The stories of a couchsurfer

Oxford: A fitting farewell

Bodleian Library

So rarely are expectations of a city, journey or experience realised. The reality may be better or worse than anticipated but there is almost always some major differences to how it was originally imagined to be.

Movies, documentaries, postcards, travel guides and photographs all attempt to expose us and allow us to experience something that is on the other side of the world. This attempt is futile however, and while they succeed in allowing us to create our own image of what it must be like to actually be at this location they are trying so valiantly to describe to us, these self created images are often wide of the mark of the truth.

As would be expected, the more complex the object to be described is, the more likely that the media that attempt to describe it won’t succeed in doing so. Attempting to showcase the entire urban sprawl of Paris, it’s culture, people and history in a single postcard is an effort doomed from the moment of conception.

Attempting to portray a much more basic element such as Big Ben in London on the same postcard would likely be capable of providing an image for the observer closer to reality but would ultimately still fail.

There is, of course, no substitute for being there. The five human senses all combined to provide the comprehensive experience of what that object, place or person consists of.

Remarkably still, every once in a while along a journey, the traveler does come across a place that does, not perfectly but quite accurately, fulfil the preconceived imagery that they had created from all forms of sources associated with it.

The English city of Oxford turned out to be one such example.

Ok, well, perhaps there were a few differences to what I had envisioned, but for the most part it lived up to its reputation. My perception of Oxford before arriving was something of an almost purely academic village, built for the purpose of sustaining the university that resides there and to be honest, it wasn’t too far off the truth.

There is, in fact, a community outside of the universities there, but it’s questionable as to whether it would thrive or even be in existence today if it weren’t for the foundations that the university has laid to build both the population and tourism of Oxford.

Walking through the city is a sheer delight. The city just oozes tradition, prestige and intellect. There’s a certain exclusivity you feel when discovering each of the buildings around town. Adorned with shields and banners of different patterns and colours, they denote a membership to some surely prestigious association. The symbolism is archaic but its lack of descriptive writing upon them all evokes a sense of secrecy that a mere commoner shouldn’t even know these things exist.

Places like Oxford are also special because of their ability to attract some of the most influential people in history to their grounds. One can’t help but wonder, as they sit on the banks of the River Thames and gaze upon the historic buildings a few hundred metres away, which other notable residents throughout time have also gazed upon the same view and been inspired.

The university is by far the best thing to discover here and one can spend hours gazing on the architecture within Radcliffe Camera. The Bodleian Library, with it’s striped appearance on the inner walls of it’s hollowed square design, presents awesome views and just when you’re done catching your breath back from leaving that, you turn the corner and bump into the equally impressive Sheldonian Theatre.

The buildings are generally all the same yellow/brown sandstone type appearance and although this blog has been quick to criticise the United Kingdom for it’s lack of architectural variance and creativity, here in Oxford it seems allowable. Perhaps mostly for the reason that the buildings themselves are of different shapes, sizes and designs and the next one is always different from the last.

Besides the university buildings, Oxford doesn’t have a lot worth mentioning. It’s still worth discovering, and there are loads of open space fields to enjoy a picnic in and relax. The Oxford Castle is the most historic site of the city, but after having ventured around the university grounds it doesn’t hold anywhere near as much charm. A high entry price for discovering it isn’t going to encourage many travellers to do so, either.

There are little gems here and there. A casual stroll into town one morning led past the now named Roger Bannister Running Track, the site where the first recorded four-minute mile was ran.

But mostly Oxford is a town built around its universities. And that’s all it needs to be. Anything else to distract from the university would be but a sideshow and a disappointment.

And although the selection of gorgeous and historic university buildings seems limitless, it’s not. Soon enough it comes to an end and you’ll have discovered it all. And upon each passing of the same building you remain impressed, yet slightly less than the last time.

In reality, Oxford can be quite well explored in the space of only two days and any more time may feel a bit repetitive and wasteful. But even if you do get that feeling while you’re there, Oxford is the kind of city that manages to leave a lasting impression on you and leaves the already-been traveler in two minds, for they’ll most likely long to return to see it just once more, but at the same time they’ll also likely know deep down that it won’t have changed a bit and there’ll be nothing new to discover.

And that’s exactly the way Oxford should be. Traditional and unchanging. Why tamper with something that already works so well?

Oxford was the final city to be visited on the voyage around the United Kingdom and in many ways it should have been the first (or perhaps second after London). Oxford is everything that was envisioned of England. The prestige and history. Simple and quaint yet fights well above its weight. And it wasn’t really until coming to Oxford that this was realised.

Other cities along the way can surely be described as very stereotypically British, but none of them quite match the status that Oxford can boast.

4 Responses to “Oxford: A fitting farewell”

  1. reeannonn

    I have just been on a mini trip to Oxford, and it was really lovely, but I am glad that I didn’t apply there to study strangely. It is beautiful, but I agree that it can be explored quite easily in a few days. However, there is such a charm to it, and when you hear all those names of famous writes, thinkers and many more, it feels likes you really are somewhere special. I was shocked by how quiet it was in some areas. Christ Church Meadow was just silent when I went, and so so beautiful 🙂 fantastic post, loving your blog!

    • christopherbadman

      Hey thanks for the kind words! I’ve been a bit lazy with my blog lately (also due to some other things which readers will discover as I continue!) but I’m endeavouring to get back on track soon!
      You make a good point about the serenity of the place. It’s something I forgot to mention in my post but I was also surprised by the lack of apparent tourism and it was quite easy and simple to walk around and discover a building in your own presence and comfort – something I definitely appreciated!

  2. chrispolean

    This a terrific piece about Oxford. It makes me upset that I had the opportunity to go and never went. Did you go punting? I was told it is a tradition among Oxford students.

    • christopherbadman

      Thanks Chris! Well I do recommend that if you get a second chance to go then you should take it this time. I didn’t do any punting, but the weather was surprisingly gorgeous and I could imagine it being a very relaxing and special experience. Perhaps I should have…


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