PUBLISHED: 16:58 16 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:22 20 February 2013
School may be out for the summer, but Eton College makes for a fascinating visit. Tessa Harris joins the tourists and takes a tour...
IMAGES: Greg Evans
If you've ever been to the town of Eton, you'll know it's a good walk down the High Street to Eton College itself. In the summer you may well come across parties of tourists marching towards the popular attraction but many locals seldom venture down to the world's most famous school, allowing themselves to be side-tracked by the many attractive boutique shops along the way. But you don't have to have travelled half way round the world to be completely enchanted by the College itself...
I booked myself in on a guided tour one Friday afternoon recently and found I was the only English person out of five. There were three Americans, one Japanese and one other European (I think) and we were treated to an hour of non-stop fascinating facts and sights worthy of any major European art gallery or museum.
Our guide on this particular afternoon was extremely well qualified. Beatrice Corry has had four sons educated at Eton and her youngest is now teaching Biology and Chemistry at the school.
Our tour started off in the School Yard by the statue of Henry VI who was only 18 himself when he decided to found 'The King's College of our Lady of Eton beside Windsor.' in 1440. The tradition is for Etonians to pass the statue on their left so that their founder is closer to their hearts. Henry chose the spot apparently so that he could watch it grow from his castle battlements at Windsor. Here 70 scholars would receive free education, guided and taught by a community of secular priests.
The yard's cobblestones have been worn away by millions of scholars' feet over the centuries and a health and safety official would, no doubt, have a field day pointing out the uneven surfaces, but it all adds to the extraordinary atmosphere of the place. The sense of history is palpable.
The yard itself is dominated by the tower that resembles the one at Hampton Court Palace. No wonder, it was built by the same architect. The yard also bears more than a passing resemblance to its sister college, King's, Cambridge, which was also founded by Henry VI. In fact the two quadrangles are so alike that when Chariots of Fire producer David Puttnam, now Lord, was told he could not film the famous race around the quadrangle where it had originally taken place, he was forced to move to Eton. In his autobiography the actor Nigel Havers, who played Lord Lindsay in the film, actually commented: '...everyone agreed that, if anything, Eton looked better than the real thing!'
The original school building, completed in 1443, remains on the north side of the imposing quadrangle and is still in use as a classroom to this day. Entering the long low building you'll see names carved around its stone lintels. There are hundreds more of these monikers gouged into desks that date back more than three hundred years. What's more, there are no cordons or ropes around them, so you can actually sit on the seats where thousands of scholars have sat before.
Of course up until early last century every boy carried a knife to sharpen his quill and later his pencil and he naturally wanted to leave his mark for posterity. Far from being discouraged as an act of vandalism, one of the rewards for gaining a scholarship to the College's sister foundation King's, at Cambridge, was to have your name carved in the classroom shutters. On the third shutter along you'll see the name 'Robert Walpole' - Britain's first Prime Minister - engraved in the dark wood.
The classroom itself is very long and narrow and was originally partitioned, or 'divided' so that different classes could be held. The term 'div', from division, is still used to mean a lesson today. It's just one of a number of words peculiar to Eton College's very own language that has evolved over the centuries (see below).
The cloisters are a reminder of the College's religious past and it's here that you'll see several memorials to former pupils who have given their lives in the service of their country. More recently, there is a plaque to the memory of Colonel 'H' Jones, who fell so valiantly during the Falklands War.
We are on our way to the Chapel which forms the centrepiece of the tour. It is hugely impressive, but only half the size Henry V1 had intended. His early demise and the Wars of the Roses scuppered his original plans for a massive structure and meant that a former Provost of Eton, Bishop Waynflete, had to step in to save both the College and the Chapel.
The Chapel itself is made of stone from Normandy and sadly its Victorian stained glass windows were blown out by a bomb in 1940 that fell in the School Yard. Nevertheless the windows were replaced by artist Evie Hone of Dublin. The designs for the other windows are by John Piper.
Also of note is the priceless Burne-Jones tapestry that hangs above the altar, which was woven on the William Morris looms at Merton Abbey.
