oxford university

My Mega Mansion

Living out of college accommodation is a daunting prospect for every university student, but in Oxford it’s an especially rude awakening. We’re coddled from the outset at this ‘public school finishing school’ as a safely-graduated friend recently termed it; scouts take our bins out and clean our bathrooms, porters are on hand from midday to midnight to help with an emergency leak or a dodgy alarm, and you can go so far as to demand a lightbulb delivered right to your room post haste – hell, even a new lamp. People will cook for you, and serve you the food, and then take your plate away, and no one’s forcing you to deal with anyone else’s piles of dirty colanders in the sink. You can lock your room and ignore all human interaction for days save awkwardly bumping into someone on the way to the loo (or the shower, if that’s a thing you choose to partake in), and the library is but a ten minute stroll away. Given this seemingly luxurious and extravagant existence, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would opt out of a system that might accommodate them for their full degree, instead choosing to pay extortionately for lodgings an Oxford marathon from the centre of town, with a boiler that breaks every fortnight and must be repaired by a man who has to turn sideways to fit through your front door.

True, there are the obvious pros: we can throw massive parties that drag on until 5am without suffering the judgement of the porters (just those two noise complaints from the council). We can smoke without schlepping all the way across three quads and out through the main gate, to huddle five-to-an umbrella whilst shivering forlornly and suffering the judgement of the porters. We can walk five minutes from bedrooms, in our pyjamas, to any number of delicious and multi-ethnic cuisines – or indeed order them right to our door, without suffering the judgement of the porters. So yes, the number 1 reason to suck it up and make a decision on the living-out dilemma may quite clearly be that we want to behave in embarrassing and borderline-irresponsible ways, and we don’t want to be judged for it – which from what I can tell seems to be the main incentive of becoming a self-sufficient grown up anyway. It’s pretty understandable why one would choose the liberation of living independently over continuing to eat/sleep/party within the walls of the institution that controls both our work and our future and everything in between. Slightly less clear is exactly why one would choose to do this with eleven other people.


Summer in Oxford

Although it was bucketing it down on Saturday as I left Oxford to start my hols, it has always pained me that the academic calendar means we don’t get to experience the city in high summer. Oxford is made for summer sun, even if official guidelines direct us to secrete ourselves away from it in dark and dusty libraries; golden evenings in the centre make me fall in love with the city again and again, and I’ve managed to take more rolls of film in the last two weeks of term than in the whole of the preceding eight months – a solid indicator of joyful existence. Here are some joyous things to do under gorgeous Oxford summer sunshine.


Despite years of practice and family-ruining rows on my grandma’s lawn I still manage to be terrible at both tactic and technique in this most upper middle-class of sports. New College has a great little croquet lawn in its front quad, over-looked by the porters and any curious freshaz who want to peer down from their rooms and witness everyone’s sporting triumphs(failures). During my first summer in Oxford I enthusiastically entered into inter-collegiate cuppers croquet with an American friend who had never touched a mallet before; he still managed to wipe the floor with me and all the other Englishmen, which I suppose is a rather damning summary of our national sporting character, and also of croquet. But however futile in athletic terms it stands that bashing a ball around the college croquet lawn is a very entertaining way to spend the remains of a summer afternoon – especially when things get heated and someone kicks over a hoop. (Alright I admit I have yet to witness this at Oxford. My family is very competitive.)



Most Oxford colleges own a number of punts that their students can rent free of charge. New College’s vessels may not be as swish as Magdalen’s or indeed as roomy as Hertford’s, but they’re conveniently placed in a boathouse just off of our sports’ grounds and they get the job done – I mean presumably. When one is competent. The only time I have managed to go punting we made it about 100m from our starting point, got attacked by more branches and bushes than Harry in the Triwizard maze, and one of our number fell in… But as a means to an end of picnicking on a grassy riverside knoll surrounded by daisies and inquisitive ducklings, it does do the trick.

Balls (lol)

Getting all fancy and enjoying a 12 hour extravaganza of food and fun in a centuries old setting is an essential part of the Oxford summer experience, one that I wrote more about here.

