Arriving at Dunhurst at the age of eight was like manna from heaven for Angie McLachlan. As the youngest boarder at the Collegiate School in Bristol, she had felt isolated and out of her depth; at Dunhurst, she was in her element from her first day.
“Mum had got a job as a matron at Bedales, which was how I was able to move to Dunhurst, and I absolutely loved my new school at once,” Angie recalls. “The physical setting, the orchards, the pets, the teachers, who were so friendly and approachable – all of them made such a positive impression on me. I enjoyed the lessons, the drama and the art – there was a new art block that was being built at the time – I loved being in the workshop and building things out of wood and life was so exciting. Yes, there were some tougher aspects; there was a social pecking order, in which those who had come all the way up the school were at the top, and it was really quite competitive, with sports competitions between the houses and so on, but these were the wonderful days before health and safety regulations. You could climb trees, do all kinds of hair-raising things with very few restrictions and think things out for yourself in a way that children aren’t always allowed to these days.”
At Middle School, Angie was part of an experimental couple of years, which saw her lessons taking place at Bedales while she continued to live at Dunhurst. “The tracking backwards and forwards was a bit of a pain but there were compensations,” she says. “I well remember the thrill of the Bedales library and how I felt when I first borrowed a book from it. I had also become an avid student of martial arts; it was something that I had discovered that I was good at and I eventually became one of the first black belts to come from Bedales. Until I was 21, I pursued it, even coming back after I had left the school to take the grading sessions at Bedales.”
Judo would become Angie’s saving grace at school. “Academically, I wasn’t very adept,” she admits. “I was in fact dyspraxic, something about which very little was known at the time and which wasn’t diagnosed in me until I was in my 40s. My memory was also poor; I always needed more time than anyone else to take down notes and maths was a bit of a closed book to me. You were either good at maths or you weren’t and I was consigned to the depths of the recently formed ‘D’ set. For me, Bedales was much more about the benefits of learning life skills and communication than academia and in that regard, the breadth of our education was extraordinary. Tim Slack was a first major influence – an incredibly fair man, great to deal with, who seemed to have an instinctive understanding of teenagers. Mel Puckle was a wonderful music teacher and Rachel Carey-Field taught me how to fill a room with my voice, something that has become remarkably useful to me as I have got older! Bedales was a place where eccentricity was part and parcel of everyday life – miles away from the bland diet that can be served up at some schools.”
Angie took her O-Levels in the summer of 1974 and returned for her 6.1 year eager for more experiences and the chance to attack her best subjects as extra ‘O’ Levels and to pursue some other favourites at A-Level. Before the end of her first 6.1 term, however, her world had fallen apart: “My mother was called in for a meeting with Patrick Nobes, who was Head Teacher by then, and it was suggested to her that keeping me at Bedales was a waste of time from the academic point of view. Oxbridge applications were becoming a much bigger deal to the school but I never got to the bottom of whose idea it was that I should leave Bedales,” Angie reflects. “I’m pretty sure that Tim Slack would never have countenanced such a thing if he had still been in charge, at least not without talking to me about it as part of the decision. But I was one of a few people who left at the same sort of time as me who seemed to be collateral damage from the drive for higher academic standards.”
I like to think that my experiences [have] enabled me to forge ahead and cope with the unusual path that I have taken in life – parallel to the mainstream, rather like Bedales itself.
The setback left Angie shattered and bereft of confidence. “Bedales had been my life and I was sad beyond words to leave,” she says. “It was a tough time at home – Mum wasn’t very well – and I found life hard to cope with. I developed agoraphobia for a while and for a number of years, I just drifted. I did some voluntary work and eventually moved to London, got married and worked in Harrods for a bit but I was just clinging on for a long while. Spiritually, I was leaning quite heavily on the Buddhist way of thinking that I’d discovered through my practice of the martial arts.”
The real turning point in Angie’s life arrived almost simultaneously with her mother’s death in 1991. “That’s how I got into the funeral business,” she explains. “The first thing that I had to do was to French polish my mother’s coffin; after that I worked in the coffin workshop, then as transport manager. I got the opportunity and took myself off to mortuary school to learn how to do everything that the business requires short of digging a full size grave. My embalming skills were something that I was particularly proud of – I achieved the highest marks in the country for my year’s written Anatomy, Physiology and Embalming Theory papers for the British Institute of Embalmers Qualification. I realised that I could learn and the funeral business really engaged me in study. Additionally, later in my career I was twice nominated as Embalmer of the Year, once becoming runner-up! Those were the pioneering days of AIDS embalming in the early 1990s, which were both the best of times and the very worst of times. There was a lot of fear and ignorance to battle against but to have been there and been able to make a difference was a massive honour.”
