Some of you may yet be unaware that a large group of super-fluffy people known, appropriately enough, as the fluffettes descended on the fair city of Oxford on Saturday to see a certain someone being fabulous at the New Theatre. Because of this rather special tweet-up, which I’m sure will be documented by many, I was wandering round Oxford loose and unrestrained on Sunday morning. I managed to have a rather jolly time and thought perhaps you may be interested to read about it. Somewhat lacking in plot, but full of history and atmosphere, if that’s your thing. And I’ve got photos too 😉 (see bottom of page).
On my stroll around the city, I remembered that a certain someone had mentioned that Oscar Wilde was a student at Magdalen College during his Oxford years and so I decided to go and visit it for myself. The thing about Oxford, and I suppose the main reason I love it so much, is that every street and building seems to be absolutely crammed full of history, the very stones seem to hold layers of centuries-old traditions and rituals associated with education and learning.
No doubt some of you are already saying, “yes but they have that in Cambridge too!” You may well be right, but having never been there, I can only really talk about Oxford, so hush now and let me carry on, there’s good children.
It’s the university that makes Oxford so special. It seems to have grown up with the city and permeated every curb, corner and cornice, rather like when you get two types of oak tree growing out from the same trunk, separate and yet bound together. The individual colleges that make up the university as a whole are numerous and each has its own history and customs. Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudlin”, from the old spelling) is situated right down the end of the High Street, just before you get to the bridge.
The building is made of yellow Headington stone, like so many of the buildings in Oxford, including several of the older colleges and the Radcliffe Camera (lower half only). According to one website, a number of the colleges (including Magdalen) actually had their own quarries at Headington because they used so much of it. It was soft and thus very easy to carve, but unfortunately this also meant that the stone eroded very quickly. Because of this, by the mid-eighteenth century, the use of Headington stone as a building material had been greatly reduced. Although the stone does not look particularly dazzling on days when the sky is leaden and dull, if the sunshine manages to break through the clouds, it adds a warm golden glow to the buildings that is rather beautiful.
It was utterly surreal to try and picture Oscar and Bosie strolling along that very same stretch of pavement outside the college (as seen in the film “Wilde”) and my imagination couldn’t quite seem to grasp it.
I decided that I would fork out the £4.50 entrance fee, although I remember feeling that it was a bit steep just to have a wander round a couple of courtyards. I picked up a leaflet guide, which explained which buildings I was looking at and highlighted items of particular interest, and began to wander round. Oddly enough, I found it much easier to picture Oscar now I was actually inside the college. I could see him striding through the cloisters, with perhaps one or two admirers with him, exquisitely dressed, an exotic flower in his buttonhole. What on earth did they make of him, his fellow students? He must have seemed such a strange creature, not so much eccentric as outlandish – literally, in fact, because he was of course from Ireland, and thus a foreigner.
Having entertained myself with these imaginings on my walk around the buildings, I proceeded to the Hall, where the leaflet had said there was a bust of him, perched opposite another bust of some Lord or other. You can see this in the photos – the Lord chappie is the one over the fireplace, the other is Oscar.
Whilst it was great to see him being recognised by the college in this manner, I found what I considered to be in many ways a more fitting tribute to him outside the hall, on a noticeboard. One section of this was dedicated to describing the LGBT scene in Oxford (which sadly does appear to be somewhat lacking) and offering support and guidance for LGBT students. Among all the photos of LGBT hotspots and dazzlingly bright doodles drawn in highlighter pens was a small black-and-white picture of Oscar. I thought it was rather wonderful that he was not only immortalised in stone but also seen as a modern-day mascot for freedom and equal rights.
I went out into the college grounds after this, which were quite staggeringly beautiful. Coming out of the cloisters, you reach a pair of black wrought-iron gates, flanked by flowerbeds on either side, which were crammed full to bursting with an absolute riot of colourful blooms. Passing through the gates, there is a deer park (I think they called it a water meadow actually) with a river running all the way around it and a path between the park and the river. I went left and soon found myself walking down a long avenue of trees, which I later discovered was called Addison’s Avenue, after Joseph Addison, who was a Fellow of the college.
The trees are beginning to shed their leaves and this, coupled with the conkers strewn all over the path, lent a definite feel of early autumn to the atmosphere. There were a few other people also wandering around the park, but for the most part I didn’t really see anyone. There were grey squirrels everywhere, scampering over the grass or darting up the tree trunks, and now and then I caught glimpses of the deer, in between the trees and fencing. The height of the trees and the overall sense of peacefulness made it feel almost as though I was progressing down the centre aisle of some arboreal cathedral. At the end of Addison’s Avenue is the entrance to the Fellows’ garden, which is also full of trees, squirrels and river, and I spent a while strolling round it quite happily before heading back to the deer park again.
I’m sure that if they prescribed visits to such places for people who were ill or stressed or just run-down and exhausted, it would act as a fantastic restorative, because there is such an air of peace and calm and order – even the people messing about in punts on the river at the far corner of the park don’t have any noticeable effect on this. Perhaps this is because the college is so old (it dates back to the fifteenth century) and the fact that is has a reputation of being an esteemed place of learning. These two factors contribute to an atmosphere of quiet dignity that only seems to come with the wisdom bestowed by age and experience.
I think it is this about Oxford that makes it magical for me – the extraordinary mix of ancient buildings and traditions with a young and vibrant student population. It makes me believe that you can gain wisdom and guidance from the knowledge of the past without being afraid to look forward to a future that is bright with promise. I honestly can’t think of a better way to do it.
UPDATE: Oh yes, I forgot to mention something I discovered whilst Googling Magdalen College, although I should have known it anyway really. The character of Bertie Wooster, who features in P G Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, was a student at Magdalen 🙂