ON our first day in Oxford, we stopped for lunch at the Turf Tavern near Hertford College, wherein a low-beamed warren of rooms, students were celebrating the end of final exams with champagne and company. The place was decked out with balloons and streamers; the high-energy Oxford grads wandered indoors and out, chatting animatedly, a few family members in tow.
How many centuries had Oxford students, wearing their university robes, been sitting down for a pint at this 13th-century ale house? Yet this group claimed their contemporary status in several ways. They looked, obviously, like 21st-century youth conversing about contemporary subjects. At the next table, for instance, the actions of Israel were under scrutiny by a group of young women -- a gender only admitted to Oxford colleges in 1920. Five all-male colleges, Hertford among them, first admitted women in 1974.
Oxford, described as the city of dreaming spires by poet Matthew Arnold, is known for its university and its graduates, a veritable who's who of accomplishment. Cecil Rhodes took eight years to get a degree here, explorer Walter Raleigh studied and poet Matthew Arnold taught at Oriel College, three centuries apart. Political leaders Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Bhutto studied here, as did authors Dorothy L. Sayers and Iris Murdoch.
J.R.R. Tolkien studied at Exeter College and then taught at Pembroke, where he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of Lord of the Rings. Exeter was also the college where the famed decorative artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were students.
Years later, when they made their first tapestry, they knew the exact spot in the college chapel to place it. More recently, the college is familiar to viewers as the location of many scenes in the popular British police series Inspector Morse.
There are 38 colleges at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, officially instituted in 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris.
The colleges were preceded by halls of residence, created in the 13th century after altercations between "town and gown." Balliol and Merton colleges are the oldest, dating from the mid-13th century. There are also six permanent private halls of religious groups, such as the Franciscans.
The largest college now houses about 700 students, the smallest about 350, and each college employs its own maintenance team, gardeners and security. Most colleges offer a full range of subjects, as well as degrees in medicine, law, and what they call PPE: politics, philosophy and economics.
In many of the colleges' wood-panelled dining halls, the routine has varied only slightly since the 1600s. Here the academics sit at the high table, served in cap and gown. Most students dine here, many coming to the second, less formal sitting.
But in addition to these beautiful college buildings, with their felt-grassed quadrangles, ivy-clad walls, original louvred chimneys, cupolas and stained glass, Oxford has a watery life, surrounded by canals, rivers and streams. Legend has it one of them, the subterranean Trill Mill Stream, was navigated entirely underground by one of the university's most intrepid adventurers, T.E. Lawrence, who emerged at the Christ Church meadow.
Later to find fame as Lawrence of Arabia, the young man had won a scholarship to Jesus College in 1907. Years after his underground navigation, a Victorian punt with two skeletons was found lodged in the darkness.
Oxford owes its name and shape to its waterways, writes Philip Opher in his booklet, Oxford Waterways. The city is a major crossing point on the River Thames, known as the Isis as it wends its way through the city.
"The Saxon burg of Oxford was established on the north bank of the river in AD 800," he writes. "As a result of recent excavations, most archeologists now agree that a ford between the present Folly Bridge and Christ Church was the original 'Oxenford.' "
Every sport is played at Oxford, but the one that takes up most time and energy -- again paying homage to its river culture -- is rowing. Formally organized races between colleges began in 1815, and elaborate rules for college "bump" races were established by the Oxford University Boat Club in 1839. These races, between Iffley Lock and Folly Bridge, are carried out in stages with intervals of 40 metres due to the narrowness of the Thames.
Each year, the main regatta takes place the last week of May during Eights Week, with crowds lining the banks. Boats from the nine men's divisions and five women's divisions compete, rowing more than 1.6 kilometres with the encouragement of cheering crowds.
Teams are known to chalk their wins over the entranceways to their colleges. Oriel College, founded by Edward II, has claimed most "head of the river" designations, at one point remaining undefeated for 25 years.
Students might use cellphones or iPads, sport dreadlocks or shaved heads, but the 20,000 in attendance at Oxford today -- 12,000 British and 8,000 from other countries -- seem to fall in easily with early practices. Keeping with tradition, first-year students always room inside the college quadrangles, and even today, most students wear academic dress to write exams.
On another day, we walked all the way from Banbury Road to the heart of Oxford looking for two things: university college memorabilia and the Thames. We managed the first quite well on Broad Street, where the requisite shops sell every type of university cap, tuque, tie and scarf.
Then we wandered the beautiful area around the Bodleian Library, the university's main research library and one of the oldest in Europe, with its iconic reading room, the domed Radcliffe Camera. Those students still writing exams whizzed by on bicycles, pelting along the road in their designated bike lanes, their robes flapping behind them. We knew what they were up to because of the carnations pinned on their cloaks: white if they were first-year, pink if they were second, red if they were the celebratory ones writing their final exams.
Trying to find the river, we met a young man working at Oxford on a PhD in music. He took us to Folly Bridge, where the Thames works its way below the water meadows of Christ Church College, and we walked along the riverside to visit the buildings where each college houses its eight-man skulls, the sleek boats used in those popular races.
We beheld the beautiful vista of the Christ Church water meadows made famous by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who arrived at Christ Church College in 1851 and spent his life there as a student and teacher.
In July 1862, leaving Folly Bridge in a boat for a picnic outing, Dodgson (who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll) was asked by his young friend, Alice Liddell, to entertain her and her sisters, Edith and Lorina, with a story.
The rest is another chapter in Oxford's entrancing and important history.
-- Postmedia News