Just before the axe fell I was in New Zealand, endeavouring to pretend that life was normal. My plan was to have a week there on land before joining a ship in Auckland, on which I’d sail back to Australia, from whence I’d come, seeing more of New Zealand on the way. Life didn’t quite unroll as planned though, and instead of sailing to Australia I found myself departing the southern hemisphere altogether and flying home to Scotland.
My trip had been months in the planning and Tasmin at Trailfinders earned her money with it. The journey was like one of those puzzles where all the pieces will fit in but only in one pattern. We thought we had it all cracked last autumn and then, just as I had paid my deposit, the operator I’d chosen for a land-based tour of New Zealand cancelled my departure. By that time it was too late to shift other things around (I had two mammoth train journeys booked in Australia, both of which ran only once a week, as well as another shorter one.) so I had to find a different way of seeing New Zealand. Eventually I found a suitable cruise which left me with one spare week. The trouble all along with the New Zealand leg had been my absolute insistence on visiting Dunedin. The cruise would give me a few hours there but that wasn’t enough. In the end, Tasmin made the fatal error of asking just exactly why I needed more time in the Edinburgh of the south. And so I told her.
I first came across the Merry books about fifteen years ago when Girls Gone By published new editions of them. They were also my introduction to the author Clare Mallory. I loved them immediately and was entranced by the idea that they were extremely closely based on the school of which the author was Head Mistress! The introduction was written by Bettina Vine, a former pupil of the school – from well after Clare Mallory’s time! That was a fascinating thing to read for, although Bettina was a pupil forty years after the books were written, the school was completely recognisable to her.
Let me start at the beginning. Clare Mallory was actually Winifred McQuilkan and Mary Tremayne’s Ladies College is really Columba College. Winifred McQuilkan was the Head Mistress in the late forties and originally she told the Merry stories to the girls as they were helping with sending food parcels to the UK where people were struggling with rationing after the war. According to Bettina’s introduction some of the characters were based on girls who were pupils at the time.
Moving on to the books now (finally, I hear you cry!). We meet twelve year-old Merry Arundel as she makes her way to her new school. Her mother has just been lost in a plane crash and the now orphaned Merry has moved from Auckland to live with her aunts in Dunedin and attend her mother’s old school. It has always been the plan that she would be a boarder there but now she is a day-girl and, as such, cannot be in her mother’s house, Sennen.
As well as being Merry’s story, the trilogy also follows the development of the somewhat detached Pauline Templeton. She’s the newly appointed Captain of Sennen and has been at school almost all her life and long enough to have been in her first term when Merry’s mother, the much-lauded Rosemerryn Ashley, was an assistant in the Kindergarten. Pauline, somewhat to her own surprise, can imagine how difficult it is for Merry to be confronted at all turns with her mother’s achievements. And it is Pauline who arranges things so that Merry can board and so become a member of Sennen.
And so the story progresses. Merry settles in and loves her new environment. She makes friends with the movers and shakers in the Third Form and gets involved in schemes lawful and otherwise. The books are full of the standard school story fare but somehow they are different to their British contemporaries. There’s a lightness to them and, although school discipline and hierarchy exist, they feel less rigid than in many stories of their ilk. The three books cover one school year and sadly that is it. I’d have liked to hear more about Merry and her friends as they moved up the school and to have seen Pauline as Head Girl.
And so to Dunedin. I’d long wanted to visit the Edinburgh of the South being a native of the Scottish capital but it was a vague desire. Reading the Merry books is what turned it into an active plan. Things worked together to make it possible for me to travel for two months this (northern) spring. So I departed first to Australia and then moved on to New Zealand in March. My final itinerary saw me with three days in Dunedin and I was fortunate to make it into the country just before quarantine was imposed.
I was also extremely fortunate to meet Tania, a fellow booklover and Dunedin dweller. She and her daughter spent an afternoon with me and, amongst other things, drove me up to Columba College. That, of course, was a highlight. It was a strange feeling to see somewhere that I felt I knew from the books. As it was a Sunday, the school buildings were deserted and I was able to walk around the grounds. I’ve started re-reading the books again and I can now picture things so much more clearly.
But, as is so often the case with travel, other unexpected delights awaited. There are no longer mainline trains through Dunedin but the station building was always on my list of things to see. And I made two journeys from it; through the Taieri Gorge and on the Seasider which runs along part of the coast. I have MANY photographs showing the splendour of the countryside, particularly on the former journey when the weather favoured me.
I loved the grandeur of Dunedin’s architecture on street names that made me feel quite at home. At First Church I stumbled upon a heritage centre run by volunteers. There I saw some excellent exhibits and spoke to an elderly gentleman who had lived all his days in the city and was full of fascinating stories. There are plenty of things I didn’t do, however, and I would love to return. Maybe one day…