Beagling, golf and jolly hockey sticks: outdoor life at England’s largest private schools

<span>Royal Hospital school, Holbrook, which overlooks the River Stour.</span><span>Photograph: SPK/Alamy</span>
Royal Hospital school, Holbrook, which overlooks the River Stour.Photograph: SPK/Alamy

A handful of schools, the Guardian’s analysis has found, have campuses that stretch over hundreds of acres. So what, exactly, do the 10 largest schools (by area) offer their lucky students?, and how do they go about sharing their grounds with other children?

1. Winchester college

The alma mater of the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, tops the charts for the school with the most land with 3,305 hectares (8,167 acres). The land available for the students (a smaller area) includes 21 hectares of playing fields, a new sports centre, a swimming pool, and their own stretch of the River Itchen for rowing (children at Winchester can choose from more than 30 different sports). Prospective parents are told that pupils can frolic in “100 acres of ancient water meadows; 4.5 miles of the River Itchen; 52 acres of playing fields and 11 acres of formal gardens”.

A spokesperson for Winchester pointed to their annual report, which shows that it opens its facilities to the local community including making the museum free of charge during term time, opening the grounds for the national garden scheme and sharing facilities with state school pupils.

2. Eton college

Eton has 936 hectares of land including 40 football/rugby pitches, a 2km rowing lake, 19 cricket pitches, 50 tennis courts and four floodlit artificial surfaces, plus a world-renowned rowing lake that was the venue for the rowing and canoeing events at the 2012 Olympics.

Notable alumni include 20 prime ministers and many top actors, including Eddie Redmayne, Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Damian Lewis.

A spokesperson for Eton told the Guardian: “‘Eton College oversees a historic estate along the River Thames, open to the public with footpaths and recreational green spaces. The college, with over 1,300 boarding pupils, provides various sports facilities accessible to the public and runs programs that support our local primary and secondary schools, as well as specialist local clubs and organisations. Most of the land under Eton college management is not playing fields but either farmed land or parkland and open space enjoyed by the whole community.”

As part of our Access to green space series, we've been looking into the amount of space that our children have at school – and how much time they get to enjoy it. Over several months, our data team put together detailed information about the amount of land owned by England’s top private schools, and then used satellite data and a number of other variables to calculate how much of that was green space accessible by the pupils.

We also looked at the amount of outdoor space available to England’s state schools, and spoke to experts about some of the issues facing our children. As Tina Farr of St Ebbes primary school in Oxford told us: “We need to start running schools in line with healthy child development. We can give them a nourishing six hours a day and we absolutely have to.”

3. Lord Wandsworth college

At only a century old, Lord Wandsworth college is young for a prestigious public school, but it boasts the third most land owned by a Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) institution, with a 436-hectare campus. It was founded by Lord Wandsworth, Lord Sydney Stern, a Liberal MP, who left a bequest to educate the children of agricultural workers and children who had lost one or both parents and needed the support of a boarding environment. Now, pupils pay £42,000 a year and get to enjoy five County-level cricket pitches, six rugby pitches, and multiple “pristine” football pitches, as well as astroturf for hockey and a newly renovated tennis and netball centre. Children can roam over the soft rolling hills and wooded valleys of the vast campus in their free time.

A college spokesperson said: “We can confirm that pupils from a broad range of schools and backgrounds, and the wider community, use the space on a very regular basis. We partner with several local state schools and are always seeking to extend these links. The college was founded to care for young people who had lost the support of one or both parents (originally teaching them to farm – one of the reasons for the size of the estate) and we continue to support significant numbers of children for whom this is the case. Over the last 100 years, the college has welcomed over 2,500 such children.”

4. Stonyhurst college

Stonyhurst, a Catholic school, was originally founded in Saint-Omer, near Calais, at a time when penal laws prohibited Roman Catholic education in England. In 1794, it moved to England when a generous former pupil, Thomas Weld, gave it a donation which allowed it to establish itself on the Stonyhurst estate in Lancashire.

It has 425 hectares in its beautiful rural setting in Lancashire’s Ribble valley. Pupils have access to a 25-metre swimming pool, an astroturf pitch, 22 sports pitches, two horse riding and polo areas, a nine-hole golf course, and a shooting range. Pupils pay £35,730 a year for full boarding.

Alumni include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who named Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty after a fellow pupil, and 16 international rugby players.

A spokesperson said: “The school has a long history working with partnerships in the local and wider communities which includes offering our sporting facilities and green spaces, both in term time and in the holidays, to local families, maintained schools and other organisations. We also host collaborative initiatives such as history projects, drama productions, and choir performances, fostering community engagement beyond traditional academic activities.”

5. Stowe school

Stowe school has one of the more unusual activities of the schools on the list; beagling, where pupils teach the dogs how to hunt. The school has 344 hectares and is young; it opened on 11 May 1923, initially with 99 schoolboys. Now it is co-educational and has about 800 pupils at a time, who pay £44,058 a year for full boarding.

Pupils can enjoy eight rugby pitches, seven cricket squares, a nine-hole golf course, four football pitches, a clay pigeon shooting area, and an equestrian centre including a cross-country course and a floodlit showjumping arena.

