03.07.2010 - 10.07.2010 24 °C
My sister Robin and I enrolled in a week-long ‘Oxford Experience’ course about the Beatles and Sixties Britain for the first week of July. A great package deal, it includes all meals, lodging and 3 hours a day of discussion at Christ Church. Apparently it is not to be referred to as ‘Christ Church College’ or ‘University’ - just ‘Christ Church‘ - but it is the largest college within the University of Oxford, and is the only one with its own cathedral. I also think it’s the most historically interesting - started as a pet project of Cardinal Wolsey but when he fell out with Henry VIII, the king took it over then ‘refounded’ it a few years later (it’s good to be the king).
The main quadrangle (Tom Quad) is stunning, and a Christopher Wren clock tower stands majestically at west entrance. As a tradition, they ring the bell (named Tom) every night at 9:05 (ie. 9:00 Oxford time) 101 times (one for each of the original number of students) to give notice they are locking the front gate. Not sure when this formal curfew ended - maybe when they invented electronic key fobs.
There’s a gaggle of ‘custodians’ guarding the place and herding tour groups away from off-limits areas. They wear bowler hats and were all charming little old men - not sure if they are unique to Christ Church, but we didn’t see any at the other colleges we visited.
Our bedroom was in the Meadows building - so named for the great view over Christ Church Meadow. Quite comfortable if a little dated - but renovations were underway and we had no chance of oversleeping with workmen right outside our window.
On a tour of a few other colleges, we learned that Oxford residences are unique buildings - they all have staircases but no hallways. So if you wanted to visit someone down the other end of the same floor of your building, you have to go down your staircase then over and up their staircase. We also learned a bit about the quaint rituals of student life - for example, if you’re ‘sporting the oak’ it means you don’t want visitors to your room…sounds vaguely dirty to me, but refers to shutting your door.
My favourite taste (literally) of Christ Church student life was taking all our meals in the incredible Dining Hall, under portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I reminding us they had once eaten there almost 500 years ago.
So many famous students chowed down in here, including David Ogilvy - before he dropped out and went on to AGA cooker sales - and Richard Curtis, director of all the famous Brit romcoms: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Oh yes, and a lot of men named 'Sir' spent time here too.
We got to experience the High Table tradition one night, a more formal, invitation-only dinner seating when we had to dress sharp and come early for a glass of sherry. We sat at the long main table at the head of the room with about 20 others from our program, plus that night's guest speaker Colin Dexter (author of Inspector Morse books). One particular American couple, an elderly man and his younger blond wife, always seemed to be sitting near us - High Table included. Robin nicknamed them Ruth and Bernie...
Another famous connection - Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) wrote Alice in Wonderland based on stories he apparently made up to entertain the daughters of the dean of Christ Church while he was working there. We took a tour around the grounds and along the two rivers with a writer who had researched their influence on his tales. He only slightly hinted at the potentially dodgy scenario of a grown bachelor first taking photos of these three young girls then taking them on boating excursions for hours on end…and the sudden and unexplained end to the excursions. Curiouser and curiouser…at any rate, he and his characters are immortalized now in the great Hall’s stained glass so he’s in good standing.
Dinner was served a little later one night so we could attend Evensong service in the cathedral. I wanted to hear the choir, but the famous group only performs during term time, so we got a nice little stand-in choir when we went. The church is quite compact and beautiful, especially the ceiling.
Our classes started at 8:45 in a small room in the Peckwater building, just behind Tom Quad, and finished at 12:15 with a break for coffee/tea and biscuits - very civilized. We had 12 students in our class, 3 of whom had actually seen the Beatles perform live (one lady from Texas had seen them three times)- they were the diehards, and brought in cake on the Wednesday to celebrate Ringo's 70th birthday. Another nice couple from New York were there in celebration of her retirement - so sweet.
Our tutor was an interesting cat - not a rabid fan but very knowledgeable about the music, the recording technology and the historical context. Robin and I were the only ones who didn't live through the Beatles heyday, but I found it fascinating to hear how and when they got swept up in Beatlemania and what impact it made on these 'first generation' fans. The class covered so much ground - basic musical theory, lyric analysis, recording technology changes during their time, the nature of perception (ie LSD phase). I learned so much, and appreciate the Beatles more than I did before - and we got to watch a bit of the great mockumentary The Rutles and listen to Peter Sellers' Shakespearean sendup of Hard Day's Night so it never got too academically heavy. Plus I got to put my English degree and trivia-filled mind to good use in answering the tutor's random question about the William Blake/Aldous Huxley/Doors connection. That's right - I showed off at Oxford :-)
In the afternoons, we toured the town and ambled along the two rivers that cut through Oxford.
We learned that students also wear ‘subfusc’ or formal black robes and attire when they write their exams - sort of like our graduation gear. All the colleges generally offer the same subjects so everyone writes their exam together in one main hall rather than within their own college. Interestingly, Oxford (and Cambridge) undergraduate students are educated in a tutorial system - focused on one main subject, usually just getting one-on-one tutoring so it's very much self-directed study rather than lecture-based. No opportunities for slacking. And lots of competition for research materials - which is countered by having to use the books in the library rather than hoard them away.
Another highlight was visiting University College - not just because of the seemingly redundant name. Some claims to fame: Bill Clinton went here, the developments of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke took place here, and there's a monument to an expelled student and Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In true Romantic fashion, Shelley drowned while sailing off the coast of Italy and his body washed ashore supposedly looking like this. The walls are painted with some of the final lines from one of his most famous (and kind of overwrought) poems, Adonais. High and low art actually collide here - I admit that I first saw this monument in the (guilty pleasure) flick The Saint since a cheesy Val Kilmer scene was shot here.
All in all, it was a somewhat surreal experience but thoroughly enjoyable - I would describe it simply as fantasy camp for brainy types. Many of the other students we met had been coming there for many years, and I can see why as it's a captivating place to satisfy a craving for the long-gone academic life.