Hypatia's Grande Tour - Part Ten

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The City of Dreaming Spires

Sunday, 29th May

Few cities are able to conjure up as many images in the mind as Oxford. It is one of those places people either seem to love or hate, finding it either the centre of the universe or entirely too far up its own backside. I knew before I got there that I was going to fall into the first category.

Amy the Ant and I were treated to a lovely breakfast by Teuchter and Mr T. I threw some things into a suitcase, leaving the rest of my luggage behind again, and bid a fond farewell to Teuchter Towers. Teuchter drove Amy and I to Reading to catch the train to Paddington Station and then on to Oxford.

I won't say I was bouncing in my seat in anticipation because by now the virus that would plague the rest of my vacation was making itself extremely bothersome. In spite of the headache, nasal congestion and developing fever, I was determined to enjoy myself and just hoped I didn't pass the bug along to my friends.

Amy is a graduate of Oxford University and had planned a busy day for us. We arrived at the station in Oxford and one of the first things I noticed, much to my delight, were rows and rows of bicycles. It may seem peculiar to some of you that such a thing would please me, but it did. I live in the Midwest, remember. No public transportation. No bicycle paths. No sidewalks in residential neighbourhoods. Everyone drives wherever they go. Pre-teens still ride bikes here in the parks and sometimes on the streets, but seeing more than two or three at a time is unusual. Seeing an adult on a bike is extremely rare. One of the many images in my mind of Oxford has always been of students and the occasional Don in flowing gown riding bicycles through the narrow streets. Oxford and bicycles always fit together in my mind.

Phil and Metal Chicken, another graduate of the fabled University, had driven to Oxford to spend the day with us. They met us at the station and put our luggage in their car. Then they set off for a Park and Ride just outside town to leave the car for the day and Amy and I took a bus to the centre of town. We would meet up with them after touring Amy's college.

Oxford University is as similar to the University I attended as a hillbilly racoon hunt is to an English fox hunt. I don't want to imply that the University I attended was substandard. Missouri has several excellent universities, as do most of the states in the US, and I received a good education. But my University experience was so different from the Oxford experience that I found it all a bit alien.

St John's College

For starters the University at Oxford is a confederation of colleges, not one institution with a single governing body. Each college is a world unto itself with the University being the administrative body that determines curricula, manages the libraries and laboratories, administers examinations and confers degrees. From my perspective, it seems both fascinating and confusing. Overall, I think I found it all a bit intimidating, which I'm sure is how it is intended to seem to outsiders. I doubt if anyone would ever describe my alma mater as intimidating.

Amy attended Brasenose College, which is one of the older colleges as well as the only one entered directly from Radcliffe Square. She called ahead to let them know she would be bringing a visitor and secured permission for me to visit the library, which is normally off limits to visitors. The gatehouse, directly across from the Radcliffe Camera, was built in 1516. It contains the Tudor Royal Arms and, at the apex of where the original doors were located, is a tiny head with an enormous nose. Brasenose. We checked in at the Porter's Lodge and began our tour.

Upon leaving the Porter's Lodge you enter directly into the Old Quad, which was also constructed in 1516. Brasenose has three quadrangles. Quadrangles are a feature of Oxford colleges. The first was constructed at Merton College in 1287. The quadrangles give the colleges a Mediterranean appearance. They are rectangular walls of student quarters and common areas like the hall, library and chapel enclosing open courtyards.

Old Quad has a manicured lawn in the centre, but originally it was a typical Elizabethan garden with clipped hedges, small trees, paths and even a maze. This was all taken out in 1727 and replaced with a reproduction of Sampson Killing the Philistine by Giovanni Bologna which, in its turn, was removed and sold for scrap in 1881.

St John's College

Amy's old rooms are located in the New Quad, a Victorian addition which is also off limits to visitors. The window boxes are normally filled with flowers, but we visited between plantings. It was still easy to imagine the look.

The third quadrangle is called Chapel Quad and was build in 1666. Chapel Quad is also referred to as 'The Deer Park'. Besides the chapel, this Quad contains the kitchen which is located in a building used as an academic hall before the college was founded. The kitchen has wonderful barley sugar chimneys.

The library is located above an old cloister which now contains student quarters. The most unusual architectural feature of the library are windows resembling portholes. The library was wonderful in a way that only old libraries are. Stacks to the ceilings, quiet alcoves for study, and that distinctive smell that we used to have in our Webb City library but which was lost during the renovation. As stuffed up as my nose was, I could still smell it. It's exactly the way a library should smell. We weren't allowed to stay long – just a walk through so I could see it - but it was certainly a highlight of the day.

