The Oxford Experience

January 23, 2008 at 10:20 am 1 comment

old parsonage


The Oxford Experience

C and I have recently spent an excellent weekend with four good friends and one very cute, happy, five month old baby boy in Oxford. My Alma Mata. The place I went to university. I left just twenty years ago. It feels like yesterday. It feels like a hundred years ago. It felt very strange to be back.

We were staying in a Landmark Trust property called the Old Parsonage in Iffley Village, to the south of the city. The house had its own walled garden running down to the river Isis (being what the Thames is known as when it passes through Oxford). Little were we to know that just a week or so later, Oxford would be flooding. I do hope that the flood waters went into the meadow on the opposite side of the bank rather than climbing the steep garden to the ancient building that we had stayed in.

The Old Parsonage was truly beautiful. It dates back to Norman times but most of the present building dates back to 1500. The downstairs rooms are beautifully panelled in dark wood, and the bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper two storeys are tastefully decorated. Comfortable. It is a perfect size for a group of six and a baby. C and I were dreaming of owning and living in such a place.The oven was a bit dodgy though – the back burner on the hob didn’t work, the oven door wouldn’t shut properly, and the grill only lit at the front. Consequently, the oven took about twice as long to cook things, unless you were prepared to stand there all evening with your knee against the oven door, wrapped in a t-towel to protect against the heat. Still, it’s better than camping! And, C’s pork with pears and parsnips was a success. Thank you Jamie Oliver.

We had a great weekend. We ate ourselves stupid with cooked breakfasts/brunches and wonderful dinners. If I never see another sausage again…….We drank ourselves stupid with the fine wine and beers and gin that we had brought, topped up with a couple of trips to local hostelries. Even the flat southern beer hit the spot.

And, we kept ourselves entertained with Radio 4 in the kitchen, an iPOD shuffling away to itself in the lounge, evening games of University Challenge (a game with beginners, intermediary and difficult questions based on the TV programme, complete with electric buzzers but the crappiest scoreboard in the world) and a “guess who” game of our own invention. Apparently, “Irish” is not a good one-word clue to Eddie Murphy. Sorry guys. We even mostly (!) coped with the sleep deprivation that results from a strange bed, a breast-feeding baby, and too much booze (and apparently my snoring and crying out in my sleep).

The weather was not brilliant. It is the height of the British summer after all. Saturday was sunny enough to allow us to walk along the river into the city and to take in the Dreaming Spires and the more typical touristy things such as the Radcliffe Camra, the Bridge of Sighs, the Sheldonian, the Covered Market and the like. The weather allowed us to enjoy a bbq on the Saturday evening cooked by our very own resident Aussie. More sausages. Otherwise it mostly rained, but we were happy enough enjoying the surroundings of the Old Parsonage itself.

Visits to Oxford over the last couple of years (C and I stayed in the other Landmark property in Oxford – The Steward’s House – for my birthday last year) have convinced me that the place was largely wasted upon me as a student.

I was probably too young and immature to get the most out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I was by far from being the youngest. I am sure that there were several infant genii/geniuses there (that will no doubt spark a debate on its own – what is the plural of genius?) who were much younger than myself. Indeed, Ruth Lawrence was in the same year and would often be spotted on the High riding a tandem with her father, including one memorable time when we were blocking the entrance to All Souls in protest against Margaret Thatcher, who was receiving an honorary degree there.

Nevertheless, I was one of the youngest in my year. Most of my intake seemed to have already taken a year off, polishing daddy’s yacht or doing an internship (without that dress I hope) at Accenture (or Anderson Consulting as it was back then), or having done a seventh term crammer, or re-applying, having failed to get in the first time around. And, at that age, the extra year here or there seems to make a big difference. You do a lot of growing up between the ages of 18 and 21. Or, at least, you are supposed to.

And, I admit to having been a little bit intimidated at first. I had always been used to being one of the brightest in my school but now I found myself to be just another bright kid amongst many. Also, I had a bit of a working class chip on my shoulder. Apart from the occasional school football and cricket matches these were the first public school students that I had ever met. And they were, frankly, different.

While I knew that I was there on merit, having gained a scholarship following the entrance exam and interview, and, gaining four grade A “A-Levels” with distinctions, I wasn’t sure about my fellow students. A lot of them seemed to be there because they went to the right schools, or because daddy was an old boy, or mommy went to Cambridge, or because they were top rowers or rugby players, or minor royalty. We had an actual, genuine African prince at college while I was there.

There was I in my Wrangler jeans (never the most fashionable), Dunlop trainers (before they were trendy – dad got a discount in the company shop), and donkey jacket with the rubberised back. I was amongst brogues, chords, striped open-neck shirts, the occasional cravat (I joke not) and jackets with leather patches on the elbows. I felt that I did not fully conform. I remember returning to college once after having attended a job interview. As such I was unusually wearing a suit. I bumped into my History Tutor, Dr Parker, and he exclaimed (imagine the voice of Prince Charles and you won’t be far off) in surprised amusement: “You are transformed! You are without denim.”

I was also somewhat distracted in the beginning of university life. I had attended an all boys school and now found myself surrounded by beautiful, intelligent, young ladies. I was like a dog on heat. Or at least I was like a dog on heat in the privacy of my own room. I think I was a tad too eager in the beginning. I remember pursuing one young lady in the first week, at the end of which she described me as “ubiquitous”. I had to look the word up. I’ve been called worse. We didn’t hit it off.

So, the beautiful surroundings were a bit of a blur in my formative student years. I was once stopped in the street by an American tourist who asked me where the university was. I only visited the Union once. For a blind date charity event. I ended up spending a most boring evening with some posh bird who had apparently been in the Sunday Observer magazine just the week before. And, it is only in the last couple of years that I have stepped foot in the Bodleian or any of the Oxford museums. I can recommend the Pitt Rivers and the Ashmolean. But, I could always find the Turf pub down its hidden alleyways with my eyes shut.

My Oxford experience was a blur of watered-down beer, the occasional glass of port at formal dinners, Pimms at garden parties, and sherry in a Don’s room on wintry evenings. Football, croquet, darts, frisby, rowing, one game of hockey in which I received a concussion after being hit round the head with a stick after a “disagreement” with a member of the other team, the occasional game of squash, and cricket over a beer barrel in the park. I edited the college magazine for a year. I was Entz Rep for a couple of terms – sweaty bops on a Friday night and the occasional cocktail party on a Saturday.

I was so busy that it was sometimes difficult to find time for the study. But, fortunately, our tutors lacked imagination and would set the same essays year to year. It was always a good tactic to get hold of the essays of previous-year students – it saved a lot of unnecessary reading. I was embarrassed, however, when a tutor asked me once to explain what had caused the Hundred Years War…….

bowNevertheless, I left university with a 2:1, a cheating girlfriend (a fact I only discovered after the event) an overdraft, a hangover, a good general knowledge of how to mix cocktails, a white bow tie which I have never since worn, and a thorough understanding of which knife and fork to use at formal dinners. And, some of the best friends in the world……Not such a waste after all.


Entry filed under: Oxford, travel. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Man Flu The Good Life

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Daniel Luna  |  October 10, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Dude College is a weird time. I am still in the middle of it. Coming into my third year now. I’ve done drugs and women. But I think it’s all normal. The school accounts for that. But Putting in the effort and coming up with good work is always pretty nice.



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