Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Oxford: The Land of Juxtapositions

September 9, 2009 · No Comments

Although this post is a bit belated I felt it was important to share my experience in Oxford last Saturday. After a relaxing hour train ride from Paddington Station to Oxford our class had some time to explore before our formal tour in the afternoon. Besides the university I did not know much about the town of Oxford  going into the trip so naturally I was surprised to see huge mobs of people as I approached the main road. This sight immediately generated thoughts of the U.S.  I felt like I could have just as easily been walking around Yaletown, New Haven or downtown Freeport with shopping centers and fast food restaurants lining the roads as far as the eye could see. 

Anxious to get out of the bustling shopping area Brandon, Aidan and I followed our map down towards Christ Church, one of the many sites where the Harry Potter movies have been filmed. Since they were charging 3 pounds to enter the gates Brandon, Aidan and I decided to save our money and take pictures from the outside of the fantastic building. We walked around the back and found a long walkway that took us away further away from the town and back behind the university where we saw athletic fields and the magnificent Church in the distance. We decided to try to go to the Botanic Gardens only to find that the path was closed off and opted to head back towards the town instead. 

Not to shift topics completely but lunch was an experience in itself. Brandon, Aidan and I entered a covered market that featured a variety of stores and small eateries. After walking throughout the market Aidan spotted a sandwich place that was selling pretty large sandwiches at a fairly affordable price. We decided to purchase sandwiches there despite the fact that there was no seating available in front of the eatery. Spotting a nearby cafe with 10-15 chairs available we decided that it looked like a promising spot to sit and enjoy our sandwiches. After about two bites we were approached by a random man who gave us a stern warning that we should not be sitting there since we did not buy the food from that eatery. He also mentioned something about needing room for he and his two kids to sit even though there were still ample chairs available. This man had no apparent connection to the restaurant, and no real reason to say anything to us. He simply just wanted to make his point known. Being the law abiding citizens we are we attempted to find another place to sit outside the market. After a few minutes of wandering we found a pizza express that appeared to be closed. Like the cafe there was plenty of seating outside and no business in sight. Sure enough however a woman emerged from the restaurant and told us we could not sit in front of the restaurant despite there being numerous seats available. Frustrated and a bit perturbed I held in my contempt and we attempted to find another place to sit. Due to the massive amounts of people on the streets none of the park benches were open so the three of us ended up eating our sandwiches in a back alley where no one could bother us for eating in front of their establishment.

If there is one pet peeve I have about London it’s that most restaurants don’t have enough places for people to sit and enjoy their food. In addition people become overly offended when you eat food you purchased elsewhere in front of another restaurant. It becomes a vicious cycle and leaves one with two options. The first option is to master the “walk and eat” technique which from keen observation it seems Londoners have figured out pretty well. The second option is to pull out the vagabond card and eat in a back alley or on the side of the street. Needless to say I have had to resort to the second technique quite a few times since my arrival in the U.K. Not to beat a dead horse but it seems to me that restaurants should provide enough seating for their clientele. In addition places that don’t have any business should be generous and allow anyone to eat outside their establishment. I know it goes against the rules of good business but personally I think the rules of common courtesy to fellow man are a bit more important…and with that I digress.

Between my distaste of downtown Oxford and my lunch experience I did not have a very good feeling going into the tour that afternoon. Thankfully this negative feeling would disappear once the tour got going. Our tour guide had the driest sense of humour I had ever encountered but he was very informative and knew a lot about the University of Oxford’s current setup as well as its history. Since I give tours for Dickinson and worked in the admissions office this past Summer my main interest while touring Oxford centered on how the British system of higher education differs from that of the states. I found it interesting that the British government actually requires Oxford to take up to 80 percent of its students from Public schools in the U.K. Traditionally institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have swept up private preparatory scholars like wildfire. Since Oxford is now being forced to take so many public school students I wonder how much the dynamic of the university has been changed. It was clear from what our tour guide said that there is a lot of distaste expressed by the University on this subject. Another thing that I found interesting about Oxford is how it was layed out into separate colleges which essentially function as completely separate institutions. Unlike the university system in the U.S. most of the colleges within Oxford offer classes in just about any subject area, almost like a collection of liberal arts colleges. Students actually apply for a specific college all of which have different traditions and reputations but are all considered part of The University of Oxford. The different colleges often compete against each other through both athletic and mental competitions and the best athletes from each college are chosen to compete on the University team, typically against Cambridge.

Walking around it was amazing to view architecture that was at least two times as old as Dickinson’s. The juxtaposition between the modern, tourist trap of a town and the old, traditional university was striking. Since the town seemed to be completely catered to the 21st century student I had a hard time believing him when our tour guide said that the town/gown relationship needed some improvement. 

Overall I enjoyed the tour of the University  of Oxford a lot. Although I am extremely lucky to be a student at a school like Dickinson and also fortunate to be attending UEA this year I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to attend Oxford. There is just so much history and tradition there and an unbelievable amount of prestige. I hope that when we visit Cambridge it offers a similar experience. 

To compare Oxford to London would be like comparing apples and oranges. I noticed a much different, more touristy, less ethnically diverse and less friendly population at Oxford. As I continue to spend time in England  I realize more and more that London seems to be an incredibly unique area within the entire country. As we move from the bubble of London to the countryside of Norwich next week I will be interested to see how Norwich fits in the grand scheme of things. What type of diversity will we experience among the student population at UEA and the Norwich population in general?  These are questions that will remain unanswered for now.

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