A few weeks ago I re-visited Rugby School for the first time in twenty years. It was an unofficial reunion which was attended by all the naughtiest boys (and sixth form girls) and none of us had changed. The fact that we met in the grottiest pub in town (which was still, without doubt, the pikiest joint in Rugby!) was in keeping with the debauched evening ahead. In fact, this place was our teenage pub of choice for two reasons. Firstly, they served us even though we were fifteen and secondly, the Masters were too scared to go anywhere near the place. And now I can see why!
Rugby is an awesome school and the infrastructure is immense - from countless floodlit all-weather playing fields, to indoor and outdoor sports centres, a full indoor rifle range, polo field after polo field, every kind of court you can imagine (including Fives - invented at Rugby, along with erm..Rugby) and Rackets as well as an array of beautiful classical buildings that Rome would be proud of.
Photo: Rugby School
And it was almost exactly the same as it was two decades ago, even down to the school shop, affectionately known as 'The Stodge'. Interestingly, when we were there, the school had the largest (and coldest) outdoor pool in the world – The Tosh – which has now become an indoor leisure centre and that’s a real shame. One other major difference struck me though. They've gone all commercial and external events are now high on the agenda.
The morning after, we sheepishly toured the grounds (because we were not only hanging over, but we were also taking in a tsunami of memories). Our little gang had grown up here and experienced almost everything for the first time within the several mile perimeter of the school campus. As well as in the graveyard behind the church downtown, of course! Sex, drugs and rock n' roll. Literally. A highlight of our tour was one of the most revered places from our school days, the Temple Speech Room (or TSR), where all 650 of us would congregate several times a week for a variety of reasons, starting with skiving chapel on a Sunday. It was also the stage upon which, as spotty fifteen year olds, my band performed their first gig.
Other good reasons to visit this place were the inter-house singing competition or 'House Shout' as it was aptly named or attending speeches from big name personalities such as controversial political statesman, Enoch Powell, overlooked by portraits of former pupils including Prime Ministers, Captains of Industry and, of course, suitably austere looking former Headmasters.
But we were surprised and mildly horrified to see this sacred place being set up for a wedding! Floral displays, six-foot rounds, even lighting rigs were all being moved into place. Wow! We had no idea back then that this immense infrastructure could be hired out. But then again, I suspect that the Governers didn't either in those days. We presumed it was just for us!
Photo: Wedding at Rugby School
Even the Stodge has a sponsor - with the Nestlé brand splashed all over the walls in large format graphics, promoting a whole range of products from Smarties to Aeros. How times have changed. Sh*t, Rugby School even has it's own Monopoly set, which you can buy from Rugby School Enterprises (who even knew there was one of those!) But, in fairness, they nicked that idea from Harrow.
Rugby was great but it pandered to, nay, nurtured my rebellious side and I went too far. A trait I have suffered from ever since. My grandmother was desperate for me to go to Harrow and, in hindsight, she was probably right. After a brutal 1950's style five years at Prep School (a place where we'd literally be beaten for losing a game, yet we somehow loved it and collectively jumped to the defense of our former Headmaster when the Telegraph exposed him as “too cruel for school”!) I was ready for some pyromania. The day we set Big Dorm alight (along with Harjeev Khandari's turban, he was a willing participant, I might add!) with a zippo and a can of lighter fuel, the precedent was well and truly set.
For that reason I put my son down for Harrow at birth and I'm on a mission to see that through. I'm making sure he's good at tennis and shooting (or any other niche activity which may qualify him for a scholarship!). Anyway, I digress. The point is that for all the commercial stuff Rugby is doing (very well, it seems), Harrow is doing it even better. The Harrow School Enterprises team are now doing a truly world class job of promoting their amazing facilities to the corporate world on their doorstep – namely, London. Their location is a huge advantage but couple that with their heritage and ‘Giants of Old' (as they call successful former pupils) which include everyone from Lord Byron and Winston Churchill to Baldwin, Benedict Cummerbatch and, most recently, James Blunt, and you've got something really viable (and appealing) on both historical and contemporary grounds. The view alone from the vast dining hall frames the skyscrapers of the City in a kind of 'come and get me' sort of way, befitting of an establishment that nurtures some of the greatest Captains of Industry ever to have lived.
But it's the sheer awe-inspiring spaces, being commercially publicised for the first time, that make Harrow School a perfect location for a wide variety of aspirational events. And they're very selective too, so Harrow retains an appropriate air of exclusivity, which in many ways is what the place stands for. Selective excellence. I'm biased but it's way better than Eton for a few reasons I'll keep to myself (as it'll undoubtedly offend my Eton mates who, on that subject, take themselves very seriously!). One such friend has a cushion on his bed with the mantra "It's hard to be humble when you're from Eton" not so subtly emblazoned across it. Enough said!
How close to London?
Harrow is exactly ten miles from Centrepoint. Ten miles! That's closer than the Olympic Stadium. Well, almost! Harrow on the Hill (teeing itself up perfectly for the age old nickname ‘The dump on the hump’, in a similar way that Eton is affectionately known as ‘Slough Grammar’) is also a beautiful little elevated 'village' with a string of classical boarding houses, speech rooms, class rooms, a chapel, dining halls, sports centres (their athletics stadium overlooks Wembley Stadium and contrary to the somewhat short-sighted notion that Harrow is for posh sports, it really isn’t).
