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A better economic prospect than China. No doubt the old boys of Eton College — it accepts no girls, alas — will have been gratified by the news. Last August the nation’s most famous school went to the City to borrow £45m. Friends Life, an insurance company, stumped up the cash, charging 3.63 per cent per year for 45 years. At the time, 30-year Chinese government bonds were paying 3.67 per cent.
“Quite right, too,” fires back Janet Walker, Eton bursar, when I point this out, showing the humility for which the school is rightly famous.
With Eton’s old boys list, a certain superiority is understandable. Its crop of British prime ministers, for example, includes the first, Robert Walpole, the latest, David Cameron, and, in Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, possibly the next. Prince William is another old Etonian.
None of them exactly pleaded penury. Fees today are at more than £35,000 per year. Yet Henry VI established Eton in 1440 for 70 “poor and needy” scholars. Has the principle become overlooked in the intervening centuries?
Walker is having none of it. More than a fifth of Eton’s roughly 1,300 pupils have help with their fees, she says: on average those that do get 63 per cent off. Seventy-three don’t pay a penny. This, apparently, is where a big chunk of the £45m will go.
Could the chance of an affordable berth at Eton be behind the area’s new allure for London exiles? Three times as many Londoners registered at Savills’ Windsor office this January than last. In the three years to November 2015, 30 per cent of the agency’s buyers have been moving down from London. The biggest group are couples with pre-school children, says Charles Elsmore-Wickens, who runs the Savills office for Windsor and Eton. Many will snap up a Victorian house over the bridge in Windsor for less than £1m, he says. With the change they may well enrol their male heir at Lambrook, a popular Eton feeder school in the nearby village of Winkfield Row (here at least, his sister can join him). Flusher Lambrook parents could try nearby Winkfield, where Knight Frank has a five-bedroom house with a pool for £2.75m.
Could they squeeze him on to Eton’s grace and favours list? Walker won’t tell me the average income of the parents of bursary students. Being asset-rich, however, does not necessarily disqualify you: tighter lending standards mean parents living in London sitting on big housing equity gains may not be able to remortgage if their income has not increased, she notes. “Saying to people you should move house isn’t that easy, with other children settled in schools, for example,” she says.
Should you consider the move? The area is cheaper than you might expect. Land Registry data show the average price of a second-hand home in Windsor and Eton is £490,000. At the beginning of March there were 274 homes for sale — or under offer — within a mile of Windsor and Eton Central station on Rightmove.com. Only 40 cost more than £1m.
An added benefit is that this places it under the radar of the top-end Russian and Asian buyers shopping for dacha-mansions in nearby Wentworth, Sunningdale and Virginia Water. Only five homes in the Rightmove sample were on for more than £2m.
When it comes to the plushest homes in the wider area, Britons are, apparently, letting the side down. “British buyers thin out from £1m upwards at the moment, sadly,” says Paul Cockerham, who runs Knight Frank’s nearby Virginia Water office. Roughly three-quarters of his buyers in the area with more than £2m to spend come from abroad, he says. Just about the only place they will look in Windsor is Park Street, the town’s crown jewel, one side of which backs on to the royal castle.
Here, Savills has a home on sale for £5.5m, at roughly £1,000 per sq ft — a record, if it sells, says Elsmore-Wickens. It hit the news when it burnt down in 2013 and again when owners Sue and Alan Bussey rebuilt it from the ground up. The work reproduced the original architraves, cornicing and mouldings, and the couple ordered handmade Welsh slates for the roof. The sash windows alone cost £220,000, they say. Those on more modest budgets could try a four-bedroom Georgian house on the southern edge of Windsor, for £1.29m with Savills.
Record or none on Park Street, most of the grandest homes are to be found in the surrounding countryside. In Old Windsor, Cockerham has just sold a home to a couple moving mainly for the good local private schools (as well as Lambrook and Eton, Wellington College is half an hour’s drive away) for just shy of £5m, he says.
Help with school fees probably wasn’t uppermost in their minds. The only relief this family’s son can look forward to is the end of his daily chauffeur-driven commute between London and Papplewick, the Ascot prep school he is currently attending.
Scholars didn’t always have it this easy. In The Old Boys, his recent history of British public schools, David Turner recounts how Pitt the Elder — the celebrated 18th-century British prime minister — emerged from Eton scarred by the tyrannical discipline exercised by older pupils over younger ones. The statesmen had, he rued later, “hardly known a boy whose spirit had not been broken at Eton”. His son, Pitt the Younger, was educated at home.
None of which throws any light on Savills’ recent surge of interest from London buyers. The answer, believes Elsmore-Wickens, is that the area is perfectly placed to benefit from an impending exodus from London — as prime housing prices slow and the “value gap” with prime commuter areas becomes irresistible. UK agents have been calling this trend for some time. Prime suburban property has coughed and spluttered its way to 11 per cent gains since September 2007, next to 32 per cent for prime central London, according to Savills. Spots like Windsor and Eton, within an hour’s commute of London, will gain 23 per cent between now and 2020, the firm predicts, as against 18 per cent in prime outer London.
Demand was there last year, says Elsmore-Wickens, but many budding countryphiles had their plans delayed as London sales’ volumes floundered on last autumn’s rise in stamp duty. Now, he says, they are coming in numbers.
The weakness with the value-gap argument is that in Windsor and Eton it never emerged. True, the combined area is racing ahead today — gaining 9.5 per cent through 2015, compared with prime central London’s drop of 3.4 per cent — but it kept pace with the capital’s earlier boom: average prices increased 31 per cent in the five years to February, Land Registry data show.
This may matter less than the fact of the plentiful stock of homes that young families moving from London can afford. Elsmore-Wickens’ flusher thirtysomethings can pick up a roomy detached country house, with land, for £1.5m. In this price bracket, he is adamant that homes have not kept up with London price gains.
Yet if you’re thinking of making a case for penury to take the edge of those Eton school fees, beware the long reach of the bursar. After you’ve declared your financial straits on the exhaustive application form, you’ll get a home visit from Walker. “I picture them moving the Rolls-Royces round the corner,” she says.
Walker might even know a thing or two about you already. With £80m in property assets, much of it invested on or near Eton High Street, “I would be amazed if [Eton] was not the biggest local owner,” she says. Which means there’s a good chance she sold you your new home.
There you have it, then: Eton in 2016. A sort of mini-Chinese state — only with a better credit score.
● Peak hour trains connect Windsor and Eton to London Paddington in less than 40 minutes
● Heathrow airport is 10 miles away and 20 minutes by car. Windsor and Eton lie under the flight path, generating a noise nuisance which many believe will worsen if the airport is expanded
What you can buy for . . .
£750,000 A four-bedroom Victorian terrace in central Windsor
£1.5m A five-bedroom house in nearby Winkfield, with an acre of garden
£3m A five-bedroom Georgian terrace house on Windsor’s Park Street
More listings at ftpropertylistings.com
Photographs: Bridgeman Art Library; Christopher Furlong/Getty Images; Olaf Protze/Getty Images; Mark Draisey/Alamy