The Oxford Experience

By Nancy Carol Carter ~
It was a cold and uncommonly quiet night in Oxford as I hurried along High Street, looking for the landmark Carfax Tower where I would turn left onto St. Aldates Street. My destination was Tom Tower and I had to be there before 9:05.

This was back in the summer of 2000. I was in England for the first time in many years, directing a study-abroad program based in Oxford. I spent the entire six weeks wondering why I had not been visiting more regularly. I enjoyed everything about England: the historical sites, manicured gardens, churches and green countryside. The BBC was my local radio station and Oxford a cultural cafeteria. But now I was down to my last hours in town and on a mission.
I had just that day learned about one of those quirky British traditions that bemuse most visitors, but entrance the true Anglophile. In a practice dating to the early history of Oxford, Great Tom, the bell hanging in the entrance tower of Christ Church college, tolls 101 times each night at five minutes after nine o’clock. Once a signal of curfew, the number represents the original 100 scholars at the college’s 1525 founding, plus one added in 1684. This I had to hear.

Arriving in time for the first toll of the bell, I soon drifted from the automatic count of every clang, thinking instead about the secret life behind the heavy oak doors at the base of Christopher Wren’s gothic revival bell tower. How many hundreds of students had passed through that gate? I was awed by so many years of history and tradition and felt a touch of envy—did those generations of young Christ Church scholars have sufficient appreciation of their privilege and good fortune? Everything about an Oxford education seemed mystically distant and wonderful that night as I stood in the cool air and felt the vibrato of the 101st peal of Great Tom.

An Oxford Experience for All

I remembered my night outside the doors of Tom Tower when I learned about “The Oxford Experience.” This summer school program invites the world to spend one to six weeks in residence at Christ Church, studying with a tutor, living in college rooms and eating three meals a day under the vaulted ceiling of the great hall (think Harry Potter and Hogwarts).

There are week-long courses for every interest. In the summer of 2013, I passed up “The Black Death” to enroll in a landscape history course taught by a well-known scholar and romantically entitled “Paradise in an English Garden.” Course content and instruction were first-rate.

Classes are small and informal and each includes a Thursday field trip. Suggested readings are sent out in advance, but no one spends their week at Christ Church hitting the books. Neither does the experience include a final examination. During the week, tours of the college and the town of Oxford are offered, along with various evening events.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the quality and quantity of food served in the college hall. Every meal offered a variety of choices and the fruit and vegetables were wonderfully fresh. Latin grace is spoken before dinner and once during the week, there is an invitation to sit at the high table with college officials and a selection of tutors.

With a communal morning coffee break and three meals a day in the college hall, it is easy to meet other students. There are many Americans, but also British locals and people from all over the world. While middle aged and older people predominate, younger enrollees are part of the mix.

Students move into the college on Sunday and attend classes Monday through Friday. Unless enrolled for a subsequent week’s course, college rooms must be vacated on Saturday. In a 500-year old college, room sizes and furniture vary greatly. As an early enrollee, my own room was choice: very large and comfortable, with a bed, dresser, huge desk, two lounge chairs and a fireplace. A limited number of ensuite rooms with a private bath are available. They cost more and sell out quickly. Other rooms have a wash basin, but shared toilets and showers. Expect to climb many stairways and handle your own luggage. The college does not try to emulate a hotel and its medieval buildings do not have ramps or elevators.

Christ Church is known as one of Oxford University’s most distinguished and beautiful colleges. It has produced 13 British prime ministers. Lewis Carroll wrote his Alice tales while in residence as a mathematics don. The College chapel is also Oxford’s Cathedral, offering services and hosting music performances. Unlike campuses in the United States, all the Oxford colleges are closed to the public except for limited areas on certain days. The exterior areas at Christ Church are beautifully landscaped and its large meadow is publically accessible. Only students in the Oxford Experience have the privilege of roaming inside Christ Church’s high walls and strolling in the private Masters’ Garden (and playing croquet there during the week).

Oxford Experience 2014

Six one-week sessions of the Oxford Experience will run from July 6 to August 16, 2014. All details are available at the website, Click “Programme” on the left-hand menu to see dates and course offerings. Classes, meals and adjunct activities make for a jam-packed week. If you want to explore the Oxford area in more depth, build in some extra days at other accommodations. Be prepared for crowds outside the college walls. Oxford is full of international students in the summer.

Going to school is not everyone’s idea of a vacation, but at the Oxford Experience, it is possible to enter a completely new environment and spend a relaxed but stimulating week with the vikings, Jane Austen, art history, British scientists, political thought, architecture, creative writing, or spies. Inspector Morse will make an appearance in the Oxford Murder course and the Black Death is back.