Although he was born in Wimbledon, Duncan Gough’s first childhood memories are of feeling hot sand beneath his feet. “When I was about eighteen months old, my parents moved to a 100-acre bush farm called Fern Valley in what was then called Rhodesia,” Duncan recalls. “For a kid like me, it was wonderful, playing all day with the local kids, climbing avocado trees, eating beetles and all the rest of it!”
An adventurous streak had always been a part of Duncan’s family. His mother had been raised in South Africa, the daughter of a teacher who had founded the first public school in Rhodesia to cater for all races. She had subsequently met his father, a talented painter, at art school, himself the son of an early member of the Royal Flying Corps who had gone on to have his own private aerodrome.
Rhodesia’s declaration of UDI in 1965 meant that the country became an international pariah state on a level with its neighbour South Africa and it was not long afterwards that Duncan and his family were heading back to the old country. “We briefly stopped in Surrey before upping sticks and settling on a small-holding in Suffolk, where Dad painted, Mum supported him by teaching and we had four motorbikes (my grandmother had also been a biker in her day) on which to bomb around the place,” Duncan reflects. “I used to poach a few rabbits and pheasants for the table, learned wild craft and how to be at one with nature.”
[Bedales] was more like it, they reckoned. Perfect in every way for me, and they turned out to be right
The rural idyll at home was unfortunately not matched at Felixstowe Middle School, where Duncan took an arduous daily journey to attend and wished that he hadn’t bothered. “Living on the other side of the river, as we did, meant that I had to take a taxi, then a boat and finally a bus to get to school,” he explains. “It didn’t take much to stick out at that school, I did and that meant that I was bullied, so it wasn’t a great time. My only bit of luck was to become friends with a big Czech lad, who I would encourage to protect me by telling him that the bullies were Russian; this was the post-68 era!”
By the time Duncan had reached the age of 13, his parents had decided on a different course for their son. “They looked at Summerhill first, thought that it was just a bit too wild for me, and then came across Bedales,” says Duncan. “That was more like it, they reckoned. Perfect in every way for me, and they turned out to be right. I was lucky enough to get a bursary after I’d been down for the test week, where I felt at home right away. The fantastic Don Spivey was in charge of our group then, took us all out to the hangers and I just thought that this was wonderful. I got through the test OK and was lucky enough to get a bursary to this amazing place with its amazing headmaster. Tim Slack was so charismatic, so influential and so strong on that ethos of ‘work of each for weal of all’ and he made a big impression on me. When he died, I wrote something about him that was actually read at his memorial service – he really was a remarkable guy. There’s something in all of us that means that respect is a two-way street that has to be earned and that authority is not just to be assumed because someone has a title and Tim Slack embodied that.”
Not unexpectedly, the great outdoors would be where Duncan spent his happiest times at Bedales. “I had an aunt who lived in Selborne and my weekends were spent cycling around the Hampshire countryside,” he says. “At school, it was outdoor work that really suited me. The man who was in charge of the work when I was at Bedales was Harold Watson, who wasn’t a teacher but an ex-Desert Rat who looked like a particularly solid walnut! He was a huge influence on me, with his great sense of moral integrity and his insistence that whatever task you took on you did to the very best of your ability. We did all kinds of stuff – brick-laying, block-laying, drains, tractor driving and so on. In my day, outdoor work was often handed out as punishment for breaking various school rules but I never saw outdoor work that way at all.”
I’d always painted and drawn a lot; Bedales were great at encouraging my interest without ever making me feel under pressure and now, I applied to do a fine art degree at the two universities that were offering it as an option at the time
The young Duncan was not averse to a little rule-bending of his own, occasionally bringing pheasants back from Suffolk, storing them in the school kitchens, cooking up stews in the middle of the night and eating the results in the music rooms. More legally, he started a Bedales Natural History Society with the enthusiastic support of Tim Slack. “There were a few of us at school who were interested in foxes, badgers….and pubs,” Duncan remembers with a chuckle. “One of the advantages of our society was that we could be out of bounds without any official sanction to watch these nocturnal creatures at a time when most students weren’t allowed to be off flat. George Bird once told me that he’d seen a badger – as it turned out, it was a ferret, which we found, kept and used for catching rabbits, most of which we sold to local butchers. The ferrets had to have a separate shed of their own as they’d have created havoc if they’d got hold of the guinea pigs and other pets belonging to the students in the official pet shed.”
