A sojourn into games journalism, this piece, The Mystery of St Bride’s, was for the Retro section of GamesTM magazine, and was published in issue #142.
The feature is an investigation into St Bride’s School, a fetishistic institution offering Victorian schoolgirl-style holidays for women in the early 1980s, which somehow had a sideline in publishing text adventure computer games. Researching this was real down-the-rabbit-hole stuff: the more I found out, the stranger it got. There was a bit of back-and-forth in the edit between my interest in what happened to the women operating the school after it closed, and the magazine’s (not unreasonable) desire to stay as focused on the games as possible. What follows is my own preferred draft. Scans of the feature as it appeared in the magazine are at the end of the page.
THE MYSTERY OF ST BRIDE’S
“Today you’ve a mystery to solve. Last night you arrived at St Bride’s. The mistresses and girls really believe they are in an old style boarding school. You even wonder if you’re not a bit mad to think you’re from the 1980s. You want to find out what’s going on while you still can… Your adventure starts here…”
So begins The Secret of St Bride’s, the inaugural text adventure from the programming hotbed at St Bride’s School: a very peculiar institution operating out of a rackety old house in Burtonport, County Donegal. The set-up for the game echoed a carefully constructed and maintained aura of mystery around the place itself, advertised in the early ‘80s broadsheets as a place where women could go to re-live a St Trinians-style boarding school childhood they’d never actually experienced. “St Bride’s offers a standard classical curriculum,” ran the prospectus, “the cardinal subjects being Mathematics, Elementary Latin, Grammar and Literature. The day begins with the rising bell at half past seven… Our girls receive the healthy benefit of lively sea air and fresh open countryside, and in the matter of sunshine, so vital to the health of growing children, we are singularly well favoured.” The School also boasted facilities such as “a modern gramophone which may sometimes be used by an unsupervised group of girls providing that great care is taken to avoid overwinding”.
“We used, all the time, to see a lady around Burtonport wearing very old fashioned clothes and a little white bonnet,” recalls Catherine McGlynn of Irish tourism website Holiday Donegal. “She drove a very old style black car. I wonder if she was the maid of the house?” She was not. Two such women were actually running the whole show at St Bride’s: using pseudonyms, never seen out of Victorian costume, and advocating a return to the values of that era. Among their many side-projects was a campaign to abolish the metric system – motto “Don’t Give an Inch” – of which Sir Patrick Moore was a patron. Anachronistically, they published computer games, but this, says Clem Chambers, former head of their occasional publishers CRL (and now a financial pundit and author), was some way from being the weirdest thing about them. “It was certainly a strange set-up,” he chuckles, “but these were the days when you could go on holiday to Colditz and play at escaping and all that wish-fulfilment kind of stuff. That they operated a holiday school and published games was comparatively not odd…”
Trying to investigate St Bride’s is both an intriguing and frustrating experience. The people that know the answers remain determinedly secretive, while the people that are willing to talk tend to be fascinated but mystified. Each step along the timeline simply yields further questions. Even the journalists that visited the school during its 8-bit heyday were none the wiser when they left.
The facts, as far as they can be ascertained, start with the house itself, still standing and commonly known in Burtonport as the Atlantis House, after the Atlantis Foundation, who inhabited it before St Bride’s. Initially a hippy-ish commune of “free thinkers”, they became infamous for their use of primal scream therapy: roaring out one’s inner turmoil to attain a purer state of consciousness. They were quickly dubbed the “Screamers” by the Burtonport locals, and subsequently relocated offshore to the island of Inishfree to escape increasing press intrusion. Legend had it, with the right weather conditions, you could stand on the Burtonport harbour and hear their banshee wailing coming across the water.
This was in the ‘70s, and sometime in the early ‘80s, the vacant house was taken over by a small all-female community inspired by a “sapphically inclined” student club founded at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall. The club’s founding members had gradually created a complex philosophy and fantasy world called “Aristasia”, which posited two female “sexes” – dominant brunettes and submissive blondes – and encouraged retreat from the modern world. They referred to the swinging ‘60s, deemed to be the beginning of civilisation’s end, as “The Eclipse”, while the real world outside Aristasia was designated “The Pit”.