B&W6-2Soaking up the sun in beautiful surroundings

Every city I have chosen to park myself within so far has been a beautiful one, lucky for me. Growing up in London was a convenient starting point, four months in Paris and then five in Burghausen, but Oxford arguably tops them all in general loveliness. Being able to laze an evening away in a setting as glorious as New College gardens, a stone’s throw away from our bedrooms, is a luxury afforded to students at very few other universities and one that we do not waste. Whether it be eating ice-cream in Magdalen’s back quad or chatting in Christ Church’s egregiously extensive grounds, even the most boring conversational partner’s company is improved by these surroundings; unless you’re at St Anne’s. Soz.


Ballin’ 2014


One of the great joys of the Oxford experience  is just how easy it is to find an excuse to get suited, booted, and tarted all the way up for a fancy event with your friends. Formalwear = instant beauty;  tailcoats and full-length dresses have transformative powers that make even the least glamorous of us instantly instagrammable – someone should have told Snow White’s stepmother to slap on a ball gown before heading down the poisoned fruit route, because it’s a surefire way to outstrip anyone in the aesthetics stakes. I proved my own point in this matter last night at Trinity College’s triennial commemoration ball, a night of glamour, glitz, and immaculately manicured lawns during which the rain mercifully held off and I made my £180 ticket back through consumption of candy floss alone. This year was a big one in Oxford for commem balls: Worcester’s tricentenary bash also took place, and Exeter is throwing a 700th anniversary event tonight that has half of Radcliffe Square closed to the public (to its rage). I chose Trinity over Worcester’s nightmare waiting list and headed over with a very select crew of friends and housemates – but balls being balls and Oxford being Oxford ended up running into about a hundred people I knew at the event, and chatting to many I didn’t. 

The evening started for us at 8 with a champagne reception on Trinity’s front lawns. The committee settled on a digital wristband system this year which made queuing up and cloakroom depositing incredibly speedy so we could move right on to fancy champers and chocolate coated strawberries; I had spent half an hour the day before helping committee members unload box after box of champagne so knew there was no shortage there, and we were definitely not disappointed. The rain had cleared up just in time and the college looked golden and glorious in the last of the evening sun, and obviously all the guests in their white tie did too. To add to the magic, dreams were made within an hour of arrival as I got to meet Oxford-based photographer Nasir Hamid whose Flickr feed I have followed avidly for a few years now, and who photographs many of the balls and Oxford life in general. Discovering that he follows me too was a delightful ego massage and a half, and he took snaps of us on both digital and our beloved 35mm film. A perfect start to the evening.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetFrom the front lawns we moved through a second quad complete with painted blue lawn and onto the meat of the ball. Trinity is a college made for such events, and there was ample room for stage, marquees, and quieter wooded areas which were no doubt host to countless scurrilous activities by the end of the evening; there were at least four bars and countless food stands, and to be honest the committee really outdid itself as the whole event was a roaring success by all accounts. The array of food was particularly spectacular, and although the best thing I consumed was definitely a Bailey’s milkshake at the very beginning of the night, by the end I had eaten my weight in whitebait, fajitas, hog roast, poached pears and candy floss – a smorgasbord of feasting spread across three quads. The musical entertainment too was right up my street (and seemingly everyone else’s). Although we tragically missed Out Of The Blue’s unfeasibly early set both Aluna George and Clean Bandit gave syuper performances – the real stand-out was the Beyonce tribute band in the early hours though, followed by a less exhilarating silent disco as by that point dawn was breaking and birds chirping and I felt like I might expire from exhaustion.

In amongst all the standard ball activities was the quite novel installation of a giant Monaco-style makeshift casino by the back gates; I think it could have been fabulous if actual money/glory was at stake, but as it was the wristband scanners broke down so it turned into a less glamorous speakeasy serving the most disgustingly strong gin martinis possible. Abandoned half-sipped specimens littered the room. Disgustingly strong drinks were certainly a theme of the night – whoever was in charge of drinks clearly likes their liquor hard and their mixers sparse – but bizarrely I think that the undrinkableness of everything actually meant no one got too sloshed and everyone paced themselves a bit better. I certainly just cannot force myself into ingesting a G&T with a 50:50 ratio (no matter how awkward the situation), which probably served me better than endless delicious glasses that go down a charm. Luckily entertainments aside from alcohol abounded, and we busied ourselves with shisha, carnival swings, dodgems and walking hedges; there was a Jamaican steel drum band and a stuffed zebra, and to be honest the whole thing was so well-planned and executed that though our stamina failed at 4am I don’t think I would have run out of amusements by the final clear-out at 6.

