Back to the city of dreaming spires

Anglotopia Day 13 – Reuniting with Oxford

“Humid the air! leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers!
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening …”
“Thyrsis”, Matthew Arnold
The centre of Oxford was a shadowy maze of cobbled alleys with lanterns reflecting the dying sunlight of a late Sunday afternoon.

The cross section of Cornmarket Street and George Street lost me in a crowd of weekending tourists. For a moment, I let memories take me away as I leaned against a post, recalling the wonder I felt when I first walked here. The sheer awe and almost amazement that I had finally – finally – landed in England.

It was too busy at this crossroad, so I wove through the waves of people to the relative solace of the side street near Queen’s College. There I found quiet except for the occasional ring of a bell on a student’s bicycle as they streamed past. It was a week of final exams, so some students already wore examination kit. A group walked by, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they were studying, how they would celebrate later once they were finished.

Oxford always made me wonder. I had always been a curious learner, the student who played the safe side of things, did what the teacher told me and tried to find patterns to replicate. Success was an “A” on a paper or project. It was high scores on a test. The challenge of Oxford hit me like a proverbial ton of bricks. The concept of a tutorial once a week, formed by a topic of my choosing, from a theme I wanted to study – it was difficult coming from an American system of notes, rinse, repeat. The hours in the famous libraries were distant memories now, but studying in the Radcliffe Camera was unforgettable. Equally unforgettable was having an essay scrutinized and possibly torn to bits by a tutor. Defense of my opinions, backed up by research and loads of readings, became something to relish instead of fear.

Perhaps I am making too much of my four months there, but it changed the way I thought, the way I researched, and the way I wrote about literature and history. It taught me to have standards not just for a grade on a paper, but to never stop working on skills I would need once I was done with university. I could have actual opinions about history – up to that point, I had been convinced that it was useless to talk about history because it had happened, and there was no changing it. Yikes.

However, not all my memories are about the classroom. I made good friends at Oxford, explored Paris, Rome, England, and Wales during this time, and I made good friends with many a pub and pint and cup of tea. As a young student, it seemed as if one could never be too friendly with any of those items.

When I continued over St. Aldate’s, toward Christ Church and the college I had been affiliated with, the bells of the cathedral began to toll with relish. The music rolled over the greenery and flowers of the War Memorial Garden and the sports pitches behind the college. I walked slowly, pausing to listen and to admire the sounds of something I did not even know I missed.

From there, I roamed aimlessly, a map in my bag but deciding to trace the map in my head instead. I recognized street names and gave them a wander. I followed them to their end, picked another direction, and explored yet more. Oxford became a treasure map with an ever-moving “X” to find.


The sheer beauty of Oxford and picaresque quality of its architecture draws people to it.

Green lawns, perfectly mowed and foot-print free, shivered with the shadows of the sun-glazed Radcliffe Camera.

Around the edges of the Sheldonian Theatre, stony faces expressed shock and perhaps disdain at the many visitors running amok.

The sharp edges of All Souls pierced the fierce blue skies and recalled scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Around the edge of Catte Street, the aptly nicknamed Bridge of Sighs curved delicately above the cobblestones, a perfect background for students in gowns who had finished exams.

Lazy punts slipped by Magdalen Chapel on the River Cherwell, weeping trees reaching out to graze shoulders of the punters.

For two hours, I rediscovered the nooks and crannies of the city of dreaming spires, chasing the sunset and the early stars of night.

I can never be tired of Oxford.

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