Life in the Bubble – A Day in Oxford

Harry Potter, “dreaming spires” and rowing was all I had to go on if I was ever roped into a conversation about the city of Oxford before I had the opportunity of visiting it for myself last Autumn. Now a year on my thoughts about the University Town and its famous colleges are still swirling and my opinions not yet formed. It is common knowledge that visiting anywhere on a school trip is a wholly different experience to doing so, say, with family or friends and Oxford was no exception. It is a well-known fact that school-tourism usually involves a) a museum (it’s always a museum, sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a castle or an aquarium, but there’s always a museum) b) the buying of tacky souvenir key rings, and c) the obligatory scrum outside the sole sweet shop.

The glorious day began with a guided tour round Christ Church College, which is so perfectly modelled as the image of British student life given that the few on show were walking around wearing satchels and all eating organic fruit. It’s almost too ‘Oxford’ for Oxford. We were reliably informed by a third year that the statue stood on top of the fountain in the centre of the courtyard had been knocked over four times in the college’s history; and that three out of the four culprits were British Prime-Ministers. How very reassuring. The “no walking on the grass” rule seemed a little unnecessary and consequently resulted in an unnervingly deserted courtyard, though in some ways this added to the feeling of timelessness.

Much as I admired Christ Church’s grandeur, however, the next door college of Corpus Christi stole my affections (and no it wasn’t just because there was a croquet game going on when we arrived) due to its relaxed, almost sleepy atmosphere, and secluded gardens. Here it was difficult not to imagine a rather perfect, if clichéd, four years – sprawling on the grass with a classic penguin novel and a glass of lemonade as the morning sun glinted off the dewy grass and the thought of joining a crowd of spectators watching a boat race in the afternoon a pleasing, yet still somewhat distant, prospect.

It’s all very well about the attraction of the colleges, but what about the nitty gritty? The annual University Guide pull-outs found in most broadsheets can always be relied upon to voice allegations of elitism about and cast a sceptical and scathing eye over the two most prominent universities in Britain. The lack of straight out answers to such questions unfortunately adds even more to the overflowing plates of prospective applicants, who not only have to endure a gruelling application process including aptitude tests and interviews lasting several days but also have to consider the social implications of accepting such an offer if one were to be given. Surely such a decision should be made purely on the basis of the individual’s personal needs and specifications – course content, fees, location – instead of whether or not they will be deemed snobbish, elitist, or most fickle of all, superior?

Alas it seems that the stigma surrounding Oxbridge is set to continue, though that shouldn’t put off those who truly believe they would be happy being a part of such an institute. After all, there’s nothing arrogant about writing Oxon or Cantab after your name; indeed there should be a certain element of pride about having gained a degree from one of the world’s highest ranking universities. Seeing the University of Oxford, its colleges and libraries in all their glory, made it all seem real, and I can honestly say that even a day visit gave me a new perspective on Oxford. There is an awful lot to think about over the next year or so, although sometimes I think it’s fair to say that the cons of Oxbridge are elevated in the media so much more than those of other universities due to a constant struggle between those who support their traditional and unique style of education and those who think both universities an automatic destination for the supercilious upper classes, irrespective of whether or not they deserve to be there.

So I’m pleased to be able now to say, if ever conversing about Oxford, that it is home to several fantastic bookshops, a library where students are required to sign a form swearing “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame” and the most bicycles I have ever seen.

Great British Schooling Tradition

“Where They Are Just And Loyal”

It always struck me that, of the four illustrious Hogwarts houses, the fair students of Hufflepuff never had any glory or recognition bestowed upon them. Everyone hated Slytherin, apart from the Slytherins themselves who all garnered a sinister pride from their membership of the House that had produced the highest number of, shock horror, dark wizards, the Ravenclaws all seemed a snobby bookish lot and the Gryffindors, well, everybody loves the Gryffindors. Gryffindor is Harry and Ron and Hermione. It’s the Weasleys, it’s Neville and his toad Trevor, it’s the Fat Lady and that perpetually roaring fire.

Can you imagine what it would be like if your school was structured in the same way as Hogwarts? I’m not suggesting the council install a starry ceiling or programme staircases to sporadically change direction, but how would you feel if you and your peers were divided up into four houses; separated by colours and mottos and even living space? For a long time the tradition of schools having “House Systems” has been thought of as only for those attending the most prestigious of schools or those who want to mark themselves out as institutions of heritage and history. You only need to flick through the opening chapters of any of  the Harry Potters or Enid Blyton’s “The Twins of St Clare’s” or the “Mallory Towers” series to understand the quintessential Britishness of these such systems.

It isn’t so much the fancy regalia of cloaks and hats proudly bearing the crest of a founder or the novelty of being, to use a rather strong but apt word, segregated into dormitories and common rooms with the people who bear the same stamp of affinity as you which those of use who aren’t or have never been part of something which offers such certain stability in exchange for loyalty and honour find attractive. It is the togetherness of it all; the team spirit, the camaraderie, the feeling of belonging to something, to someone, to many people in fact. Kinship is the most honest way to describe house systems at their strongest and most enforced, although there is most certainly a spectrum of the importance of these systems in the life of a school. I have been in a house, at Primary School, where they assigned the three primary colours and green (green being classed as a secondary colour is one of the few facts I remember about year seven Art) to the names of four explorers. Let’s see how many I can remember…

Sharman, named after Helen Sharman was the yellow house, or ‘group’ as it was sometimes referred to. She was the only female featured and I remember being disappointed to be in Sharman being clueless as I then was as to her ground-breaking role as Britain’s first astronaut in Space. My older self now feels proud to have been devotedly acquiring ‘points’ to be drawn up on our house noticeboard which would win the whole house prizes if we were to win and in doing so honouring a female pioneer in the Scientific world. Unfortunately my school didn’t award a ‘House Cup’ and promptly lay on a spectacular feast for us if we were victorious. Fiennes (as in Ranulph) was up there too along with Captain James Cook and another – I forget who. To this day I still wonder who made those crucial decisions as to the names of the houses we represented!

Outfit Snapshots:

  • Mustard chinos: New Look
  • Electric blue shirt and turquoise nail polish: H&M
  • Blue cardigan and turquoise silk scarf:  a Vintage Fair
  • Blue suede shoes: Clarks
  • Grey cashmere socks: M&S
  • Hufflepuff badge, blue beret, gold Accurist watch, brown leather satchel and Ray Bans: All Gifts