The College has access to a chalet in the French Alps near Mont Blanc. It was the property of Francis Urquhart, Fellow and Dean of Balliol, who began the tradition of annual reading parties in 1891. Since the Second World War the Chalet has been administered by an educational trust representing Balliol, New College and University, which have shared use of the Chalet during the summer vacation. The Balliol trustees are Dominic O’Brien and Nicola Trott.
The Chalet is quite isolated in an area of great natural beauty. It stands on a small plateau at an altitude of 1,760m in a wood on the west slopes of the Prarion, one of the foothills of Mont Blanc massif. It is a large building on three floors and, lacking electricity, is characteristic of traditional Alpine life. A short distance away on the mountain, the Prarion Hotel, a ski and summer walking resort, provides a link with the modern world.
Hill-walking can extend to several parts of the adjacent mountains and valleys, and the culture, cuisine and flora of the region (the Haute Savoie) offer much to enjoy; but reading is the main objective of chalet visits and extreme fitness is not a prerequisite.
Chalet visits last for up to ten days and are classical reading parties. Generally the morning is spent reading or working, the afternoon walking or relaxing, and a seminar is held, either before or after dinner. The set texts and the subject and student balance (undergraduate-graduate) are settled by the individual Fellow(s) leading each party.
Participants in Chalet reading parties owe a small daily ‘rent’ to the Trust, and members also pay their own way to the Chalet. The College is able to contribute to food and subsistence. Chaletites share out the normal tasks of living under slightly primitive but atmospheric conditions, and the team spirit of chalet life is part of the enjoyment. Over the years many Balliol alumni – including Tom Bingham and Harold Macmillan – have been to the Chalet; and the diary entries made by each party in succession record an experience that is virtually unique.