Oxford from an American's Perspective


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June 16th 2007
Published: June 16th 2007
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Inside the BodleianInside the BodleianInside the Bodleian

I was told this room was used as the setting for a Hogwarts' dormitory.
Oxford
June 16, 2007

We arrived in Oxford yesterday. We took a bus from the train station to our accommodations and arrived at the Acorn Guest House on Iffley Road. It seems to be the nicest B and B we’ve experienced so far; the rooms are light and clean and pleasant. We headed out right away for a bite to eat in town and a guided tour of the University, with our guide, Christine, who is married to a Professor of Literature at St. John’s College. She knew a great deal about Oxford and was able to take us inside many places not usually open to the public.

As a Brit, my colleague Lucy says it seems strange to tour Oxford as a tourist. She said it would be like taking visitors to America to see Harvard. From her perspective Oxford is a very elite institution and does not reflect the collegiate experience of the British people she knows. I can see how this would feel strange to her, but I guess because of its long history and its cultural and historical significance, Oxford is really a logical tourist attraction and historical attraction for those visiting England. Lucy had mentioned at one point that as a child in Bath, she often felt like she was growing up in a museum. I think being a student at Oxford would also feel like you were going to school in a museum. We didn’t see many real-life interiors of the college, and I am curious to know if the dorm rooms, for example, feel like modern-day U.S. dorm rooms, or if they also have this rarified historical atmosphere about them. I wonder if Oxford students are much in awe, in their day-to-day lives, of the privilege and honor it is for them to study here, in a place so steeped in history and accomplishment.

Oxford is made up of thirty-nine separate colleges, with approximately 300-700 students in each. Each has its own unique and storied history, the oldest going back 750 years. The architecture concentrated within the very small center of this town is just amazing. From the outside of many of these buildings, it looks like time has stood still in many ways, and I found it hard to imagine 21st century college students going about their studies in this kind of a setting. But there were signs that these students exist in abundance. Bicycles, for example, were everywhere - massed into vacant lots, chained to wrought iron fences and gates, and competing with cars and buses for room on all the streets.

It was also significant that we were here at exam time. In the British system, end-of-term exams are huge, most commonly the only assessment students receive. The students attend lectures, meet with their professors, soak up information all semester, and then sit for a written exam that could be up to six hours long. When they learn they’ve passed, there is a great deal of pent-up stress - and some very strange traditions have emerged as a result of the need to release this stress. Apparently, a common thing to do when you’ve passed your exams is to be doused with champagne, and then showered with flower petals or confetti, which will, of course, stick to you because of the champagne soaking. But our tour guide explained that this particular tradition has deteriorated into some rather unpleasant variations. Nowadays people are as likely to be doused with things like baked beans and spaghettios as flower petals. Walking through many of the alleys and side streets of Oxford these past two days, we had to carefully step around the remains of these sorts of celebratory dousings. We also saw several students, looking much the worse for having experienced their rites of passage.

Outside the Radcliffe Camera, an amazing 18th century circular library, we saw dozens of vans and equipment trucks involved with the filming of The Golden Compass, a major motion picture based on a trilogy of young adult novels. Several of our students had read the books and were very excited. We didn’t see any big stars, but did see many extras in costume. We are told that the college is used frequently as a setting for various feature films.

After our tour of the University concluded, we were dropped at the Eagle and Child, the favorite pub of friends J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It is known locally as the Bear and Baby. Here our group split, with some students opting for pints at the pub, and another group going with Lucy and me to Browns restaurant for our first “high tea.” Browns was elegant but comfortable, and we had our fill of cucumber and salmon sandwiches (with crusts removed), rich and
Botanical GardensBotanical GardensBotanical Gardens

What kind of tree is growing in here?
nutty fruit cake slices, and warm fruit scones, topped with double cream (very rich and buttery) and strawberry jam. All washed down with the finest Twinings Earl Grey tea. This was a very satisfying experience.

Lucy and I found an internet café and did some email, and then headed back to the Eagle and Child for a few drinks and some good conversation. When we walked back about 10:30, the streets were filled with all kinds of people: students, professionals, tourists, etc. And mobile kebob vans filled the streets, sending out very tempting smells and doing a brisk business with the nighttime crowds.

On Saturday I spent most of the day just walking around Oxford, soaking up the atmosphere and architecture. I met one of our students in a bookstore café to discuss a reading assignment, but otherwise just wandered. The central shopping district was quite mobbed with people, even though it rained on and off for most of the day. And it really did rain “on” and “off,” like someone was turning it on and off. I spent a great deal of time stopping in doorways to take off or put on my raincoat. Most of the British had umbrellas, which all pop up as the rain begins, and slowly come down when it tapers off. In between, there were times when I needed my sunglasses. This is what they mean by scattered sun and showers.

I walked around the Oxford Botanical Gardens, which were nice even in the rain. Lots of amazing plants and the calls of all kinds of birds and the bells of the college chiming in occasionally. A great place to walk and think and enjoy the outdoors. It’s very near the river Cherwell, where the favorite activity is punting. You can rent these long boats called punts, and with a 15-foot long aluminum pole you push against the bottom of the river and propel the boat along. Apparently this is harder than it appears at first, but is a favorite activity of Oxford undergraduates. Picture someone in a straw boater, with some passengers lounging in the boat sipping Pims on a lazy summer afternoon. A few of our student rented a punt, and the one appointed to propel the thing ended up falling in to the river. He maintains that it is very difficult to propel the vehicle, steer it, and also keep your balance at the same time.

I browsed in a few antique shops and bought a few antique postcard views of Oxford and Bath. For one pound each, I think these are wonderful souvenirs. I also bought some fun cards and trinkets at the Bodleian library of Oxford. I climbed to the top of the tower of St. Mary’s church. The final bit of that climb is on a very narrow spiral stone staircase that gets a little bit close and creepy towards the top. It was a little more work that I had expected, but at the top the view of all the towns spires and quads was worth it. Back down in the church, the Oxford Sinfonia classical ensemble was rehearsing for a concert that evening in the church. I think I heard them practicing a Shostakovich cello concerto. I sat for a while and enjoyed the music. This church was the setting for some amazing historical and theological developments over the years. Wesley preached here just before he left the Anglican church to establish Methodism, and Newman was here shortly before converting to Catholicism. Again, I found myself in amazement at how many famous historical figures walked these streets and lived in these buildings. It’s hard to know how to properly honor and respect all this history as just me, an ordinary 21st century American tourist.







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18th June 2007

Nice pictures!
You've figured out how to use the camera quite quickly; your images are fantastic.
19th June 2007

Very nice
Hi love to read about your adventures looks like fun wonderful pitcures will contiue to follow Love Rhonda John Roni jonny
19th June 2007

wonderful
Takes me back.Wonderful picts,and really great commentary,quite anxious to see and talk about what you saw and did when you get back..John

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