With the Atlantis Commune departed, the Aristasian women rechristened the house St Bride’s (after the 5th-Century Irish abbess and miracle-worker). Candida Crewe, who visited for the Telegraph magazine, described it as like stepping into a Gothic novel where “a single candle flickered behind a lace curtain, guests were invited into a parlour heated only by a feeble coal fire, and the mistress of the house greeted her guests wearing a long black dress and white lace collar”.
This mistress is now best known by the name Marianne Martindale, although she was then calling herself Marianne Scarlett, and has also at various times gone by the monikers Miss Partridge, Miss Traill, Mari De Colwyn, Brighe Dachcolwyn and Clare Tyrell. “One’s real name is the name one is using at the time,” was the explanation given to Sinclair User’s Bill Scolding.
Scolding and Crash’s John Minson (both of whom spoke to me but claim memory loss), along with three other cohorts from the ‘80s computing press, took the opportunity for a visit to the school when they were called to Ireland for a junket publicising the gimmicky Surf Champ (the game that came with a plastic surfboard that fitted over the Spectrum’s rubber keys). Minson wrote it up for Crash as a kind of Hunter S. Thompson road trip: “We were just outside Rossnowlagh on the Atlantic coast when the Guinness began to take hold…”
No amount of Guinness, it seemed, was enough to cushion the culture shock. After a tortuous journey that hadn’t looked tricky on the map, he wondered if he hadn’t fallen through a time warp, arriving at a place that didn’t even have electric lights. Incumbent computer programmers seemed unlikely.
The anachronism is explained to some extent by the arrival as a “pupil” of Priscilla Langridge, who, the story goes, heretically brought a Commodore 64 with her and apparently found the school’s only plug socket. “Langridge” (her real name at the time) had responded to one of the newspaper advertisements offering idiosyncratic escape from normality for £120 a week, and had bought into the fantasy enough that she’d stayed on. Martindale was initially sceptical about the computer, but Langridge told Minson “she realised that unlike television, which she thinks is passive and mind-rotting, computer games call for concentration and commitment”.
“I didn’t have any knowledge of computers,” Martindale elaborated to Scolding. “My experience was in thinking backwards. But I found they were wonderful, they were magical. I’m a great fan of racing car games.”
[Edit / Footnote – August, 2016: I recently stumbled on an interesting message board post discussing this feature. “Miss Enderby” at Fuchsia Couverture believes that this story is likely untrue. “I’m not so sure that Miss Langridge really arrived at the school as a pupil with a Commodore c64 computer under her arm in the way that Miss Scarlett told the computing press at the time,” she muses. “How likely is it that a lady would pay money to experience a ‘getting away from the modern world’ break and take a computer with her? Another explanation may lie behind that. It is likely that Miss Scarlett and Miss Langridge were already acquainted and probably set up the St. Bride’s commune together.
“Miss Langridge is an interesting and ethereal figure in the history of St.Brides and Aristasia,” she goes on. “[She] never appeared in any of the photographs published by the computer magazines back in the 1980s. It seems likely that Miss Langridge is a sort of ‘catch-all’ name, used to describe anyone who is accompanying Miss Martindale at any given time that a journalist etc, meets her. If you imagine a member of the computer press meeting Miss Langridge at St. Bride’s and a visitor meeting Miss Langridge ten years later at Snaresbrook – they have both met Miss Langridge … but they have not necessarily both met the same Miss Langridge. ‘Real names are the names that one is using at the time.’ As the article says – the people who do know, won’t tell, and the people who will tell, don’t really know. I’m prepared to tell… but I wasn’t there and I really don’t know anything for sure…”]
A wheeze enjoyed by the St Bride’s girls on their afternoon rambles, in which they “noticed odd things, pretended they were clues, and worked out the connections between them” became the basis of The Secret of St Bride’s. Langridge wrote it using the adventure programming software Quill, beginning on her C64 and later migrating to the Speccy. Already apparently a writer before she came to St Bride’s, she told Minson she had found the economical two-word inputs of the text adventure format creatively liberating. “People make a fetish of excess sophistication,” she mused.
