Working Lives

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Sculptor (1960s-2019)

Location: Welbourne

Rob talks about his life in Norfolk, teaching art and working in his sculpture studio. He believes Norfolk is still a very different place; the towns and the seaside are very much set in the past in relationship to the rest of the country.

I was born in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and my mother worked for the Post Office and my dad was a television and radio engineer. My dad was very practical, he was good at woodwork and metalwork and was also an amateur artist and he taught me a lot of skills which I was able to use in later life.

I was interested mainly in practical subjects at school, art, metalwork, woodwork and so on. I also like engineering drawing, but I was never very academic.

What I really wanted to be when I left school was a stonemason; I had studied architecture at A level and was fascinated by the stonemason’s craft. But when I went looking for a job as a stonemason I was told that it had all been mechanised, and that there wasn’t really a call for people to make carvings out of stone any more.

Today stonemasons are quite sought after in church renovation and it would have been a great thing for me to do but in 1973 it wasn’t viable.

Art college, High Wycombe – independence away from home

I was looking for an apprenticeship with a local firm in Aylesbury but couldn’t get anywhere with it. At school my favourite subject had been art so I thought that I would go to art college.

I did a one year pre-diploma course at High Wycombe and really enjoyed it. This was back in the seventies when we all had colourful clothes and hair down to our shoulders.

I was a hippie but was never into drugs, although I was always being stopped and searched by the police. Once I was stopped at a bus stop and was searched, they found a packet of Anadin on me, and I had to explain that they were for a headache.

It was great to be in High Wycombe, away from home, you’re getting your independence, getting your own little place to live, putting posters on your wall, not getting nagged at. Things like that. It was great.

Art College, Coventry

After that I went to Coventry to do a three year diploma course, which is the same as a BA now. Coventry then was a lot different to how it is now, a lot of areas were still bomb-sites. There were lots of places to walk round and explore.

The art college was quite a new building and there were two schools of art within the college. There were the conceptualists who had given up working with materials and just worked with words. Then there were the sculptors who still worked with materials. I was somewhere in the middle of these two camps as I liked the conceptualist’s ideas but also liked working with materials. I set up home in the basement of the college and worked quite happily away in my own little studio for three years.

It was quite good working in Coventry. I had a couple of rooms on the Holyhead Road, for something like £3 a week, which I got through another student. It was a big Edwardian house and he rented the rooms to me. I paid him the rent which he told me he would pass on to the landlord. After about six months there was a knock on the door and it was a chap who turned out to be the landlord and wanted to know what I was doing in his flat. It turns out that the flat had been sublet illegally and the guy had gone. We went into this guy’s flat and it was a real mess, dreadful. The landlord was a nice guy and he let me stay on.

There were loads of hippies living on the floor above me, who always seemed to be spaced out. On the wall of the lobby there was a large Jefferson Airplane mural, taking up the whole wall which they had painted, they were really into hippy music. I used to play Eddie Cochran records to annoy them.

We had lots of power cuts at this time and my mum sent me parcels of candles. I ended up with over a hundred. Once a friend came to stay and we set them up in places all over the lobby and lit them all.

From Coventry to Hornsey – art teacher’s certificate

After gaining my degree I went to Hornsey College of Art to follow a one year art teacher’s course. One of the biggest problems when you go to college is finding accommodation. London was completely different from other places I’d lived. It was so expensive, a flat was £17 a week, that seems nothing now but it was a tremendous amount when the grant was about £350 a year.

Whilst I was in Hornsey I had some experience of teaching in the East End at Bethnal Green in the school that the Krays had been to. It was really a challenge and opened my eyes to what teaching was about, the course that I had been on hadn’t prepared us at all for dealing with children.

It was a very tough job teaching then, some of the teachers would finish work at 5 o’clock and visit a series of pubs, strung out between Bethnal Green and Liverpool Street. We would end up at the Black Raven at Liverpool Street which was a big teddy boys’ pub, before going on to Dirty Dick’s on the other side of the road just before closing time. We would then catch the tube back to our digs and be back at school the next morning. This was my introduction to teachers and teaching in London. It put me off teaching in a city, I just wouldn’t have been able to cope with all that drinking!

