ON SATURDAY,a private girls' school opened its gates to the general public as part of the London-wide open gardens day. Reporter DAVID BAKER took the opportunity to speak to some of the school's longest serving staff members and find out more about its 30-acre grounds and history.

MORE than 1,000 schoolgirls walk through the gates of North London Collegiate every school day, but how many of them are aware of its rich history and that it was once a much revered palace?

Nearly 300 years ago the grounds of Canons Park, where the school now stands, was home to James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos, and has been praised by the great and the good such as the author Daniel Defoe. Composer Handel also produced some of his greatest works here.

Its expansive grounds stretched from London Road to Whitchurch Lane and between Stone Grove and Marsh Lane - dominating much of Edgware and parts of Stanmore.

Designed around a spectacular landscape and fitted with canals, lakes, fountains and ostentatious buildings, it was considered one of the greatest sites in England. The 30-acres today is still stunning.

Groundsman Richard Jobling has been largely responsible for the upkeep of the beautiful grounds - having dedicated nearly 25 years to it.

He said: "The opportunity to showcase the grounds at the open day was fantastic and I am extremely proud of it. In the past 20 years the school has added a swimming pool, a sports hall and a performance arts studio, but fortunately it has kept much of the gardens which we feel set it apart from a lot of other schools.

"It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to maintain the site but it's absolutely worthwhile.

"Just last week I saw a girl leave a classroom, pick one of the flowers I planted and say... I love my school. That's always nice to hear."

In his time at the school, the 55-year-old has unsurprisingly become very attached to the grounds, having lived on site and raised his 16-year-old daughter there.

He added: "It is very difficult to detach yourself from something that you have witnessed change and helped to develop for so long.

"I have planted more than 1,000 trees in my time here, seen my daughter grow up with the chance to use the facilities, and seen families have their wedding photos here - including my brother's."

Mr Jobling also met Prince Charles and gave him a bonsai tree that he had nurtured for many years as well as look after the few remaining cedar trees which date back as far as 250 years.

But it is not just the grounds that have a fascinating history.

The school itself, formerly based in Camden Town, is considered to be the first school to provide girls with a similar level of education to boys.

Its founder, Frances Mary Buss, coined the term headmistress and is said to have wanted 'girls to be educated like their brothers'.

When it relocated to Harrow in 1929, it bought the 'Old House' on the site - retaining one the most prominent buildings of the grounds heritage.

Pupils began to arrive just before the Second World War and the independent school has helped launch careers for ex-students including poet Stevie Smith, birth control pioneer Marie Stopes, television presenter Esther Rantzen and movie star Rachel Weisz.

A heritage the school is very proud of and keen to share.

Head librarian and archivist, Karen Morgan, said: "When the 'Old House' was bought by the school it was actually used like a country annex for the girls who travelled here for sports events, but by the beginning of the war it became the school's site.

"Because of what has been here in the past, the site itself is like a history lesson. We have an archive dedicated to the history of the site and we do get children involved in finding out about its past.

"But it's not just pupils here that are interested in the site. We get lots of historians and members of the media arranging appointments to use the archive and people are also welcome to use the facilities."

The school also has a tradition of churning out some of the best exam results in the country and was voted independent school of the year in both 2001 and 2006.

The archive can be accessed by appointment only on 020 8951 6430 or email nclslib@ncls.org.uk

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