the convent at the top of orange hill

Orange Hill Convent
This is another very early morning sketch from back home in Burnt Oak. It was Father’s Day, and I was up super early so went out for a walk in the early morning June sunlight, when hardly anyone was around. The light was golden and heavy, rising beyond the Mill Hill end of Abbots Road, while I stopped at the Orange Hill end and drew one of the more impressive local buildings, the old Orange Hill Convent. Look at that chimney! That is a serious chimney. I remember the nuns, coming up and down to Burnt Oak, and I was told I had to greet them with a “Hello Sister” (not “Hello Nun” as I had been doing up to that point). Many years ago this was next to St.James’s School, the local Catholic school that I never went to (what with not being a Catholic), but would have been handy (being only two minutes from home; my actual school Edgware was a much further walk, and I did it daily – and slowly, as my old teachers will attest). My younger sister did go there, but only after it had relocated to Grahame Park. I remember friends of my older sister though who did go the St. James’s (my older sister by the way went to Orange Hill, just around the corner, which is also no longer there), they used to talk about St.James’s purely in terms of their terror at the nuns next door, Oh the nuns, so strict, the nuns! Which I never believed, having only met the nice sweet nuns going up and down the street, and saying “Hello Sister” to them, and they would say “oh hello young man” back. But then, I wasn’t a Catholic.  Pupils at St. James’s wore uniforms of two different colours – black and grey for the boys, green and yellow for the girls. It’s funny living in the US now and high school kids not wearing uniforms. We could always tell where kids were from by their uniforms (which was exactly the point, I think, for when kids from different schools got into trouble, as was not uncommon – trashing a McDonalds, running rampage on a bus, throwing things (or people) into people’s gardens – then the head of that school could be contacted and the boys or girls would get into trouble and very pointed words would be had at the school assembly next day. Yeah this happened a lot at Edgware (not by me of course). Our uniforms were blue, white and maroon. Our rivals at Mill Hill Country High had similar uniforms but had cherry red instead of maroon. There was one Catholic girls school who were kitted out all in purple, in Finchley if I recall, and were nicknamed locally “the Purple Virgins”. Not by me, of course. I always loved how tall and imposing this building was, on those dark early evenings when the rain was lashing down it would appear like a haunted mansion out of the gloom. I do remember as a kid though, my friends and I would go to the field behind it, next to the Watling Community Centre, to get conkers from the big horse chestnut tree. We’d look around for those big green spiky balls, peeling them open to find a huge shiny conker inside. Now I know this sounds like something that mawkish sentimentalists will post on groups on Facebook, oh remember when all we had was conkers, not like now where it’s all video games and obesity and violent crime (you know, the sort of Facebook post with a comment thread that quickly turns xenophobic, regardless of the original subject), but this is in fact true, we did go and get conkers from a big tree just behind the convent. I was a pretty innocent kid, it has to be said. It was all football stickers and conkers. And video games to be fair, my brother and I spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong. I did go to karate class a couple of times in the building next to this, but I gave it up because there was another boy from my school, who I think fancied himself as a bully, in the karate class one time when I was 11 or 12 and he just spent the entire time laughing at me from behind and making disparaging comments. He then followed me down Orange Hill trying to talk to me, not in a particularly menacing way, but I didn’t want to talk to him, and I knew that next day at school he would basically have all his cronies humiliate me for attempting to do karate. So I never went back, which was a bit of a shame. Kids eh. I would probably have been rubbish at karate anyway, but I do think of that when I see that wall in front of the convent. Here I go again, memory lane. Well the school building is gone, replaced by houses and flats, I don’t know if the chestnut tree is still there but I doubt kids are picking its conkers, in these days of violent obese video crime games, and it’s probably too late for me to go back and try my luck at karate now, but the outline of this old Convent still stands out at the top of the hill like always. And finally, I sketched it!