I had a really lovely evening (that my mum tells me was well worth the extortionate ticket price for this selfie alone), and it was an apt summer “so long” to Oxford, finalist friends and New College Lane. My favourite moment was the truly fab firework display a few hours in that had me clapping like a small child – they never really lose their primal appeal do they? – and my one regret is not going back for that third helping of hog roast. Next time.

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A Lonely Degree

As my second year at university wraps up and I embark on the painful process of chasing up summer reading and wringing my hands over my thesis, I have been thinking about all those things good and bad that define studying history at Oxford. And although it’s an incredible learning experience that I value every day, I do think that it could easily be made that much more incredible. I do enjoy my degree. I love history – I love the narrative, I love the themes emerging centuries and continents apart, I love eureka moments when chronology slots together and I love recognising and empathising with people and things millennia gone. Studying history at Oxford, a place that wears its own so proudly and is home to the best and brightest historical minds the world has to offer is a unique experience that we all often take for granted. It’s amazing that every week I sit down for an hour or more alone with a world expert on my subject to directly converse about a piece of work I have produced – these are incomparable privileges that I’m well aware I am lucky to have. But sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn’t enjoy my degree a whole lot more if it was taught in a different way.

History at Oxford can often feel like a very lonely subject. I was very fortunate in my first year to choose three out of four of the same papers as someone who became a bosom buddy, who shared my enthusiasm for actually talking about our subject, comparing notes and touching base. But unless you strike gold in that respect it’s incredibly unlikely that a history student’s closest friends will end up being from their course – quite simply because you never SEE each other. When other subjects groups have several core modules they all take together and lectures they go to en masse, right from week one historians are scattered across lecture theatres and colleges throughout the university dependent on our module choices – and since many tutors still favour the one-on-one tutorial format sometimes you can go whole terms without discussing your work or your era with anyone other than the world-renowned academic that’s been assigned to improve you. Part of what makes the Oxford course so great is that it can be very self-directed and flexible – your tutor will choose essays for you that they’re most adept at teaching, or you will choose topics that you’re interested in – but this also means that nothing is standardised and a whole term of lectures can pass by with not a single one being relevant to what you’re working on. If you’re producing an essay in four business days then you’re probably not going to choose to spend an hour listening to something inapplicable, so only the most dedicated will turn up to the full lecture programme (and as if anyone actually TALKS to each other).

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Last term I did a paper on the viking world, which was taught in a format I hadn’t experienced before: weekly tutorials of two or three students for which we would submit an essay in advance, and a two hour class with all eight people taking the paper. This term I’m taking a historical disciplines paper that is entirely class-based, although with personal feedback on all work submitted. Both of these systems have been resoundingly more enjoyable than the simple lecture/tutorial format, not least because half the joy of being at university is realising that other people think and process things in a very different way to yourself. In an environment where we’re all still suffering the after-effects of the school playground notion that talking about your work and enjoying your intelligence means you’re an awful nerd, there is still not too much room to discuss your studies outside the academic setting; a class might be the only chance you get to see what and how others on your course are writing and thinking. But the class format also means doing presentations, group discussion, LISTENING to each other… when so many of us will be abandoning academia for the real world straight after our undergraduate degrees, are these skills not equally important if not more than getting used to churning out thousands of words a week about something you know next to nothing about?

So a resounding yes to the tutorial system – that’s not the enemy in my enjoyment of my degree. It’s the main reason that people strive to get into Oxbridge above other universities, and that level of personal feedback and interaction is invaluable. But also yes to structures of learning that throw you in amongst your peers, give you something to measure yourself against and encourage interaction. For a good chunk of us this degree is the end of our studies and after it we’ll be thrust right into the world of work which for most people does not consist of everything being achieved in a solitary bubble. If part of university study is preparing us for the real world, shouldn’t our studies be a bit more real?


#NewMayDays: Oxford is silly

My last two days of May I spent visiting a new restaurant (Las Iguanas, amaze), and experiencing the joy of trashing a finalist friend. Since the latter of these two things is a delightfully and stupidly Oxfordian practice, I thought I’d write about a couple of other sillinesses specific to my university.