After more than a decade of involvement with the British way of death, the time had arrived for Angie to test her academic credentials once again: “I went back to Portland to live, did a bit of work as a funeral premises inspector for a while, but determined that I wanted to do a proper degree at the University of Portsmouth. It was a course called ‘Death, Loss and Palliative Care’ and once I’d got a 2:1 in it, I realised that I did after all have a brain that I could be proud of. I did my Master’s at Winchester, obtaining a Distinction, after that. That’s where I learned that I was dyspraxic and suddenly a great big light went on; I realised that everything that I had fought for to reach that point was a learning curve and a discipline that I had needed to experience.”
Other profound realisations had also intervened in Angie’s life. The first was the need to be open about her sexuality: “I’d known that I was gay at school but back in the day, it wasn’t the sort of thing that you could be candid about. One or two of my friends would have known but not many others. I left my husband when I was 28, a lovely man – a composer – who now lives in South Africa and is still someone with whom I’m on excellent terms. It was only then, many years after school, that I could bring myself to ‘come out’ and go looking for a first girlfriend. Ken Livingstone’s time in charge of London was very important, as I look back – he created safe spaces for gay people and allowed our community to approach life with a lot more confidence.”
After her academic studies had been concluded, Angie had begun to travel at home and abroad, lecturing and teaching about life care in Britain to a country that has never been wholly comfortable with discussing the notion of mortality and death. To help her in this quest, she constructed her own interactive model, complete with body fluids, which she promptly named ‘Ichabod’ after a dummy that had once sat in the Bedales theatre wardrobe. “It’s an essential tool, I’ve found, in helping people to relate to what I’m talking about,” Angie says. “What I do and teach is all about breaking down barriers and removing taboos.” Meanwhile, Angie had met the woman who was to become her wife. “Cath is Australian and I met her, of all places, at a conference about death!” she says. “We started talking and we haven’t stopped since. I went out to Australia to see her, she came back to the UK and we now live happily together in Dorset.”
A higher calling was also impelling Angie in yet another different direction. “Over the years, I’d had a number of deep religious experiences and a few years ago, I had the clear impression that I’d been called to serve God,” she says. The Liberal Catholic Church International (LCCI) would be the vehicle for Angie’s ministry. The LCCI differs theologically in a number of respects from the traditional Roman Catholic Church, from which it is an entirely separate entity, maintaining a high level of intellectual liberty for its members in such matters as the interpretation of creeds, as well as freedom of conscience.
“Just over ten years ago, women were accepted as priests and bishops into the LCCI for the betterment of the denomination,” explains Angie, who is now the bishop in charge of the LCCI’s province of Great Britain and Ireland. “We’re a tiny branch of a small church with no permanent buildings of our own and a ‘congregation’ that basically consists of a handful of contemplative folk. Much more than many Churches, we’re liturgy-based and my primary role is to work under our Arizona-based presiding bishop, ensure canonical obedience, ensure that the liturgy is adhered to and say Mass every day in the morning and at night (Prime and Compline). The idea is to tread lightly, not to be officious, but to serve our priests and our people while building the denomination.”
The years since she left Bedales have seen a transformation in Angie’s life that it would have been impossible to predict. Although she is reluctant to tempt fate by offering too many predictions about her future, she is clearly open to more new experiences if chance should see fit to offer them to her. “Cath wouldn’t mind living back in the Australian desert at some point and I could definitely cope with living in the desert there or in Arizona, but for now my work is here,” Angie says. “It is strange to think about how life turns out. I was so lucky to be educated at Bedales, which is the most extraordinary opportunity for any young person, a school way in advance of most others. It’s still that way and personally, I would love to live in the new art block there! I guess that’s a good summary of the enormous affection that I still feel for the school and emphasises why I was so sad to leave it. I like to think that my experiences there enabled me to forge ahead and cope with the unusual path that I have taken in life – parallel to the mainstream, rather like Bedales itself.”
Angie McLachlan was interviewed by James Fairweather in 2017. Photo credit: The University of Winchester.