My subject, Folk Traditions of the Cotswolds, proved equally inspiring thanks to tutor Mike Breakell, a 30-year Oxford teaching veteran, West Oxfordshire municipal councillor, and fierce proponent for the preservation of historic buildings, workshops and farms, as well as the crafts and customs that so richly enhanced country life until fairly recently. Sadly, he recounted myriad examples of ancient buildings razed for development, workshops and mills now closed, time-honoured crafts abandoned. We learned about the Witney woollen mill which, for two centuries, produced our own colourful Hudson Bay blankets to be traded for furs in pioneer days and which remain a Canadian household staple to this day. The mill closed a decade ago.
He also acquainted us with William Morris who, we learned, achieved much more than floral wallpaper designs. An Oxford man, Morris lived his later years in Oxfordshire. He was a brilliant textile designer for sure, but equally notable as artist, writer and translator of mediaeval works, socialist and champion for the preservation of ancient buildings and craftsmanship.
Mike is also an ardent Morris dancer and he brought his jingling be-ribboned troupe one evening for a performance on the quad. In their white suits and black top hats, with ribbons flying, bells jangling, and an accordion providing traditional music, they were a jolly sight. Sadly, they all trailed off to the local pub afterward, and had we known to trail after them, we’d have seen a much extended demonstration not only of Morris dancing but of jollity and beer consumption, both important adjuncts to the dance.
Mornings in class, afternoons exploring the University or venturing off-campus to Oxford’s covered market, or to the myriad museums – the Ashmolean, where art and archaeology merge in an architectural delight (with a very good tea room, thank you); the Museum of the History of Science, which, as its name implies, displays a wealth of early scientific equipment, and many others, both within and beyond the University’s walls.
One highlight was a tour of several Oxford colleges and gardens, guided by James Beattie, whose encyclopaedic knowledge and dry wit introduced such Oxford characters as Lewis Carroll of Alice fame, Dr. Spooner of the spoonerism school of language, James Smithson whose fortune funded the Smithsonian Institute, the poet Shelley, expelled for his thesis, The Necessity of Atheism and more. Adding to the heady mix were Stephen Hawking, T.E. Lawrence, Sir Walter Raleigh, Rupert Murdoch, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, William Walton and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. It’s notable that very few women’s names appear in the lists – women were not admitted to Oxford until 1920.
The list of luminaries who taught, studied and sometimes even graduated from Oxford includes 26 British prime ministers and two Canadians (Pearson and Turner), dozens of other heads of state, 47 Nobel prize-winners, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury and at least 12 saints, none of them amongst the afore-mentioned.
Another highlight was evensong at Christ Church Cathedral, with its transcendental choir, soaring ceilings, stained glass and exquisitely carved but uncomfortable pews. The basement shop offers a vast range of Oxford and Cathedral souvenirs, including sturdy pots of Oxford Original Orange Marmalade, served at breakfast each morning.
One day we explored Jericho and walked beside the Oxford Canal, opened in 1790, four feet deep, seven feet wide and thus accommodating only long skinny boats, where there was a couple offering boat tours. Between the colourful paint jobs and the lavish flower gardens atop their decks, they were a merry sight.