It is the paintings on the walls of the Chapel, however, that deserve the most attention. They are the work of at least four master painters who, with their assistants, took eight years to complete them between 1479 and 1487. They depict miracles and a mythological story about an Empress but were whitewashed over by the College barber in 1560 by order of the Protestant authorities.
Almost three centuries later, it was only the eagle eye of a housemaster in 1847 that saved them from being lost forever. Calling in one day to see how workmen were progressing, he spotted faint lines on the walls and halted work immediately. Sadly it was too late to save almost half the frescoes, but the rest remain. Yet it was not until 1923 that they were revealed in all their glory by the removal of stall canopies. They were subsequently cleaned and restored and their beauty and scale is breath-taking.
The guided tour ends up at The Museum of Eton Life, situated in the vaulted undercroft of College hall, which was once used as a wine and beer cellar. Over 400 exhibits illustrate the life and history of the College over the years, right up to the present day with a video of contemporary life at the school.
From the 70 scholars for whom Henry provided, the school has expanded to about 1,307 boys aged from 13 to 18. The scholars are admitted by competitive examination. The remainder, known as 'Oppidans', are distributed between 24 boys' houses.
In the museum are paintings and photographs of many of the famous Old Etonians who have contributed so much to the life of our nation, from politicians and poets to explorers and soldiers. In fact tradition has it that if an Old Etonian is elected Prime Minister - there have been 19 of them over the past 250 years - the whole school is given a holiday. I wonder who they want to win the next election - former Kirkcaldy High School pupil Gordon Brown or alumni David Cameron?
Here is a glossary of the words commonly used by Eton College pupils:
Beak A Master, i.e. teacher, whether male or female.
Bill If a boy misbehaves, he may be placed 'On the Bill', which means that the Head Master or Lower Master will see him and rebuke or punish him appropriately.
Burning Bush An antique lamp-post conveniently positioned right in the centre of Eton and hence often used as a meeting point.
Capping Acknowledging a Master when passing him out of doors.
Colleger One of the seventy King's Scholars. Collegers have KS after their surname in School lists.
The Dame She assists the house master in running his House.
Div A lesson: "I was late for div this morning".
Dry Bobs Cricketers.
Half A term: Michaelmas, Lent, Summer.
Oppidan Any boy who is not a Colleger
Passing The test in swimming which boys are required to pass before they are allowed on the river.
Pop The school prefects, more properly known as The Eton Society.
Provost The chairman of Eton's governing body.
Slab A place in a House where messages etc can be left, and where boys tend to congregate.
Slack Bobs Boys who neither row nor play cricket.
Sock To give something, usually something to eat.
Stick-Ups A wing collar with white bow tie worn with school dress by senior boys who have distinguished themselves in various specific ways.
Wet Bobs Rowers.
Famous Old Etonians
According to the College itself there are 'about 450' famous Old Etonians, 'not counting fictional characters.' Eighteen Old Etonians have been Prime Minister of Great Britain and one has been Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
Other famous alumni include the poet Shelley, Henry Fielding, Eric Blair (George Orwell) and, of course, the Duke of Wellington. In more recent times the school has given us:
Bond creator Ian Fleming
Explorer Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes
1st Earl of Snowdon Antony Armstrong-Jones
Olympic gold medallist Sir Matthew Pinsent
Jazz musician and presenter Humphrey Lyttleton (pictured)
TV cook and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis (pictured)
Actor Hugh Laurie
HRH Prince William of Wales
HRH Prince Harry of Wales
Explorer Bear Grylls
Mayor of London Boris Johnson
Leader of the Opposition David Cameron
Casual admission costs £4.20 for adults, £3.45 for senior citizens and children.
The admission fee gives the casual visitor access to School Yard, College Chapel, the Cloisters, and the Museum of Eton Life throughout the season.
Daily Guided Tours for individuals and families cost £5.50 for adults, £4.50 for children over eight, free for children under eight, senior citizens £4.50. Tours last around one hour, starting at 2.15pm and 3.15pm during the open season (March-early October).
For more information call 01753 671177.