I thought, right I’ll try something else. I had been interested in conservation whilst at college and thought that I could get a job doing that. I tried the Forestry Commission, but I had the wrong sort of qualification, I needed a science qualification, so I thought that I would have to do teaching then.

Moving to Norfolk

A couple of jobs came up in the Times Educational Supplement, one in Whitby and one in Terrington St Clements in Norfolk. I applied for the Norfolk job and got an interview ever so quickly. I had the interview with the Chief Education Officer, I’d taken my portfolio with me but he wasn’t interested in it at all. He interviewed me in Kings Lynn and afterwards took me by car to Terrington and I met the headmaster and we had afternoon tea. It was like going back to the 1950s, so different to London. I was offered the job, accepted it and in the next September I started work at the secondary school.

Terrington Secondary School

It was a small rural school on the Fens, set amongst fields of tulips and strawberries, a bit like going to Holland. I had grown up thinking that dykes were things that kept water out, but in the Fens they are actually the ditches. The Fens was a funny place, they used to say that the area wasn’t quite the end of the world but you could see it from there. The marshes were a very beautiful, wild place, but the farmers used to say ‘if it grows chop it down, if it moves shoot it’.

The school was built in 1931 and it had a little two tier tower in the middle. The headmaster’s office was on the upper storey and he could look down over the playground. The school was a horseshoe cloister set behind his office, and off the cloisters were the classrooms, and around the edges were the mobile classrooms.

The naughty children were always sent to stand between the headmaster’s office and the staff toilets so the teachers passing by would see the naughty kids standing there and these poor kids would get told off time and time again, quite a good deterrent really.

I worked at Terrington St Clements for 33 years, a long time, and by and large I enjoyed it. When I started the raising of the school leaving age (ROSLA) had just started. So the first year I was there there were these kids who had to stay on another year, which they didn’t like at all. It was tough for the teachers as they had to put up with all the ill feeling about that.

I was only 23 and the older pupils were 16 so I wasn’t that much older than them. I thought that I was going to teach Art but it got twisted round to ‘light arts’. This was a strange subject, and one that nobody really knew what it was. It was a way of balancing the subjects that the boys had, woodwork, metalwork and rural studies, and the girls subjects needlework and home economics. They needed a third subject, so decided on light crafts. Eventually I turned it around and was timetabled to teach art in the end.

On my first day a first year, that’s what year sevens were called in those days, came up to be and said, ‘My name is … and I bites the ‘eads off chickens.’ I suppose this set the tone.

My first tutor group were a smashing group, they were first years and called 1W. They were a real collection of characters, most of them good but a few were a bit naughty, and that’s being kind. I used to get them for drama once a fortnight. I had no idea how to teach drama and the textbooks were antiquated and far too difficult for these kids to work with. I used to ask them ‘what would you like to do in drama?’ we were timetabled to be in the library so we had lots of tables and chairs. They said that they would like to play The Great Escape, I said ‘ok, that’s great’. They made tunnels with the chairs and tables. Every lesson the answer was always the same ‘The Great Escape’ and this happened for a year.

I worked in a mobile classroom, not the greatest places to teach, especially art as it didn’t have a water supply and you need quite a lot of water when you’re teaching art. We had a plastic container with a tap on had to keep filling it up in the Art Room, a bit of a chore.

The head of art, Ted, was a great guy who I liked very much, he was ever so helpful to me. He had set projects which he did every year, whereas I like to be spontaneous, thinking up new things to do all the time. Ted’s subjects included pottery projects, every kid made a coil pot, and then clay penguins. I would think that every house in the area must have a penguin somewhere in the attic.

I remember going into Ted’s room once and all these penguins were on the table. I took them outside, set them on the ground like a regiment of soldiers and took photographs of them. Ted came along and wondered what I was doing. I said, ‘Just inspecting the troops’.

He taught me how to do ceramics as I didn’t know how to do pottery. I joined one of his fifth year classes, I remember once when he was showing us how to use the technique called feathering, you put various coloured slips on to a dish and took the feather and stroked it gently over the slips and they merged together. One of the brown feathers got into the green slip and he was furious with the class. I didn’t like to say that it was me I kept quiet about that.

