Oxford Summer Experience at Christ Church covers tuition, room and board for six days. Well-muscled young students lugged our bags across teeming St. Aldates street to our oak-panelled student room which we found to be spacious and quiet, with a tiny bath (we were lucky as shared baths are the norm), small refrigerator and electric kettle, comfy chairs and couches, a huge refectory table and leaded windows with garden views. The queen-size bed was pushed into a decommissioned fireplace big enough to roast a cow.
Time for lunch. Up a flight of stone steps, their centres worn down by nine centuries of feet, we entered the Great Hall, familiar to Harry Potter fans, but not to us. The long wooden refectory tables lead up to the Masters’ Table over which a mountainous painting of Henry VIII reigns, mightier by far than the mere life-size images of eminent scholars that line the walls.
New to this game, jet-lagged and self-conscious, we weren’t prepared for the spirit of camaraderie that prevails during those magical weeks. Within minutes, and at every meal and get-together, we found ourselves deep in conversation with new friends, many of them American, a few Canadian, some Dutch, French, Japanese, Aussie and more. There are no formalities or preamble – just good talk among well-travelled, intellectually curious people, many, like us, now making up for lost time and opportunities, some enjoying their third, fourth (or in one case twelfth) year in the summer school, several luxuriating in two or three weeks each summer. We rarely saw the same faces twice – we sat where we pleased and met new companions at every meal. The food is not gourmet level, except for the closing banquet which was lavish and sophisticated. But the standard fare is good, ample and varied, with buffets at breakfast and lunch and table-served dinners at evening. During the week, each student is invited (and honoured) to dine once at the Masters’ Table.
Monday morning and it’s off to school, finding our tutors’ rooms in the labyrinth of colleges and classrooms around Christ Church. My husband, Milan Chvostek, registered for The Phoenix, the Unicorn and the Mermaid course, eliciting many a giggle from friends back home. But his inspiring tutor, Julia Cresswell, unveiled dazzling insights into art, legend, history and mythology from ancient days to the gargoyles and monsters that adorn 19th century public buildings to the undercurrents of TV shows such as Star Trek or Dr. Who. They even visited the revered Bodleian Library to revel in the lavish illustrations of vellum books dating back 800 years or more. Founded in 1602, the Bodleian is Britain’s second-largest library, burrowing several floors underground to store its 11 million items on 117 miles of shelving and spilling out to storage facilities as far afield as Swindon and even a decommissioned salt mine in Cheshire.