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The Australian school that educated the future King

2023-06-05 22:03:59 [Press center2] source:The New York Times

As the coronation approaches, there is a lifetime of moments to look back on which prepared King Charles for his role as monarch - including the time spent in what he has described as "by far the best part" of his education, his two terms at Timbertop in the mountains of south-eastern Australia.

Most of the future king's education was in British boarding schools, but in 1966 he was sent to a campus in rural Victoria offering a very different type of schooling, a long way from the more austere world of Gordonstoun in Scotland.

Timbertop was where the prince took a break from his royal duties and enjoyed a much quieter life, away from the relentless spotlight.

"While I was here I had the Pommy bits bashed off me," Charles said during a return visit to Australia. And despite describing the 70-mile hikes "in a blood-stained shirt" as "hell", he looked back with great affection on his short spell here, saying "it was good for the character".

The remoteness here at the rural campus of Geelong Grammar School helped keep away prying eyes, though the world's media was allowed to visit for a day soon after Charles arrived.

And in archive footage, the prince can be seen chopping logs with Stuart McGregor - a former pupil at Timbertop who was chosen by the school to be the royal's companion.

Mr McGregor occasionally returns here - and as we walk together around the grounds, he tries to remember all the different buildings and lodges, many since replaced by newer and more modern-looking structures.

"That's where I shared quarters with our King," he tells me.

The accommodation was basic and wasn't big, he says - certainly nothing like what the young prince was used to.

And Mr McGregor acknowledges that it must have been "pretty daunting" for the future monarch to "suddenly be thrust into a very small suite with someone he never knew".

"There was no snoring that I can remember," he laughs. "Perhaps I was guilty."

Mr McGregor clearly remembers what a contrast his friend experienced.

"Suddenly he was transported to a very different world," he says of the future King.

"It started out as almost bemusement, to some extent: 'What is going on? Why am I here?'"

But this "quickly resolved itself and he started to embrace the concept".

The prince was preparing for university during his time in Timbertop. As an older student, he took on a supervisory role - but still participated in the tough stuff.

And for today's pupils, it remains a robust programme - albeit an exclusive one. Fees are now more than A$75,000 (£42,000; $50,000) a year.

Today, Timbertop has girls as well as boys on the campus, which is a picturesque three-hour drive north of Melbourne.

In the grounds, half a dozen pupils hack at logs with axes. Others carry their spoils away in a wheelbarrow, ready to stoke the fire that ensures tomorrow morning's wash won't be icy.

"You have to chop wood to have hot showers," 14-year-old Tom Ward tells me.

"And if you don't have enough then you have cold showers, which is pretty unpleasant," he adds, smiling.

In a blacksmith's workshop 100 metres away there is more evidence of tradition. Getting hands on with molten iron isn't your typical school activity. But here everyone has a go - some proving better than others at keeping a steady hand as they strike the hot metal.

Mr McGregor says that he's stayed in touch with the King through the years - a friendship he values and keeps private.

"We were living in a different time," Mr McGregor says. "It was easier to have that informal relationship."

"As my King that changes the dynamics. I understand that," he says.

The decision to give Charles a few months in the High Country of Victoria came as a bit of a shock to Geelong Grammar - whose former pupils include the media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

"I'm not sure why the royal parents chose Timbertop," says Jeremy Madin, who attended the campus in the early 1960s and came back in 1983 as headmaster.

"They certainly wanted him to be in a practical environment, and learn to live with others, out of the hurly burly of royal engagements, and that's what happened. Security kept in the background.

"One of my brothers was there at the time, and thought he was a good guy. Simple as that - because he mucked in with everyone else."

Mr Madin also says that other boys weren't intimidated but "very interested" in the young prince.

"One of them called him a 'Pommy b*****d.' And he laughed."

Mr McGregor believes that those few months in 1966 were perhaps the first time that the young royal could be himself.

"The media were kept at bay… and I think it allowed him to develop in a way that wouldn't have been possible in other circumstances, and certainly not back in the English environment."

For the students here today, it is slightly surreal to know that the monarch was once in their shoes.

"It's a bit crazy to feel he has had that experience similar to mine, to have that connection," 14-year-old Abbie Lord says.

Tom Ward says it was an honour "doing pretty much the same as he did here".

He adds: "We've probably been in the same mountains, seen the same views. It's pretty incredible."

But while the mountains and views have not changed since 1966, in other ways, Australia has.

Australians rejected calls to become a republic in 1999. But many argue the Queen's death last year pushed the republican debate back to the fore.

"I said the next time we vote on this will not be before the end of the Queen's reign. Well, the Queen's reign has ended," former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told me after the death of Queen Elizabeth in September.

There's also a generational question. A number of young Australians told me they relate more to the younger royals than the generation of King Charles.

The debate about the British monarchy also brings on many difficult sentiments for Australia's First Nations people. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there's a renewed sense of trauma from the painful legacy of colonisation, and the role of the Crown in the displacement and violence enacted on indigenous Australians.

When the Queen's reign began, Aboriginal Australians were not even counted as part of the population.

If Charles returns as King, it would be a time of great sensitivity for the Royal Family. He'll need to convince a considerable part of the population that he, as head of state, still makes sense for Australia.

(editor-in-charge:Press center2)

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