Plain Living and High Thinking: Exploring Oxford

Plain Living and High Thinking: Exploring Oxford

“We should celebrate!”

My first day out of self-isolation, the gracious Audrey paraded me around Oxford for a tour and congratulatory tea (in classic British style, with scones and clotted cream). We last encountered each other while doing undergraduate studies in Michigan – small world!

She inaugurated my first ventures afield into the puzzle of walls, roofs, and doors that unwinds from my newly built accommodations, overlapping medieval, modern, and everything in-between.

Audrey hails from Merton College, arguably one of Oxford’s oldest. She welcomed me past the porter’s lodge (an unusual treat in COVID times) for a professional-grade tour. With a historian’s eye, she pointed out details like the windows on the top floor – painted on for aesthetic purposes, because actual windows rendered Merton liable for more taxes!

A day later, I boarded a bus for London: bringing together my worlds from both hemispheres with a visit to my South African friend Anu and her family. She gave me my first human contact in over two weeks: a bear hug on the threshold of their lavender-fronted townhouse. The visit deeply refreshed me, like a home away from home. Anu and Herman also obliged me by entertaining ceaseless questions about Afrikaans – and sharing their son’s Afrikaans picture books!

On Saturday, we joined another family of three for a walking expedition through the English countryside.

Behind us sits a castle, sometimes home to Henry VIII!
An international venture: Anu is from KwaZulu-Natal, Herman from Western Cape; their friends come from Croatia and Brazil – and celebrating a wedding in Korea!

Upon my return, I commenced in earnest the mission of making my nondescript dorm room into a home. Combing the local art and poster shops in search of wall decor, I settled on a calendar of art deco travel posters from Italy. It feels disloyal to admire scenes of Rome and Milan while adventuring in England, but my British friends assure me they consider it a reasonable impulse.

A potted rosemary plant added interest to my deep window seat, and a scarf purchased from a charity shop relieved the unrelentingly neutral palette. Now I can enjoy my space!

I’m also reveling in access to a kitchen equipped with an oven and even a toaster! Following Anu’s recommendation to order from OddBox, I welcome biweekly deliveries of vegetable rejected from stores for odd shapes, blemishes, or surplus. Tesco, the local grocery store fills in the gaps, with offerings like jars of goose grease and cartons of duck eggs.

I entertain myself with crafting colorful meals from minimal ingredients:

I share the kitchen with five other graduate students: my flatmates! We weighed the merits of English vs. German vs. Belgian vs. Australian highways while dining on Sunday roasts (chicken with goose-grease-fried potatoes and Yorkshire puddings) at a nearby pub, The King’s Arms

Oxford and Cambridge operate an unusual system in which you take courses from a particular department (or multiple departments, for interdisciplinary courses like mine) but belong to a college. Colleges occupy enclosed spaces, like stone and brick citadels, with a few essential components: a library, a chapel, a dining hall, and a rectangular green “quad.”

I belong to Keble College: established in the Victorian era, which renders it juvenile in comparison to Merton and New College (whose Wikipedia pages feature accounts of their activities during the Black Death!). Keble’s claim to fame springs from its controversial architecture: the striped orange, white, and black brick pattern that some contemporaries disparaged as “holy Zebra.” The architect William Butterfield pursued a fierce and uncompromising aesthetic policy of maximising building materials’ natural beauty (no covering the bricks with plaster and pretending they are stone), and he favored intricate detail inside and out.

Butterfield’s design also advanced a democratic principle: He deliberately built a dining hall massive enough to accommodate the entire college body (at the time, wealthier students were typically served in their rooms). Perhaps this thinking also inspired our motto: “plain living and high thinking.” The size yields an unanticipated boon in the age of social distancing: Unlike at some colleges, the hall can still accommodate students for seated meals. The chapel meanwhile preaches through its very decoration: Mosaics and stained glass windows articulate a deliberately Messianic narrative.

During my tour with Audrey, I stopped mid-sentence to photograph a striking facade. “What a beautiful church!” I marveled. “That’s your college,” she told me. “That’s Keble!”