When Ted retired I became head of art and took over his room, a wooden structure built on stilts off the main building with a floor that tilted slightly down to the far end of the room. It was right next to the graveyard and the school’s sewerage works. Tomatoes grew all around there, and you could pick them in the summer.

If you walked across the room it shook under your feet. One day I went in to the stock cupboard, came out, slammed the door and the clock fell off the wall and landed on my head, much to the amusement of the class. I saw the funny side of it later.

We had a great technician whom we shared with other departments, but he liked the art rooms best as he could keep out of the way. It was his job to ring a handbell at the end of breaks, a responsibility he took very seriously. He got a bit cross one day when someone detached the tongue from out of his bell and he never noticed until he started to ring it.

Health and safety

Health and safety in those days was something to think about. We had the most dangerous guillotines in the classrooms, they could quite easily chop off fingers. They were used mainly for book binding, very efficient but they would never be allowed today.

The kilns were built in a cupboard at the back of the classroom, again, that wouldn’t be allowed today. There were pots full of powdered glaze which was very hazardous too.

We worked in this classroom until 1980 until the new school was built.

The old school was great; it was a totally different world then. For example the staff room was tiny about 12 foot by 12 foot and a lot of the 20-25 staff smoked so it used to get full of smoke. I hardly went in but if you were standing outside you could see the smoke coming out of the windows. It was ironic as many of these teachers were the ones who when on break duty were obsessed with catching kids smoking.

I used to draw my own Christmas cards and remember drawing one which depicted the staff room which it was just a mass of smoke with feet underneath it.

New school building

Alongside the playing field was a load of pigsties. The leftover food from the canteen was fed to the pigs, everything was mixed up so they had quite a rich diet. I always felt that it was ironic and sad that one of the most popular meals was spam fritters which then had to be fed back to the pigs. I used to tell the kids that SPAM stood for small pigs’ arses minced.

In 1980 the sties were taken down to build the new school and the art and technology departments moved over in 1981. We were there on our own which was great as there was no fear of unexpected visits from the headmaster for example because you could see people coming. The old school had lots of character but the new one had lots of space for working and display which was good for an art department.

The only unfortunate thing was that it was painted throughout in magnolia, very dull looking. I had been to Giverny one summer and saw Monet’s kitchen which was bright yellow, I decided to change the colour of my classroom and got permission to paint it yellow, which was much more cheerful and made such a difference the room and I think that the kids appreciated it. Soon after, other teachers started to paint their classrooms.


Most academic subjects used worksheets and these were made on a banding machine. This machine had a handle on the side and produced 20 or so worksheets. They used to stink of methylated spirits, and the staff room used to reek of this.

I had the job of printing certificates – school was barmy about having certificates for everything. We had a system where children got house points for good work. If they got five house points they got a star certificate, these were presented in assembly once a week. I produced these certificates as well as sports day certificates and ones for other sporting achievements on a machine called an Adana printing press. You had to get these little typefaces and fit them together in a block, wedging them in and printing from these. It was very time consuming and frustrating to do. For many years I used to stay until seven or eight at night printing these certificates, and there’s still no overtime for teachers. In the seventies teaching became more positive, encouraging pupils more and more and more rewards were given and I found it difficult to keep up with the demand.

It was good when computers came in, the office staff took over producing these sorts of things. That was one old technology which I wasn’t sad to leave behind.

Introduction of the National Curriculum

It must have been 1983 when the National Curriculum arrived, we were given these folders, and they were totally incomprehensible. The unfortunate thing was that everybody pretended that they understood, nobody wanted to be the person who didn’t understand what the National Curriculum was about. We couldn’t understand the language, the things they were asking us to do were totally impractical. For a long time the belief was that if we persevere with it it will eventually start to work.

In my subject, art, it was just killing creativity, there was no room for spontaneity or self expression, it had been put together by academic people. It was as though everything had to be totally justified logically and rationally, which just went against the grain for artists.