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When Oxford students finish summer exams – particularly finals – their friends celebrate by ambushing them
outside the exam schools and pelting them with horrible things. #friendship. On Saturday I participated in the trashing of my musician friend Anna; I turned up very naively with confetti and a smile, her boyfriend brought the bubbly, and a Hawaiian lei and a party hat were provided by her housemates. Very tame – or so I thought. The proctors patrol the outside of the schools to make sure no food items are thrown in their vicinity and well they should, because by the time we hit Oriel Anna was covered head to foot in a mixture of shaving foam, shampoo, lentils, custard pie and birdseed. Thankfully someone decided the dogfood was a step too far, but strolling through Oxford on a packed Saturday and coating unsuspecting tourists who walked too close to our human dustbin with goo was a great Saturday activity.


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This is exactly what it sounds like. Corpus Christi’s annual tortoise fair and accompanying tortoise race is so popular that I struggled to catch a glimpse through the jostling of iPhones, but I do know that its victors were the aptly titled Zoom and Shelly – both from Worcester College, suspicions of doping abound. I did remark that the tortoise selection all pleasingly reflected their respective colleges: Sampras from Christ Church was unnecessarily massive, Oldham and Foxe from Corpus were very well-mannered if unengaged, and Balliol defiantly stood out from the crowd by sending a human representative whose handicap was to eat an entire head of lettuce before he could begin. The most impressive entrant was probably Regent’s Park’s Emmanuelle who is rumoured to be over a hundred and still going strong, but ultimately Corpus Christi’s tortoise keeper stole the show by rocking a green curdouroy jacket and a tortoise-encrusted bow tie. Aside from reptiles there was Pimms and ice-cream and even a bouncy castle; a very civilised afternoon out, if totally ridiculous.

Oxford is silly and we love it.

#NewMayDays Days 25-29: Blah blah blah and Iceland

This project may indeed be turning into a catalogue of excuses, but absolutely foul weather and a backwards sleeping pattern have again impeded me from being too original over the last few days.

  • I tried working in the Social Sciences Library and it was fine. Modernity is alright I suppose, but also not really why I chose this university.
  • I learnt how to make origami dinosaurs! Here is my first attempt.
  • I went for a jog in uni parks for the first time, which was a pleasant change from my usual street circuit. I normally run for 20 minutes or so which is ample time for getting in a lap of the park, and the more wooded stretches reminded me very much of my regular route through deepest Bavarian forest this time last year – although with a whole lot more wheezing, human encounters, and rain.
  • I tackled a few new recipes (mainly involving salad, what have I become), and today I sampled a marinaded grilled chicken and mash concoction. If anyone has any tips on how to make spinach edible they would be very welcome; if one more person tries to talk to me about kale I am going to scream.

MOST excitingly, however, this week I booked my first SOLO TRIP.  Although I travel a great deal I have never actually planned a holiday alone; I always end up coordinating with people I know or staying with a friend of a friend, and I’ve not yet managed to hostel by myself which I’ve been desperate to try since meeting reams of independent Australians when inter-railing age 18. I’m very excited, especially since this adventure will be in a brand new country! Since I’m spending my whole summer in the states (more on that later), and finishing off with a week in NYC in August (more on that later), it turns out that journeying back via ICELAND is far cheaper and less taxing on my terrible flight nerves than doing the whole US->UK schlep in one go. I’ve booked myself in for four nights at this absolutely amazing looking hipster hostel in Reykjavik as recommended by Amurrican Uric, and I’m hoping my Santander research scholarship (more on that later) will stretch to enjoying what Iceland has to offer.

I have to admit that I booked the whole thing on a whim after staring open-mouthed at endless shots of Iceland in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but if Montenegro last summer has taught me anything it’s that I’m a sucker for beautiful landscapes. I can’t wait.

#NewMayDays Day 23: OUO

Today I played my first concert with the Oxford University Orchestra, Oxford’s premiere musical ensemble. We played a banging programme of Brahms Academic Festival Overture, Beethoven 7 and Sibelius 5 to a rammed Sheldonian (despite impending finals), and it was a real muscular work-out and a jolly good time. I usually devote my musical efforts to the Oxford Millenium Orchestra, the largest unauditioned orchestra at the university, because it has a great social scene containing many firm friends and also tours annually. And the main event of a rehearsal is going to the pub afterwards. This term I had to give OMO a miss as its concert date overlaps with a thespian endeavour, but our conductor Dave graced the audience tonight.

