Over 100 years ago a Balliol don, Frances Urquhart, offered his summer home to student parties; we now share the summer with Balliol and New College.
Current Univ students interested in visiting the Chalet can find details on Univ’s Intranet.
The video below is a lighthearted look at Chalet folklore, delivered by Dr Stephen Golding at New College on 9 September 2018, as part of the 150th Anniversary of the birth of Francis Urquhart.
About the Chalet
The Chalet sits in the foothills of Mont Blanc, in an area of great natural beauty. Access is by cable car to the local ski hotel and then on foot. The local towns are attractive and local cuisine is excellent; at the Chalet we live in French style, with dinner being the main meal of the day. Parties typically comprise a mix of subjects, graduates and undergraduates.
It’s a typical alpine chalet on three floors with 11 shared bedrooms. Life there is beautiful and basic: there’s no electricity so cooking is by bottled gas and bathing is by a waterfall in the garden or a makeshift shower inside, but at least it now has the luxury of flushing toilets!
Univ runs parties of around 15 people. Typically, we spend alternate days with academic reading and then walking/relaxing; the Chalet is quite isolated on the mountain and lends itself well to both. If you’re interested in visiting it, you should have a basic level of fitness – enough to be able to enjoy the outdoor life but you do not need be a skilled hill walker or climber (nor fluent in French). We welcome novices. Skilled cooks are especially welcome! Costs usually amount to around £15 per day, plus your own incidental expenses. Getting there can usually be kept below £200.
Thanks to the generosity of the late Dr Acer Nethercott the College has some funds to support those who are offered a place in a Chalet party but who would be prevented by cost. Details can be found under Bursaries and Grants on Univ’s Intranet.
The Chalet des Anglais (also known as the Chalet des Mélèzes from the larches surrounding it) is a traditional large alpine chalet on three floors. It stands on a small plateau at 1680 m, in a wood on the west slopes of the Prarion, one of the foothills of Mont Blanc, in the region known as the Haute Savoie. Below it in the valley is the alpine town of St. Gervais but access is usually from the village of Les Houches in the valley on the other side of the Prarion, via cable car (the Télécabine).
The Chalet was built by an eccentric Victorian, David Urquhart, in 1865 as a summer home and subsequently became the property of his son Francis (known as “Sligger”) of Balliol. Sligger invited his friends to the Chalet as the first reading party in 1891, while he was still an undergraduate, and the practice has continued, albeit interrupted by two World Wars. The Chalet was burned down in 1906 and rebuilt on a larger scale. When Sligger’s health gave way in 1932 he ensured that the reading parties should continue after his death. The Chalet fell out of use during the Second World War and Univ, on the initiative of Giles Alington, was responsible for beginning parties again in the 1950s. Sir Anthony Kenny brought Balliol parties back in 1970 and since then summers have been shared between Balliol, New College, and Univ. The Chalet is now administered by a charitable trust; the Univ. trustees are Keith Dorrington, Stephen Golding and Tom Smith.
The Chalet is quite isolated (David Urquhart believed that if you lived with a constant view of the Mont Blanc Massif the effect would wear off) and looks out the across the Mont Joie Valley to the peaks of Aravis, often the setting for superb sunsets or spectacular storms. The only other building in the area is a chalet 200 yards away, used for holidays by the Boucher family from Utrecht. They are not often seen but are very friendly and welcoming to considerate chalet parties.
200 metres above the Chalet in the Mont Blanc direction is the Hotel du Prarion. It is owned by the Hottegindre family; the senior member, Madame Simone, is now semiretired, although she is usually at the hotel and enjoys contact with students. The management is now in the hands of her son Yves. The Hottegindre family have been good friends to Oxford students over decades and we rely greatly on their help, both in day-to-day business or if we have serious or unexpected problems. In return we provide them with a certain amount of custom – the “Pavilion”, with a magnificent view of the Mont Blanc Massif, offers welcome refreshment after a walk and it is traditional for each party to have dinner at the hotel on the final night of their visit.
The Chalet has been enjoyed by parties from Oxford for over a hundred years and offers an experience unlike almost any other. Many of the “good and the great” have been through the Chalet over the decades and have recorded their reminiscences in their writings. If you want to know more, try Chapter 6 of Sir Anthony Kenny’s autobiography; A Life in Oxford (John Murray, 1997).