So we found it very difficult, it was as if intuition had been outlawed. We used to have lesson observations, the teacher would be appraised, a report written and then they would discuss what was right or wrong with the lesson. This was a new thing that came in in about 1990 I think.

I can remember one time a colleague was being assessed by the Head. Things had got so ridiculous that in a 70 minute lesson you had to first of all mark the homework, then introduce the lesson, and explain the aims and objectives of that lesson. Then you had to give out all the paper and pencils, get the work done, have time at the end of the lesson to appraise how it had gone and what they had achieved. The consequence of this was that they didn’t have very much time to do the work. So this particular lesson involved the kids sitting each side of a table and they had five minutes to draw each other’s faces and then change over. Towards the end of the lesson the teacher stopped them, appraised the work and each child received a mark for their work. The Head said at the end of the lesson that the teacher had done it completely wrong. What he should have done was given a mark out of 10 for how they drew the eyes, a mark out of 10 for how they drew the nose and a mark out of 10 for how they drew the mouth and arrive at a final mark like that, things were becoming totally ridiculous.

Under the National Curriculum Art became grouped with Design and Technology. You would have to work closely with the Technology Department, which previously had been woodwork, metalwork, home economics and needlework. Now it was called Art, Design and Technology and we all had to do cross-curricular projects. The headmaster assumed that because we were all in Art, Design and Technology the metalwork teacher could teach art and the food technology teacher could teach metalwork and so on, which was completely wrong. We had to cope with this for a few years until people could see that these things were misguided and wrong and sanity came back into teaching.

Disillusioned with teaching, furniture making, book illustrating

I became disillusioned with teaching. My dad had always told me to get a sideline to fall back on. I had done watercolour painting for a few years before becoming fed up with it. Then I went on to book illustration and illustrated a few books and nearly got one published, which was a bit sad that I didn’t quite get there.

After that I made ethnic furniture in my spare time. I used to look at Hungarian and Polish furniture and made similar pieces, I enjoyed that but it was quite labour intensive making it and then painting it. It would take about a month to make a piece and you couldn’t sell them for much. When I retired I took up oil and acrylic painting again, which I did for four or five years. I then started doing sculpture, which was my original subject at college – I have done quite well at that, I have been in several exhibitions.

I have a studio workshop in the garage down by the side of the house, it’s like my man cave really.


Along with art I have always played music. I play mandolin, tenor banjo and the guitar. I have always been interested in folk music and play at folk sessions. I played in a group called Nappertandy for many years.

Art is quite a lonely occupation you work by yourself, have this brief time when your work goes into a gallery and people want to talk to you then it’s all gone again. By contrast with music you’re out and integrating more and meeting people. I find that it makes a good balance.

I am in a ceilidh band, the Fair Green Ceilidh Band and we travel around Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, about once a week during the summer months, it slows down a bit in autumn and winter.

I’ve often been playing in a pub and someone comes up to me, usually a great big middle aged bald guy and they look at me and say ‘you don’t remember me do you sir? You used to teach me’.

Reflections on teaching and living in Norfolk

I would never advise anybody to become a teacher now because the work is so intensive, much more than when I used to do it. I know young teachers now who are at the end of their tether. So much more is expected of them, teachers are very conscientious people who try to do their best, but when something goes wrong teachers are the first to get the blame.

I did quite well with the kids at GCSE and also got some through A level which was good. Many of them have gone on to be graphic artists, which is good. You teach art not to teach people to become artists, but to teach people how to appreciate the visual arts. It is just as important to broaden their cultural horizons. I hope that I have done that over the years.

I’ve enjoyed living Norfolk a lot, it is such a nice contrast to the rest of the country, especially during the seventies when the pace of life was much slower here. Norfolk is still a very different place; the towns and the seaside are still very much set in the past in relationship to the rest of the country. We haven’t got the traffic flow that the rest of the country has, and it’s not so manic. We still have spaces between places which is nice.

If we can develop conservation a bit more in Norfolk and make people a bit more aware of how nature has been suffering over the last decades I think that we can make Norfolk a very nice place again. It’s happening in a few places.

Rob with sculptures

Rob Woods talking to WISEArchive on 7th November 2018 at Welbourne.

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