Notable alumni include Guardian columnist George Monbiot, businessman Sir Richard Branson and actor Henry Cavill.

A Stowe spokesperson said: “No one employed at Stowe would disagree with your argument that all children should have access to playgrounds, green space and outdoor space. Every child deserves an excellent education and a good start in life and we are committed to reducing social inequality. To that purpose Stowe has created transformational partnerships with a growing network of organisations. All our facilities can be used by visiting clubs and schools: for example, the golf course is shared with Stowe Golf Club, an external swimming club uses the pool, an external athletics club uses the athletics track and the all-weather pitches are shared with local hockey clubs. All these groups are charged nominal prices for using our facilities.”

6. Radley college

Radley, founded in 1847, has 342 hectares of land including playing fields, a golf course, a lake and farmland. The Oxfordshire school, based in a former stately home, is one of only three public schools to have retained the boys-only, boarding-only tradition, the others being Harrow and Eton. Pupils pay £48,075 a year.

As well as sports pitches they have: a strength and conditioning centre; multiple croquet lawns; a sports hall; rowing tank; swimming pool; courts for tennis, squash, fives, rackets and badminton; and a nine-hole golf course.

Boys are taught field sports from a young age. The college has a pack of beagles and the pupils hunt throughout the Michaelmas and Lent terms, as well as attending hound shows in the summer. They also fly-fish for trout on the 0.8-hectare lake on campus.

A Radley spokesperson said: “We are fortunate to have outstanding facilities, and we are proud to share them with our local community. To give just a few examples, more than 450 children have learned to swim at Radley in the last three years, thousands of children have used our facilities for sports days, and we host regular sports leadership days for underrepresented groups.”

7. Royal Hospital school

Known as the “cradle of the navy”, the Royal Hospital school is set in 304 hectares of the Suffolk countryside, overlooking the River Stour with 39 hectares of sports fields, an all-weather pitch, tennis and netball courts, a swimming pool, squash courts, a sports hall, fitness suite, strength and conditioning room, martial arts studio, climbing wall, indoor pool, golf course, nearby equestrian facilities and a sailing lake.

Notable alumni include Olympic gold medallist Malcolm Cooper, England cricketer Reece Topley, Paralympian Hannah Stodel and Antarctic explorer Ernest Joyce.

A spokesperson said: “Giving and philanthropy have always been at the core of RHS since its foundation over 300 years ago. At RHS, we appreciate the significantly positive impact of green space and physical outdoor activity on overall wellbeing in our young people. RHS are also committed to extending this philosophy through supporting our community, nurturing relationships with a broad range of schools and hosting events across the year. This spring, we have been delighted to welcome pupils from over 60 primary schools on to our campus and will continue to build on this over the summer term.”

8. Rugby school

The sport rugby was invented at this school – hence the name – and the Warwickshire institution boasts 211 hectares of land. Pupils have the option to take part in more than 25 physical activity clubs every day, and the grounds include more than 20 natural and artificial sports pitches, from rugby and tennis to hockey, polo, soccer and lacrosse, plus a swimming pool and an athletics track.

Notable alumni include William Webb Ellis, the inventor of rugby, and, of course, many famous rugby players throughout the ages. Prime minister Neville Chamberlain also attended Rugby, as did writers Salman Rushdie, Lewis Carroll and Anthony Horowitz.

A Rugby spokesperson says: “Through our community service programme, Rugby 360, we enjoy partnerships with 23 schools in the town, with more than 100 Rugby school students working in these schools on a weekly basis. In addition, around 180 local primary pupils attend free after school clubs here including up to 50 children who use our sporting facilities and outdoor spaces, coached in cricket, hockey, netball, football and tennis by our students.”

9. King Edward’s school, Birmingham

This independent day school for boys is located in Edgbaston, Birmingham, was founded by King Edward VI in 1552, and owns 207 hectares. The grounds include eight rugby pitches, four cricket pitches, three astroturf hockey pitches, five tennis courts, a rifle range, an international-standard athletics track and seven artificial surfaced cricket nets. There is also a 25-metre indoor swimming pool and the school’s original sports hall is being redeveloped.

Notable alumni include authors JRR Tolkien, Jonathan Coe and Lee Child, Nobel prize winner Sir Maurice Wilkins and the controversial politician Enoch Powell.

10. Woldingham school

The only all-girls’ school on the list, Woldingham has 200 hectares of land.

The school website says its large expanse of countryside allows “students to flourish” in “inspiring, peaceful and safe” surroundings. Its sports facilities include a sports centre with a large sports hall, two squash courts, a fitness studio and a dance/gymnastics studio. It has extensive outdoor courts and pitches, an indoor tennis dome, an indoor swimming pool and an all-weather pitch.

Notable alumni include actor Carey Mulligan, socialite Lady Isabella Hervey, Tory politicians Helen Whately and Louise Mensch, BBC journalist Caroline Wyatt, and Crown actor Emma Corrin. For a boarding pupil, fees are £46,350 a year.