"Harrow House? No such place, love. I should know - I've worked in this town for 30 years."
The meter is ticking steadily. As we pass the pier for a third time, I remember: "Rannie's. It used to be called Rannie's."
"Ah, why didn't you say so before!"
The people of Eastbourne have always known Eastbourne College of Food and Fashion as Rannie's. It was the affectionate nickname of the formidable domestic science teacher, Elise Orange Randall, who founded the school in 1907. At that point, she had pounds 5 in the bank and one student. But her crusade to teach young ladies to be good wives, to manage households with servants, still endures; for minutes later, the taxi stops outside a sprawling, freshly whitewashed house in a prime location opposite The Grand Hotel: site of the exclusive, renamed and revamped, Harrow House, where for pounds 9,600 a year students from wealthy families gain diplomas in cordon bleu cookery, child care skills, fashion and interior design, flower arranging and intricate sugar craft.
Older Rannie's girls still repeat the mantra for cleaning toilets: Flush Brush Flush; they can skilfully shape a linen napkin into a swan; and they never forget to garnish every dish with parsley. Their lessons included ironing, bed-making, cleaning silver and woodwork, and special tuition in dusting chairs. When the trustees decided to close the college last summer, the Daily Telegraph mourned the demise of "Britain's last residential finishing school".
At the eleventh hour, a private educational establishment, also named Harrow House, which owns two other colleges in Swanage and near Hampton Court, bought the building for more than pounds 500,000 and invested the same amount again on refurbishment. They also persuaded the principal for the last 10 years, 43-year-old Janet Jenion, to stay on. And last month the school reopened with 50 full-time students - including, for the first time in its history, two young men.
Mrs Jenion, a brisk and busy Yorkshirewoman, greets journalists with newly baked scones and home-made jam, then launches into her hard sell. She's keen to distance herself from the finishing school image, and is anxious to push the vocational nature of her courses, and new subjects: English language, leisure and tourism. "Do not call us a finishing school," she says firmly. "That's an antiquated term which belongs in the past.
"To me, a finishing school is something out of Shirley Conran's book, Lace: somewhere in the Swiss Alps, where young girls go to learn a bit of French and sneak out at night to meet their married lovers." But it's not that clear-cut. The long-defunct Monkey Club in London's Pont Street is remembered by many ex-debutantes as the epitome of traditional finishing, where, from before the Second World War, upper-class young gels learned domestic arts, the rudiments of typing, and generally how to behave in Society. It got its name because students were taught to "hear no evil, see no evil". It was also a place where foreign aristocrats came to learn English and "have a bit of fun".
By the Seventies, however, the finishing process, for those who did not go to Switzerland, was becoming less easily defined. As Leanda de Lisle, the Spectator's Country Life columnist, points out: "It either meant going to a posh secretarial college, where you'd be taught grooming, deportment and etiquette - somewhere like Lucie Clayton's - or smart cookery colleges where you could look forward to a short career preparing directors' lunches before running a home." Rannie's fell into the latter camp.
"We never deserved that tag," says Mrs Jenion, meaning "finishing school". We never had girls walking around with books on top of their heads, or taught them how to get out of a Porsche without showing their knickers."
Ms Conran may not be entirely to blame, but it would appear that, in the 199Os, that idea of a finishing school has gone. Well-bred young women no longer wish to be turned, artificially, into perfect wives.
Peter Townend, "society consultant" at the Tatler, an organiser of debutante parties since the Sixties, says that even debutantes are shunning finishing. Most are more interested in academic achievement. In the old days, girls who were coming out had marriage in mind; now they see it more as a way of making new friends. Etiquette is no longer a top priority; nor is there time for housewifery. "The demise of etiquette, I suppose you could excuse. About housewifery," he laments, "I'm not so sure."
Over the last decade, Mrs Jenion has seen off her last four remaining rivals, including the highly refined Winkfield Place near Ascot, which went in 1991. The Campana Finishing School in Farnham re-emerged as that very Nineties thing, an international language school, and two years ago dropped the offending F-word from its title.
"No one, not even the very rich, want to be `finished', in the old- fashioned sense, any more, " Mrs Jenion admits." To even be associated with that term could be damaging. Women want careers, they want to be more than just housewives." She expatiates instead on her new, state-of the-art, cookery lecture theatre, with its closed-circuit television and satellite links, which she hopes will eventually enable Harrow House to give live culinary demonstrations across the world. As it happens, Mrs Jenion's ambition on leaving school in Bradford was to work as a cookery demonstrator at the local gas shop. "We would prefer to be known as a `modern college for life'," she now says, rather grandly.
