This is the first of a planned series of posts about the places I visited while I was studying on exchange in London — not necessarily in chronological order.
The “Bridge of Sighs” is one of the iconic, most recognisable sights of the university town of Oxford. It supposedly takes its name from the other Bridge of Sighs in Venice, which was so called because of the “sighs” of the prisoners upon seeing their last view of sunlight out of the bridge’s windows before being marched into the dark, gloomy dungeons beneath the Doge’s Palace where they would spend the rest of their days.
For me, the name of Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs evokes very different imagery. Oxford is a place that positively heaves with the memory of a thousand years of history, a place that’s been touched and passed through by countless generations of youth. It’s a place where you can feel the electricity in the air created by the meeting of ancient learning and heritage, and curious, hungry youth. The “sighs” may well be the groans and yawns of generations of undergraduates sighing under the weight of Latin translation exercises and endless tutorial essays on the Augustan Period or Locke’s Second Treatise.
I visited Oxford for the day with two of my new friends at the end of January. It was a typical English January day — cold, and set against a canopy of thick grey clouds which occasionally thawed to admit brief spells of sunshine. We wandered around, taking in the sights and the town’s distinctive beauty, occasionally passing a gaggle of haughty-looking students dressed in rugby or rowing blues. The highlight of our day was the view from the bell tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which we climbed to be rewarded with the most breathtaking view of the town in all its Gothic, masculine grandeur.
It really is a beautiful and evocative place. History, knowledge, excellence, continuity, prestige, exclusivity, youth, nobility and curiosity are all things associated with Oxford, and which are all evident as you wander its ancient streets and venerable colleges. It’s very apparent why so many have romanticised Oxford and the life of its elite undergraduates before. An exemplary case is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which, in both the book and the ITV TV series, paints a sumptuous, fawning picture of an idealised Oxford in the interwar years populated by the genteel scions of England’s leisured classes. It’s enough to make anyone wish they were an aristocratic Oxford undergraduate.
Personally, I would have loved to have studied at Oxford. It’s not just that it’s the best, most prestigious university in the world, or that a degree from Oxford looks amazing on the CV, or that it looks like Hogwarts. It’s also the experience of passing through an institution that generations upon generations of students have passed through before you, including many of the greatest names and minds in British history. It’s about being a student at an institution that, for nearly a millennia, has prized and elevated learning and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and doesn’t see its role as chiefly a certificate-granting body or university education as merely a means to obtain employment, as most universities these days do.
Oh well, I’ll have to comfort myself with the thought that maybe in another life I was Charles Ryder treading the corridors of Hertford College. Maybe.