There are few people who have never heard of Eton College but the town itself is less well-known as it sits in the shadow of its nearby sister town of Windsor. Situated just across the river from the Royal Borough and accessed via a pedestrian footbridge, the town of Eton, a settlement since at least Saxon times, has a rich and diverse heritage.
The mile-long High Street leading down to Eton College has remained unchanged for many years but the name has always been Eton, or Eyot-tun, meaning ‘settlement on an island’. In the 1086 Domesday Book, the town is listed as ‘Ettone’, with two mills, a meadow, woodland and fisheries and it was concentrated on the higher land. Many royal processions have made their way along the High Street, most notably the funeral procession of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, in 1537.
This elegant little town is an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary retail outlets catering to its local population and a year-round tourist trade, with high-end gift shops, antiques and modern art establishments sitting alongside shops selling traditional medicines and complementary beauty therapies. The traditional shop fronts and the boys in their traditional school dress (often seen around town) give a sense of stepping back in time.
The Thames has always been important to the town which initially flourished due to fish farming, and goods into and out of Eton were conveyed by barge – including the stones used to build Eton College Chapel.
Connected by the footbridge from Windsor, Eton has an importance of its own, and the Eton Walkway, a 2-mile/one-hour circular walk, connecting 18 points of interest in the town starting at Windsor Bridge is the perfect way to find out about the historical importance of the town. This walk is marked out by permanent, bronze, lozenge-like symbols set in the ground to identify the route, the 18 shields marking: The King’s Stables, the Cockpit, Porny School, Baldwin’s Bridge, Eton College, the Burning Bush, Eton Wall Game at the Timbralls, Skinners’ Bridge, Herschel Observatory, the Gormley Statue, Keate House, the Natural History Museum, Museum of Antiquities, St John’s Church, Jubilee Square, the Brocas and Eton Boat House. Information on each point of significance is included on the Outdoor Guide website.
It’s impossible to speak of Eton without reference to Eton College which occupies the whole of Eton north of Barnes Pool bridge and is second only to Winchester as the oldest public school in England. The College was founded by Henry VI in 1440, modelled on Winchester which had been founded by William of Wykeham, and Henry decreed that there were to be 70 King’s Scholars, who were to be educated for free and housed in the College. Outside the College, so-called Oppidans were lodged in the town and received the same education. Originally the houses were run by Dames, but more recently they have been run by House Masters. Today there are 24 boarding houses for Oppidans and over 1,300 boys in all.
The College looks after thousands of historic, artistic and natural objects, and welcomes visitors to its Museum of Eton Life, Museum of Antiquities and its Natural History Museum, which are open to the public free of charge on Sunday afternoons between 2:30pm and 5pm.
So if you are in Windsor and find yourself with an hour or two to spare, just walk across the bridge into another world where time seems to have stood still. The shop-fronts look almost Dickensian but in Eton they are cleaner than those depicted in any of Dickens’ books – this is one of the cleanest towns I have ever visited. You will be amused by the items for sale in some of the shops, the old-school tailors, the haberdashery, even a sweet shop selling long forgotten sweets from jars.
And when you’ve had enough, just stroll back across the bridge into the real world again. Or nearly. It is, after all, the Royal Borough of Windsor.