Colleges are the center of social life at Oxford University, and Keble’s MCR (Middle Common Room) takes its responsibilities seriously. (“Middle” here refers to graduate students, while undergraduates occupy “Junior” and faculty belong to “Senior”). With so many international students arriving early for quarantine, the MCR committee packed the pre-term calendar with socially distanced events and tours.

Pitt Rivers Museum: an archaeological collection organized by theme (e.g. pottery from multiple countries and eras clustered together) – the fabulous atrium reminded me of the Natural Science Smithsonian in D.C.!
The freshers (first years)’ scavenger hunt, a Keble tradition: tearing around Oxford in search of “the Bridge of Sighs,” “someone wearing a gown,” and “the Keble dinosaur” (pictured)

One virtue I didn’t anticipate at Oxford: the profusion of green spaces! Keep walking north, Audrey told me, and you’ll find yourself in the countryside. At Christ Church Meadow, free-ranging cows roam. One or two streets over from the main thoroughfare, University Parks offers a haven from traffic and bustle. I drink in the trees as I cross the city paths, marveling at the changing leaves – it startled me to realize that it’s been two years since I enjoyed autumn colors!

The Keble MCR organized an excursion to the Botannical Gardens: not fabulous outdoors at this time of year, but the greenhouses featured a room with tire-sized lily pads, green papyrus, and even stalks of rice!

Shortly before term began, Audrey outdid herself with a cozy dinner party. Trekking south through the city to her home led me past some iconic sights, including Magdalen Bridge where you can hire punts for cruising the Thames tributary (if a persistent drizzle doesn’t trouble you). Ironically, all the guests hailed from the United States: Oregon, Texas, and Louisiana. Our academic interests spanned a far greater territory: medieval Latin, Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and ancient Norse!

Living in rural KwaZulu-Natal deepened my appreciation for libraries, as I subsisted mainly on borrowing books from friends and a mobile cart of juvenile fiction donated to my school. So the prospect of gaining instant access to dozens of different libraries as an Oxford student enraptured me.

COVID precautions have complicated the situation. Socially distanced seating is limited; you must book slots by 8am the day of – but in practice, this system behooves you to book something like a week in advance to guarantee a seat. The combination of limited access to some books and limited access to some libraries has occasionally prevented me from accessing a rare material altogether, a frustrating state of affairs.

That said, the online access to digital materials staggers me – I haven’t purchased a single book for my courses this term. To break out of habitual walking patterns and explore the city better, I’ve made a game of visiting all the open libraries: a whimsical exercise that once led me on a three hour journey by foot and bus to the hospital west of city center. The green-lit paths by the river compensated me for poor planning!

This year, as you might have guessed, Oxford hosted matriculation for new students via webcam. Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor delivered a ten-minute speech, including a smattering of Latin, which we each viewed individually or not at all.

We made the best of it, though: donning our Oxford gowns and congregating in the UK’s mandatory “groups of six” in Keble College’s outdoor spaces. After bubbly drinks and photos by the Keble Chapel, my designated group of six skipped down to Oxford’s academic center: the Bodleian Library, Radcliffe Camera, and Sheldonian Theatre – this last being the traditional site of matriculation.

Hundreds of our closest friends congregated with us: popping champagne bottles and angling for awkward self-portraits. Later someone told me that people in town complained that Oxford students failed to respect social distancing guidelines, and I could only agree.

A bridal party joined in on the festivities: Did they come for photo ops with hordes of students, or was it just unlucky timing? I hope they enjoyed the raucous applause that followed them everywhere, at least!

at the Radcliffe Camera library in “sub fusc”: a newly matriculated student of Keble College at Oxford University!

3 Responses »

  1. Kittie,
    Radcliffe Camera reminds me of the National Archives and , yes, I want to sit at the table where the Inklings conversed.
    Beautiful photos and eloquent thoughts and verbiage.
    Thank you for the update. I am so envious.

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