Letter of the Week: Fond memories of Peter Burton

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In the 1960s, I was a pupil of former Scarborough College head of English Peter Burton, who died aged 87 in February. I used to visit him often at the cottage in Brompton where he lived alone with his beloved cat, Mr Tumnus. Hardly a week went by without some other former pupil calling in to see him – which is an indication of how well-respected he was.

As you reported, former Poet Laureate the late Sir John Betjeman liked Peter’s photographs of English churches, landscapes and architecture. In fact he used the Whitby Abbey picture you printed in a guide he wrote to the parish churches of Britain. He also invited Peter to supply photographs for the county-by-county Shell Guide series of UK travel books, written originally by Betjeman and artist John Piper.

Peter soon found he was spending most of his school holidays racing around Britain taking pictures of buildings for the Shell guides.

He befriended Henry Thorold, author of five of the guides, and together they produced The Collins Guides to Cathedrals, Abbeys and Priories and to The Ruined Abbeys of England, Wales and Scotland. Peter took all of the photographs.

He also published two books about his native Yorkshire. The Iron Coast was a collection of his photographs from Whitby to Middlesbrough, with a text by his childhood friend, the award-winning novelist Jane Gardam. And he himself wrote the text for North Yorkshire: A Guide, which contained some 200 of his photographs, in 2007. He also published many books with a former pupil, the Scarborough architectural photographer and writer Harland Walshaw, including The English Angel.

Over the years, along with Harland, Peter created a unique historical collection of around 50,000 photographs of important British architecture from the 1950s onwards.

Peter was a wonderful teacher. His English lessons were a delight. When I was 11, I remember he would read to us from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and then get us to write our own stories using the characters in the book. He would play records of folk songs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and get us to talk and write about our understanding of the lyrics.

But what I remember most is my first year at the College. If Peter was putting on a play, he would often usher us into the assembly hall during our English lesson and we would sit and watch while he directed the older boys.

I remember watching rehearsals of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and being amazed and excited to see the work that went into staging a theatrical production.

It was the first time I had ever seen a proper play of any sort and obviously the first time I had ever seen a play in rehearsal. I watched it on the first night and again the next night. It changed my life and led to the development of my love of the theatre.

Later, I was roped in myself of course and experienced what it is like to act in front of an audience. We were putting on avant-garde plays like Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot, which had only recently played in the West End.

I still dine out on the story of a catastrophic production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which we put on in a tent on the headmaster’s lawn, desperately struggling to finish building the stage as the audience took their seats. No-one had realised the importance of the curtain dropping at the denouement of the play – and we didn’t have a curtain.

Peter was a refuge for those of us who disliked marching up and down pretending to be soldiers in the army cadet corps and going on muddy cross-country runs on wet winter Tuesdays.

In his Scout troop, we could sip his tea, read his books, scoff his mum’s superb cherry cake and generally have a good time. If we had problems, he was the one adult at the school we knew we could talk to and receive a sympathetic ear and some sensible advice.

He will be sadly missed by many of his former pupils.

Steve Hill

Valley Bridge Parade