Windsor Castle has been my destination at least once a year for more than 40 years. Sometimes, I take the train; sometimes when I am with friends, we take a cab and divide up the tab–often turns out to be cheaper than the train. When I am fortunate, my friend Maureen will go with me. Poor Maureen, she is so tired looking at the WATERLOO CHAMBER and hearing my superlatives when the Red and Green Drawing Rooms are part of the castle tour. When we are allowed to wander down the Porcelain Corridor where I can enjoy all the Sevres, Minton, Chelsea, and Blanc de Chine, I am ecstatic for the moment. I am like a bubbling child who needs a bit of prodding to urge him along the passage. Well, Windsor draws me yearly, and every visit makes me imagine that Queen Victoria still haunts these glorious rooms.
I was visiting Windsor in January this year with some friends who came to London to spend the holidays with us. We had the most fun. We laughed and laughed–it was one of those occasions that just worked. Maureen took the five of us to Windsor, and the State Rooms were open, just waiting for us. The Queen had gone to Sandringham and left the castle for us to enjoy–almost all to ourselves. The State Dining Room with Queen Victoria’s mystical portrait over the mantle was set for a banquet: Minton plates, vermeil, engraved glasses, and splendid flowers. When we walked into the dining room, I had the most overpowering feeling that Victoria and Albert were not far away. After all, the Old Queen lived here for a very long time. Wasn’t she called the WIDOW OF WINDSOR during her years of deep mourning?
I have a confession to make. All these visits to Windsor included views of Eton College from the Castle’s North Terrace, but I never was curious enough to go down the hill to explore this most famous campus that the Duke of Wellington referred to when he said that THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO WAS WON ON THE PLAYING-FIELDS OF ETON.
When I told Maureen that I had never even driven through Windsor, she was more than surprised. I guess I was surprised as well. So off we went, leaving the parking lot at Windsor to make our way for eight miles to Eton. We ran into a student named Simon Bloor who took pity on us when we were trying to look like we knew what we were looking at. He became our guide, and we invited him to join us for dinner in return. What a successful experience–a real serendipity.
What did we learn? We were all eyes and ears, let me assure you. Eton College was founded by Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to seventy poor boys who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge, founded by the same King in 1441–one hundred years before Elizabeth I, can you imagine. Wow! Charity School? Hardly a Charity School today with a tuition of 25,000 pounds. I wonder what Henry VI would think about that.
When Henry VI founded the school, he granted it a large number of endowments, including much valuable land, a plan for formidable buildings. The King intended College Chapel to be the longest in Europe. He also presented religious relics, supposedly including a part of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns. He persuaded Pope Eugene IV to grant him a privilege unparalleled anywhere in in England: the right to grant Indulgences to penitents at Eton on the Feast of the Assumption.
As the years passed and Royal sponsorships dried up, the college depended on wealthy patrons. Many of the buildings today carry the names of these generous patrons.
The school is famous for its traditions, including a uniform of black tailcoat–the morning coat–and waistcoat, false collar and pinstriped trousers. All students wear a white tie that is effectively a strip of cloth folded over into the collar. Legend has it that the present uniform was first worn as mourning for the death of King George III. At one time, Etonian dress included a top hat and a walking cane! Can’t you see it today for 21st. century pupils? I don’t think so.
When Simonn told us that the teacher/pupil ratio is 1 teacher to every ten students, I was amazed. Classes sizes start at about 25 students the first year and often below ten by the final year. I was amused to learn that when the college was first established, the curriculum concentrated on prayers, Latin, and devotion. Yikes. Today, all boys must have laptops, and the school fiber-optic network connects all classrooms and all boys’ bedrooms to the internet.
At Eton, there are dozens of organizations known as societies, in which pupils come together to discuss a particular topic, presided over by a master, and often including a guest speaker. Some societies are dedicated solely to music, some to religion, some to languages, and so on. Recent guest speakers are Andrew Lloyd Webber, J.K. Rowling, Vivienne Westwood, Kevin Warwick, Boris Johnson, Rowan Atkinson, Ralph Fiennes, and King Constantine II of Greece. Not bad, eh?
Sports are a major aspect of life at Eton. The annual cricket match against Harrow at Lord’s Cricket Ground is the oldest fixture of the cricketing calendar, having been played there since 1805–the Prince Regent’s time. Dorney Lake in Buckinghamshire is owned by the college and will host the rowing events at the 2012 Summer Olympics and the World Junior Rowing Championship.
Films which were partially filmed at Eton include SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, THE SECRET GARDEN, MANSFIELD PARK, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE III, on and on.
Well, after all these years, I had my “feast” visit to Eton College. Here is what I suggest. Skip shopping in Windsor. Visit the Castle–give it a thorough visit. Then, grab a cab from Windsor town center for Eton. If you find an enthusiastic student, you are in luck. If not, drop into one of the shops and get a guide book and just EXPLORE.
When I was at Eton, my eyes were drawn to the magnificent view of Windsor Castle. Imagine Prince William attending Eton College with his Granny, the Queen, living just on the other side of the river. That must have given him pause.
What a wonderful day.