The name of Letchworth, a commuter town between London and Cambridge, is not the stuff of dreams. Going past it on the train, you'd hardly know it was once a green utopia, set up by the theosopher Ebenezer Howard as the first garden city in 1902. Yet some of the gentle mystery of the original Letchworth lives on at St Christopher School, which has been entirely vegetarian ever since it was founded as a progressive institution in 1915.
Every lunch at St Christopher, in an airy frescoed room, includes no fewer than 16 different kinds of freshly made salad. On the day I visited, there was one with olives and couscous, another with tomato, sweetcorn and spring onion, potato salad, green salad, fresh beetroot salad, cucumber salad, a tomato and cheese combination and a particularly nice one with penne and wild mushrooms . . . at which point, I lost count. For the younger children, there are also simpler bowls of uncombined things - plain grated cheese, plain celery - because some are suspicious of mixtures.
There is hot food as well, which might be risotto or pasta or ratatouille with jacket potatoes, but when I lunched it was vegetarian hot dogs, which were, surprisingly, not bad at all and were being swiftly demolished by the children (the chef, an ex-army man, later told me he had cooked 850 hot dogs that day, devoured by about 500 people). On the side was a delicious cauliflower cheese, and home-made potato wedges, roasted in a blistering oven.
Good though the food is, it isn't the most interesting thing going on in the dining hall. Halfway through the first lunch sitting, a junior school pupil rings a bell and everyone stands stock-still in silence for a couple of minutes before shouting "Thank you" to the cooking staff - a secular grace. No one has to tell them to do this. Another unusual thing is the bucket used to collect wasted food. Next to it is a statistical table marking exactly how many kilograms of food have been wasted at each meal over the past week, so that the diners think before they take more food than they can eat. Much of the food that is wasted goes into a worm composting system, the brainchild of the headmaster's wife, Betsy Reid, the kind of quiet visionary you can imagine being friends with William Morris. Another of her pet projects is the school apiary club, where the school is pioneering new methods of bee-keeping. I tasted a lovely drink the children had made from honey (strained of any insect legs), Darjeeling tea and ginger ale. The school has a strong tradition of cookery teaching in its "Vegetarian Centre" (though it is currently between teachers).
For Geoff Edwards, the development officer who showed me round, the school's diet is simply part of a "holistic ethos" of non-exploitation. In fact, only about 16 per cent of pupils and staff are committed vegetarians at home. The really distinctive thing about St Christopher is not the vegetarianism, but the way pupils and teachers interact, without deference or self-consciousness. The only unfriendly words I heard all day came from the crafts teacher who, on being told that I was from the New Statesman, barked: "Too right-wing for me!"
Could state schools adopt the holistic approach to living and eating offered by "St Chris"? Geoff Edwards was doubtful. "It's not the sort of thing you can impose suddenly." And even St Christopher does not pretend to be a dietary utopia. True to its belief in self-government, there is a tuck shop run by the pupils themselves. The most popular items are Coke, crisps and Nestle chocolate. It seems you can lead children to salad, but you can't make them eat it.