Since the end of last year, a number of friends have come to visit me here in Oxford. That number is 6, so by now I’ve developed a standard walking tour of Oxford sights and snippets of information…that I’ve never bothered to verify. Like butter on a toasty baguette, I think that historical anecdotes and hearsay should be laid on thickly, and unclarified.
I start by taking them around my college and its deer park (source of Magdalen’s venison meatballs), point out the Old Library (excavation yielded a bunch of bodies from the 15th Century hospital site, plus Oxford’s largest collection of wig curlers), make up some symbolic meanings for the scores of gargoyles and grotesques we pass along the way, and then take them up the Magdalen tower.
This is kind of a big deal, as only Magdalen members who have been guided up before, gotten a form signed by a college fellow (and been tested on the rules, interrogated about their intentions and answered a bunch of cryptic riddles) can procure the 10 inch weighty iron key that unlocks the door to Oxford’s tallest tower. There are strict rules about no horseplay, no heels and no alcohol or food which makes it seem like the college is trying to discourage people from using it as a date location or something. I initially thought this was a bit weird, but they mightn’t be too far off the mark… Last time I went up, 2 of the group said they’d be ‘right behind us’ as we climbed back down. We reached the bottom, and waited. And waited a bit more. Finally after 20 minutes I ran (read: hirpled) back up the spiral stone staircase and called out to see if they planned to come down at any point. Thankfully I didn’t open the door, as there was some hurried scuffling and a “Just finishing up!”… Yikes.
If you don’t have those sweet sweet Magdalen connections, a good alternative is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin tower. No baby wombat-sized key, no little Rapunzel-esque tower rooms, but an equally stunning view of Oxford. And a failsafe place for visitors – people seem to really like climbing things. And looking down from heights and comparing human activity to the scurrying of ants etc.
Next up I’ll take people to Christ Church because (1) Harry Potter, (2) it’s ridiculously beautiful, and (3) it’s a reliably busy tourist spot so I feel extra smug flashing my Bod card and swanning in without paying the egregiously high visitor’s fee (as if they weren’t already making a killing from their Potter paraphernalia-peppered gift shop. Rubber Dobby face-mask anyone?).
If I can, I also try to squeeze in a college formal dinner. Sundays are best for this as the evensong choir (insanely gifted Magdalen school boys who only occasionally break cherubic character by yawning or picking their nose mid-hymn) serenade the diners. This more than makes up for the fact that college food is so dismal (eg. starter is invariably halibut that looks and tastes like something you’d find gummed up in a pelican’s belly)…much the same way that I imagine Heston’s Sound of the Sea uses music to ‘enhance’ (ie. distract you from) the fact that you’re basically eating fishy sea detritus.
Ah Oxford. You put on a good show.