On the academic side, it was scarcely surprising that one of Duncan’s A Levels should be environmental science, bearing in mind his interest in conservation, or that another should be geography, considering his well-entrenched travel bug. “We went to Kenya on one school trip with Jonathan Watson and climbed Mount Kenya, which was some experience,” he recalls. “I was barefoot most of the time, just as I was as a child back in Rhodesia – in fact in 6.1, I did the Portsmouth to Petersfield walk barefoot as well”. The truth was that academia had never really been my thing, even though I always enjoyed my English lessons with David Thompson, and Geography with Jonathan Watson, I never worked as hard as I should have. Bedales was so much fun that it sometimes seemed to me to like one long holiday and I was really sorry to be leaving. I vaguely applied through UCCA for a place at SOAS and thought about a gap year in Africa before I had my accident and things changed.”
A few weeks after leaving Bedales, and on the way home (on his BSA Bantam motorcycle) from working on a farm back in Suffolk, Duncan fell prey to a careless tractor and trailer and badly broke a leg. “I was laid up for a while and when I recovered I decided that I wanted to continue to learn as many new skills as possible,” he says. “The first thing I did was to head for Africa to work on a sugar cane farm in Zululand and after that it was a succession of happenstance jobs, where I learned as much as I could.”
In 1983, he made his first visit to Spain, kindling a love affair with the country that would have an enormous impact on his future and igniting a determination that the country would one day become his home
It was the adventurous odyssey of the archetypal Bedalian. For five years, Duncan’s CV included stints in the Feature film industry in the Southern Cape, as a fence construction worker in Scotland and as a reproduction cabinet worker, builder and carpenter, boat fitter and engineer in Greece. “When I came back to Suffolk, I was building pig-sties at the point when, almost by accident, I finally went to university. I’d always painted and drawn a lot; Bedales were great at encouraging my interest without ever making me feel under pressure and now, I applied to do a fine art degree at the two universities that were offering it as an option at the time – Aberystwyth and Edinburgh. At Aberystwyth they told me to come back in a couple of weeks with a portfolio, which I did, and somehow, I got in! It started as a theatre, classical studies and art course, morphed into a joint art and drama degree and I was lucky enough to have a great tutor called David Tinker, who was very Bedalian in the way that he taught – respectful, engaged and open.”
Duncan threw himself wholeheartedly into drama work for the University and independent theatre companies, designing sets and lighting and even acting twice. In 1983, he made his first visit to Spain, kindling a love affair with the country that would have an enormous impact on his future and igniting a determination that the country would one day become his home. Around the same time, however, Duncan became a married man and resumed his accustomed role as a man for all seasons, working in theatre, as a cabinet maker and even in management consultancy, usually commuting to work on a motorbike.”
“My wife is a playwright and at a certain point, she got a job writing scripts for Hollyoaks,” Duncan explains. “That gave us a certain amount of financial independence and allowed me to buy a decent Moto-Guzzi bike and on it start making annual trips to various parts of Spain. From the start, I wanted to share my experiences and love of Spain with other people and in 2009, I published my first book Back Roads of Spain, which was based on the journals and drawings that had I had kept and made during my travels across the country during the previous decade.”
Five years later and prompted by his mother’s sudden and unexpected death, Duncan decided to make what he realistically viewed as a final change – he would renounce all his other pursuits and apply himself single-mindedly to writing. In 2016 Sketches of Spain – one man’s guide to the richness of Spain was published. It is now in its revised second edition and features thousands of kilometres of routes, sketches, photos and hand drawn maps. In 2017 he started publishing a new series of guides, starting with Back Roads to the Catalan Pyrenees – the Biscay Ports to El Pont de Suert and continuing with a series of routes that combine to make a tour of the Catalan Pyrenees.
In all, Duncan has now produced ten self-published books (he has his own publishing imprint, Hombre) and is currently weighing up a decision on whether to acquire an agent and a new publisher to help him build on his success. As with many independently-minded Bedalians, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. “Giving up a piece of my independence won’t be easy but at the same time it may well be the way to double the turnover I make from my books,” Duncan admits. “I definitely think of myself as a writer these days and I have plenty more to say.”
Earlier this year, Duncan returned to Bedales to regale today’s students with his adventures over the years. “I was quite apprehensive about going back, standing up and talking about myself at first but I was so impressed by the students who showed me around the school and by the modern crop of Bedalians in general,” Duncan says. “Bedalians of all generations seem to recognise each other – the Bedalian way is to be able to talk to anyone and I was delighted to see how unchanged the ethos of the school seems to be today. The art department is extraordinary – totally different from my day, of course – and all the new buildings are fabulous but it’s still clearly the same place, still my place. It had a huge influence on the man that I became and I know that my teenage Bedalian self would have approved of that.”
Duncan Ryn Gough was interviewed by James Fairweather in April 2019.