April 4, 2014
Last week (March 22-28) my program visited Oxford. The Oxford students were away on mid-semester break, so we got to stay in the dorms at University College (Univ, for short) and take classes like real, live Oxford undergrads! Besides the stunning historical sites, great food, and a couple fascinating lectures—the thing I’m most excited about is the fact that I can now say I “studied at Oxford” and technically, technically, I won’t be lying. How baller is that?
(Univ College Quad)
I can just see it now: I’m at some mixer filled with highly sophisticated, high-society people, sipping scotch and discussing politics, and someone asks, “Where did you study as an undergrad?” I’ll swirl my scotch, raise an eyebrow nonchalantly and say, “Oxford…among other places.” This will of course be followed by nods and murmurs of approval. I mean, I don’t know what I’d be doing at this fancy-ass mixer. And I hate scotch. And I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished a nonchalant eyebrow raise. But still. It just sounds so…impressive. I studied at Oxford. Squee!
Anyway. Back to the point. Oxford is a stunning city. Like Bath, it’s super historical, but it’s more medieval and renaissance-y rather than classical. Oxford has upwards of forty colleges (forty-three…I think) and some famous poet or politician or world leader studied at almost every one. Besides Univ, where we were staying (and where Percy Shelley studied!!), I got to explore Wadham College, founded in 1610, St. John’s College, founded in the Middle Ages, Oriel College, founded during the Renaissance, and Christ Church College, founded during Henry VIII’s reign. I also stood in the famous quad of the Bodleian Library and got two awesome views of the city—one from the top of Carfax Tower, the other from the tower of St. Mary’s Church.
(The entryway into the Bodleian Library Quad)
Carfax Tower is all that remains of a 13th century church that stood there. It’s the highest point in Oxford and no building in Oxford can be constructed higher than it. The spiraling staircase that goes to the top is extremely narrow. I didn’t bump into anyone on the way up, but on the way down, some interesting acrobatics had to be performed to get past a few people who were headed to the top. Let’s just say we had to get really intimate, really fast. Teamwork and a lack of personal boundaries is always the key in situations like that! The view from the top was absolutely stunning, and I had it all to myself for a good half hour. I stared out over the city, brooding and channeling my inner Heathcliffe like the good poet I am, letting the wind whip my hair into a frizzy mess.
(The narrow, spiral staircase leading to the top of Carfax Tower)
(View from the top of Carfax Tower)
By the time I headed back down the staircase, it was raining (typical) but I forged on and headed over to St. Mary’s for another tower climb. I once again made close friends with a few people on the way up the insanely narrow staircase, and once again had the view all to myself once I reached the top. I think the rain scared everyone else off. Unlike Carfax Tower where you have an unobstructed view of the city, you can’t actually go all the way to the top of St. Mary’s. You walk around a narrow path that circles the building and get, in a sense, four different views of the city.
(Radcliffe Quad and the Camera)
The first view you get when you emerge from the staircase is of Radcliffe Quad and the Camera—a beautiful, circular structure that is the most-photographed building in Oxford. Just behind the Camera you can see the Bodleian Library. To the right is All Souls College, which is a highly exclusive Oxford college that doesn’t admit undergrads, doesn’t allow visitors, and boasts its own (apparently extremely well-stocked) wine cellar.
(All Souls College)
The second view you get on the way around is of Brasenose College. The other two views are of city street, including High Street. St. Mary’s Church is on one side of High Street and Univ College is on the other side, a little ways down. The first thing I saw every time I stepped out of Univ was the St. Mary’s Church tower—not a bad thing to be greeted with every morning.
(Oxford viewed from the St. Mary’s Tower)
(St. Mary’s viewed from the ground)
Besides soaking up the views—and the rain—I scared the shit out a pigeon (literally) who thought it had found a nice, peaceful place to hide out on the tower. There was a little alcove that I stepped into to get out of the rain for a bit, but unfortunately this poor pigeon had the same idea. I think I was just as startled as the pigeon when I put my foot down and was greeted with an irritated squawk and an explosion of feathers. So, sorry, Oxford Pigeon. That was my bad.