12 thoughts on “the convent at the top of orange hill

  1. Sister Raymunda Jordan OP says:

    Dear Pete,
    I am one of those nuns who lived in the Convent in Orange Hill and subsequently moved to school to Grahame Park .
    I am delighted with your sketch of the convent and your memoirs.
    I taught at St. James and became the last Sister head teacher. The school is prospering.
    Your presentation is so lifegiving.
    Sister Raymunda

    • David Miller says:

      Sister Raymunda..
      I vaguely recall your name from the days I was at St James’s. I only remember 3 teachers, the Walsh sisters. They were not nuns. There was a male teacher who taught French. I do recall he wore a Green Harris Tweed Suit. Red Suede shoes with no socks 😉 I now live in Nashville, where we have a large Convent of Dominican nuns. Pete. Thanks for doing a drawing I f Hassan’s. All of my shirts came from that store

      • pete scully says:

        Cheers! I think Hassans is still there, I will have to check next time I’m back. Vipins finally closed. My sketch of Vipins got on the cover of a book, my favourite childhood store immortalized!

    • pete scully says:

      Dear Sister Raymunda, thank you for your lovely comment. I’m glad you like the sketch! I had wanted to draw it for years, I’ve always loved that building. My little sister Lauren went to St James in the 90s after it moved to Grahame Park (and she was at the Annunciation and St Martins before that), glad to hear her old school is doing well. I remember going to school fetes at the old St James on Orange Hill as a kid and wishing my school was as close as that (I’m from Norwich Walk), and I do miss saying hello to the nuns on Orange Hill. Best wishes! Pete

      • peter armstrong says:

        Lovely to read recollections of St James College, I was there from 1956 to 1959 and remember the Walsh sisters, Katherine and Mary both of whom taught me. I also remember Sister Rose the incredible Music/Choir teacher and a young Sister James who taught me English Lit, History and a few other subjects. Many happy memories of good times and faces including the best looking girl in the school, Gloria Wilson who I was lucky enough to take out a few times.. I’ve read some negative comments on other sites but I loved every day I was there and would do it all again in a heartbeat. .

    • Stephen Fisher says:

      Hi Sister Raymunda,
      Came across your e.mail to Pete whilst reminiscing over the old Convent and school at St James.
      My brother James Fisher (sadly passed) and I were pupils and big fans of yours back in 1970.
      Sr Veronica was head then and I have many happy memories of your teaching and getting me through my English GCE.
      So much water under the bridge since then but you and Mr Chandler were by far my favourites.
      Steve x

  2. Julie Smith was Maureen Basson at school. says:

    Well I hated St James. Sr Catherine was a real tyrant. Sr Oliveria was terrifying. The two Walsh sisters were horrible. My punishment was either the strap which I laughed at. Stupid girl as they tried harder..

    Or scrubbing the convent steps. I had been in and out of hospital (6months a time) so missed lots of school. My Mum died when I was 13 so guess I was angry with everyone…

    • Mags says:

      I got strapped too many times by vicious women dressed in habits also-nothing holy about that load of bollox -the Quad was a scary place waiting to be dealt your punishment by the Nuns of St.James x

      • Peter says:

        Hi Pete, thanks for passing on the comments, funny how some people’s recollections differ from others. I still think my years at St James were some of the most enjoyable of my life, loved it.


        Peter Armstrong

  3. bill says:

    I remember St James. I happened to walk by on the day it was demolished. I was so happy to see it go. I remember being strapped….beaten…..for whatever reason. Funny thing is I am a teacher. I tell my pupils about being strapped, they don’t believe me. I miss the good old days…not.

    • peter armstrong says:

      Hi Bill, I think the strap was just the way things were in those days, my older brother went to Finchley Grammar and they used the strap/cane plenty as did the teachers at St Ignatios College in Tottenham where my younger brother went. The good Sisters at St James’ weren’t the only ones dealing out a bit of discipline, to good effect. Sounds like you turned ok.
      Peter Armstrong

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