One important difference between grammar schools and public schools was that, whereas boys usually entered the first form of a grammar school at the age of eleven, new boys usually arrived at public schools at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Most went into the Third Form (there was not First or Second Form) and spent one, two or three terms there before the two years leading to O-Level.
Because of that variety there were, understandably, no very clear arrangements for what was taught in History classes in the Third Form. My experience of wandering round the grounds led me to decide that it would make sense to make use of the grounds, with all its temples, monuments and other objects of interest to devise for new boys a distinctive form of local history, which could be spread over one, two or three terms.
From the South Front of the main building, one could look out beyond the grass sweeping down to the Octagon Lake, across the Octagon to the Ionic pavilions and, in the distance, to the Corinthian Arch. To the left of the South Front vista was a Doric Arch, so the Doric Arch, the Ionic pavilions and the Corinthian Arch could act as an introduction to the three main orders of architecture of Greek antiquity. Through the Doric Arch there was a carefully contrived view of ‘Stowe Castle’ on the far horizon. It was an illusion. What one was seeing was a couple of cottages with small battlements on their roofs, giving the impression of a distant castle.
The Temple of Friendship, gutted by fire long ago and now a romantic ruin, was where Whig aristocrats, Cobham’s Cubs, used to meet in the 18th century to agree their political plans. Up the hill from the Palladian Bridge was an area designed to look like an idyllic English rural landscape, ideally decorated with sheep and cows and milkmaids, and with a Gothic Temple, certainly gothic in appearance, but scrupulously classical in design. At the top of the hill was the Queen’s Temple, with its floor inlaid with Roman mosaics and with the steps leading up to the entrance pitted with the marks of .22 ammunition from the time when the area just below it was used by the School’s Officer Training Corps as a rifle range.
Down the hill, the other side of the Palladian Bridge, were the Japanese gardens, beautifully laid out in the 18th century, but long overgrown and in the 1960s and 70s used by what was then the School’s Combined Cadet Force as an assault course. The Oxford Avenue, which swept towards the School from the south-west, ran roughly along the line of the old Roman road to Towcester (or Lactodorum) where it met the main military highway running north-west from Londinium and Verulamium (St Albans) to Deva (Chester).
The ha-ha, which encircled the whole 750 acres of the home park, was built in the style of military fortifications at the time of the Marlborough wars, complete with bastions, which served no useful purpose around a peaceful park but were constructed that way because those who built them had been used to building military fortifications. The old Anglo-Saxon village of Stowe had been removed by Earl Temple in the 18th century and the villagers had been re-settled down the hill at Dadford, where Oriel and the children and I lived through most of the time that I taught at Stowe. All that remained of the original village was a 13th century church, carefully hidden by trees, but still the parish church for the inhabitants of the village of Dadford. Even a Whig aristocrat did not have the authority to demolish a church – even if he could demolish all the houses around it.
Beyond Stowe Church and to the south-east of the main building, was an area known as the Elysian Fields. There was to be found the Temple of Ancient Virtue, which had once housed statues of Homer, Lycurgus, Epaminondas and Socrates – those being seen by the Whig aristocrats who designed the grounds as the most illustrious poet, lawgiver, general and philosopher of ancient times. Facing it across the River Styx was the Temple of British Worthies, with a dozen busts of those perceived by the Whigs to be the greatest men of British history, together with inscriptions setting out what had made them great. Understandably it included Sir Isaac Newton, ‘whom the God of Nature made to comprehend His work’ and William Shakespeare, to whom was granted ‘power beyond all other men to move, astonish and delight mankind.’ It celebrated the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89 with a bust of William III, the Prince of Orange, who ‘by a bold and generous enterprise, came to preserve the liberty and religion of Great Britain.’ Perhaps more surprisingly it includes a bust of Edward, Prince of Wales, better known to history as the Black Prince, who is there because the outstanding achievement of his life was fighting and killing Frenchmen, thus endearing himself to the Francophobe Whigs. The Temple of British Worthies alone could supply a mass of material for teaching, but there was also, for example, the Cobham Monument, the Wolfe Obelisk, the Grenville Pillar and Queen Caroline’s Monument.
On an island in the Octagon Lake is the memorial to the playwright William Congreve. The pediment has a carving of the face of a pretty young girl at the front. While on one side there is a representation of the face of a lascivious youth, on the other that of an elderly man with cuckold’s horns on his head. It is inscribed with the word’s vitae imitatio, consuetudinis speculum, comoedia (Comedy is the imitation of life and the mirror of custom) and on top is a statue, made more than a century before Darwin’s Origin of Species by Natural Selection was published, of a monkey looking at itself in a mirror. All this could be used by those teaching the Third Form. In the first place it was interesting in itself and secondly, all of it helped to make the point that history is all around us. At Stowe it happened to be all around us in profusion.