From Tuck Shop to Top Table

A sentimental journey through the greasy snacks and sugary treats of his Eton schooldays makes one writer misty-eyed

By Tom Parker Bowles

September 23 2019

I was the most unremarkable of students. Distinctly average in the classroom, and distinctly awful on the playing fields, I slipped between the gaps, a ghost in the machine. I couldn’t paint a door, let alone a picture, while my musical skills would empty the room. In short, my Eton career was markedly inglorious; a drab thread in that most rich and venerable of tapestries. One thing I could do well, though, was eat. Not so much in my house, despite my housemaster being a noted gourmand. Nor even in the fast-food fleshpots of Windsor, where I once saw a friend eat his weight in the ‘All-You-Can-Eat-Tuesday’ Pizza Hut special. No, it was within the starkly utilitarian walls of Rowlands, the school tuck shop, with its worn lino floor, where I truly excelled.

Here – among the Milk Gums and Fizzy Cola Bottles, the pear drops, Wham Bars, Stingers, Black Jacks, candy cigarettes and Fruit Salads – I triumphed. Rowlands comprised two rooms; the main one, where one entered, had a gleaming, glass-fronted counter – a barrier between greedy boys and saintly staff. Behind it was classic confectionery: chocolate bars, Chewits, Fruit Pastilles and the like. On shelves lining the walls were rows of sweet-shop jars: Aniseed Twists, Acid Drops, Sherbet Lemons, Fizz Bombs, Pontefract Cake and Kola Kubes, all bought by the quarter, twisted neatly in a white paper bag.

Away from the sugary spectacle were two plastic banquettes where you could loiter with merry intent. This was priority seating, based on seniority and loyalty. The longer you spent here, the more right you had to sit down. I always had a seat.

To the right were two steps down into the back room where there was a racing game (was it OutRun?), and a television where, on Saturdays, we’d sit, glued to Baywatch. On the dot of 6pm, the whole school fell silent as 800 boys gazed, transfixed, at Pamela Anderson and Erica Eleniak bouncing down that beach.

Sweets and red swimsuits were just the start, though. Rowlands also offered Brown Cows – a block of vanilla ice cream plonked into a pint of Coke – and McCain Microwave Chips, which seemed at the very cutting edge of modern foodservice technology. The microwave burger was less satisfying – grim and stolid, with a squelch of plastic cheese and gritty meat. We loved it all the same.

Best of all, though, was the Rowlands bacon roll. Forget madeleines, dear reader, because this was the truly evocative taste of my youth, available for the briefest 15-minute window at Chambers, a morning break between the third and fourth lesson. I often ran from the other side of school to ensure I got my fix, where I’d join the scrum, pushing, ducking and diving my way to the front. Like the half-time bar at a football match, it was every man for himself and could get dirty, with shoves, screams, or even a fist fight. When we came within earshot, “Bacon with, please, Mrs Cripps” was the cri de guerre, meaning a bacon roll with ketchup, picked from a great pile in the metal warmer, and half-wrapped in a napkin. Sure, there were sausage sandwiches too, but crisp, smoked back bacon on a thickly buttered, slightly firm bun, was what mattered.

"In short, my Eton career was markedly inglorious; a drab thread in that most rich and venerable of tapestries. One thing I could do well, though, was eat"
"In short, my Eton career was markedly inglorious; a drab thread in that most rich and venerable of tapestries. One thing I could do well, though, was eat"

I would order two, sometimes three. Oh! the joys of youth. As the years went by, my affections moved towards Tap, next door. This was the school boozer, with an official limit of two pints per boy per day. But we didn’t go to Tap to drink. We weren’t allowed to smoke, for a start, and far more alluring were The Phene (an entry-level pub for 14-years-olds, miles away in deep Windsor – “Back room only, lads”), The Two Brewers (the next step up, around 16, at the entrance to the Long Walk at Windsor Great Park), and The Donkey (the final-year option on the other side of the bridge, by the river, where being caught was not a worry). No, Tap was all about Chambers.

We’d drop by Rowlands for just one “bacon roll, with”, and wander into Tap. It won no awards for beauty: A row of beer taps lined the wooden bar, laden with bowls of crisps and pork scratchings. But at Chambers, there were hot sausages, plump, herby and burnished. We bought them individually, dipped into proper English mustard. Or a prawn roll – sweet pink commas drowned in Marie Rose sauce and spilling out of pillow-soft dough. I usually had both. Plus a few halves of avocado. Yup, avocado – in 1990, before all this “smashed” nonsense – served with a splodge of mayo or a squirt of vinaigrette. The only true way. This was washed down with a pint of orange and lemonade mix.

There were downsides to this excess, of course. Having worked out how to dodge any sporting exertion, the glut of food and lack of exercise meant my fairly lean build became Buddha-like. But while others were champions in the debating society or Farrer Theatre, I earned my colours in Tap and Rowlands. A true Victor Ludorum or “winner of the games”.

I now realise it was all training for a future life spent in food. Hindsight never tasted so sweet.