The FA cup is based on the School's own inter house tournament and the first FA Cup Final goal was scored by a player from Harrow school! The first ever Wimbledon Champion was a schoolboy at Harrow as were countless Squash World Champions. In fact, the game of Squash was actually invented at Harrow. Oh and, legendary Premier League referee, David Ellery, was the Housemaster of Druries until relatively recently and I seem to remember seeing a letter from Roy Keane (to whom he had recently brandished a Red Card) in a frame above his desk, on a visit to a family friend several years ago. Football and cricket are massive (they play Eton at Lord's once a year) as well as a vast array of other sporting pursuits. There's a golf course with spectacular far-reaching vistas of Greater London too, which can be hired exclusively perhaps following a tour of the grounds?
If the walls could talk...
There are a number of main spaces available for hire, which consist of an eclectic mix of old and new. Perhaps the most exclusive and evocative room though is the legendary Fourth Form Room at the heart of the Old Schools, which has existed since 1615. To this day, Harrovians have their first lesson in this ancient, heavy, yet calm, wood pannelled classroom, which is the closest place you'll come to being somewhere where the walls can talk.
Photo: Fourth Form room
In fact, until some time in the late 1800's it was a tradition to carve your name in as conspicuous a manner as possible in any available space you could find. Form Lord Byron to the Churchill brothers, they're all there and you can have hours of fun searching the walls for those ‘Giants of Old’. I was a little suspicious that the carvings looked so professional for teenagers but this is easily explained. Harrovians wouldn't necessarily carve their own names. They'd seek out an appropriate carver in the town and pay them a few pennies to ensure their name stood out with the conspicuous-ness they command!
Photo: Lord Byron's carving in the Fourth Form room
Private dining in this magically lit, authentic Harry Potter-esque room is a one off experience, that's for sure! In fact, scenes from Harry Potter were filmed here – I think it was the Potions class. A particular favourite feature here is the Headmaster's pulpit, not least because of the menacing cane cupboard where the birch is still on display alongside the bench upon which you had to bend over for a good old fashioned thrashing (which, incidentally, didn't do anyone any harm!). Legend has it that if you warranted a 'lesson' by way of the cane, your parents would be charged for this extra 'lesson' at the end of term and put on the bill as 'medicine' - a sort of humiliating end to an already painful experience!
The Alex Fitch Room is not only a beautiful room, but it also has a deeply moving story behind it. Alex Fitch died in the Great War when he was just nineteen, shortly after leaving Harrow. His love of the school was great and so his mother wanted to exercise her extensive wealth and donate something meaningful to the school in his memory. Her first idea was to offer the world's first indoor swimming pool (how cool is that?) but the school considered it too 'vulgar'. Her second choice was a rather more practical and, actually, directly relevant option. She remembered Alex was always late on exeats and often found herself standing out in the rain waiting for him, with countless other bedraggled mothers. So, she suggested she funded a (somewhat elaborate) waiting room, which today, is the magnificent Alex Fitch room, suitable for lavish dinners and exclusive receptions.
Photo: Alex Fitch Room
Constructed with oak floorboards and wood paneling from a famed Elizabethan battleship, the Alex Fitch room is a calming and beautiful space with a rare and refined elegance. The most symbolic aspect of this room though, is the portrait of the handsome young teenager himself. Because it comes with a covenant which has stood firm for almost a Century. Since the inception of the room, the light illuminating his portrait has never gone out. From the original candle on the mantlepiece in 1918 to the brass picture light that shines on Alex to this day, at his mother's wishes there burns an eternal flame for her lost son...
A unique vantage point
The terrace outside the Master’s dining room is a beautiful level marquee site with magnificent views over London and, more immediately, the magical school golf course. What's more, there's a widescreen placard identifying all of the significant landmarks and buildings from Wembley Stadium to the new Leadenhall Tower. The perfect vantage point for a City institution with learned innovation embedded in their corporate culture perhaps?
So if its a truly iconic British institution, a stable of greatness, a temple of learning and an age old international hotbed for spawning iconic global leaders, all within ten miles of the City of London that you’re looking for, and you want to join the long line of poets, explorers, composers and Prime Ministers, then Harrow is certainly worth considering. Especially if you'd like to align your brand with an enduring multi-Century-spanning brand...They call it ‘Uniquely Harrow’.
Other world-class event spaces at Harrow School include the magnificent Speech Room (for up to 576 guests), the Old Harrovian Room (suitable for weddings or conferences up to 120 guests), The Ryan Theatre (suitable for conferences up to 387 delegates), Shepherd Churchill (suitable for receptions, conferences or weddings up to 100), Field House Club (suitable for meetings up to 30) and the Music Schools (suitable for receptions or conferences up to 60 guests). Unlike other venues, standard terms and conditions are replaced by 'School Rules', which always apply (but are surely there to be broken!).
So, having sung the praises of our arch-rivals, what became of my naughty fellow reprobate friends from Rugby? Well, quite a lot actually. One of my classmates now owns the world famous Brompton Folding Bicycle Company and another shagged Rebecca Loos. There's also one who seems to own a gold mine. And one who’s exposed the Mexican drug Lords in a best selling undercover book! So, it's pretty much all covered!
Photo: The Wolf Pack!
There are a lot of prominent journalists too, from Newsweek in New York to the Daily Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. There are GPs, Surgeons and Hedge Fund Managers. And then there's me! Ironically, my unconventional but very successful gang of friends seemed to feel I was somehow 'famous' because of my outspoken musings on londonlaunch.com and in the events trade press (with the odd national piece thrown in for good measure) so I had to set the record straight on that one! Still the same misguided glam rocker at heart then? Definitely!