Ultimately, St Bride’s were responsible for eight completed games, but the release history is chequered, and a handful written in the ‘80s seem not have surfaced until the early ‘90s when they were picked up by re-release houses GI Games and Zenobi. The Secret of St Bride’s introduced both the school and heroine Trixie Trinian, and was a mail-order affair from the school itself: advertised with lascivious images of a stocking’d, high-heeled, St Trinian’s-type schoolgirl.
The Secret of St Bride’s sees the player (as Trixie Trinian) waking one morning in 1985 (in “a holiday centre in Ireland where you experience old-fashioned storybook schoolgirl life”) to discover that all evidence points to the year actually being 1927. Initial escapades include donning a gown to get past the some stern mistresses; and of course, judiciously using a mouse to frighten off a charging elephant. Outside the school you encounter both village life (the local “peeler” will arrest you at the drop of a gymslip) and some fantasy creatures, before you head for town, marry a maharaja, and track down the mysterious authoress Ms. Merlin who has the power to send you back to your own time. There’s also an epilogue with a magic amulet, should you choose to indulge.
It is, obviously, all a jolly silly lark, but it sows the seeds of most of the subsequent St Bride’s adventures: humour, fantasy, and a strong emphasis on wilfully independent female characters: although Martindale and Langridge always insisted at the time that they weren’t writing games just for girls. Trixie reappeared in The Very Big Cave Adventure (spoofing the original text epic Colossal Caves), this time as your guide and narrator. She was, it turned out fond of terrible puns (the bull that believes your outrageous lie is a “gully bull”; when you blow it up it’s “a bomb in a bull”) and of commenting on the proceedings themselves. “The description of this room is very misleading,” she apologises at one point. “I’d complain if I were you.”
Also wilfully independent – to the extent that she sometimes takes control of the game away from the player – is Gerda, heroine of The Snow Queen: based, obviously, on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale and intended as the first in a series of “interactive books” (games based on Alice in Wonderland and Raffles were also mooted but never materialised). And there was another modern-day schoolgirl – Petra Stone – at the centre of Silverwolf, in which the player can switch between four female characters. An accompanying comic was proposed and designed, but seems never to have been published, and may have contributed to Silverwolf’s much-belated appearance. Another game tying into a proposed St Bride’s comic, the superheroine adventure Wondergirl, never materialised at all.
What did appear on game shop shelves, thanks to the efficiency of CRL, was Bugsy: the strange tale of a gangster rabbit rising through the Chicago mob via protection rackets and booze-running until he’s big enough to take down Al Capone. Like Trixie, Bugsy is grudgingly respectful if you do well at the game, but basically has little patience with “keyboard bashers”. “If you ain’t figured dat dis street leads east/west by now, I ain’t gonna tell ya,” he growls.
And of course, there was Jack the Ripper: a gruesome literary horror game, the solution to which involved wielding the pure and wonderful female soul essence of one of Jack’s victims to end his reign of terror. Interestingly, solving the mystery of the Ripper’s identity is irrelevant, and after a first two-thirds around the streets and houses of Victorian London, the final, utterly bizarre stretch has you wrestling with baffling Masonic puzzles in a subterranean underverse.
“They were great games,” remembers Chambers. “They were anachronistic to their supposed ethos, but I think, basically, St Bride’s were in business: they were doing it on a commercial basis, however un-commercial they may have looked! In those days, once you got past a certain level of complexity, you didn’t need incredibly specialised skills to write computer games. I think they realised the games were a brilliant idea to publicise their school, and obviously they were right: they got buckets of press.” (Jack the Ripper was the first game to be given an 18 certificate by the BBFC: something Chambers now cheerfully admits was PR “trolling”.)
