Tom’s progress in the village, as he is persuaded to stay, is anything but peaceful as he gets to know the people of the area and something of the local politics of teaching. Fans of the Little Village School books will recognise some of the characters at their varied best, with an interrogating postmistress and a useless educational official among others. The peril here is minor and usually very funny; the less likable often get their come uppance and others are left discomforted; a great deal of sympathy is expressed for those in difficult circumstances. Change happens, but essentially this is a community preserved in all its friendly, sometimes absurd and always gentle ways, fiction smoothing out hard realities.

Fans of novels about a vague time in the fairly recent past will enjoy this book, especially with many anecdotes about teaching and children in the British countryside. Phinn’s career in teaching and schools inspection means that his stories have the ring of truth even if familiar to readers of his books. He really enjoys describing the Nativity play “misadventures” of small children, even if they are perhaps not really significant in the plot. Compared with Jack Sheffield he is not so keen to define the exact year, costs of items and definite significant events, but I do not believe this is a problem in this confidently written, well handled book. Though not a great literary achievement, this is the sort of book that keeps the reader fascinated despite a lack of mystery and excitement; this is comfort and gentle reading for all. I recommend this as a largely cheerful and confident read which is just enjoyable and I could recommend it on every level.

 

This is a book that meant that I read to silly hours at night, as it is such an easy read in so many ways. Teachers and anyone who knows British villages will find so much to enjoy here.

Meanwhile, life here is busy in the continued build up to Remembrance Sunday and of course Christmas. As soon as my birthday (yesterday) is over Christmas becomes an issue, if only because the shops get full and Northernvicar is busy trying to defy the Space time continuum and be in several places at one time. Books for Christmas are also appearing, so much reading and reviewing is called for with some lovely volumes to consider. So many to sort out!