High times with high minds

Inside long-ago Alpine “reading parties” with Oxford University’s most exclusive secret society

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Some time in the Spring of 1966 the dean of University College, Oxford sidled up to me in the quadrangle and began to mutter. He was called Tony Firth and he had a very distinctive and widely imitated style: a slight figure, head on one side, given to muttering and much use of the double negative. He appeared to be addressing me on the subject of Alpine weather, chuckling that “it’s not impossible that the cloud can descend for three days and then you’ll jolly well have to read a book”.

I’m not sure when I worked out what this conversation was about, but I eventually understood that I was being offered membership of an exclusive club, the Chaletites. Ever since 1891 Oxford undergraduates as well as fellows and graduated members of its colleges had been invited to form “reading parties” in a chalet high on the slopes of Mont Blanc.

Among Tory chaletites, Harold Macmillan and Quintin Hogg both said the happiest times of their lives were up at the chalet, while on the Labour side there have been several generations of Jays, and Dennis Healey is said to be the only person who ever turned up to the chalet in lederhosen. There are references to the place, some entirely explicit and some more coded, in many works ranging in prominence from Brideshead Revisited to private publications. When Firth approached me I did not know of the chalet’s existence.

The story starts with David Urquhart, who was born in 1805 and was eccentric even by the standards of the Scottish gentry. He was obsessed with Ottoman politics and introduced Turkish baths to Britain. But he also firmly believed in the physical and mental advantages of living at altitude.

In 1865 he had a chalet built on Le Prarion above St. Gervais-les-Bains on the Mont Blanc massif. It was a little lower than the 6,000 feet above sea level he claimed for it and served as a family summer home until his son, Francis, inherited it. Urquhart was a bachelor fellow in the old style of Balliol College and he began taking college parties to the chalet in 1891; he was universally known by his nickname, “Sligger” (“Reading parties” for undergraduates were already an established practice in coastal and hill regions of the UK.)

Such parties have continued up to the present day

Sligger continued to take parties until 1934 (except for an Edwardian lacuna when the chalet burned down and was rebuilt on a larger scale; and there were no parties during the First World War). His privately-printed book of reading party etiquette, The Perfect Chaletite, does contain a specific injunction that the eponymous model character will not burn the place down. And such parties have continued up to the present day with the notable exception of the period 1938-52.

There is now an historical account of the chalet written by Stephen Golding, a medic and fellow of University College who has led reading parties in the late twentieth century and into the twenty first. (Oxford University on Mont Blanc: the Life of the
Chalet des Anglais, Profile Books). Incidentally, the official name of the chalet was, possibly in some sense still is, the Chalet des Mélèzes (larches), but des Anglais became so widely used that it now appears on French maps.

Whereas many people have got themselves in trouble in the Alps because of bad weather, I nearly died because of good weather. It was so warm in the summer of 1967 that snow and ice melted back to unprecedented degrees, releasing rock falls. I was hit by a rock on a steep slope called the Grand Couloir (by no means as colourful as it sounds). Fortunately it hit me on the thigh and I suffered only bruising and shock, though there was a very brief interlude when I thought I was a goner; six people were killed by rock falls that weekend on the massif.

Anyone who reads a book about something they have experienced is likely to realise both that there was a lot they didn’t know and that some of what they did believe was myth. I always thought of it as the “Univ chalet”, for instance, even though I knew that New College parties also went. In fact, in my time, it was owned by one Roger Mynors. He had been left it in Sligger’s will and historically it was really the Balliol chalet. Given the legal expertise available, it is now in the care of a not-for-profit French company which in turn is owned by the three colleges as minority shareholders.

One thing that never appears to have been a problem is relations with local people; there has always been a welcoming spirit both from neighbouring chalets and the nearby Prarion hotel (called the Pavillon by New College, apparently, in a typical piece of eccentricity). Attitudes back in Oxford have been less sympathetic as the institution has been attacked by student journalists in both Cherwell and Isis as elitist (yes, Oxford undergraduates dishing out accusations of elitism) and by fellows of New College worried by health and safety issues. The occasional invited chaletite has expressed distaste for either the primitive conditions or the claustrophobic atmosphere.

Golding is right to raise the issue of homosexuality

Golding is right to raise the issue of homosexuality, or perhaps homoeroticism. Sligger was notorious for picking good-looking young men, “les beaux jeunes hommes de M. Urquhart” as they were known locally, though the regular visits of Quintin Hogg (Viscount Hailsham) and Cyril Connolly would seem to contradict that. There is a picture of Harold Macmillan casually resting his head on Sligger’s thigh and the correspondence of Edwardian chaletites is indicative of intense relationships and forms of love.

Having said that, the parties I was in, though all male, were pure and hearty to a degree that would have pleased Lord Baden-Powell. This was despite our knowledge that Firth himself was “not interested in girls” (as my mother would have put it) and the fact that the Oxford of our time was rife with what would now be regarded as forms of sexual harassment: I could have shopped several fellows and three college heads by today’s standards.

But the real problem of the chalet was always going to be the combination of maintenance and finance. A wooden building, high up in the woods, unoccupied for over forty weeks a year, is going to be hit by weather, rot, mice, rats, thieves, and squatters. And it has been. There are persistent rumours that both resistance and SOE used it in the war, but Golding insists these are unsubstantiated and probably false. In my time even essential maintenance was made almost impossible by the currency restrictions imposed by Harold Wilson’s government. The obvious solution lies in the wealth and success of Chaletites and things would appear to be much better now.

I certainly enjoyed it. It was a natural part of my summer which involved setting off across the Channel with only the vaguest of plans and seven pounds of luggage. I slept in gardens, ditches and (for preference) hay barns. By my standards the cha- let was quite luxurious — a bed to put the sleeping bag on! I was also a natural for the hearty, all-male environment: even as a teenager I was a veteran of army camps in the CCF, OTC and geographical expeditions. In later life I was to go on more than two dozen cricket tours. The passage I always remember in Anna Karenina is where Vronsky, alone at last with Anna, begins to miss his regiment; I knew how he felt.

You could say that chalet life as I knew it broke nearly all the rules of twenty-first century correctness: it was all male, all white, indisputably elitist and selected by unabashed favoritism. (All three colleges now use a procedure which allows students to apply to go.)

“Reading party” was a euphemism in our case; I never read a book, but we were very lucky with the weather. At the other extreme, Sir Anthony Kenny’s Balliol parties (1970-95) had classes, set texts and so on. But I did learn a lot: Firth’s “adult” guests included priests, lawyers and civil servants as well as academics. I learned a great deal talking to them.

You could also argue the chalet was university life at its very best, a real intellectual community of teachers, students and alumni, learning from each other and enjoying each other’s company. There was much laughter and jollity, and the landscape was beautiful. It was a world far removed from what contemporary universities are becoming — hierarchical “provider” bureaucracies servicing customers and bound by strict ideological tenets. I think I acquired something of Sligger by cultural transfer. Else why would I have organised over a hundred student field trips instead of “getting on with my research”?

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