It’s a truth universally acknowledged that everything to do with Oxbridge is interminably tedious. The Boat Race, their continued domination of University Challenge, the elitist feud between students of the two universities, their painful lingo (pennying, matriculation, Bops, formals) – and, my God, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When I first looked into applying to university I was disgusted by the obnoxiousness of it all: six years later – having seen enough chips on the unchosen’s shoulders to finance a lavish game of poker, enough breakdowns/superiority complexes developed by its students to have local therapists booked up for years in advance, and the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones – I find my opinions only reinforced. Which made the prospect of visiting Oxford in November to see my friend Leah, a Classics student at Corpus Christi who is thankfully unscathed by the experience, a mildly unsettling one. But I have three posts a week to write and need some kind of new place experiences to write about, and I was curious to see how it matched up to my expectations of complete bellends prancing around in Harry Potter robes, chanting Latin poetry and speaking like Her Maj after a top-up elocution lesson. (Plus I wanted to see Leah. Also, hi Leah, because you stalk my blog.)
Our heroes – Emily, my interrail travel buddy from 2013 and long-term favourite ginge, and I – set off at the crack of dawn (10:30) from Paddock Wood, laden with Doritos and mix CDs for another of our legendary road trips. Taylor Swift’s ’22’ is quickly established as the song of the trip as we sing along with gusto on our way to pick up Olivia, one of our compadres from our 2011 visit to Reading Festival. She is more than happy to sing along with us to ‘Tay-Tay’, and the journey passes without incident aside from the tense moment where we must decide whether to have Dominos for lunch or dinner. (We choose dinner.) #firstworldproblems
Once we’ve arrived and dumped our stuff in Leah’s surprisingly spacious room, we’re straight off to find somewhere to eat, and end up at The Vault, a cafe right by the famous Bodleian Library. My serviceable chai latte is accompanied by lemon drizzle cake, but Emily and Olivia order and eagerly await scones, only to be disappointed – they don’t arrive for 40 minutes, by which time their tea has gone cold and they’re very angry. This anger is appeased somewhat when the waiter apologetically brings out a complimentary fresh batch of tea.
It’s a bit cold, as we’re in the shadow of the imposing ‘Bod’, and there are Surrey family reunions all around, judging by the Queen’s English being spoken by everyone within earshot. This makes it our duty to lower the tone, a duty we gleefully accept.
Drinks finished and scones finally eaten, Leah gives us the big tour of her college. Corpus Christi is pretty small, but still has an ancient building replete with genteel courtyard and… posh looking thingy in the middle.
The outside is pleasant, but it would be a compliment to describe the inside only as ‘decaying’: no matter how rich all these colleges are, the buildings are perpetually in need of upkeep. It’s not unlike an old people’s home in some ways: there’s anaemic white-painted wood panelling, battered armchairs in the TV room, and a musty smell that lingers down every corridor.
That said, it has a whole room just for ping pong, where courtesy of a benefactor there’s a second ping pong table boxed up with no space to open it in, so don’t kickstart your #prayforoxford hashtagged quest to end their poverty yet. Leah, Emily and I used to play ping pong at our youth group in Paddock Wood as teenagers, by which I mean we’d hit the ball as hard as possible across the room and make it impossible to have any sort of rally. But times have changed and we actually manage to have a proper game here. And another. And another. And another…
…after which, surprisingly worn out, we take a tour of the library. Or at least, Leah leads Olivia and I around; Emily can’t go in because of her asthma, or something. I don’t get very excited about libraries or old books because doing an English degree has made me hateful towards books, plus the ‘old book smell’ that Tumblrites like to swoon about is horrid. (I may have thoroughly deodorised several mouldering old library books during my last year of uni.) But it’s peaceful, our floorboard-creaking footsteps aside, and stuffed with old books, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll be in heaven here.
