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Oxford August 24, 2011

Posted by mpendleton3 in Travel Log.

After having travelled every weekend since my arrival at Worcester College, it was a greatly anticipated and much needed weekend spent here in Oxford. The part I wanted to explore and see the most were the other colleges that make up the university.  Alex was nice enough to take a portion of his Friday to show me around. The day was one I’ll never forget and wanted to share with you. Some of the colleges I mention are founded within the medieval time period and others not, but I wanted to share them all…

I couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide than someone who attends the university and could share stories about his college experience here, as well as the background and some “fun facts” about each. The day was long, almost 6 straight hours of walking and touring, but worth every footstep.

We started with Christ Church College (founded 1546), the one that everyone goes to! It’s the only college still open to tourists during term, because after all, everyone wants to see Harry Potter’s formal hall. Honestly the hall wasn’t much different from Worcester, other than the great number of pictures lined along the walls of notable alumni. The college grounds were enormous though, and as Alex explained, owns so much land that technically by different means of transportation, one could make it from Oxford to Cambridge and never leave Christ Church property. It is the college with usually the best sporting teams due to its large population. So here, he explained the idea of “chalking the walls”. When a rowing team wins a big competition they list the other college boats they “bumped”. Bumping is basically passing another boat (although they do physically bump boat against boat). The college writes on the courtyard walls in chalk which college boats they bumped. It’s considered a great accomplishment which is why there are races listed on the walls as far back as 2005.

The next college was one of my favorites, Balliol College. It is one of the oldest founded in 1263. The college is much smaller in size and is known for producing the most number of, “PPs” or positions in public, such as politicians, BBC newscasters, and journalists. Balliol’s landscape is picturesque with well kept floral gardens and small courtyards with benches. The chapel reflects the medieval time period with its ceiling built of high arching wooden ribs.  We also visited Merton College (founded one year later in 1264). Apparently Merton is the most academically renowned. I guess you could think of it as the Harvard of all the colleges. If you attend Merton you have set hours that you are required to study, for example after dinner there is a required two hour study hall every student must attend instead of going to grab a beer with friends like most other students would tend to do. Out of all the colleges they always have the highest number of “firsts” or top exam scores on their final examinations.

Wadham College was our next stop. It is one of Alex’s favorite colleges and probably my least. It is not medieval, founded in 1610, but has an interesting history. The college has a reputation for being the most liberal. It was the first to admit women, and its views are tended to be very modern. In fact every year they have “LGBTQ Week” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) to raise awareness for these groups. The founder was Dorothy Wadham. It is rumored that her husband, Nicholas Wadham, was known to be a womanizer during his time and treated lowly women, such as prostitutes atrociously, possibly even killing some. This could be the reason the college has always held such a liberal outlook.  The best part of the college though, according to Alex, is Wadham throws the best “bops,” aka, parties. Wadham was my least favorite simply because of the campus itself. Just as all the colleges have done, the campus needed to expand to accommodate growing numbers. But while many of the colleges tended to keep to the style of buildings originally built, Wadham’s newer facilities are not consistent with the original style and it takes away from the historical feel of the campus.

Keble College, founded in 1870, is one of the “newer” colleges that we visited. It is the red brick college that reflects the time period of the industrial revolution that it was built during. Despite the red brick, the college has a beautiful, enormous interior courtyard. Keble is known for turning out some of the best lawyers and is the college that most Australian and South African students can be found attending. Interestingly, students cannot chalk on the interior walls of the courtyard, they have to display their victories on more interior walkways, such as the walls leading to the dining hall.

Our next stop was Alex’s alma mater and current graduate college, New College. College of St. Mary was its original name when it was founded in 1379. Alex explained that up until a certain point the colleges used to serve as the next stepping stone after public school (our equivalent of private school). So if you attended a certain public school such as Winchester then you would be grandfathered into St. Mary’s, or Christ Church, etc. After this was stopped, the school renamed itself to the New College of St. Mary and hence was referred to as New.  The college is enormous and has some unique aspects to its landscape. The old medieval Oxford wall built to defend the city runs right through a portion of campus. Also in one of the main quads there is what they call “the mound” which used to be a tall outlook point with many steps leading to the top used to defend Oxford. Its sides are mostly surrounded by heavy brush and it is a steep way down to the bottom if you don’t take the stairs. Since it is clearly no longer used for defense, Alex said it’s used for a just as important of a tradition. In the fall the New College boys (only boys thank goodness!) drink heavily at the bottom of the mound. They race to the top via stairs where they strip down stark naked and make their way back down through the brush! The first man down is called King of the Mound for that year. I told him I don’t think we had anything similar at Tech. J  Another great medieval tradition they uphold in May is the “Beating of the Drums.” All the New College students gather to parade inside the campus. They beat drums and sing medieval songs as they march along the old Oxford wall.

Our next stop was where, if I had attended Oxford, I would have liked to have been a member of. Magdalen College, founded just shy of the medieval period in 1458 was the one college I thought could rival the beauty of Worcester. The gardens seem to have every flower you can imagine and their cloister has grass which has the same checkered pattern as Worcester’s lawn. Alex says walking on Magdlen’s cloister lawn as a student will get you “sent down” or our equivalent of being kicked out of school. The perimeter of the cloister is covered in huge, beautiful white hydrangeas which make it look covered with white cotton balls. The grounds are so enormous they have their own deer reservation on site. We stopped to have lunch here at the college café next to their JCR. Their outdoor patio was next to the river with plenty of touristing punters rowing along and made a perfect spot to sit and eat in the shade. We took a walk along Magdalen paths that run alongside the deer pastures. After our walk he pointed out Magdalen Tower where another important Oxford tradition has been taking place for many years called “May Morning”. On a day in May, at 6am the choir starts to sing hymns from the top of the tower and all Oxford students and people of the town gather around the tower to listen and have a huge celebration afterwards.

Our last stop was appropriate, ending with where all of Oxford University “officially” began with University College (founded in 1249), or as Alex likes to call it, “Uni”. It’s also one of the smaller colleges. The main courtyard is simple, and the chapel is beautiful. The ceilings are the only ones I saw painted like the ones we would commonly see in cathedrals throughout the continent. The lower interior still has dark wooden seats that truly look as old as the college itself. Alex spoke about the famous poet Shelley who attended University College and how “Uni” students just love to brag about him.

After a long day, and some tired feet, I was happy to head back to Worcester, which has now become home away from home. It was a delight to hear about the history of this beautiful place from the Alex ad later the Provost and I’m lucky to have gotten a chance to learn and see more of the university during my time here. I will be heartbroken to leave such a fairytale setting, but now it will always be a part of my history and I of it. Maybe someday my kids will come to Tech, study abroad at Oxford, and learn about the fascinating and tangible medieval history this place holds.


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