By Chris Deliso (2001)
Just inside Christ Church, one of the most renowned of all Oxford’s historic colleges, they wait – another tour group of elderly American tourists. With some trepidation, they gaze on the venerable institution’s well-trimmed lawns, ornate walls and buildings. The grandeur of the place, not to mention the punctilious old English porters in bowler hats, clearly seems to intimidate them. A cold wind blows; a stern church bell resounds from somewhere inside the fortress-like compound. And the students flit past as the old folks look on with timid curiosity.
Suddenly, one of the porters pulls a walkie-talkie out of his suitcoat, and whispers something into it. A reply comes from his counterpart, two-hundred yards away on a staircase behind the central fountain. Just as the tourists decide to sneak across the quad, a student passing by suddenly stops them.
“I wouldn’t do that!” he warns, nodding towards one of the porters. “Anyone they don’t recognize, those guys are authorized to shoot on sight!”
Chastened, the group turns and beats a hasty retreat out, unfortunate victims of the Oxonian sense of humor.
Just like these credulous souls, many Americans approach Oxford with an easily-exploitable mixture of mythic awe and images gleaned from Hollywood. All too often, this results merely in a soulless tour on an open-top bus, and maybe some perfunctory peering into college grounds. Yet to really enjoy Oxford, the trick is to forget everything you’ve learned to imagine about the place – especially true when one considers the realities of the seasons. Indeed, strawberries and cream in the sunshine, blissful days punting on the river, and genteel picnicking in the park endure as symbols of Oxford only in direct proportion to their rarity.
In winter, however, at least you know what you’re in for – rain, cold, and more rain (with a little fog, too). In the dark, dismal period from November to March, the spires don’t gleam, they glisten with frost; and as for those buoyant student cyclists, they plod dourly on through the rain, pants soaked from the knee up.
It’s true, they don’t call it low season for nothing. Yet for all this, Oxford is definitely at its most magical in winter. At no other time of year does one feel so intimately connected with the town of the ancient colleges, and the sights and sounds romantically associated with that archetypal place. In winter, the dusk descends at four in the afternoon, and the cobblestone paths shine wet in the blackness. From fog-shrouded alleyways emerge the furtive figures of scholars, wrapped up in a tangle of abstruse ponderings and the winding smoke from their pipes. Gargoyles glare, frost-covered and sullen, from the gates of colleges, and skeletal black branches whisper their secrets into the night. One can spend hours just wandering up and down the narrow lanes, the methodical patter of rain on the cobblestones constantly evoking Oxford’s eternal, changeless spirit.
Yet like all reveries, this too has its limits, and eventually one must take shelter in drier confines. The best remedy for the wet, I found, was a pint of stout in a cozy pub. In winter, Oxford’s pubs are filled with students crammed noisily in to get away from the cold, and the city buzzes with life. Indeed, Oxford’s more authentic feel in wintertime (when the university is in session) is a good reason not to visit in high summer, when the town inevitably becomes mobbed by hordes of camera-toting Japanese tourists and trans-Atlantic grandmas snatching up logo-strewn sweatshirts.
Another benefit of low season is that the museums and college grounds are less full, and one can browse more leisurely the fine collections held at the Ashmolean and (as the unfortunate tourists mentioned above didn’t get to) the enormous cathedral at Christ Church. With some colleges dating back as far as the 12th century, Oxford is perpetually fascinating for both lovers of history and architectural beauty. You’ll find it easy to get around on foot, as all of Oxford’s main attractions are located in the quite compact city center. The only things to remember to bring are your curiosity – and a good umbrella.