The late winter months of 2012 were an extremely busy time for me: I was serving as a teaching assistant on a postgraduate course with over 60 students, wrapping up draft versions of the first several chapters of my doctoral thesis, and preparing to move to sub-Saharan Africa for an indeterminate number of months – alone – to conduct field research. I was overwhelmed, to say the least, by the number of things I had piled on my plate, and was finding it more difficult by the day to manage the time needed to accomplish them. I wasn’t eating regularly (sorry Mum), slept fitfully or not at all for weeks on end, and was a weeping mess on more occasions than I’d like to admit.
Okay, so it wasn’t just busy. It was rough.
I wasn’t altogether prepared (or thrilled), then, when my doctoral supervisor casually mentioned one February afternoon that she had arranged a meeting for me with a colleague in Oxford, a former student familiar with both my research site and the challenges I was likely to face there. My immediate, almost hysterical (and thankfully internal) reaction was and where the hell do you think I’m going to find time to go to bloody Oxford?! But instead of giving in to that ungrateful tantrum, I plastered a (hopefully) convincing smile on my face, uttered an enthusiastic “wow! that’s great!” and booked a train journey to Oxford the following day.
I should have been genuinely enthusiastic from the start, of course, and not just because my doctoral supervisor always – always – knew best (including the fact that I desperately needed some time – even if it was only a few hours – away from my studies). Oxford – both the university and the town – are absolutely beautiful, a haven for lovers of architecture, culture and history. Founded sometime circa 1096, the University of Oxford is the oldest English-speaking university in the world, and the world’s second oldest surviving university. That, of course, piqued the interest of my inner (albeit very tired) history nerd, and I was determined to make the most of the hour and a half break I had between my lunch meeting and my return trip to Edinburgh (another recommendation of my very wise supervisor). Camera in hand, I embarked on a 90-minute, self-guided walking tour of the city with no map and no particular plan, simply wandering through areas I found interesting. This is what I found…
My first stop was Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest (established in 1263). Alumni of the college once described its male students as possessing “tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority”. Well now – THAT I couldn’t pass up. For a small fee (a couple of pounds sterling, if I recall correctly), I was permitted entry into the front quadrangle and fellows’ garden, which offered lovely views of the old library and 19th-century Butterfield’s Chapel – but little in the way of access to the effortlessly superior (or whatever). Feeling swindled and a wee bit chilly, I moved on.
Steps away, down Broad Street, is the Clarendon Building, former residence of the Oxford University Press.
All Souls College
Immediately after passing the Clarendon Building, I swung a right down Catte Street, wandering by the Oxford Martin School and Bodleian Library before snapping these photographs of All Souls College, founded by Henry VI in 1438.
Directly across the street from the gates of All Souls stands the Radcliffe Camera, one of Oxford’s most iconic buildings. Built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library, the camera – meaning “room” in Latin – now serves as the reading room for the university’s main reference library, housed next door in the Bodleian.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin
I took another right as Catte Street terminated, finding myself on Oxford’s High Street beside the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. I took a liking to the church’s eccentric baroque porch (pictured below), and spent a few additional minutes exploring St. Mary’s Passage. Had I any idea where I was or what I was doing, I would have ventured into the church and paid the small fee to climb its 13th century bell tower, which apparently offers incredible views across the heart of the historic city. Ignorant instead, I continued along the High Street.
Christ Church College
After a few minutes of window shopping, I was ready to see more of the university. I continued along High Street, turning left on St. Aldate’s (again with no idea where I was going) until I stumbled upon a lovely tree-lined promenade. I started walking east along the tract – which I later learned was Broad Walk – and found myself beside Christ Church College. Founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, the college is one of the university’s largest, and holds a unique position as the world’s only academic institution that is also a cathedral.
After about an hour of exploring, I was starting to get cold, and decided to have a look inside (if for no other reason than to warm up!). After paying a small fee, I followed signs toward the Hall, secretly hoping it contained cozy furnishings, a blazing fireplace, and perhaps a small cafe selling hot chocolate.
What I found instead was intense deja vu. Had I been there before? No, of course not – I’d never set foot in the city or the university before that day. Why did I suddenly feel as though I had?
Whoa. Was I smart enough in a past life to attend Oxford?! Probably not.And yet, it still felt so …familiar.
Then it hit me. Yes! This stairway, the walls, the windows, the tables! Was this … could it be …
Well yes, it was, sort of. Christ Church Hall served as the inspiration for the studio set of the Great Hall of Hogwarts. The staircase leading to the Hall (pictured above) was actually used in the filming of several scenes! No blazing fire and no hot chocolate, but what a cool – and genuinely accidental – find!
After leaving the Hall, I emerged onto the Great Quadrangle (popularly known as Tom Quad), the university’s largest.
On the eastern side of the quad stands one of the smallest and – in my estimation – most beautiful cathedrals in England. Christ Church Cathedral, built from 1160 to 1200 on the site of a nunnery founded by St. Frideswide (the patron saint of Oxford), serves a special role in the Church of England as both the college’s chapel and the cathedral for the diocese of Oxford.
Glancing at my watch as I left the cathedral, I noted with disappointment that I only had twenty minutes left to enjoy my walk before hopping the train back to Edinburgh. I stopped briefly to snap the following photographs of Christ Church’s Peckwater Quadrangle before retracing my steps through the college and back to the train station.
Despite my initial reluctance to make the journey, I couldn’t have had a more lovely afternoon in Oxford. I know I missed so much in my limited (and poorly informed) visit, and can’t wait to return one day to explore the university and town in greater depth (and without a PhD on my mind). Hopefully soon! -B.