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Headmaster's Address

The Fallen Tree

I would like to start by congratulating all those in Year 9 who took part in the Year 9 play last week, a process of many weeks, culminating in two excellent performances here in Great Hall on Wednesday and Thursday evening. Mrs Pulman-Jones had written a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous novel Great Expectations, and an important feature of the production was the use of the theatrical devise of actors as narrators, like a Greek chorus, to help tell the audience the complex and action packed story throughout the play. That made it both a challenge for an acting company to perform, but also a very rewarding one. This Year 9 cast and crew embarked on a creative process over several weeks of hard work and commitment, through which they became a collaborative and generous company of actors, who produced two excellent nights of theatre. it’s very much an ensemble piece, so I would ask please that the entire company of cast and crew of Great Expectations should please stand as we offer them a round of applause.

Since I last spoke to you in Assembly we have had the announcement of my successor from September 2025, Dr Ives. Let me say first of all how delighted I am that she will be my successor – it’s a wonderful, forward-looking appointment and I have every confidence that she will prove to be a terrific Head. Inevitably the announcement of my successor makes the prospect of my eventual departure all the more real, and I have been trying, over the last few weeks, to resist the analogy between my own position here at The Leys and that of the tree outside the Head’s House – an old and diminished creature, well past its prime, collapsed, and waiting to be dragged off and disposed of, possibly to be chopped into little pieces.

I am joking of course, I think, but in fact one shouldn’t joke about the desperately sad collapse of the wonderful, beautiful Lebanese Cedar – Cedric the Cedar as Mr Fernandez calls it – which has graced this school site for over two hundred years – since well before it became a school, in fact. We think it was planted when what is now the Head’s House was built – in 1815 – sixty years before The Leys became a school. Every Leysian who has ever lived has walked past that tree on numerous occasions. It was already sixty years old when the School was founded – but it went on to witness the School’s centenary, and alas, not quite its sesquicentenary next year.

Planted in the reign of George III, it has witnessed and outlived the reigns of George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, and the longest serving of them all, Elizabeth II. Ten Monarchs on the throne, and ten Headmasters of course, in the last century and a half.

It survived world wars, and waited patiently for the return of the pupils and staff when in WW2 The Leys was taken over as an auxiliary hospital whilst the school was evacuated – lock, stock and barrel – to the Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry in the Scottish Highlands for the duration of the war.

The Leys, as you may know, is so called because a ley is a pasture – of you look at these early pictures of The Leys, that is what it was. The tree was planted around 1815, that’s when the House was built – it is older we think that its siblings across the road and in the Botanic Gardens. At that time The Leys was a country estate on the very edge of Cambridge. Somehow, without moving, what became the school and what became that mighty tree – moved right into the heart of this expanding city – an expanding school, within our expanding city – as these photographs through the years show.

It fell, by the way, over the February half term, not as a result of being buffeted by a storm as you might have assumed, but because its roots had been weakened by the exceptional rainfall we experienced in the early months of this year. Mr Pullen and others have met on several occasions with our go-to experts in tree management and on their advice we have been waiting for firmer ground to get the machinery in place which will be required to dismantle it safely, but this will be happening over half-term next week, so for those of you who want to, do make a point of saying goodbye to this noble old friend over the next few days. We hope to store the wood on site and then to re-use the wood in various creative ways, not just in benches but perhaps in sculpture or furniture making – we will have to store the wood for some time before it is ready to be worked into some of these formats – we’ll keep you posted on that.

Mr Fenandez made a short video for his Year 7s who have been collecting seeds from our tree’s closest relatives over the road. They are going to try to germinate them for future generations:

The Cedar of Lebanon

I also found a poem about a fallen tree – it was written by the American poet, Alfred Castner King, in 1901. It’s about a fallen spruce tree in a forest, rather than our city-centre Lebanese Cedar, but it captures that sense of loss which I – and many of us – have felt these last several months.

The Fallen Tree

I passed along a mountain road,
Which led me through a wooded glen,
Remote from dwelling or abode
And ordinary haunts of men;
And wearied from the dust and heat.
Beneath a tree, I found a seat.

The tree, a tall majestic spruce,
Which had, perhaps for centuries,
Withstood, without a moment’s truce,
The wing-ed warfare of the breeze;
A monarch of the solitude,
Which well might grace the noblest wood.

Beneath its cool and welcome shade,
Protected from the noontide rays,
The birds amid its branches played
And caroled forth their twittering praise;
A squirrel perched upon a limb
And chattered with loquacious vim.

E’er yet that self-same week had sped,
On my return, I sought its shade;
But where it reared its form, instead;
A fallen monarch I surveyed,
Prostrate and broken on the ground,
Nor longer cast its shade around.

Uprooted and disheveled, there
The monarch of the forest lay;
As if in desolate despair
Its last resistance fell away,
And overwhelmed, in evil hour
Went down before the tempest’s power.

Such are the final works of fate;
The birds to other branches flew;
And man, whatever his estate,
Must face that same mutation, too!
To-day, I stand erect and tall,
The morrow may record my fall.

I am sure that all ten of us fortunate enough to live in the Head’s House have valued that noble Cedar of Lebanon – to me it has been a much loved feature of my decade and more living here on site; it has offered shelter, shade, privacy, a source of constant beauty and tranquillity, it has provided a habitat for the many birds with their beautiful birdsong, the sound of which has enriched our lives.

For over two centuries it has been, for everyone connected with The Leys, a symbol of continuity and dependability – perhaps that is what is saddest of all, this reminder of life’s fragility, and indeed of our own mortality, for what we assumed to be a constant, something that we could depend upon being here long after we all had left, has in fact turned out to be more fragile than we had appreciated.

Such are the final works of fate;
The birds to other branches flew;
And man, whatever his estate,
Must face that same mutation, too!

Thank you for your attention.