And all at once, the world of an Oxford undergrad seemed to stop turning. Those who had often barrelled into friends’ rooms to save them from “editing an essay” (scrolling through Facebook in a melancholy reverie) no longer intrude with a tea-mug in hand, cheap Prosecco swashing over the rim. The usual bustle of tourists, gaping at the spires of the Bodleian, no longer collide with students who, struggling to reach Exam Schools in time for their 11am lecture, impatiently brush past them, the sandstone heights of the imposing colleges jostling for space on the High Street so familiar that they have ceased to impress.
Gone are the moments of spontaneity that see books tossed into bags in favour of a quick drink among friends at the King’s Arms, or rushes to the Covered Market to shovel in a few mouthfuls of Thai food before a tutorial or an afternoon slog at the library. There are no more dawn-awakenings for a morning training at Cowley, treading the cobblestones of Radcliffe Square, silent for once, while the moon’s mellow face still lingers in the inky sky, cycling over Magdalen Bridge among other early risers as the city stirs from its slumber. No more sighs of relief as that particularly draining essay is finally submitted, nor grudging concessions to the cajoles of gin-softened friends dragging you from your desk to a late-entry at Bridge.
The college doors are barred, the books lie forgotten, their yellowed, curling pages unthumbed, the quads no longer echo with passing, light-hearted exchanges or 3am stumbling returns from Hassan’s. The bells of St. Mary’s do not disturb grumbling, hung-over students with their early chimes, nor do the windows of the Missing Bean overlooking Lincoln’s ivy-clad walls fog up from the huddles of bodies hunched over notes on Spanish literature and Freudian philosophy. The cider taps of the Turf Tavern do not flow, nor is the surface of the Isis broken by the slicing oars of Balliol rowers, the river carrying newly-hatched ducklings and snow-feathered swans rather than students balanced precariously on punting boats with a Pimms-induced confidence. No Mayday song echoes through the city’s sun-bleached streets from Magdalen Bridge, and no streamers and shaving cream paint the old cobbles, sodden with Lambrini and dotted with sunken red carnations. No-one blissfully strolls through the meadows of Christ Church, awash with a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues as wildflowers burst into life, nor are lichen-pocked college walls illuminated with the glow of dancing spotlights in the jubilation of a summer ball.
Instead, the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall spread forth their creeping vines without the restraint of a groundsman’s careful hand, and the grass of untrodden lacrosse pitches in University Parks grows freely. The geraniums crowding the window boxes of the Old Quad of Brasenose gleefully bask their faces in the sunlight that streams through the stained-glass windows of empty chapels still reverberating with their last Evensong. The winding wooden staircases of the Bodleian are given a moment’s respite from the constant creaking weight of students searching for that last vital book on their reading list, while the cobbles of the old streets, worn smooth by hordes of tourists and time-pressed students, begin to be softened by carpets of green moss growing through cracks in the stone. The statues of 17th century scholars keep guard over this hallowed place of learning, watching the house martins and sparrows flit between college bell towers, bursting with a birdsong that once competed with the cacophony of the everyday hustle.
Now more than ever, the city seems frozen in time, resembling a former age where those same moth-eaten pages were read deep into the sacred hours of the night, but by the light of a candle, dripping wax over a parchment of notes scribbled hastily by a feathered quill, rather than in the glow of a laptop screen. Where then, as now, the city was awash with a passion for learning and a hopeful yearning for a brighter tomorrow. Though stripped of the daily hubbub and empty of the flow of young minds and hearts that throng through college doors, seeming to power the very city with their energy, Oxford retains its charm.
The world may seem to have stopped turning, but the beauty and heart of the city remains to those whose eyes are open to it. Which begs the question, are the students the life-force of Oxford, or is it the city itself which breathes life into those who study here?
Illustration by Charlotte Bunney