I found myself sitting in ‘Oxford’s Oldest Coffee Shop’ clasping a mug of strong coffee closely. The rather nasal voice of a flustered young student, about 20, resonated between my ears as she elaborated on the lack of reading she had done for a certain course to two companions. They nodded intermittently, blank looks on their faces. The caffeine’s effect slowly began to awaken my slumbering brain, the girl’s metal chair legs grated against the floor, she leapt up and hastily shouldered her way though the glass doors, half a dozen books balanced against her chest. “Whether I’ll actually be at the lecture later remains to be seeeen…” Monday morning in Oxford.
We walked beyond many of Oxford University’s colleges to Magdalen, one of the wealthiest, which has extensive grounds including a deer park along the river Cherwell. It is an ancient establishment set upon rugged, yet tranquilly green surroundings, dating back to the 15th century. The stone from which the buildings are built is common to much of the old architecture in the city – centuries have turned it beige with shades of darkened and rich colour that evoke a sense of weather-beaten and enduring grandeur. I found these aged exteriors with their smoky chiaroscuro strikingly attractive. The hall, where Magdalen’s scholars are fed daily, is an immaculate and well-organised room of dark wood panels, long tables and dim lamps, under which tomorrow’s ladies and gentlemen sup in sophistication.
While winding through the streets that afternoon we came across a few holes-in-the-wall which are frequented by the student population, including The Tuck-Shop, The Alternative Tuck-Shop, and The Turf, a trendy looking bar tucked around a couple of corners after passing through a narrow passageway just beneath the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge – which is officially the Hertford Bridge – is so nicknamed because of its supposed likeness to the eponymous bridge in Venice, which led sighing Venetians to an adjoining prison. In fact, Oxford’s bears more resemblance to Venice’s Rialto bridge, but is beautiful nonetheless.
Beneath the bridge a cobblestone road led us to New College, where we wandered around and discovered a poster for a lecture entitled ‘Toward a New Politics’, scheduled for that evening. It suggested attendants ‘Bring Wine and an Open Mind’, so we thought we’d try and sneak in later. To be mistaken for a student would no doubt bring a new dimension to our experience of Oxford. To study there must be a complex endeavour, trying to live your life in the present in a city which is defined by history, at a competitive university which is generally romanticised by a hoard of snap-happy, gawking tourists.
I found Oxford’s appearance to have an intricate contradiction. It is both charmingly quaint and stunningly grand simultaneously, which gives it rare individuality. I certainly have never felt so enchanted by a city’s mere ‘prettiness’, it is the contrasting, looming grandeur that makes it awe-inspiring, I think.
That evening we attended ‘Towards a New Politics’, a well presented lecture. Something about sipping wine around a fireplace while being addressed by a guest lecturer at Oxford University did invite a certain taste for academic elitism in me, although I was careful not to get too used to it.
The morning of our second day was spent visiting the grounds of Christ Church, strolling around the expansive gardens and marvelling at a college which is architecturally magnificent – my favourite within the city.
My feeling is that Oxford is most at home as a winter city; the starkness of the bare trees echoes the dark greys of ancient stone, attributing an eerie distinction to the cityscape. I am not convinced that birds singing or blossoms budding would do justice to the air of decided dignity that emanates from the city’s walls.
Christ Church Cathedral towers in the distance, causing the University’s presence to loom over the small city with superiority. The respect commanded by the establishment is ubiquitous, and it is this permanence which I found to be the overwhelming aura of Oxford.
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