Meanwhile, upstairs in interior design, girls are learning the art of rag-rugging. Later, they will progress to cushion-making. Ultimately, they will cost and design the decoration of a room. Downstairs in the kitchens, a cookery class is attempting kidneys in a sherry sauce. In the afternoon, it will be before flower artistry.
To this outsider, it still seems a rarefied and privileged environment: a safe world, far removed from the rat-race. But a significant indicator of changing demand is that this year only six young women, aged 16 to I8, have opted to take the traditional one-year-diploma - the least vocational course, which involves the study of general home-making skills - or `life skills', as Mrs Jenion prefers to call them.
Jemma Parry, 16, a former student of The City of London Freeman's School, is taking the diploma course, just as her mother, Suzie, did before her. "I came here because my mother came here," she says. She spends three mornings and one afternoon studying cookery, and three afternoons learning about fashion, including needlework and dress-making. One-and-a-half hours a week is spent at computer studies and typing, about which Jemma is not so keen. On Fridays they take flower arranging: "So far we have just made little wedding posies and Christmas presents for grannies." The rest of the lessons are made up of child care and interior design, her favourite subjects. She gets pounds 100 a month from her parents, a standard allowance for most of the girls.
"Of course I think what we're doing is relevant," she protests as she decorates her project folder with designer wallpaper. "Everyone needs to know the basics of life. Some of my friends don't even know how to boil an egg. A lot of the boys I know laughed when they heard I was coming here. They said, `Oh, you're going to learn how to iron!' But we don't do things like that here, and anyway, Mummy has taught me to do those things already."
Suzie Parry, 48, the daughter of a surgeon, thinks her daughter may open her own restaurant or become a nursery teacher but, whatever the occupation, will make "a wonderful wife and mother". She attended Eastbourne when it was still called the College of Domestic Economy in 1964. "Not many women did A-levels or went to university in my day," she recalls. "There wasn't much choice. You either went straight into secretarial college or a school like Rannie's. I didn't know what I wanted so I chose the easy option. The point of the place then was to make you a good housewife. If you were lucky, you went on to do directors' lunches." Which is precisely what she did until marriage to her chartered surveyor husband at the age of 22. She now has three children.
"It's a halfway house between here and the wider world," she says. "I know it was the Sixties, but we weren't the slightest bit rebellious. We weren't the type to go on marches. There was no sex and rock `n' roll for us, although we did listen to the Beatles and go to cafes. Essentially, we were just nice, boring girls."
In those days, housewifery was still central to the curriculum. Everything was very structured, even ironing lessons. You had to iron all the double bits first, like the cuffs and the collar. "It's still the only way," says Suzie Parry. "Even to this day, when people see a pile of my perfect ironing, they think its new from a shop."
She recalls that the cooking was basic: shepherd's pie and steak and kidney. They all had to master the art of making un-lumpy white sauce. "These days," she says, a little contemptuously, "men and women would be lost without their Marks & Spencer's ready-made meals. It taught us discipline. I still make a bed the Rannie's way, with the open end of the pillow away from the door so that people cannot see it. And `Flush Brush Flush' - that's the way I clean the toilet."
She could have sent Jemma on cordon bleu courses at specialist colleges such as Prue Leith's or Tante Marie in London, but she believes it would have been too high-pressured. A common refrain of the diploma girls is that they are not "A-Ievel material"; and a common ambition among these daughters of business executives, army officers and city professionals is to work in child care, often as nursery assistants - as Diana, Princess of Wales, once did.
Emma Grant, a former pupil of the girls' boarding school, St Mary's Wantage, is typical. Her father, a Jersey-based hotelier, considered sending her to a Swiss school, then opted for Eastbourne. "In Switzerland," she observes wistfully, "I'd have had French lessons and, of course, there'd have been the skiing, which would have been nice."
Emma is shy, certainly no Hooray Henrietta. Although slim and dark-haired, her girlish awkwardness is reminiscent of the young Lady Di. She comes alive in the child care lessons. She smiles; the baby (real) smiles back.
In the common room, a cookery class of girls who have stayed on for a fourth term is taking its coffee break. Dressed in the chef's uniforms of checked trousers and white jackets, they smoke or eat chocolate bars. They are generally older, noisier and more outspoken. Many are taking a year off between school and university. A high proportion want to be chalet girls, despite the associations with husband-hunting Sloanes able to fend off Rugger Buggers, who party till morning, and are not be too bleary-eyed to serve up a full breakfast.
