Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Smithsonian at Oxford

As a hopeless anglophile, I was delighted to learn that the Smithsonian Journeys was once again sponsoring “Smithsonian at Oxford,” a seminar in which my husband and I had participated in 2003.   I registered immediately, and found myself counting the days until departure.

I took the train from London, where I had been visiting friends, to Oxford on the Sunday afternoon when the group was meeting.  I loved the change from the hustle of London to the quiet farmlands surrounding Oxford, I felt I was returning home.  Unfortunately, hundreds of others were as well, mostly tourists, so there was a bit of a wait for a taxi. But well worth it, as my driver maneuvered the cobblestone street to the Porter’s Lodge at Merton College, I reveled in the familiar sights, the impossibly beautiful spires, and the creamy stone of the college buildings.

The porter at Merton took one look at my bag and said he would take me to my room. I reluctantly accepted the offer of help, and was immediately grateful that I had. My single room was in the old tower, which I assumed predated the conquest, and the stone stairs to my room, worn thin by time, twisted upward, with small windows providing a glimpse of the courtyard below.  Although other passengers had more comfortable accommodations, I loved my small room (complete with bath and shower), and especially loved the gargoyle who peered in the window from the building opposite the tower.

Credit: Barbara Burian

Looking over the courtyard, I immediately fell in love with the gracious buildings and beautiful plantings.  Since I had arrived just in time for the welcome reception, I quickly (and cautiously) scurried down the stairs and across the courtyard to the room where the reception was being held.  It was lovely to meet fellow passengers, to drink a toast to our trip, and then to adjourn for our first dinner.

Dining at Oxford evokes memories of scenes from Chariots of Fire and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Severe dons gaze down from huge portraits (although a couple of recent portraits are a jarring reminder that we are in the 21st century) while the subdued lighting and elegant table settings are reminiscent of a more gracious time.   During term, the warden and dons sit at “high table.”  This week, we will all get a chance to sit at table, enjoying the feeling that we have stepped back in time.

Credit: Barbara Burian

Our student assistant offers grace in Latin, wine is passed, and an excellent dinner is served.  A perfect start to what will become a perfect week.

Two courses were offered: The British Monarchy and The English Country House.  I loved my tutorial on the monarchy with Dr. David Souden, and those passengers who studied the English Country House were equally enthusiastic.  The mornings were spent in lecture, afternoons were filled with tours of key attractions (Christ Church Picture Gallery and Cathedral, Ashmolean Museum, Library and Chapel at Merton) and on Wednesday, a special trip to Stowe House and Gardens, where we saw an example of the opulence enjoyed by the aristocracy in the days before the war.

Credit: Barbara Burian

Between lectures and tours, there was ample free time to explore one’s own interests.  I poked around Blackwell’s, the renowned bookstore, explored the magnificent botanical gardens, and listened in awe to the music of sung evensong at Christ Church Cathedral.  Oxford is a magical place, steeped in history and tradition.  Whether you are a student of Newton or a fan of Harry Potter, Oxford reaches out to you.  In a world which faces so many challenges, I found it comforting to reflect on the sheer magnitude of our “civilization.”  I use the term “civilization” to encompass the art, music, history and literature which one can almost reach out and touch, a sense of so much knowledge, so many great minds, so many students influenced by the thinking at this great university.  When one breathes the air of Oxford, one becomes part of this tradition of learning.  I can’t wait to return.

Credit: Barbara Burian