The games, as Chambers rightly suspects, turn out to have been part of a wider business portfolio that also included handmade costumes (“silk, satin and lace dresses, styles from 1800 to 1940, also maidservants’ uniforms” ran a small ad) and a publishing house, The Wildfire Club, through which the school published lesbian periodicals (Artemis, The Romantic and others) and books by Martindale such as The District Governess and The Female Disciplinary Manual.
It’s here that we come to the crux of what was going on at St Bride’s. Was it an innocuous institution for role-playing eccentrics, or was there something more fetishistic in its make-up? The answer appears to be both. On the one hand, it was a sort of “romantic retreat where 19th century values, politeness and dressmaking were preferred to the tawdry modern world”, but in investigating St Bride’s and its subsequent iterations, the word “discipline” comes up a lot. In the early ‘90s, before the school eventually closed, Martindale was convicted of caning a pupil rather more enthusiastically than the recipient would have liked. “Whenever I have a maid, she receives corporal punishment,” she told The Independent’s Rosie Millard in 1995. “I have always beaten my maids.”
[Edit / Footnote – August, 2016: Miss Enderby’s post again contains a pertinent quote. “The intention was to run a communal farm and live a self sufficient life but this did not work out. The boarding school idea came along later. Life at St. Bride’s was a life of strict discipline – but that means strict self-discipline and a rather noble and Spartan lifestyle, not the kind of ‘discipline’ that later became a feature of Aristasian life. St. Bride’s offered early rising, midnight snacks in the dorm, difficult lessons and gym exercises. Caning etc came along later and proved the downfall of the commune.”]
Following an unspecified disagreement with their landlord, the Sisters of St Bride’s decamped in 1993 to Oxford (where Chambers once bumped into them, “still fully garbed out in all their crinolines”) and then to London: specifically to Whipps Cross (no, really) near Epping Forest. Priscilla Langridge disappears from the narrative sometime prior to the London arrival, but the St Bride’s “experiment” continued under Martindale’s aegis, reverting to the “Aristasia” name but still manifesting as a school.
There was again much spanking, witnessed in a 1996 Channel 4 documentary. But Martindale’s sidetracking Aristasia into an overemphasis on fetish (whether she admitted that was what it was or not) seems to have annoyed many of her peers until she was effectively “silenced”. For a time she was the female columnist for the whimsical gentlemen’s periodical The Chap, but there’s even mystery here. Editor Gustav Temple remembers inviting her to a Chap party, only for a stranger to show up: “I said, ‘Oh… you don’t look very much like your pictures’. And this woman smiled and said, ‘There are many Miss Martindales’… So we then weren’t sure who exactly had been writing for us.”
Aristasia gradually became a sprawling online community (there’s that disconnect between keeping it pre-‘60s real and using technology again) and eventually factionalised and broke apart; its “intellectual descendents” metamorphosed once again into something called The Daughters of Shining Harmony, while Miss Martindale ultimately resurfaced as Mary Guillermin, working as a spiritual relationship counsellor in Topanga, California. An Aristasian embassy still stands in Second Life. It once promised “groups of girls to be found chatting at all hours of night and day”, but it’s eerily quiet there now.
The Burtonport St Bride’s house too stands empty, vaguely known still (among those who know it at all) as the home of The Screamers and the strange women that came after them. Tracing the fate of its former inhabitants may lead in unexpected directions, but its principal legacy, though modest, perhaps remains those eight simple games from the ‘80s. Easily available at the click of an emulator, they allow a glimpse into a female-centric world where fantasies could be indulged: whether they be of schoolgirl shenanigans, fairytale quests or gothic sleuthing. Three decades on, while the games industry still struggles to incorporate female protagonists in any meaningful way, it’s worth remembering that St Bride’s were there first, creating worlds where Trixie Trinian and Petra Stone could take decisive charge. It’s just a shame that, among all the peripheral weirdness, nobody noticed.