In all the hustle and bustle of continual excursions and weekend trips, it was easy to forget how magical it was just to explore Oxford. Some of my most pleasant memories of the program are not from Stonehenge or studio tours but from local excursions and just walking around town. When the weather is nice (which isn’t always), Oxford has a safe, dreamy quality, making it more like a rural English town and less like the bustling tourist destination it usually is.
Our first taste of this came in an event mentioned earlier, when we walked through the Botanic Gardens on Alice’s Day in the first week of class. While the gardens were peaceful, this was not the full Oxford experience; dreary skies and crowds from the holiday celebrations dampened the pastoral charm of the gardens. However, the greenery was infectuously cheerful and helped brighten spirits even in the rain.
Another note about the Gardens: I returned once more with family to try to find Lyra’s Bench (a real monument made famous in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass). While we were signing in, a crash echoed through the visitor’s center. We learned while rushing into the Gardens proper that the old Black Pine, famous as J.R.R. Tolkien’s favorite tree, had partially fallen down and crushed a wall. The tree, once a centerpiece of sorts for the Garden, soon will be cut down for safety concerns. It was a quite shocking turn of events, considering our program had visited the tree for the purposes of literary tourism just weeks before.
Other visits in the town of Oxford were a bit brighter. Among our last few excursions was a serene tour of of Magdalen College (where C.S. Lewis taught) and its vast grounds. Magdalen, one of the oldest and most spectacular colleges, contains many of Oxford’s photogenic buildings and boasts a large deer park with a walking trail. Other highlights included an ornate, functioning chapel and a casual riverside cafe.
Several days after Magdalen College, the students returned to that neck of the woods for the end-of-program activity: punting on the Isis. The afternoon became a test of creativity in what we could do with a boat, a pole, and two hours. (The answer: haphazard laps around an island punctuated with collisions with the banks and other boats.) The event was a fitting conclusion to the program because our course material started (in spirit) over a hundred years earlier with another boat ride, when Charles Lewis Dodgson went on a river picnic with the real-life Alice and her family.
What we learned: while certain monuments and museums are impressive and educational, and tourist attractions are tempting by nature, some of the best moments of visiting a foreign country can actually come from enjoying small-town scenes and activities. Oxford, as an internationally recognized university town, may not quite reach the level of tranquil fun that a true rural town could provide. However, the times where the city appeared closest to that pastoral ideal — when touring parks and gardens, and later floating on a river, for example — were some of the best times we had in the Program. After seeing so much in a few short weeks, in the end the little things stood out.
Stay tuned for more, including writing samples from our final project.