Although I did really enjoy playing in an ensemble in which everyone is a top notch soloist (and the whole viola section actually plays), I think I’ll be returning to my musical home of OMO next year. Half of the reason I have played and sung music in all shapes and forms these past 15 years has been because of the community and social aspect of the craft, which is sadly missing from OUO despite all its fantastic individual members. And to be honest two 3 hour rehearsals per week is really more than this lazy historian is prepared to commit to.

#NewMayDays Day 13: Holywell Cemetery

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This week has been one of those weeks. For one reason or another relating to work and play and my favourite animal being put down I have not been feeling on top form, so to make myself feel like SOMETHING in life is going right I have been jogging almost every morning – which is novel in and of itself. A few days ago I finally took the plunge and crept through the unassuming shrub-shrouded side-gate off St Cross Road that leads to Holywell Cemetery. And that place really is a revelation in a hazy dawn. There is such a Secret Garden feel; dew-soaked grass, limbs breaking through overnight cobwebs strung between the gravestones etc etc – many of which belong to ex-masters or fellows of various Colleges, with the occasional mournful child’s tomb. The graves stretch on for an unbelievable distance just like a rural churchyard, and then when you get to the wall at the end there’s nothing but an expanse of field and trees and a broken down wood shed. Left alone with the birdsong and dappled trickles of sunlight it really did feel like a “morning has broken” moment in the middle of the countryside.  I had a five minute silent stand-off with a fox that stood defiantly at the other end of the grassy expanse beyond, and the whole experience was incredibly surreal. I’ll admit to getting a bit spooked by the various rustles as nature woke up for the day (but actually more so by the deafening silence in the middle of a city), and broke into a nervous trot to get out the gate again… But if you’re a central Oxford resident (like me) and a lover of graveyards (like me) then this spot is not to be missed.

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Newmaydays Day 12: Electra

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetToday we had our first open-air and on-set rehearsal for the New College classics play, Euripides’s Electra. Every year Classics tutor and all-round ancient and excellent guy David Raeburn directs a Greek play in the beautiful space of New College’s cloisters; as a fresher I was roped in to do sound and lighting at the last minute, and two years on I’ve been gloriously upgraded to cast member.

The play charts the deeply-dislikable Electra’s vengeful plot against her murderess mother Clytemnestra (me) plus lover Aegisthus, assisted by her weedy brother Orestes. It’s a very unusual take on the myth aided by a brand new translation by David himself, and I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s going to be jolly good. I only appear in one scene – it’s a good’un I can promise you – and the run is from June 5th-8th. Come and see me dressed like the Queen Mum.

#NewMayDays Days 6-9: Dublin

So an avalanche of work impeded my #NewMayDay resolutions in the middle of the week, but I have tried to make up for it over the past two days. In no particular order, here are four new things that I did over Thursday and Friday:

  • voluntarily scheduled a tutorial before 9am
  • took an international holiday during term time
  • ate a dish whose primary ingredient was beer
  • saw some of my favourite YouTubers perform live

Several less savoury new experiences were also enjoyed, such as drinking over 10 pints in one evening and sampling the delicacy of sausages and chips in a buttered white bread sandwich, gifted to us by someone so Irish as to be entirely unintelligible. It was a journey of discovery.


Guinness soup and Guinness bread and a free half-pint of Guinness. Guinness.


So to explain a ridiculous 36-hour journey abroad in the middle of term, my three favourite YouTube comediennes Hannah Hart, Grace Helbig, and Mamrie Hart have been touring in a comedy extravaganza called the #NoFilterShow. It’s essentially one long in-joke with their subscribers, and when I missed out on tickets to their London shows I of course did what any normal person would do and booked flights to another country so as not to miss out. Thank god for budget airlines. Luckily the show itself was phenomenally excellent so I do not regret it one bit; we met a lot of really great people, got to see our idols onstage, and even enjoyed a few hours of Dublin in glorious sun. On Thursday afternoon we visited the famous Temple Bar, watched several ceilidh bands, and ingested Guinness in both pint and sProcessed with VSCOcam with g3 presetoup form, and although we had of course planned a Friday full of culture and new experiences a night in the most pub-heavy quarter of the most pub-heavy city of the most pub-heavy country obviously wrote the day off.

So yes, I really enjoyed my first experience of the “mini-break” and it was a welcome pause from the palpable tension of the Rad Cam in finals term. We even sat next to a nun on the flight home.