We sped in a First Great Western train towards Oxford via Slough and Reading, passing through picturesque countryside, woolly green hills dotted with slate-roofed red brick houses; no water restrictions here; verdant pastures and flat crops under a vaulted cloud-filled sky. So different from drought-ravaged Australia.
We stayed at St Catherine’s student college and were surrounded by aqueous nature: geese, mallard ducks and water lilly ponds, which made up for the spartan lodgings. On our first day, I went with my American friend, Terri, on a walking tour of the city. The Italian tour guide showed us around some of the colleges, the Bodlielan Library, the Church and the quaint Turf Tavern where she was proud to point out the plaques celebrating Bob Hawke‘s drinking prowess, and Bill Clinton’s experiments with drugs. She also showed us the cross in the main street marking the spot where martyrs were burnt at the stake during the Reformation.
Conflict between town interests and those of the university has a long history in Oxford, and it still continues in some form up until the present time. The high walls built around the colleges are a symbol of this conflict, representing a need on the part of the colleges to protect themselves and their students from the world outside. In the past there were demonstrations and riots that led to deaths, but today the dissatisfactions are settled in court.
The Bodleian Library, from its beginnings in the fourteenth century, has become one of the great libraries of the world. It is also a copyright deposit library, able to claim any book published in the British Isles, and has continued to spread in size, taking over many adjacent ancient buildings.
The beautiful New College, Catholic, founded in the fifteenth century, so-called to distinguish it from another of the same name: Saint Mary’s. The three statues on the facade at the front withstood the destruction of the Reformation years, probably because of their elevated position. We wandered around the cloisters, the chapel and the gardens for a long time, breathing in the history and atmosphere. The huge tree was part of one of the Harry Potter movies.
Terri and I were inspired to return and explore some more the next day, especially the New College and the Ashmolean Museum.
In Australia, buildings that are 200 years’ old are considered ancient; even The New College here is from the fourteenth century!
The hanging baskets of flowers and the English-style gardens in the college grounds are indescribably beautiful. And even the fat bumblebees here are different from bees back home!