There are many majestic and ornate doors in the city of Oxford—brass-bound, hung with decorative twisted iron rings where an ordinary handle would suffice, some guarded by gargoyles and grotesques and some sitting looking suspiciously meek and magical in stone walls, revealing no whisper of what mysteries lay behind them. Rarely, though, do these doors have any signage, which is what led to this particular blogger traipsing up and down the Turl in the drizzle wondering if Exeter College was even real or if the whole “summer course for university credit” thing had been an elaborate hoax.
Oxford is a place of fantasy, after all: it’s where J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (“and their friends” to quote the cover of one particular Inklings biography, which was at least kind enough not to say “and those other less famous guys”) hung around in pubs plotting out Middle Earth and Narnia, where Lewis Carrol first told stories of white rabbits and dodos to little Alice, and certain pockets were even used as setting or inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. Jordan College, in the alternate universe of His Dark Materials, is also reportedly based on Exeter College. We know this because it’s where the author Phillip Pullman attended, and where he apparently wanders back into occasionally, visiting random rooms and gardens and waiting to be noticed.
It’s also where Inspector Morse met his fatal end, and, as a great thematic device but a great inconvenience to the real-world students, where he started his career and where the prequel about this is being filmed. There’s really something surreal about walking past film crews and people in 1960s fashion and scholarly robes to get to lunch, I can tell you.
And stepping onto the quadrangle lawn to avoid the camera cables was not an option—according to one member of the summer school staff, it was not a heart attack that killed Morse but the act of landing on the grass, breaching an absolute taboo. Fellows and rectors only; students are completely forbidden from treading on it, not to speak of tourists. As a mix of both, I lived in fear of the damned square of lawn.
A small girl was running around on the grass on my last day and it made me genuinely uncomfortable. In the ever-important discussion of what Oxford would be like in a zombie apocalypse (there was much speculation over which colleges and libraries would be the best places to barricade yourself, whether the old city walls would be any use, etc) it was decided that even in that cursed half-life something crucial would remain… and the quadrangle would be filled with bloodthirsty academic zombies shuffling around the grass but never stepping on it.
Thankfully, I did not encounter any zombies—I did, however, encounter far too many Australians for it to be reasonable. South Australia, particularly, is seemingly filled with bright creative young things who desperately want to leave, rendering me sitting in the middle of a writing class on the other side of the world, in disbelief as I was surrounded by my native accent. Is it the call of the Motherland? The romantic allure of a faraway place where there are castles and dragons and royal babies?
I won’t deny that the UK, particularly Oxford—I can’t speak as much for London, since I only spent a few days there, bustling around as a gaping tourist—has a sense of magic to it. Maybe it’s the strangeness of one of my favourite series showing its heroine going to England for university weeks before I was due to do the same thing, installing the idea that I too could be on my journey to wizard school. Maybe it’s just coming from a town that’s so young. As soon as I see a building constructed any earlier than 1940 I go into a little flutter and an inner architecture geek emerges like Mr Hyde and everyone I’m with has to walk ahead at a politely slow distance while I gasp and gawk at the brickwork and gables along the street. Imagine me in a city that was founded in years only three digits long. Exeter College had celebrated its 700th birthday the year before I arrived. I have it on a hoodie and everything.
How many people have come and gone in that place? There have been civil wars, fiery executions, war intelligence hidden underground, and of course there’s knowledge soaked into the very stonework: countless museums, safe houses of collected artefacts from every ancient era; the great Bodleian Library with its catacombs and towers of books so old they’re practically sacred; the magnificent and extravagantly-ceilinged exam halls where students would debate with their professors in Latin…
The arches! The spires! The towering cathedrals and chapels with stone saints at every corner, weary but majestic after all their years overseeing the faithful and the adventurous! Stained glass and polished wood, brick pillars with graffiti from the 1700s carved into it! The giant bookstores! The student courtroom, where Lord Byron was tried for heresy, and which was last used when a student prank put Brasenose College on eBay!
You can see why it’s a place where so many creative people came out of, whether they were as famous as the Inklings or “their friends”. It’s a place filled with so many stories, some of which I heard through a fantastically theatrical ghost tour. How many ghosts must wander these halls and libraries and cobbled roads? I wonder if they float around the border of the lawns, still…
If this sounds a touch romanticised, well, forgive me—I have to have my sparkly-eyed Young Person Travel Experience sometime, and there couldn’t have been anywhere better. Staying in the heart of a city as a member of its people, however temporarily you cling to that status of “Oxford Student”, gives you a much better sense of a place than if you were simply holidaying or hotelling. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get great satisfaction from walking past curious tourists exploring the college grounds, deliberately donning an air that oh yes, I know where I’m going, this is my home. Once I’d found the bloody front door, of course.
I dodged aggressively ambitious ducks while river punting, I sang karaoke, I had deep discussions in an underground pub, I battled the terrors of shared bathroom facilities with faulty locks, I survived a fire drill that demanded the evacuees meet in the building on campus historically famous for burning down twice, and I learnt that while it may be a staple for iconic tourist shots, there is absolutely nothing in the design of the Trafalgar Square lions that indicates they’re meant to be climbed up on. I had an attack of vertigo and was entirely convinced I’d have to spend the rest of my days up there between its big dark paws, until I got helped down.
So it was not a totally solitary experience, in fact I met some amazing people and some fascinating characters, and got to spend some time with some of my family, and feel, somehow, like I was getting in touch with my roots. And what a thrill to think that I come from such a rich and ancient culture! (A rich an ancient colonial and pillaging culture, I must add, who are the very reason my home country feels so young. It does in fact have a native culture that’s tens of thousands of years old, but as far as mainstream living is concerned it’s rather stamped out. Cheerio)
In any case, this intellectual adventure accounts for my absence. Regular blogging will resume in a short while once I recalibrate myself in ordinary life, and my brain finds its way back to me from where I seem to have left it at Heathrow.
There’s little romance and adventure to be found at home, but sometimes that’s alright: let Oxford’s, and England’s, majesty remain a dream I’m glad to have had and hope to return to. At least I can safely walk on the grass here.