We rejoin Emily for a walk around the grounds behind the building, which are picturesque, especially as the lawn was smothered in golden autumn leaves. There’s a vicious iron gate at the end to section off Corpus Christi’s lawn from Christ Church’s garden – as Leah tells us, so vicious that when a group of students mischievously climbed the fence to play in the snow over at Christ Church earlier in the year, an unfortunate girl named Veronica slipped and impaled her jaw on one of the spikes, having to be freed by the fire brigade. (In between wincing, I am reminded of this.) Obviously the students shouldn’t have done it, but why are the colleges so territorial that one reckless decision involves someone being impaled on a fence? This isn’t like breaking onto a stranger’s private land: they’re part of the same university, for Christ (Church)’s sake!
Still thinking about the indignity of being impaled on a spike, we move onto Christ Church. The size and scale of this place is jawdropping, and I have to confirm with Leah that this is JUST ONE COLLEGE. She confirms. Where Corpus was homely with its little courtyard and slightly wild leaf-strewn garden, Christ Church is imposingly big, beautiful and immaculate, and it terrifies me. This is more what I expected from Oxford – apart from the tourists. And there are lots of them.
As Leah isn’t a student here, we have to stick to the script and visit only the tourist-sanctioned areas, the most notable being the Hall that inspired Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the Harry Potter series. It’s an impressive room with its long tables and lamps glowing in the gloom, although they’ve definitely overdone the pictures on the walls.
On our way back to the city centre we get a quick peek at Oriel College, among whose alumni is my Countdown best mate Rachel Riley. It’s closed to visitors so the most we get to see is the very neat courtyard at the entrance, and the lovely detail of pumpkins lining the steps up to the door. (Halloween was the day before our visit.)
The rest of the day passes unremarkably. We go to the Ashmolean Museum, but Emily feels ill and I’m not in a museumy mood, so we leave Leah and Olivia to it and return to Leah’s flat, where we chat to her friendly South Korean housemate Il Kweon (also a Classicist). When the others get back, we watch Rob Cantor’s excellent ‘Shia LeBoeuf‘ song/video over and over again, before debating which film to watch for ages before settling on the excellent Matilda and eating Dominos, the film sparking an argument about whether Matilda’s somewhat sadistic brand of vigilante justice makes her a heroine or anti-heroine. By the time the film’s over it’s surprisingly late, so in classic sleepover tradition I am asked to do a dramatic reading of some piece of fan fiction/Mills & Boon nonsense. Plumping for First Encounter, an internet-famous fan fic involving a giant squid and the Hogwarts building [link here if you dare to read it – NSFW], I give everyone nightmares.
Awaking the next morning to a cooked breakfast (very sexy pic of me eating first thing in the morning below), we’re at a loss as to how to spend a Sunday here. It turns into a ukelele singalong fest before Emily, Leah and I indulge in our obligatory game of Scrabble (which I win, despite the fact that my excellent Countdown-valid bingo of TORQUEY is not valid in the Scrabble dictionary).
We – sans Il Kweon, who has work to do – then brave the great outdoors to go to George & Delila (G&D’s), an ice cream cafe on Cowley Road. There’s some unexpected graffiti to be found on the side of one of the houses on the way:
Arriving at G&D’s, Emily and I have Baileys ice cream milkshakes and, to Oxford’s credit, they are bloody good ice cream milkshakes. It’s crowded though: crammed with students pontificating or tapping away at Macbooks, and we last maybe an hour wedged into our seats before deciding that we should eat before we head back to Kent, and Il Kweon joins us as we have a nice roast (mine obviously accompanied by cider) at the Cape Of Good Hope pub near their flat. It’s very, very dark inside.
So how did Oxford match up to my expectations? As expected: it’s extremely pretty and quaint, with grand old buildings everywhere; there are far too many bikes; and yes, everyone – students and locals – is nauseatingly posh. But, perhaps due to being chaperoned by someone with a healthy sense of perspective about the poshos, I didn’t mind it too much. That said, it is a city totally dominated by the university, which goes some way to explaining the bubble most of its students live in and makes it somewhat a claustrophobic experience. The tourists also add to the claustrophobia, waving around their selfie sticks and clogging up the pavements. So, as it turns out, nice as a novelty visit and probably still nice for several more future visits, but definitely not on my list of future cities to live in. I’m sure the poshos will be devastated.
Oh, and in case you were in any doubt as to Oxford’s posh credentials, this is an offer in a local cheap shop: