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The Back Story
John & Jill Sturdy.jpg

We are often asked how we 'got into' education. As usual the story is a mixture of nature, nurture and luck, both the bad and the good varieties. In this section I outline some of those factors, highlighting especially the extraordinary legacy of Jill Sturdy, my mother.

This page explains some of the background - the ever expanding family, the early attempts to understand the brain through simple connectionist models, then the revelatory discovery of the internet.

Next comes the development of three internet-hospitality businesses in Cambridge:

Then a look at our three educational businesses in Cambridge:

Next our three projects to develop a sustainable outdoor business:

  • Abington Woods       Rolls Court Farm    The Wilderness

And finally, trying to build something combining Head, Heart and Hands in Gloucestershire:

  • Black Book Cafe      The Malthouse Bar and Kitchen    Wotton House International

Rev John Sturdy and Jill Sturdy admiring a new grandchild

Why would anyone open a school? It seems like a strange thing to do. For the first few years you have to be a general dogsbody, doing all the jobs that no-one else wants to do or has time to do. There is very little financial reward and a huge commitment of time and energy, When inspections go badly or prospective families turn you down it can be a depressing experience. But when it goes well it is one of the most rewarding things it is possible to do.


We found ourselves getting into the school business through a series of unusual events. As with most people there were three formative influences. Firstly, my father was an academic in the theology department at Cambridge University. He loved second-hand books, ancient languages, dilapidated churches and unfashionable restaurants. Secondly, my mother was a dynamic entrepreneur, a lover of literature and bookshops, and someone with a passion for nurturing children. Thirdly, siblings.


We became a very unusual, very large, very international family. We fostered many children and adopted many – nine altogether, from all over the world. Pakistan, West Indies, Hong Kong, China, British Guyana, Ghana … our mother used to say that we were a mini United Nations. Family life was loud, argumentative, complicated, very often acted out around a large dining table.

Dan and Jill Sturdy.jpeg
Dan & John as babies.jpeg
Sturdy Brothers.jpeg
Sturdy Family.jpeg

Some of us tried the academic route first. My older brother studied computing at Cambridge and did his PhD in Bath before working as a lecturer in Ireland and then for a series of start-up technology companies. One of my sisters studied History at Durham and then did her PhD in Glasgow. 


I studied Psychology at Oxford University where I learnt lots of things, most of them nothing to do with the syllabus. Firstly, college life was stifling. Insular and self-satisfied, it managed to seem both intimidating and petty at the same time. Secondly, department life was revelatory and inspiring. Experimental Psychology shared a huge modern building with Zoology down South Parks Road. The exterior was brutalist but the interior was superbly designed in that to reach any of the staff offices for tutorials you had to walk through a large open-plan cafe area. It was impossible to walk through without overhearing snippets of three or four conversations, all of which sounded interesting and important.

Thirdly, I discovered that psychology really didn't have the answers to any of the important questions, but it was just discovering a new model (perhaps a paradigm) which might just help provide some of the answers. I was lucky enough to be allowed to attend graduate-level seminars in this new field, which then was called Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) or Linear Associative Matrix Memories (LAMMs). Shortly afterwards the field became known in cognitive psychology as connectionism, and in Artificial Intelligence as Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs). Nowadays most machine learning uses artificial neural networks and the promise of the field (in the mid 1980s) is beginning to be fulfilled (nearly 40 years later). 

Rev J Sturdy.jpeg
Rev John Sturdy.jpeg

John Sturdy doing his famous One Man Went to Mow in Swahili at a Caius Christmas party.


St John's College, Oxford.


Ml733, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Although I didn't know it at the time the Experimental Psychology building was called the Tinbergen Building and was Oxford University's largest building. It was designed by Sir Leslie Martin (in 1965, although not opened until 1971). Martin's most famous building was the Royal Festival Hall in London but he also designed Harvey Court, one of Caius College's halls of residence, where we used to play as children rolling down the strange inverted cone-shaped holes in the lawn, and the extension to Kettle's Yard art gallery in Cambridge to display the works of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. 

Very sadly the Tinbergen building has now been demolished after the discovery of large amounts of asbestos. Psychology is now in a temporary home in Oxford pending the completion of a rather grandiose looking "Life and Mind" building, prominently sponsored by Legal and General!

Discovering connectionism, and in particular a paper by my tutor at Oxford, Alan Allport, was one of the lightbulb moments of my life (there have been four real ones and a number of fake ones. How to tell them apart – that is hard!). Allport's paper described very recent work being done by von der Malsburg called dynamical connectionism which looked hugely exciting. This was a field I wanted to work in, so I looked around for PhD opportunities and discovered a new centre being set up in Stirling University, to be called the Centre for Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience (CCCN).


My interview was with Bill Phillips, a wonderful enthusiast for both cognitive psychology and outdoor living and I was hooked immediately. I spent three very happy years, climbing real mountains, albeit small ones, discovering lochs and isolated islands, and watching the Centre grow and attract big names like Roger Watt from Cambridge's Psychology Department.


Christoph von der Malsburg

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dan after PhD viva.jpeg

The new Dr Daniel Sturdy immediately after his viva. Bill Phillips on left, looking relieved.


University of Stirling Archives, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Mikael Häggström, M.D. CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Issue One of Internet magazine

Roger Green, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With my Ph.D under my belt I returned to Cambridge to continue working as a post-doctoral student on neuroscientifically-plausible computational models of the visual system with particular reference to the processes involved in reading. My post was at the Medical Resarch Council's Applied Psychology Unit (MRC APU), long a pioneer in trying to make psychological research useful in the real world. My hope was to combine Roger Watt's model of the visual system with a von der Malsburg-type neural network. Unfortunately my programming skills were not up to the ask but I contributed to some other useful pieces of work and took a course in brain dissection at the Department of Anatomy which left its mark. The smell and the rubbery texture of the preserved brain are very hard to forget!


Then, in 1994, we discovered the World Wide Web. Jaap Murre and I had been doing some research on computational psycholinguistics and we wanted to compare certain features of English and Dutch. Lots of information existed on statistical properties of English but almost none for Dutch. We didn't want to manually enter thousands of words into a database so we weren't sure how to proceed – until we found the entire Dutch language had already been stored online and could be downloaded in its entirety and for free! I remember watching it download (slowly) and realising that nothing would be the same again – my second lightbulb moment. I started reading about the Internet, or the Information Superhighway as it was known then, and coming across the idea of a cybercafe. None yet existed at that time in the UK and so I made the decision to escape academia and become an entrepreneur. 


Roberto Palomo / Leonel Valse / Doris Salvador, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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