“So are you part of the Verrio party?” the sweet girl on Reception at Christ’s Hospital (“A School Like No Other” according to its website) asks me. I say I don’t think so, never having
heard of Verrio, let alone been invited to his party.
I am, I tell her, part of the U3A Questers group on a visit. She looks as bemused by the name U3A as I was
at Verrio. We are both in a state of mutual bemusement.
In the end, we deduce that I must be part of the Verrio party, on the basis that the only other party visiting
the school today is a group of primary school children. Plus she explains that Verrio is the name of the artist of the magnificent painting which hangs on the wall of the Dining Room and I vaguely remember this being mentioned as a highlight of our planned
visit in the explanatory email which I have, not very helpfully, left at home.
I have to wend my way back to the car where I have left Mr B and Margaret, our fellow
Quester and passenger, and break it to him gently that I have directed him into the wrong car park for the Verrio party. He will not be a happy bunny, I think, when he comes to reflect upon my failures as Navigator in Chief.
After such an inauspicious start, I am pleased to report that everything goes just swimmingly. We are treated to coffee and biscuits before heading out to the front of the school where we watch the
school band summoning all the pupils to march into lunch. There's a YouTube video of the ceremony - see it here: http://youtu.be/brUX1pkFeio
case you haven’t seen them, the pupils of Christ’s Hospital wear a uniform of long dark blue frock coats, with bright yellow socks and moleskin breeches. Apparently the yellow colour of the socks worked wonders during the years of the Plague, keeping
the rats at bay so that only one boy succumbed to the dreaded disease. They have worn them with pride ever since.
Once every pupil has disappeared
into the school, the band marches off with our applause ringing in their ears. We are divided into small groups and introduced to our pupil guides. Our guides are soft-voiced Andre (“Speak up!” Margaret keeps exhorting him) and Joseph who introduce
us to the Chapel, the Big School and the Dining Hall where Antonio Verrio’s painting takes up most of one wall. They tell us about the history of the school and some of its former pupils. Charles Lamb was a former pupil but failed his Oratory –
so he is the only one of the four famous alumni gracing a central fountain who is depicted not carrying a book and with a slightly mournful face. “But he did alright later on,” says Andre, with typical understatement.
In the Library we hear more about the famous uniform. I ask how much it costs the pupils’ poor parents to kit them out and the answer is: not a bean. The uniforms are on free loan and are replaced
as the boys and girls grow out of them. The only piece of uniform they get to keep is their belt – when they start at the school, they wear a cord or girdle but this is replaced after three years by a “broady” with a silver buckle.
Why is it called a broady, we want to know (we are a curious lot, we Questers, as I have told you before.) Joseph explains that the girdle was always known as a “thinny” because it was, well, thin -hence, “broady” for the broader belt.
I am reminded that boarding school pupils always develop a language all their own, with nicknames for just about everything – Mr B went to boarding school so I know about these things.
The magnificence of each building we enter is breath-taking. Christ’s Hospital has not just the one but the three largest unsupported ceilings in Europe in the Chapel, the Big School and the Dining Room. We crane our necks until
they crick. I take lots of photographs, despite knowing, even as I click away, that they will not do justice to the reality.
Afternoon tea is served in front
of a blazing fire; we eat finger sandwiches, scones and fancy cakes. There are two cakes each and they are quite delicious. A friendly waitress refills our coffee cups without even being asked.
Our last port of call is the school museum, housed in part of what used to be the infirmary (the nurses’ kitchen, dating back to the early 1900s has been perfectly preserved). A feast for the eyes, so much to see, so
little time. I love the letters home “Dearest, darling Mummy” and the drawings and paintings by pupils keen to create a record of their school-days.
Before we leave, we are presented with a “goody bag” containing a history of the school. What an afternoon we have had. Music, cakes and a party bag to carry home – all the elements of a successful party.
Thank you, Verrio, for inviting us to your party. We had a lovely time.