We are all still reeling from the sheer shock of Peter’s sudden death, which seems all the more incredible because of his larger-than-life character; alas, he proved not to be indestructible after all.

In all aspects of his life Peter was gregarious and good-humoured: whether you knew him as family, a friend, colleague, scout leader, teacher, gardener, backwoodsman, walking companion, caterer and Mine Host of many parties, making you laugh (and consequently cry out with pain) when visiting you in hospital, or just a casual acquaintance, his ready smile and cheerfulness were legendary.  He was a force of nature, who could not for long be wholly contained indoors.

Above all, Peter was a Yorkshireman, with all the vigour, individuality and strength of character that implies.  The village of Baildon, where he grew up with parents Elsie and Ted, although not far from Bradford, was a distinct place at that time. Peter was a country boy, who in considerable freedom, roamed over Baildon Moor and beyond.  Village life had its hazards though: if you stepped out of line at all, some grown-up was bound to recognise you and shop you to your mother, or at least threaten to do so!

The Russells didn’t have a car, which perhaps explains in part why Peter never regarded learning to drive as a rite of passage, or any kind of necessity.  There were day trips by charabanc, and summer holidays were reached by train.  Although as an adult travelling by car (as a passenger!) became entirely normal, Peter remained a keen user of public transport throughout his life.  Naturally his Yorkshire love of a bargain included enthusiasm for his free bus pass, which in the early years of his retirement – while Sarah was still at the chalkface – he used almost daily.  An early retirement expedition was to travel all round the circular no.11 route with Maeve Andronov and Pam Dewar: somehow it ended up being a highly-entertaining day out!

Although Peter grew up in West Yorkshire, Ted, his father, came from Birmingham and Peter’s cousins and many of the next generations continue to live locally.  He recalled many trips down to lively family gatherings, especially at Christmas and these parties have continued down the years.

After Bingley Grammar School, where he became Head Boy, Peter rejected the high-grade provisional offer from Pembroke College Cambridge, pointing out at the interview, with logic, if not great tact, that Birmingham University looked just as good and was a considerably less demanding offer!  He read Chemistry there, followed by a PGCE at Bristol, which, unusually, included a term teaching and living as a Housemaster at Bruton School, where despite his student status he was paid as a regular member of staff!  (It’s that canny Yorkshire –ness again!)

When Peter began his teaching career at King Edward’s School in September 1970 he certainly found some older colleagues to be a race apart, not least the somewhat classical turns of phrase employed by Canon Lunt, the Chief Master, who said, in the pre-term Common Room Meeting to his Director of Music:

“I have for you today prepared a hymnody”…

I don’t know if there is anyone here today who could vouch for this, but it’s hard to imagine that Peter – who was baffled by both the meaning and turn of phrase – would avoid reacting with audible amusement and incredulity!

Peter then had a young man’s outlook on life and indeed, in many ways he never lost that, whereas many staff at that time were, quite literally, of the old school. The science common room was truly a thing apart, where other staff, if not angels, feared to tread.  As someone put it: “for the uninitiated who chose to enter, usually in some trepidation, Peter could always be relied upon to present the human face.”

To quote another friend and colleague:

“Peter always managed to capture the funny side of things and when you heard him coming down the corridor you knew any existing sobriety in a room would quickly dissipate, as his infectious good humour would lighten and liven things up”.

APR was cheerfully impatient of any nonsense. Someone else noted, from the word go, his “sense of humour, always bubbling over, notably to relieve the boredom of Common Room meetings or to puncture any bullshit, pretension, arty-fartiness or delusions of grandeur, which he would deflate with ruthless irony and mockery.”

Peter’s energy and love of the great outdoors meant that he was soon involved with expeditions and the school scout troops, which he would go on to lead.  Recceing suitable places for camps – often “up north” – and the meticulous organisation of all the necessary paraphernalia appealed to him.  His quest for orderliness under canvas and menu-planning filtered down the years long beyond his scouting days.  On cottage holidays with close friends and with Sarah, Peter was always in charge in the kitchen.

Many former scouts have indelible memories of their adventures on camp with “Pedro”, whether in far-flung corners of Britain, or just sitting round the campfire at Andrews Coppice near Alvechurch, where Peter, as Warden, spent Friday afternoons for many years.

So many recent comments and memories of Peter focus on his affability and sense of humour that it’s easy to forget that he also had a serious side, albeit one that he kept largely out of view.  To quote from condolence messages, Peter “related to boys and staff alike with warmth and honesty”; he “would not take any adolescent nonsense, but he was also caring and kind”.  “Such teachers gave their time, their character and their energy to the boys”, enabling those pupils “to get to know adults who shared their passions and their idiosyncrasies”.  Peter had “an inspiring enthusiasm for his subject, both for teaching it to the boys, though he feigned the opposite and for educating his unscientific colleagues…His interests in science extended far beyond Chemistry… he was” perhaps “one of the early Ecologists”.

Very early in his time at KES, Peter demonstrated quick-thinking and heroism as related here by former colleague Alan Wright:

“On an expedition’s weekend I had been persuaded by senior boys to take the troop on three camping narrowboats on the canals from Braunston.  There were three adults, one per boat: myself, Peter and a former scout.  On the second morning all three boats set off quite early, to use the daylight.  Within 30 minutes, we saw from my lead boat that the 2nd boat, Peter’s, was diagonally across the canal.  We stopped, moored up and as I set off on the towpath to see the reason, boys from Peter’s boat ran to me with the message “Wilson is in the canal”.

This boy, a 4th former, who was at the helm, had fainted in the very cold air; no guard rail, so went overboard and sank.  Peter and a senior boy, Geoff Grimett, rescued him from under the surface, gave him resuscitation, called 999 and saved Wilson’s life.  It was heroic thinking and action for which I have ever been grateful.  Peter is one of my lifetime heroes to whom I am so hugely indebted.”

At 40, Peter seemed to be a confirmed bachelor, but in another twist of fate his life then changed.  With a certain element of predictability, KES had a hand in this too! His scout-leading days now over, Peter continued to go on Marine Biology courses, expeditions and other trips, including that summer, when Karl McIlwaine led a sailing course, at which the boys were joined by girls from Edgbaston Church of England College, where Karl’s wife Gill was a teacher.  The first day of the course was sunny and warm (the only day of such weather as it transpired…); Peter and a teacher from the girls’ school were relaxing on a leisurely sail with the instructor, when a fast-moving sailboard appeared, which was heading straight for them!  The instructor shouted an order – possibly “ready about”, to which this inexperienced crew said “eh?” and in a matter of seconds the boom swung across violently, the boat’s equilibrium was seriously compromised and thus the Wayfarer promptly capsized, dumping all three sailors with complete indignity in the muddy waters of Poole Harbour, much to the delight and amusement of their pupils.  And you know who that other teacher was, don’t you?

Somehow in that week, an unshakeable bond was formed and Peter and Sarah went on to spend the next 35 years happily together.  In their leisure time they fell in love with mid-Wales, and were to spend many happy weekends and holidays there.  The main event for Peter’s 70th birthday was at the site of their static caravan, where 16 guests were treated to a long weekend of celebration: Peter was, after all, the consummate party animal.

Peter retired at the end of the academic year in 2007.  He soon found ways to keep busy, including gardening, walking locally and – albeit with some frustration- doing the crossword.  He frequently made his way on public transport to the Welsh hideaways that he and Sarah valued so much and put in some time as a guard on the Bala Lake Railway, where they both helped out occasionally with “bushwhacking” – clearing small trees from the line-side.

As one of the volunteers from there put it “he was a lovely bloke”.

Sarah Russell (wife)


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