Notes From Oxford: Part 1
Victoria Pipas 5th from Left Top Row
We’ve all seen Hogwarts on the screen and fancied ourselves a Harry, Hermione, or Ron. Many of us have wished for an owl to arrive bearing a letter of acceptance to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And anyone who has read Shelley, Hopkins, Tolkien, Lewis, Wilde, or any of the other authors from the long list of those who have roamed Oxford’s streets, halls, bookshops, and pubs will immediately feel the electric current of the ages running through the walls of the old stone buildings here. So when I arrive at Lincoln College in Oxford, I am immediately swept up in a rush of fluttering robes, stacks of books, history, and magic.
After being dropped off by bus in the city center, I pull my two large suitcases—laden with all the books I couldn’t bear to leave at home—down several cobbled streets to the front grove of Lincoln College. I am given a key to Room 4 on Staircase 2, which turns out to be two flights of narrow, wooden steps winding upwards to the top floor. Pigeons roost on my two windowsills, and I can hear the organ scholar practicing from the college chapel each afternoon. It already feels like home.
The first week, also known as “Fresher’s week,” is a blur of orientation pamphlets, library inductions (yes, more than one), hidden nooks and crannies to be discovered, and afternoon welfare tea. As an English student here, I am proud to be officially inducted into the world-famous Bodleian Library, where I will later find myself searching the endless stacks for particular books on Renaissance prose or Old English translation. Above the doorway of one entrance to the library is an open book with a Greek inscription that reads: “They found Him sitting among Doctors,” meaning teachers. For me, a voracious student but not a particularly religious one, this phrase signifies the spiritual gravity that we experience in places of enlightened teaching. Here I am standing in the doorway.
The weeks since my arrival have
offered unexpected delights as well as moments of intense contemplation. Some
of the most pleasurable experiences have been my weekly excursions with the
Oxford University Walking Club, a group that might be better understood by
Americans as a hiking or outing club. Each Saturday or Sunday, the group
convenes and sets out for its destination, sometimes by train and sometimes by a
quick walk down to the Thames Path along the river. We walk for upwards of 10 miles,
experiencing the British countryside at an ambling pace. I love walking through
cow pastures and tiny stone villages, as well as picking wild blackberries
along the thorny borders of the country paths.
While Oxford is by no means an overwhelming city, I have never lived in any city for an extended period of time and have come to realize how necessary and therapeutic nature is in my life. These weekly Walking Club trips offer maximal exposure to the outdoors as well as allowing me to tour by foot places I probably wouldn’t reach on my own. On one walk, we end at the gravesite of Agatha Christie in the cemetery of a church that was built over 1000 years ago. Time is counted in increments of centuries on this side of the pond, and relics of times past often intermingle with modern structures. Another walk leads us past the foundation of a chapel destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries and churches. The ruins sit adjacent to a playground full of shrieking children.
Back at the college, the magic of Oxford unfolds itself day by day. Formal hall each night is candlelit; everyone wears robes; professors and graduate students sit at High Table; and a prayer is read in Latin before the meal begins. If you imagine the bulk of British food to consist of meat and potatoes, you’ve hit the mark. You’ll be hard pressed to find a piece of fresh lettuce or an exotic spice in our hall, though the peas and carrots are gleaming with butter; the guinea fowl is perfectly roasted; and the Yorkshire pudding is puffed and golden. Every dinner is a three-course affair, usually topped off afterwards by a pint in the college bar, known as Deep Hall.
With only about 300 of each, undergraduates and graduates, the Lincoln community is small enough to soon feel like a family. I’m invited to participate in the rituals and traditions of this ancient place. Matriculation Day early in the term begins with a short Latin ceremony conducted by the Vice-Chancellor in the Sheldonian Theatre and soon devolves into an afternoon of drinking and frolicking on the meadows of Christ Church College, all the while posing for photos. Students wear their sub fusc attire, complete with a black ribbon or tie around the neck. Although technically not matriculating at Oxford, I join in the festivities and even purchase the complete set of robes. Who knows? They might make a good Halloween costume back in the states. Below, the LitSquad, as we call ourselves in the group chat, poses for a photo; we are the English student freshers, a small group of 10 ladies.
Half of Michaelmas term has already
slipped by, and I’ve realized that each day here is precious. But for now,
cheers to passages yet unexplored and doors yet unopened. It’s fit to be a
bloody good ride.