I’ve been in England for four months now, and things have lived up to my ‘expectations’ this far. Grey skies, spectacular landscapes and quaint countryside cottages have turned up aplenty in front of my devouring eyes, not to mention men in tweed suits and glorious buildings (without counting the glass-and-concrete kind). There have been disappointments as well- the false promise of snow, for instance, particularly following a shop assistant’s tales of knee-high snow that raised my hopes astronomically high, even if such occurrences on the south-eastern coast are a rarity. The closest we came to snow was when minuscule snowflakes whirled dizzily in what was mainly a rainstorm. In the larger scheme of things, though, these little ‘mishaps’ take a backseat. England is wonderful.
December began dreary, the spirits taking a slight beating at the hands of the sepulchral gloom of long hours of darkness that seemed to be broken by only very brief spells of half-hearted, watery sunshine. Street lights are a marvellous invention, but there are only certain hours of the day (or night) when you want to see them on. I found myself increasingly looking forward to seeing the streetlamp outside my window switched off; a couple of hours would elapse before it was turned on again. This amusing game was put an end to by my exciting trip to the north and the west; swathes of Yorkshire, bits of Blackburn and Birmingham, Bristol, Bath and Cardiff were covered in ten days. I visited more places than I could faithfully write about in a week (when the spectre of exams and an academic essay was also looming on the horizon), and having just added Oxford to the list, I find myself staring a huge backlog in the face. Considering I’ve almost forgotten the shining specimens of literary brilliance I’d composed in my head over Christmas- they certainly don’t improve with time- I might as well start with the town that is fresh in my mind from Saturday’s visit and still holds me rather enchanted.
Like Uncle Ken in The Adventures of Rusty, I can now tell people that I’ve been to Oxford. In India, the next best thing to studying at an American university is to go to Oxford or Cambridge. You will have done something worthwhile with your life then, even if it is only to earn a D.Phil. in an Arts subject.
The road from Falmer to Oxford cut entirely through the country. We didn’t encounter any towns on the way, but were instead treated to the sight of vast stretches of sky merging with hills that rose and fell to reveal distant hamlets. They occasionally curved into hollows in which nestled solitary farmhouses, rolled-up bales of hay piled inside barns beside them. Thirty minutes of brooding clouds later, the sun broke out cheerfully with a corresponding effect on our spirits. It bathed the countryside and thin films of clouds, borne aloft by the wind, raced through the serene blue sky. I was reminded of a book a classmate of mine gave me when we were five: it was translated from Russian and on its cover was a grinning boy in a pink shirt and blue shorts, running over hills just like these, blond hair blown back by the wind, a feather held up between his forefinger and thumb. This was my first introduction to the names Vassily and Olga, and perhaps to the dream of idyllic countryside retreats.
I watched the names of counties fly by on large signboards: West Sussex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and finally Oxfordshire. A brief glimpse of the name Woking gave me a thrill- it is home to the McLaren Formula One team, and I’d almost kill to be given a tour around any F1 factory.
We’d been on the road for a little over two hours when a signboard proclaimed that we were now in the “City of Oxford”. The first building I saw was a spanking modern structure; so if I’d hoped to see a yellow-brown medieval structure, all spires and gargoyles, I would have been disappointed. Happily enough, I have learnt from my Southampton trip that most towns in England are a juxtaposition of the old and the new, and expectations are best left asleep in bed if you can bring yourself to leave them there.
Oxford didn’t disappoint. We began with a visit to Christ Church- a beautiful building housing college and cathedral. The weather had gone back to its brooding self, and the grey clouds and sudden rain lent the cluster of buildings a certain air of mysterious charm that the mild benevolence of sunshine didn’t (when we saw it again in the afternoon). Christ Church houses the Dining Room made famous in the Harry Potter movies; students are to dress formally (complete with the gown) when they eat here. Portraits of stern-faced men line the dark walls of the room. A few flames flickered fitfully in the fireplace as we walked around the room, trying to imagine what it looked like with the students and lecturers at their meals, propriety restored after the opprobrious posing and preening of pleasure-seeking tourists.
The colleges of the University of Oxford are spread around town. Each of them has a bit of trivia or famous names to boast of, from PB Shelley and Stephen Hawking to the slightly less venerated one of David Cameron. A coffee shop at the corner of Queen’s Lane proclaims that it is “the longest established coffee house in Europe since 1654”. One of the houses bears a plaque stating that Edmond Halley once lived there. A side alley, St Helens Passage, leads to The Famous Turf Tavern which provides “an education in intoxication”, and which is renowned for being the place where most of the Oxford luminaries got sozzled. The impressive Bodleian Library tantalises with its size; different doors bear the names (in Latin) of various branches of study. There is an evident dearth of English in Oxford: inscriptions on gravestones, walls and plinths are in Latin. This resilient loyalty to tradition- think of the boat races and the eternal rivalry with Cambridge- is coupled with the rigorous, formal proceedings that seem to be associated with academic life here. The University commands respect, grudging or not, and I did ask myself what it would have been like to have lived in this town steeped in history, studying at a place that had provided an impetus to some of the most influential minds in the world for a few hundred years.
There is more to Oxford than just the colleges, though: we wandered into the Museum of the History of Science to look at a blackboard with Albert Einstein’s writing on it, and some samples of penicillin from when it was first being developed. We then met my friends who took us around to the Museum of Natural History. It houses fascinating exhibits: skeletons of dinosaurs, elephants, a giraffe, even a dodo, and several other creatures. The Pitt Rivers museum inside showcases rituals and artefact, including voodoo dolls, skulls and a mummy, from cultures around the world. I had to be torn away from this morbid but extremely interesting display by being reminded of our half-hour walk back to the bus-stop. This is one advantage of knowing locals in a place you’re visiting- you don’t lose your way when you don’t have enough time (or the inclination) to.
The sun on the placid river opposite Magdalen College, the boughs overhanging it, boats imagined onto it, cobbled Logic Lane with its groups of students discussing politics- Oxford has made an impression on my mind, the cure for which can only be more travel.