Higher Learning

Two days before Thanksgiving, at the peak of English Autumn, I spent the day with a dear friend at her home near the University of Oxford. Nothing inspires a need and desire to acquire knowledge like an afternoon touring a school established over nine-hundred years ago, a place filled with tradition and endowed with more riches than money could ever buy. I gained further appreciation for time-worn, beautiful things during my day there.

The architecture at Oxford spans centuries; the oldest building I saw was built in the 1300’s, the newest in the 1960’s. Classic details abound:

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Students at Oxford belong to “Colleges,” of which there are over forty. Colleges are like small campuses within the larger whole where students study, live, worship, and dine. This is the Hall (or dining room, or cafeteria at the humble institution where I attended university) at Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest, founded in 1263.

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It was just before lunchtime when we visited the Hall; tables were set with china, silver cutlery, and linen napkins, and featured brass double lamps every few feet of their length. Walls were adorned with portraits of College founders, benefactors, and notable members, many of whom went on to become Prime Ministers of England. Selections from the day’s menu posted at the door were tomato soup, curried lamb, and a vegan pasta option.

There were many grassy quads in the Colleges, though my understanding is students are not allowed to lounge there, hence the pristine beauty.

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Each College also has its own Chapel, most associated with the Church of England. They were smaller than the Halls, no less-rich in ornament or detail. Each Chapel has a choir, and I saw several postings for Traditional Carol Sings to be held on Advent Sunday, this December 1.

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My friend said students pride themselves on being able to keep hold of a bicycle for a whole term. Some bikes I saw were locked to fences, such as these; others were standing freely with a U-lock fastened between the wheels. I suppose a stolen bike would be obvious, if someone was walking along with one sporting a lock, but unfortunately theft abounds.

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This is the Hall at Jesus College, founded in 1571 by Queen Elizabeth I, pictured above the center table. Originally it was for theological studies, but now students pursue a range of subjects.

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The craftsmanship at Oxford is stunning, as shown in the details of these carved pillars and doors:

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This picture shows the entrance to a Hall, and the Hall is attached to a “dormitory.” I don’t remember which College this is, but as a sidenote, Harry Potter was filmed at Oxford’s Christ Church College, continuing their “long association with children’s literature- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were inspired and written here by Lewis Carroll.”

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As impressive as was Oxford itself, the most jaw-dropping place we visited was just off campus: Blackwell’s Booksellers. Room after room, floor after floor of books, in which book lovers like me could become lost for days! Thankfully, there is a cafe on an upper floor for subsistence, in case it truly happened.

After a perfect afternoon touring Oxford, we returned to my friend’s perfect and sweet little brick row house, where a fire was laid ready to enjoy during a cup of tea and then a nap.

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I told my friend I believe William Morris had her in mind when he stated my favorite rule for home decor:

“Have nothing in your houses

that you do not know to be useful

or believe to be beautiful.”

Granted, she started with impressive acquisitions of furniture and art handed down through her family. But she also told me she spent years buying and selling at car boot sales and each time she sold goods of her own she brought nothing home. Whether this meant selling everything, donating to charity, or at times even leaving something on the side of the road, bringing nothing home fiercely edited her belongings to the things she loved most in the world.

…As was exemplified by the decor in the lovely little guest room in which I stayed:

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The painting on the wall was an heirloom and was inspiration for the room’s color scheme: soft beige and gray and dusty blue. But instead of using obvious pink from the flowers, my friend turned it up a bit with red accents. She also used sumptuous combinations of textured textiles: crisp cotton sheets, a baby-soft fleece spread, and the runner at the foot of the bed is a silk sari from India. The beige and red striped linen on the small chair was repeated on a bed throw pillow and on a wide Roman shade for double casement windows. I love the surprising pop of green in the tiny lamps on the dresser in the third photo. And the decanter of water and glasses on a tiny tray, a perfect touch.

My favorite detail (glimpsed in the second photo) were flokati wool rugs layered on top of sisal at each side of the bed. So wonderful to sink my toes into when I woke in the morning.

I came away from Oxford with two strong reaffirmations: A desire to learn throughout my life, to not ever be content with my current store of knowledge. And a desire to edit my own belongings as strictly as has my friend, so my surroundings will be as lovely as hers; so friends visiting me will feel as comfortable and comforted as I felt in her home.