Everything changed when I went away to boarding school. I have never been academically gifted and I’d struggled through my Common Entrance exams only to find that I’d failed to get into any London day schools. Eventually, we decided to go for Bryanston in Dorset. I say we, because it was a family decision. No one in my family had ever gone away to boarding school, before, but my parents liked the laid back and liberal atmosphere that they saw when they visited on open day.
In marked contrast to my outgoing “explorer” television career today, I was a very shy child.
I used to hide behind my parents’ legs at social functions, and at my prep school, the Hall in Hampstead,north London, I lacked confidence and was a bit of a goody two-shoes.
When I left home for the first time and went to boarding school, I became terribly homesick – my shyness and insecurity were overwhelming.
I can still remember the car journey as my mother drove me to school and the feeling of impending doom. We weren’t allowed to call home for the first few weeks and when I finally did, I remember standing in a little phone booth, having queued up for what felt like hours, and when I eventually spoke to Mum, I burst into tears.
It was a yawing, aching pain that gnawed away at me. I’d sob into my pillow each night and down the payphone in the morning.
I still feel guilty for putting my parents through my homesickness and my real unhappiness at being away from my family – as they were paying so much money for my education.
But as the year went by, I slowly began to settle into my new life away from home. I started to make friends and, more importantly, began to discover the real me. My shyness and insecurity began to fade, as did my homesickness. Until then, I had lacked any real confidence in myself, but Bryanston began to heal all that. Slowly but surely, the real me began to emerge, like a butterfly from a cocoon. I still struggled academically, but I was able to find other outlets for my creativity. Bryanston was a liberal school and they worked quite hard to find out what I was good at, which was art and drama. We were allowed to create our own timetables – amazingly, we actually did some work and I set up a “riding for the disabled” group.
I loved drama and spent a great deal of time rehearsing and then performing in the school theatre – so much so that I left the school with aspirations of being an actor.
I also spent many hours in the craft, design and technology building, making stuff. I made friends from all over the world who remain friends of mine to this day. The school was also fully coeducational and I also loved being in the company of girls – I would have hated all that macho nonsense if I’d been sent to an all-boys boarding school.
I loved the remoteness of the school. We were in the middle of rural Dorset surrounded by fields and rivers.
If I close my eyes and think of a perfect summer’s day, I think of my summer terms at Bryanston, of walking along the banks of the river Stour and jumping in the clear waters to cool off, and of the long drive and its canopy of trees leading from the village of Blandford up to the school.
There were plenty of fun moments at Bryanston, too.
I remember when new signs were put up along the drive with peel-off letters and some pranksters changed them to make very rude words before a new parents’ day.
I very nearly didn’t pass my A levels and failed to get into any of my first choice universities or drama school.
It was like groundhog day, but then again, that wasn’t really the point, because I’d finally come out of my shell and become me.
I took part in Castaway 2000, the original reality TV programme that sent 36 people to Taransay in the Outer Hebrides, simply because I wanted to live on a remote island for a while. I don’t think I would be doing what I do now had I not gone to boarding school. It completely transformed me. I think a good boarding school education gives you the confidence to be whoever you want to be and I am very grateful for the experience.
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