Oxford and comparison with "the other place"

Trip Start Oct 17, 2011
Trip End May 22, 2012

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Apr. 1-6: I was eager to visit Oxford, first, because it is the setting of TV series I watch and was home to some famous authors, it has several historic pubs, and it has the magnificent Ashmolean Museum; and second, because I wanted to see if I liked it better or not as much as Cambridge, referred to in Oxford as "the other place." There is a very long-standing rivalry between the two universities, if not the two cities, never more apparent than in the annual Boat Race (see below).

Historically, Cambridge was born out of Oxford: in 1209 some Oxford scholars left Oxford University after a dispute with the townsfolk and eventually set up what was to become Cambridge University.

The colleges and other buildings in Oxford are lovely, of course, with spires, carvings, pillars and the like. It's the “city of dreaming spires.” Narrow alleys and long stone walls add to the attraction. There is a lot to see: Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library (great exhibit on now, called Romance of the Middle Ages), Sheldonian Theatre, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Christ Church Cathedral, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Saxon Tower, the colleges themselves, etc.

I attended a “choral meditation” by the choir at Christ Church Cathedral and a wonderful rendition of Bach’s St. John Passion by the Magdalen College Choir (young people and boy sopranos) at the Sheldonian Theatre.

I stayed in an undergraduate student residence of Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudlin”), across the bridge from the college proper. My room had a view of Magdalen’s Great Tower and the River Cherwell, and I could hear the tower clock’s bells chime the hours. As a temporary resident of the college, I was allowed access to the grounds and chapel, and I spent a few hours one day wandering around the buildings and through the spring-flowered Water Meadow and Fellows’ Garden. The College of St. Mary Magdalen (full name) was founded in 1458, and there are now 600 students enrolled.

Oxford has a large Covered Market (dates from 1770) with every kind of food and craft on offer, and there are some major shopping streets. Truth to tell, I was not comfortable with the huge numbers of tourists, including many touring school groups from the Continent. Travelling through the less-popular winter months has spoiled me.

It was fun to visit pubs that are or have been frequented by actors and authors I’m familiar with. The White Horse has featured in Inspector Morse and has on its walls framed photographs of Morse, Lewis and Hathaway. (I hear it’s also in the 2008 movie, Oxford Murders, with Elijah Wood and John Hurt.) The Bear dates back to 1242 and played a part in a Morse episode; its walls and ceilings are covered in framed cut-off neckties of clubs and sport teams, a strange tradition. The Turf Tavern has also been in Morse; it is hidden down a narrow lane. The Eagle and Child (or "Bird and Baby" to the locals) was a meeting place of the Inklings writers’ group, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The 158th annual Boat Race took place the day after I left Oxford. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the least ideal races in its history. First, a protester (against elitism) stopped the race by swimming directly into the boats’ path (and narrowly missing being decapitated by an oar).  Oxford had a slight lead at that point. The race was re-started from a halfway point, and right away one of Oxford’s oars lost a blade, its boat having got too close to Cambridge’s. So Cambridge was able to pull way ahead and won the race. When Oxford passed the finish line, one of its members collapsed unconscious from exhaustion and was hospitalized for two days. There was no big celebration and no podium presentation. It’s not the way a team wants to win such a prestigious race. (Cambridge now leads by 81 wins to Oxford’s 76.)

The inevitable comparison arises between Oxford and Cambridge. All things considered, I preferred Cambridge. I found the university buildings in Oxford more spread out; in Cambridge things seem more compact. But my opinion is no doubt coloured by the following: Oxford was swarming with tourists when I was there (school break); I had much nicer accommodation in Cambridge; and I visited Cambridge earlier in my travels and was likely “fresher.” I would like to visit Oxford again during the calmer, less crowded, late-fall or late-winter times.
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