We also went inside the chapel, which has an unusual ceiling and took a peek inside the hall, which is very Harry Potterish. The hall porch has several heads on the parapet. One is said to be of King Alfred, the reputed founder of Oxford University during the 800s's. There are also heads of the founders of the college, William Smyth, Bishop of Lincoln, and Richard Sutton. I found this interesting since my grandmother's maiden name was Sutton. Long lost relative? Who knows.

The hall contains the most famous Brasenose in the college, an ancient door knocker from the 12th or early 13th century. Legend has it that the knocker was taken as a souvenir from Oxford to Stamford, Lincolnshire in 1333 by a group of masters and scholars who were seeking a quieter place for their studies. They were forced back to Oxford by royal command, but the Brasenose stayed in Stamford. It was returned to the college in 1890 when the college purchased a girl's school in Stamford called Brasenose Hall. It is handsomely framed and displayed behind the high table in the hall.

We reconnected with Phil and MC in time for lunch at a nearby Pub called The Turf. It has been a favourite watering hole of Oxford residents for over 500 years. I was surprised at how low the ceilings there are. Not a problem for me, but they had Phil stooping. The ceilings are beamed and dark from age. It is the perfect pub for American tourists who want to step back into the past. It was here that I tasted real Guinness and stout. Not being a beer drinker, I let the others finish them and had a G&T.

I did have a proper English Sunday lunch, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. It was one of the items on my foods to try list. The beef was medium rare and tender, the pudding was crisp and the gravy was, well, gravy. The vegetables were overcooked. I think my biggest objection to the English food I ate in pubs and restaurants during my vacation was that they tend to overcook vegetables. On the other hand, so does my mother, so I grew up with soggy veg.

Phil punting

After lunch we walked through St John's College, one of the wealthiest colleges at Oxford and the alma mater of the Prime Minister. We took one of the open-top bus tours to a spot near the Magdalen Bridge. Z and his flatmate A were waiting for us on the bridge. I had specifically requested to go punting on the Cherwell and my hosts were kind enough to humour me. For the Americans in the audience, a punt is a flat bottomed boat with square ends. They are used in water shallow enough to use a long pole to propel them through the water. Punts figure in so many English movies that I absolutely had to ride in one.

View from the Botanic Garden

Imagine if you can, the following scene. Phil, A, Z and I are in the punt. Amy and MC, the only two of us who knew how to punt, stayed behind. They went inside the nearby Botanic Garden and pointed their fingers at us from the bank and giggled. Actually, I thought Phil did a bang up job of figuring out how to manage the polling. A lent a hand from the rear with a boat oar. It was a bit slow going at first. The ducks were even passing us up. But Phil soon got the hang of it. A took a turn with the pole but wasn't as successful, so Phil took it back. Z clung to the side for dear life during the switch. I figured as shallow as the water was, I could always get out safely if we capsized. And I tried to reassure Z that I was, in fact, a certified lifeguard in my youth and could always pull the others to safety. For some reason it didn't make him feel any more secure.

Granted, it wasn't the romantic scene from the movies. I didn't have a wide brimmed summer hat. And I wasn't able to recline on a cushion with a glass of wine and dangle my fingers in the water. But it was fun. We all laughed a lot and had a great time. After we got back to the boat house we learned that Phil was polling Cambridge style rather than Oxford style. I think that's rather cool, actually.

Since Amy and MC were already at the Botanic Garden, we all decided to join them. Like I would ever turn down the chance to stroll through a garden. The Oxford Botanic Garden was founded in 1621 and is the oldest botanical garden in Britain. The garden is located on a modest four and a half acres yet manages to house over 6,500 species of plants. Its original purpose was to provide a garden for the University for the study of botany . It still serves that purpose today. In addition to a variety of beds, it contains some interesting glass houses. It also is home to some magnificent trees. The oldest surviving specimen is a yew planted in 1650 by Jacob Bobart, the garden's first superintendent. Bobart was a bit of a character and is remembered for his habit of taking his pet goat everywhere with him.

Someday I would like to return to Oxford. I missed seeing the Ashmolean Museum and Oxford cathedral. I also missed visiting Blackwell's which is reputed to be one of the best bookstores in the world. We caught the bus to the park and ride where we split up. Phil and MC took Amy to her flat in Leeds. A drove Z and I to Ben's flat in Cheltenham to spend the night. It had been a fun day, but I was tired and feeling feverish. I went to bed early, hoping I'd feel better the following day. Another glorious garden was on the itinerary and I wanted to be able to enjoy it.

A University Building

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