The Romantic Allure of Stowe

The Romantic Allure of Stowe

Kenneth and John had never met before their first day at school in 1928. Stowe had only been operating as a school for five years when their respective families swept both boys into the grounds for the start of term. John’s parents, William and Jane, so impressed with JF Roxburgh when they met him for the first time in 1923, delighted in dropping their young son off at Grenville House. Like all those who arrive for the first time, the glory and elegance of the Mansion was imposing and intimidating in equal measure. As they were ushered into their first supper, Kenneth and John will have caught their first glimpse of the South Front and marveled at the extraordinary vista that greeted them. Roxburgh was keen that all Stoics should receive a well-rounded education and, as part of that, he encouraged them to explore the grounds and wide-open spaces of the Estate. He wanted them to be inspired by the splendour of Capability Brown’s gardens and develop a long lasting appreciation of the neo-classical architecture. He was passionate that his pupils should be absorbed by the romanticism of Stowe and was determined that this affection for their formative years would stay with them for the rest of their lives. This is exactly the effect it has had on four generations of my family as we approach the School’s Centenary.

My Great Uncle, Kenneth Roberts, became best of friends with my grandfather, John Gauvain. The two families got to know each other very well. Kenneth’s younger sister, Barbara (my grandmother) would relish the opportunity to leave her school at Westonbirt and race up to Stowe. She grasped at any opportunity to wonder through the exquisite grounds with her brother and his friends and, it was here that she struck up an early romantic friendship with John. John went up to Cambridge after finishing and from there he went on to read medicine at Barts and married Barbara. He joined the RAFVR as a young surgeon and was based in Egypt in 1944 when, in a scene not unlike Anthony Minghella’s sublime film, The English Patient, his two-seater aircraft crashed, inexplicably, as he returned to base after a dinner engagement in Cairo. Barbara was left widowed with three small children. Christopher, my father Timothy (Tim) and Penelope (who he never met).

The children grew up between Sussex and Ireland during their early years and Barbara remarried a gentleman called Peter Walsh. By quirk of coincidence, Peter’s son from his first marriage, Lt Col Ted Walsh (Temple 35), was an Old Stoic who went on to have a distinguished career in the Army before he retired and took up a post as Bursar at Stowe, where he served for many years. Given the association both Barbara and Peter had with the School and with plenty of support from my great-grandmother, Jane, who had been so inspired by Roxburgh all those years earlier, it was no surprise that Christopher and Tim would be sent to Stowe and, this time, to Temple House.

Christopher left Stowe to pursue a career in law and Tim went up to Cambridge to read Classics. It was here that he joined the Cambridge Air Squadron and rather than continuing the medical ambitions of the family, he joined the RAF in 1964. Roxburgh’s vision was not lost on Tim who was a frequent visitor to Stowe over the years and, twenty years later, I arrived at his alma mater as an only child to continue the family tradition and also going into Temple. My Great-Grandmother lived to see her grandson attend as a 3rd generation Stoic and she died later that year. Like all before me, I found it a big step up from my small prep school in Salisbury but it was the beginning of my own 35-year affection for Stowe and my unflinching belief that it remains the most beautiful school in the country. I took my wife, Alex, there after our engagement in 1993. On a perfect summer’s day and a walk around the extraordinary grounds and its temples, it captivated us so much that we decided to marry in Stowe Chapel on 16 April 1994. My father, who had learned to play the Organ at Stowe and went on to be a very accomplished player, proudly played us out to Widor’s Toccata as our exit voluntary. Countless Old Stoics attended along with my tutor, the late Peter Farquhar (Former staff, 1983-2004). Our best man was Jonathan Shillington (Temple 89), father to Micky Shillington (Bruce, Upper Sixth), Stowe’s current Head Boy.

In the Spring of 2013, I received a letter from Stowe to inform us that our son, Henry, was about to start as the School’s first ever 4th generation Stoic. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might not be others but we were very proud as we dropped him off for his first day in September of that year. Inevitably, the sun was shining, the gardens were lush, green and beautifully maintained and the Mansion was stunning after years of refurbishment. I genuinely felt a longing to dive back into it all and was so jealous as we drove back down towards the Oxford Water. Our younger son, George, joined Henry in 2015 and, as his time draws to a close next summer, we have enjoyed 7 very happy years attending as many matches, concerts and functions as possible.

The views remain the same, the clock chimes as it always did and even Plug Street still has its unmistakable smell that wafts around the lower floor and transports all Old Stoics to the bygone years of our own era. Back in the 1970s, my father’s stepbrother, Lt Col Ted Walsh (Temple 35), would stroll the grounds with his whippets when he was Bursar (he was a leading expert on the breed and wrote books about them). How fitting that our own whippets are forever present now as we visit the School nearly 50 years later.

The journey isn’t over for our romantic attachment to Stowe. Our daughter, Emily, is scheduled to join in September 2022 as the first female Gauvain and the last of our 4th generation to attend from the family. She is Jane’s great-great granddaughter, John’s great-granddaughter and Kenneth’s great-great niece. She looks forward to it immensely after years of battling the elements and supporting her brothers through school matches up at the Bourbon or on the North Front. The delicious match teas always her inspiration! We are delighted that we will have another five years in which to indulge ourselves in it all. John was at Stowe from 1929-1933, my father from 1955-1960, I attended from 1984-1989 and Henry was there from 2013-2018. In all cases, there was a gap of 23-24 years before the next generation arrived. Emily is scheduled to leave in 2027 when it will be just 15 years to go before 2042, 24 years after Henry left and 26 years after George. Will the trend continue? Might I dream of a 5th generation or is that just the old romantic in me? I do hope so.

Not everyone is enamored with his or her school days but Stowe has captivated my family for close to 100 years. Long may that continue and I am sure John and Kenneth will be smiling up there somewhere.

Toby Gauvain (Temple 89)