Hungry for Learning? Sample Oxford’s Summer Banquet

story by Isobel Warren,  photos by Milan Chvostek

Oxford’s Summer BanquetHang the expense, they said.  Go for  it, they urged.  Live your dream, they exhorted.

So we did.

Last summer, we enrolled at Oxford University and revelled in the sweetest sojourn of our lives.  But six days at Oxford do not a scholar make.  We came away with no honours or degrees – only memories of enriching learning and idea exchange with brilliant ‘tutors’ (that’s Oxford-speak for professors), a sense of wonder at the antiquity and beauty of that vast complex and memories of fun and laughter in the company of kindred souls from around the world.

We learned and marvelled and shared and determined that somehow, no matter how cash-strapped we are, we MUST return – preferably every summer for the rest of our lives.

It was not always thus.   As poverty-stricken students in Canada living hand to mouth on Saturday sales jobs, the idea of studying at Oxford was inconceivable.   And then, after decades of work, marriage, children, mortgages and more work, it receded even further from reality, despite enticing insights from Inspector Morse, Brideshead Revisited and The Golden Compass.

Bowler-hatted porters welcome visitors to the Oxford Summer Experience.Then we discovered the Oxford Summer Experience – a five-week midsummer feast of 60 short courses – 12 per week – at mighty Christ Church College, the epicentre of that vast muddle that constitutes Oxford University.  And that’s when family and friends ramped up the pressure to just get up and go.  So we went.

The express bus from Heathrow takes 90 minutes to reach Oxford City, where the driver phoned ahead to find us a taxi and waited until we were safely stowed therein.  The University was just minutes away.

At mighty Tom Gate, the main entrance to Christ Church, we encountered our first Oxford icons – nattily suited porters wearing their trademark bowler hats and welcoming smiles.  Their courtesy and patience were amply demonstrated over the following week.  On weekends, Oxford City becomes a zoo with thousands of day trippers pouring in from London, all keen to penetrate the precincts of the venerable university, all repulsed by the gentle porters unless they have a pass.

Through the soaring carriage way with its cobblestones challenging our wheeled luggage, we emerged into the great quadrangle that we’ve seen so often on TV and films.  But the vastness of it, the time-honoured dignity of the grey stone buildings that line all four sides, the great Neptune fountain and its pond where ancient koi keep wary eyes on hungry heron, the tranquillity and antiquity, reduced us to weak-kneed wonder.  Or was it jet lag?