Report from Oxford
Posted on October 31, 2012
I’m in Oxford, England this week, taking a week of vacation time to visit our daughter Emma. Emma last fall won a Rhodes Scholarship and arrived here at the very end of semester to begin her graduate work. Founded in 1096, Oxford is the oldest English speaking university in the world and the second oldest university overall and it looks like the setting of the Harry Potter movies. For good reason! A lot of Harry Potter was shot here and there are moments when touring the 38 colleges (the university is an aggregate of its 38 colleges) that one feels like one has been transported into the pages of the Rowling novels. Emma is in Keble College and we had dinner in its grand hall on Monday night, the largest dining hall at Oxford.
With a great barrel vaulted ceilings, long tables with lamps, wait staff serving a three course meal, and students filing in with their gowns (gowns required at hall, even if wearing tee-shirt and jeans underneath), we all stood as the Warden (yes, that’s what they call the head of school) and his guests at the head table called for grace and then sat down to dinner. At St. John’s College, grace is actually sung by a children’s choir.
The food was only okay — this is England after all, but the setting was magical. And quirky. One quickly discovers that Oxford takes the English penchant for the quirky and sets it at a whole new level. Our friend Kyle asked a waiter where he might find the men’s room and the waiter gave him directions, but then said, “Sir, you will not be permitted to re-enter hall if you leave during the meal. No one is.” Okay, English discipline extends to the basics I guess. Yet it’s the quirkiness that makes this place wonderful really.
The university so dominates the city — it is the city really — that we were surprised to learn that there are only about 21,000 students here. On the other hand, Oxford and its sister university Cambridge (each never mentions the other’s name: it is always “the other place”) define elitism. This is the place that produced 26 British prime ministers, 30 other heads of state (including Bill Clinton), 47 Nobel Prize winners, and even 12 saints. The really wealthy colleges here are extraordinary. At Magdalen College, for example, there is daily maid service, sheets are changed, the college has a world class wine list, and it has its own deer park.
Emma’s friend Sam is assigned to Magdalen and was able to give us a tour yesterday, including getting access to the Tower. We obtained the ancient key from the Porter (the guys who guard the entrances to each college) and unlocked the great wooden door. Here’s Pat’s dad Fred unlocking it:
We went up the 138 steps, the spiral getting smaller and smaller and the steps increasingly small until we finally arrived at a ladder and then a small wooden door leading to the Tower roof. The views over Oxford’s spires and towers, recalling Thomas Hardy’s descriptions, was magnificent.
Oxford students do not have classes quite as know them. They have weekly meetings with their faculty, often 1-on-1, but now more frequently 3-on-1 given budget pressures, have long reading lists and ungraded assignments, and then take high stakes exams in June. Undergraduates are not allowed access to the Tower during exams. As I said, high stakes.
A highlight for me was our visit to the Duke Humphrey Reading Room in the Bodleian Library (only the British Library is larger in the UK), the repository for ancient texts, maps, music scores, and rare books. When Duke Humphrey died in 1447 he left his large (for then) library and this part of the Bodleian was built to house the collection in 1450. I’m pretty sure there is chewing gum underneath seats that is older than America. Access to this reading room is very limited: 15 minutes, no bags or cameras, and Emma was told we were to not leave her sight. The room is whisper quiet and the walls are floor to ceiling with ancient books. The smell was delicious for any book lover: that combination of ancient leather and paper and dust that one gets in particularly perfect old book shops and never to be replicated by Amazon. Frumpy looking scholars, all disheveled hair and frayed tweed, sat at tables poring over manuscripts and it affirmed for me that the world is a better place that we make room for such deep reflection on the arcane, ancient, and non-utilitarian. They may have been actors paid to play the role they looked so perfect.
As someone who studied English literature this feels like sacred ground. We had a pint at the Eagle and Child pub (also dubbed the Falcon and Fetus by local wags) where C.S. Lewis and J.R. R. Tolkien shared a booth. We saw the place in Magdalen’s chapel where Lewis sat and found Catholicism. We walked ancient stone alleyways where one could easily imagine Shelley, Donne, Wilde, Huxley, Greene, Graves, and even old Samuel Johnson walking centuries before. Indeed, the real joy of this place is not in a given building, or college, or museum — though those are many — but in the overall atmosphere. To simply walk and watch students and faculty on their bikes, sometimes gowns streaming behind them as they rush off to some affair. To walk along the canals and meadows that surround the university. To sit by the fire in our lovely little hotel (jeez, it’s even called the Old Parsonage, has a notable art collection, and Oscar Wilde stayed here). In short, I think Oxford is almost a state of being in the world. It’s a “pinch me” sort of place for Emma and the other Rhodies we met for dinner last night at the King’s Arms.
Speaking of dinner, Oxford being a tradition-minded place most of the food is quite traditional and pretty good. Menus warn that guests should be aware of buckshot in the game dishes. Meat pies are a pub staple. Loved this one:
The beers, mostly room temperature and hand pulled, are delicious. And a real highlight is afternoon tea, not so much for the tea, but for the scones and artery clogging “clotted cream.” Google it. Great stuff. Thank God we walk everywhere — this is not light fare. It is comfort food, perfectly suited for the chilly temperatures and off-again/off-again rain that characterizes this place in fall. It’s perfect weather for thinking (can any serious thinking happen in California or Florida or Arizona?) and the food is perfectly suited for both.
More to come….