Published on the AIM Overseas Blog Website: Week 1 – Welcome to Hogwarts
As soon as I arrived into Oxford on the train from London, signs of university life surrounded me. Even in the summer, when the majority of Oxford’s 22,000 students have gone home, the university remains an overwhelming part of this English city’s history, culture and attraction. Arriving a day early, I had time to wander around the city streets and enjoy the English summer sun as I explored my home for the next three weeks. Oxford is full of amazingly beautiful buildings dating as far back as 1040; the oldest structure is the Saxton Tower of St Michael, which stands tall and eternal right in the middle of one of the city’s busiest areas. On either side of the tower, modern shops and cafes are crowded with tourists from all over the world. This mixture of old and new can be found throughout Oxford, and its history is what makes the city so beautiful. Down every street is a store dedicated to selling university merchandise, and people of all ages walk down the cobble-stoned paths wearing shirts and sweaters reading ‘Oxford University’. Signs advertising college walking tours stand on every corner. I was excited before I left Australia at the idea of studying at Oxford, and at this point I could barely contain it. Having this opportunity to live and study at an institution known worldwide for its history and excellence is so wonderful.
The English Literature Summer School Program is taught at Exeter College, the fourth oldest college of Oxford University. Exeter is positioned right in the centre of the city, with the famous Bodleian Library and university museums on one side and the bustling streets, filled with endless restaurants and shops, on the other. My room in Exeter College was up four floors on a winding wooden staircase, and while my legs might disagree, the climb is so worth it – opening the windows to the world and peering out over the skyline of the city is amazing. On Sunday night, after exploring the college and getting settled in to our rooms, I headed down the staircase with my next-door neighbour Victoria for the Formal Opening Dinner. On at the same time as the English Literature Summer School is a History, Politics and Society Summer School. In a pretty little garden hidden behind the college chapel, all participants of the programs gathered to drink champagne and meet. A few of us wandered to the back of the garden and up a small set of stairs to find one of the best views in the city. Positioned high above Radcliffe Square, we could see out onto the Radcliffe Camera, the library building in which the English Literature students study and find all their books, and the beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral.
As well as the university, Oxford is also popular for Harry Potter fans. Tours take people around to visit all the locations that either inspired parts of Rowling’s Hogwarts or were actual film sights. Many parts of the university inspired and became part of the Harry Potter world, including the Divinity School in the Bodleian, transformed into the Infirmary, or the Great Hall modelled off the dining hall in Christchurch, another Oxford college close to Exeter. Entering the dining hall at Exeter on that first night, and every night so far, has made me feel like I’m walking into the Hogwarts Great Hall, with tall wooden ceilings and long tables running down the room, and impressive portraits of past members of the college hanging on the grey stone walls.
After a night of meeting other students and tutors of the program, and exploring our surroundings, classes begin bright and early Monday morning. Each day there is a 9am lecture, in which Oxford experts in literature share their knowledge on everything from ancient Anglo-Saxon runes to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and language use in war times and romantic poetry. As an undergraduate, I take the Critical Reading course and Shakespeare on Stage and Screen. My tutors are amazing – Sandie Byrne is head of the literature department at Exeter and John O’Connor is a Shakespeare expert who casually had coffee with actor Patrick Stewart the other week. I have to admit that before I came to Oxford, I was fairly intimidated by the workload and expectation level at which the courses would be taught, but after the first tutorials my worries disappeared. This program allows us to focus on what we are interested in and to choose what we research and write about; the tutors are so passionate about their work and eager to teach and guide us – and with only one lecture and one tutorial a day there is plenty of time to read, study, explore and head down to the pub for a drink with new friends.
And speaking of pubs, delaying reading a textbook chapter for another night doesn’t feel like such a bad thing when you’re out for a drink or two at the same pub literary minds JRR Tolkien and C.S Lewis used to drink in together. The Eagle and Child, one of dozens of historic social spots in Oxford, is a quintessential English pub – cosy, slightly dim-lit and full of friendly people enjoying a casual night out. On the walls of the pub are framed posters from the 1600s saying that a bed for the night cost one shilling, stabling for your horse four pence, and any daggers and swords had to be handed in to the innkeeper on arrival.
On the weekend Victoria and I decided to head out on a day trip to London. 10 pounds and an hour on the train later we reach the capital, and set out to explore the city among the thousands of tourists alongside us. I absolutely love London, but the amount of people in summer is its one downside; give up on the idea straight away of snapping a picture of anything without strange people in it, it won’t ever happen. But the crowds and noise do add to the life and excitement of the city, and while we walked for a whole day, we still couldn’t see as much as we liked. I spent five days in London a few weeks before I started at Oxford, and still don’t think I’ve experienced half the city has to offer. But there are still two weekends to go!
On the first day of lessons my Critical Reading teacher told the class that on a sunny summer day in Oxford, an absolute requirement is to go punting down the Thames with drinks in hand. So on the warm weekend evening five of us headed down to give punting a try. I volunteered to be the punter, while the others sat, legs splayed out in the wooden boat, playing music on their phones and drinking wine. I thought that punting would be similar to paddle boarding, but I was entirely wrong. Think of a gondola ride down the canals in Venice – a strong Italian man with a low singing voice, striped shirt and, one would guess, a moustache, rowing people smoothly through the water, ducking under bridges and serenading them while he effortlessly guides the pole through the river. Now picture a five-foot-four girl holding a 16 foot, 5 pound aluminium pole and balancing on the back of a flat-bottomed wooden boat, trying to push and turn the boat through the water without running into any other boats, bridges or the riverbank. It is a hilarious sight. But what I lacked in moustache and Italian singing voice, I surprisingly made up for in newfound punting skills. It was an amazing time – the scenery was gorgeous, company and laughter unbeatable, and as I type this I can honestly say the blistered hands and sore arms aren’t deterring me from going again soon. It is definitely one of the must-do activities while here in Oxford.
As the weekend finishes and the second week of the program begins, I have to say I am quite sad already that I have to go home and that it has to end. There are still two weeks left, sure, and so much inspired study in medieval libraries and exploring with new international friends, I know I’m in for one of the best times of my life. It is definitely a privilege to be here, and to study and travel at the same time is the best. I know I’ll be saying yes to every opportunity I can while I’m here – I mean it’s not every day you get to go to Hogwarts.