“I want to make it clear that you can’t get in here unless you’re the best,” said our guide, glaring at the Americans in the group. Her voice got plummier as she drove the point home. “It’s not like your universities, with your sports scholarships. Here, it doesn’t matter if you win Wimbledon … if you’re thick, you don’t get in.”
Fortunately, her warning didn’t apply to us. The only qualification we’d needed to get into the University of Oxford was money. Our cheque had bought us the Oxford Experience, a week of living and studying at the university’s most famous college, Christ Church. There are some 50 week-long courses offered over six weeks, in subjects ranging from archaeology to literature. I chose Researching Medieval Palaces, although Oxford Murder and the Art of Lying had also sounded tempting.
Our introductory tour began at Tom Tower, the Christopher Wren-designed entrance to the college. Slipping on cobblestones, we admired the Radcliffe Camera – the distinctive circular reading room – the Bodleian Library, and the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College. Bill Clinton’s old room at University College got a special mention. His window looks out onto Magpie Lane, once called Grove Street. This, we were told, used to be the red light district.
“They had to change the name because everyone was calling it Grope Street instead of Grove Street,” the guide explained.
“They should have stuck with Grope as a tribute to Clinton,” said one of the Americans.
Students who’d just finished exams whizzed by on bikes at dangerous speeds, dressed in black tie under their academic robes.
Entering my room for the first time, I thought I’d been given the wrong key – to the common room, maybe. It was the size of a spacious one-bedroom flat, furnished with a battered lounge suite, two desks, deep window seats and a separate bedroom. Given that 13 prime ministers have studied at Christ Church, there’s a good chance someone illustrious had slept there previously.
After unpacking I went down to the reception in the quadrangle. A gavel banged at six, summoning us to dinner in the Hall up a staircase made famous by the Harry Potter films.
The dark-panelled hall is hung with portraits of the many luminaries who have dined there. One of the room’s stained glass windows, the “Alice” window, pays tribute to the Christ Church maths don Lewis Carroll. The setting is as magnificent as you would expect from a space that doubled as Charles I’s parliament during the English Civil War. On the dais stands the High Table where dons and dignitaries dine. Everyone on the tour gets a formal invitation to sit at High Table – under the watchful eye of Henry VIII – for one night.
Black-and-white-clad staff served the first of the week’s three-course dinners, after which there was a performance of Morris dancing in the Masters’ garden. After the (mercifully) short entertainment, croquet was set up on the sweeping lawn. Alex, a student from Zurich, took an early lead and whipped the rest of us with Swiss precision.
The classes, taken by the Tower of London’s archaeologist, Graham Keevil, were held in a sofa-furnished tutorial room. Keevil, looking refreshingly scruffy, gave a serious overview of archaeology and its techniques but interspersed the lecture with fascinating information – such as the fact that ancient Romans used to choose their mosaic floors from catalogues, just like modern-day Ikea shoppers.
The afternoons were free for excursions to landmarks such as William Morris’s home, Kelmscott Manor or the Ashmolean Museum. Summer light lasts until 10.30pm – plenty of time to visit pubs or enjoy the surrounds. Oxford’s gardens, with their secret gates and high golden walls, are magical.
One night during croquet, Christine from New Zealand grabbed my arm. “Look!” she hissed, pointing at the tourist noses and cameras poking through the wrought iron gates. “Last year, that was me,” she said happily. “This year I’m on the inside!”
Which sums up both the frustration and the charm of Oxford. Privilege lies heavily on the place. Once I asked a tutor how Oxford students coped in the real world after three years of servants and banqueting.
“Students who come here are the very best,” he replied stiffly. “When they leave here, they can, of course, expect the very best.”
The organisers did everything possible to enhance our experience, from serving sherry in the dons’ rooms to unlocking restricted areas. Few people normally see the Cathedral garden, or the 17th-century plane tree that inspired Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. In the evenings there were lively discussions to be had in the Undercroft student pub. With its low ceiling and wooden beams, it’s the perfect place to thrash out any existential problems raised in the philosophy course.
On Tuesday night some of our group signed up for a ghost tour, where I learnt the difference between ghosts – insubstantial manifestations – and the more dangerous “phantoms” who appear to be living people but whose looks can kill. One college reputedly has a phantom who plays the organ.
Wednesday night offered evensong in the cathedral, with the summer light streaming through the Edward Burne-Jones windows. These Pre-Raphaelite windows seem imposing until you peer closely and notice a tiny stained-glass lavatory in the corner of one.
Toilet humour wasn’t confined to the Victorians. On Thursday, my class went to Warwickshire to study mediaeval castles. There’s nothing like poking around ruins with an archaeologist; Keevil gave us the inside running on both medieval life and flint masonry, but we were more interested in the latrines. Medieval loos were called “garderobes”, and were often located down one hollow turret. If you went to the toilet on an upper floor you had to call down a warning to anyone sitting on the toilet below.
Unlike most university students, we were sorry when the course finished. We received attendance certificates at our graduation dinner, a formal event involving speeches and more fine food such as “goat’s cheese salad with hazelnut vinaigrette” and “sauteed fillet of sea bass on a troncon of aubergine with an orange veloute sauce”.
On the last day I met a don at St Antony’s, a college created in the heady concrete days of the 1960s. The building won its architect, who seems to have learned his trade building Soviet bunkers, a major award. The functional interior has little in common with the Tudor magnificence at Christ Church, but the coffee was good. I asked my host if it was true that only the brightest got into Christ Church.
“Heavens no,” he said. “Christ Church has had its fair share of dummies. They’re famous for it. They’ve had some real thickies there, I can tell you.”
And now they’ve had another one. I’ve got the certificate to prove it.
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in, wait for it, 2004. But Oxford still runs the course and my friends tell me it hasn’t changed very much. Also, this was the first article I ever had published in a newspaper and I ran out and bought 20 copies, so of course I had to include it on my site.