As my followers know, I’m not able to travel much this year because a) I needed to save at least 3 grand for my application to become a UK resident and b) I’ve used up most of my annual leave entitlements to go home to the Philippines in January. I usually have a birthday trip each year but this year I decided to spend my birthday at home. There’s plenty of interesting places to see in England anyway (I can’t go to Scotland because apparently there’s a massive festival that starts in August and flights to Edinburgh are horrendously expensive; ditto, Belfast). This last weekend my friend Jo, my sister and I decided to visit (re-visit in my case) two of the country’s premier universities.
When you hear Oxford University anywhere in the world, you automatically associate it with prestige and excellence. The university has produced a lot of notable alumni and a record number of prime ministers. Among its list of fellows are CS Lewis (author of Narnia), JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), Theresa May (I don’t know how proud they are of this), David Cameron, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Also, they filmed Harry Potter in Oxford. Ironically, for a university renowned the world over for a great many things (The Bodleian library, the Oxford University Press etc) most tourists want to see where the dining hall of Hogwarts is, or where they practiced dancing for the Yule Ball, or the grounds that Daniel Radcliffe walked in for the first Harry Potter movie or where Minerva McGonagall received the first years in that classic Philosopher’s Stone scene.
We initially booked a free walking tour with Footprints and then upgraded to a University Tour because I fell for the blurb on the poster that said we could visit the colleges and the library. The reality fell short of my expectations and I think we would have been better off with our original plan and saving ourselves £15. We weren’t able to get into a college because they changed their rules about the size of the group that can be pre-booked. Travel tip: if you want to go into one of the colleges, don’t do a group tour. Do your research and pre-book your own tickets if they give you that option. The queue for some of the more famous ones, like Christchurch College (with the Hogwarts dining hall and where Lewis Caroll was inspired to write Alice’s adventures in Wonderland) were incredibly long.
This is actually my 5th visit to Oxford but only the 2nd one that actually lasted more than 2 hours. The other three were part of the Evans Evans tour package that included Bath and Stonehenge so they were incredibly abbreviated. The first time I came to Oxford we stayed overnight. I think I had only been in the UK for four months at the time and I was still adjusting; I don’t think I was able to appreciate it as much as I do now. Plus there were 11 of us during that trip and we were all incredibly different: I was interested in the history and the university’s achievements; the others were concerned about where to eat. That’s why I loved this trip because first of all, Jo is easy to please. He may not be the world’s biggest fan of Harry Potter or of classic literature but he appreciates it – signs of a seasoned traveller. Second of all, I was with my sister who DOES share my interests; we’ve read the same books and can geek out over the same things so it just made going around Oxford more fun. I guess that’s another two travel tips I can give. Don’t come to Oxford for more than a day trip and make sure you know what to expect. Its a university town full of history, its not exactly the world’s most exciting city.
I revisited some of my favourite Oxford spots for the nth time: the Bridge of Sighs, the Sheldonian theatre, the Radcliffe Camera and others. I don’t actually know why the Bridge of Sighs has been replicated so many times (there’s one in Cambridge as well), its pretty enough I suppose but the original one in Venice actually has a gruesome history: it leads from the Doge Palace to the prisons and would give prisoners their last view of Venice and the Adriatic before being incarcerated, and apparently they’d give a sigh at such a sight hence the name. In Oxford, all it does is lead students from one part of New College to the other. 🙄
The Bodleian Library is a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I read the All Souls Trilogy a couple of years back. This library’s got publishing rights so they are entitled to receive a copy of every book that’s printed in the United Kingdom. That is A LOT of books. I wonder if there’s an opening for a librarian post there? Lol. Needless to say, they’ve had to build a place for all the excess books. They’re now kept in the New Bodleian or the Weston Library, which also houses some other treasures like a copy of Shakespeare’s folios, an early edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems, a copy of Handel’s Messiah and others. The rest of the books are actually underground. There’s a tunnel that leads from the Old Bodleian to the Radcliffe Camera (which is actually a reading room). This underground passage is the reason why sometimes you’ll see a student go into the Radcliffe and seemingly never come out because they’ve already exited in another part of the city.
The weather was a bit uncooperative so we stopped by an apparently famous pub to have some lunch. Legend has it that an ex-prime minister of Australia once held the world record for the most number of ales drank in a period of time or something like that. Bill Clinton, who was a Rhodes scholar, apparently “smelled” but did not take marijuana while he was in the same pub. Let us all laugh together. I’m sure their ale is quite nice but I’ve never acquired a taste for it. I had my usual Reikorderlig cider instead.
After lunch we went to another pub called The Bear, which is more of a “town” pub. Our guide said there was once a rivalry between the “town” people and the university folks. It turned brutal one night and a few students ended up dead, which is why for many years the mayor of the city had to pick four citizens in a ceremony where they apologise to the vice chancellor year after year after year until someone figured out how stupid that was. Anyway, so The Bear was a town pub from which vantage point people used to watch bear baiting, hence the name. How barbaric. Now its more known as being “the tie pub” because the old barkeep collected ties from people and framed them.
Can I just take a moment to say how much I love the British pub culture? Not that I condone an excess of alcohol, but I don’t see anything wrong with social drinking. I also like how families can go to a pub, and the tradition of fathers buying their sons their first drink. In the Philippines, we do most of our drinking either at a house party, a place by the streets, some hole-in-the-wall or a club where we have to dress up. Needless to say we would never dream of going there with our parents. There’s no place where people can just hang out after work to have a pint. Pubs are great; and god knows we need them in the winter when there’s nothing else to do in London. Lol.
We went to Christchurch college next, well, not inside because it was closed by the time we got there but we got a good view of Christchurch meadow which inspired Lewis Caroll. We ended the day at Blackwell, one of the biggest bookstores in the country. I predictably ended up spending a ton of money on books but its money well spent. I’ve always imagined myself reading at Blackwell’s like Diana in The All Souls Trilogy.
In fact, in an alternate universe I think I would have liked being an Oxford University Student. Taking the entrance exams, getting into one of the dorm rooms, having my first lecture and knowing the history of the hallowed halls I find myself in, sitting my exams while wearing my robes, becoming a fellow…I think I would have thrived in that kind of environment, I’ve always felt most at home in the academic environment.
Either that or I would have become obese with stress (stress-eater here). Wouldn’t it be nice to be abl to provide my children someday with the opportunity should they wish it? Imagine the endless possibilities they would have when they graduate. Oh well. One can dream. Ultimately, as important as your education is, its what you do with that education that’s more important. I went to a humble school in the Philippines and I still somehow made most of my dreams come true. And that’s something to be proud of as well.