Claire Braden has ten GCSEs and three A levels (B, C and D), and, next year, plans to go to Manchester University to study psychology. "I'm here because doing the cordon bleu course will allow me to work as a chalet girl during the vacation," she explains. Her father is a managing director of a yacht brokerage, her mother a doctor's receptionist.
"You just have to hope that you don't end up looking after a boring married couple and instead get assigned to the boys on the rugby tour," she says, laughing. "I want to go to university and have a career, but I also want to be able to earn money by cooking on my Daddy's yachts and meet lots of rich people. Yes, I'd like to marry a wealthy man. Who wouldn't?"
The other girls groan. This is precisely the sort of politically incorrect statement they have been studiously avoiding. Claire corrects herself. "That last bit was a joke, OK?"
"I always wanted to be a chalet girl," laments Emily Davies, 18," but if I don't have a useful gap year I won't get on my university course." Emily was asked to leave her posh public school. "I got into trouble for a lot of silly things," she says vaguely. Her father, a wine merchant, and her mother then pondered a Swiss finishing school. Her mother had been to finishing school at Winkfield Place.
"They (my parents) said: `We'll send you off to be a proper lady.' But I like wearing Dockers, not being all ladylike, and in the end they let me go to an ordinary sixth-form college to do my A-levels." She got a B and 2 Ds, and is now re-taking biology in Brighton as well as attending Harrow House. Next year she wants to go to Oxford Brookes University to study art. Her parents are paying for her to spend the next term studying History of Art in Venice.
That the school is having to re-think itself is probably best illustrated by the presence of men for the first time at Eastbourne. Simon Walley, 16, from Stoke-on-Trent, and Richard Glaze, 20, of Bridgnorth in Shropshire, made history last month as the first to enrol, on the cookery courses.
Simon is the son of the managing director of a pottery company; his mother is a university press officer. He wants to be a famous chef. "I'll be the next Gary Rhodes," he declares. "I want to own my own restaurant, have fame, money and respect." He's taking flower artistry as well, "because, when I've got my own place, I can show the staff how to arrange the displays." He's just a bit worried what his mates back in Stoke will think. Richard dropped out two years through a university degree in biochemistry and food science. "I suddenly realised I didn't want to work in a laboratory the rest of my life."
In the past, the reputation of Rannie's cookery courses has secured student placements with top chefs such as Raymond Blanc, Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Anton Mosimann, or as cooks for celebrities and authors. Both men are hoping the old girl network will work for them, too.
Mrs Jenion's mission to modernise the college includes the arrival of foreign language students on short courses. This term, a group of 12 army officers and civil servants turned up from Poland. One of them, Darek Zawadka, 29, a second lieutenant in the Polish army, says: "We were told in Poland that we were coming to a very formal town and a very formal school. We were told it would be offensive if we failed to wear suits and ties, so we packed our suitcases full of smart clothes. It was a relief to find we could wear jeans."
Other changes are small but significant. This year for the first time, students have been instructed to call staff by their first names, and rules about staying out late have been relaxed: girls under 18 are allowed to stay out until 11pm, later if they have special permission from their parents. A security swipe card system has been fitted to the heavy front doors. And in the student's common room, a bar has been installed. Mrs Jenion, who is personally opposed to students smoking, has agreed a smoking area. Boyfriends are allowed to visit but cannot stay overnight.
In the evening, everyone assembles in the common room to watch the Australian soaps, Neighbours and Home and Away, and EastEnders after dinner. The gritty storylines of human misery in London's East End has captured the imaginations of these privileged girls. Nights out revolve around pubs, and later nightclubs for those who do not have to obey the curfew.
Clare Braden says: "A group of us, including Simon and Richard, go to the naffest nightclub in Eastbourne, which plays obvious chart songs like the Spice Girls. There are all these bouncers on the door thinking they look hard when they just look funny. A lot of the local boys go there, although they don't really approach us. We must look quite a scary little group, but I wouldn't fancy them, anyway. I don't know how to say this without sounding snobby, but my friends and I would call them `Kevs' - you know, all short hair and baggy jeans, not really in fashion at all now."
Modernisation and change, says Mrs Jenion, is a matter of survival. Even in Switzerland, finishing schools have closed, including the Institut d'Alpin Vidamanette in Gstaad, the mountain school attended by both Princess Diana and Tiggy Legge-Bourke, nanny to the princes William and Harry. According to the Swiss Association of Private Schools, only three finishing schools still exist. Villa Pierrefeu is still devoted to the traditional cultural studies, etiquette, deportment, domestic science and French, but does no academic subjects, and both Chateau Beau Cedre and Surval Montefleuri are more diversified.
Swiss finishing is up to three times more expensive than a year at Harrow House. The weak pound has meant less British students, and the Swiss now look increasingly to Latin America, Saudi Arabia and the Far East to recruit daughters of millionaires and diplomats. Mrs Viviane Neri, principal of Villa Pierrefeu, suggests the British finishing school has died out. Only three of her school's 30 young women are from the UK; none, she says, are from the British nobility.
"The Swiss are more open. We teach our girls about international culture. For example, in France it is good manners to clear your plate, otherwise you insult your hostess's cooking. But in an Arabic country you should leave a little bit on your plate because otherwise your host will worry that they have underfed you. These things you need to know whether you are travelling on business or hosting parties. The British, like the French, are rather more rigid. Perhaps you went around telling people this is the only way to do it. I find it ironic that the Swiss finishing school has survived rather better than the British and the French - there it died out 20 years ago."
Ultimately, the decline of the British finishing school is a story of social change. Leanda de Lisle, is a former debutante and pupil of St Mary's School, Ascot, in the Seventies. "Even then," she says, " a lot of the girls who were perfectly capable of A-levels and going to university were under pressure from the nuns and their parents to go to finishing school. Opportunities were so much narrower, the idea being that you were just killing time until you got married. To me, the whole thing was absolutely abhorrent. I wouldn't go." She went instead to Oxford university. "But I still had to do the debutante thing, and that was simply awful.
"I don't think those pressures exist to the same extent anymore. The changes in the economy, and the perception of the woman's role, has changed so much over the last 20 years. Now my old school tops the academic league tables. It just goes to show how the emphasis has shifted."
But, she adds: "You cannot deny that there still exists a certain kind of wealthy young girl who doesn't need to work and has no inclination to learn. Perhaps the finishing school girl has been replaced by the Trust Fund Babe."
Indeed, Peter York, the social commentator and co-author of The Sloane Rangers Handbook, thinks that finishing schools are simply not hip anymore. "There's been a blue-stocking riot. The girls who would have gone to finishing school now either want to be educated properly or they want jobs or little businesses which they can talk about. The idea of learning a bit of everything in order to be a good wifey is an anachronism. Learning to cook a bit and run a house a bit seems irrelevant if you want to be anything other than a chalet girl.
"Even if these young women do not want to work, they want to hang out somewhere trendy, and that means London or New York, not the English countryside or Switzerland. There are hipper ways to be finished. Being a bit careerist is hip these day, even if ultimately you end up with three kids and running the home."
There is still one bastion where posh British girls can go to learn good manners and deportment: Lucie Clayton's secretarial college in South Kensington, London. Here it remains possible to learn the correct way to climb out of a car with your legs together. But even Lucie Clayton's has expanded to run a child-care course for young women who want to be nannies, and the principal, Judith Kark, recognises the business could not be sustained by teaching finishing skills alone.
"I see it as a triangle, with the core skills for secretarial work, shorthand, typing, word processing and those kind of technical skills making the bigger chunk at the bottom, the second tier being a related subject such as finance or PR, and, finally, the smallest bit is the finishing skills. We don't do much cooking, never have. The thing we're trying to do is give the girls a few survival tips because, if you're a secretary and suddenly your boss wants you to take some clients to lunch because he or she cannot make it, then you need to feel comfortable in a posh restaurant and not feel overwhelmed. We teach them how to walk into a room with presence rather than be a shrinking violet. It's all about confidence and assertiveness."
Back at Eastbourne, Mrs Jenion is in a posh cordon bleu restaurant called Rannies on the lower floor of the college. Here you can eat a four-course meal for pounds 10 cooked by the students. Afterwards, she patrols the corridors, checking that the builders' refurbishment of the building is up to standard, when she notices an unfamiliar smell. "Oh dear," she worries, " I hope it's not a gas leak." The smell gets stronger as she climbs the stairs until finally, near the Polish men's room, she identifies its source. It is aftershave, she is sniffing - very strong, and several different brands mingling together.
"Ahh," she muses, "that's new. A manly smell, quite nice, really"