Other highlights of my Oxford trip include:
1. A lecture entitled “Bloody Oxford” in which Dr. Leslie Mitchell recounted the surprisingly tumultuous (and bloody) beginnings of the University. The conflict between Town and Gown was so intense that murder was a rather common occurrence. University students (who were around 14 or 15 at the time) would run around town with knives tucked into their academic robes, stabbing any “townies” who pissed them off. One of the bloodiest occurrences was when a group of students got into a fight with an innkeeper over the dinner bill and stabbed him (because that’s the best way to settle any dispute.) At one point, the animosity got so bad that city-wide fighting broke out. Two “armies,” one comprised of University students, the other comprised of townspeople, marched towards each other down Broad Street and started slaughtering each other. A group of bishops that tried to walk between the two sides with crosses raised high in an attempt to end the fighting also got slaughtered. The king eventually became involved, and since the king was wildly, unapologetically biased in favor of the University, whose “clever people” he used in his governing, the king demanded that the mayor lay facedown on the church steps in an act of repentance. For centuries after, every mayor of Oxford was made to lie on the church steps each year as a reminder that all that murderous nonsense would not be tolerated.
2. Taking a tour of Christ Church College including the Alice in Wonderland gardens, named after Lewis Carroll’s work that was inspired by stories Carroll told to Alice Liddell, daughter of the college’s dean at the time. Christ Church College is absolutely steeped in history. The main quad was designed by Cardinal Wolsey, the infamous favorite of Henry VIII who fell into ruin when he failed to obtain the king a divorce. Wolsey planned to call the college “Cardinal College,” for obvious, ridiculously egotistical reasons, but when he fell out of favor, Henry VIII took over and named it Christ Church.
(Tom’s Quad and Tower at Christ Church–the tower was built by Christopher Wren, who also constructed St. Paul’s Cathedral)
(The Alice in Wonderland gardens)
The site of the college was originally the site of a priory where St. Frideswide lived. Frideswide was a nun, but despite being married to God, she did her fair share of ass-kicking. When she refused the proposal of a king, he tried to force her into marriage, but she fled Oxford and managed to escape. After spending some time away, casually performing miracles and healing the sick, she returned to Oxford and confronted the pushy king. He was immediately struck blind by a bolt of lightning and dropped the whole marriage issue. Frideswide lived out the rest of her days in Oxford, surrounded by adoring townspeople. She was made a saint after her death, and is now the patron saint of Oxford.
(St. Frideswide’s shrine in the Christ Church Cathedral)
Other cool things that happened at Christ Church: Charles I lived there during the English Civil War and even held parliament there. Elizabeth I also stayed there twice during her reign. And, apparently, the college was used as a location in the Harry Potter films—a fact that I did not find nearly as exciting as some of the other students in my program.
3. Attending a formal dinner at Univ College. I feel like there’s an image that people have of Oxford professors. Something along the lines of silver-haired, sophisticated academics strutting around in tweed jackets, reciting Latin. Well, I’m here to tell you that those stereotypes are absolutely accurate. Guess what we did before eating our fancy dinner? Nope, we didn’t hold hands and say grace—we chanted in Latin! I actually almost giggled. It was just such a clichéd moment. A balding professor stood on a slightly raised platform, tweed-jacket and all, and rattled at us in Latin about the virtues of academia for a good five minutes before we were allowed to sit down and eat. Hilarious! I loved it.
(The Univ dining hall is called the Buttery–this is where we ate our fancy dinner and chanted in Latin)
In between all this excitement, I also managed to go to class, and hang out at the college bar—yes, there’s a college bar. Still not over it. America needs to get on that bandwagon.
So. To sum up: I can now and forever officially tell everyone I know that I studied at Oxford. How many times do you think I can super-casually drop it into conversation before I get punched? Lookin’ forward to finding out.