It is customary for the Master to organise a weekend away in an historic town. In 2013 Sally Muggeridge took us to Canterbury; in 2014 Michael Harrison to both St Albans and Stratford-upon-Avon; and last year Andrew Marsden to Lincoln where one of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta is kept. This year I chose Oxford where I studied in New College, which now has excellent ensuite rooms for conference delegates and others.
Following on from the very successful Conference on which I blogged earlier this week we held a special Ceremonial Court where I admitted the new Warden of the College (or CEO), Miles Young, as a Freeman. I also presented an Excellent Service Award to Liveryman Professor Malcolm McDonald for his numerous contributions to the Company over many years. Miles then invited us to his private garden where champagne was served. The garden is a hidden gem not open to the public. He then led us through his Lodgings, into which he was still moving, evidenced by the packing cases strewn about, and showed us the Tower Room where the walls are lined with coats of arms of all the previous Wardens back to 1379 when the College was founded.[i] From the Tower Room you can see outside up New College Lane and inside through both quadrangles thus giving the Warden a vantage point from which he could guard the students in his care.
A splendid black tie Dinner was then held in the Founder’s Library in College. Following the briefest of graces by the Learned Clerk, Whisky-Cured Salmon was served with Apple and Beetroot Salad. This was followed by Beef Fillet with Herb and Cheese Crust, Fondant Potato with Butternut Squash Puree and Caramelised Chicory with Port Sauce. The dessert was a delicious Gateau Opera, a Viennese recipe. This was all washed down with New College wines from its extensive cellar.
I then spoke of the time I came up to New College and how fortunate I consider myself to have the privilege of studying there. I told them about some of the famous people who were also alumni, too many to mention here, but everyone from Hugh Gaitskell to Hugh Grant. Miles Young, himself a History graduate of the College, told us of his own history and something about the history of the College. It was a memorable evening. Some of us then repaired to the student bar where we relived our lives of long ago. We were all staying in College in these surprisingly comfortable ensuite rooms, again very different from our own student days.
On Saturday morning we were split into two groups and given a guided tour of New College. But first our guide told us something of the history of the University of Oxford. While having no date of foundation there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the second oldest surviving university after Bologna. It grew rapidly after 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the Sorbonne in Paris. After disputes between students and Oxford townsfolk (Town vs. Gown.) in 1209, some academics fled east to Cambridge where they established what became the University of Cambridge, known to Oxford students and academics as “the Other Place.”
Contrary to its name New College is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, but was the second to be dedicated to St Mary and the first built on the Quadrangle principle, hence the name New. We were shown the Dining Hall, the oldest to have been in continuous use in the Western world; the beautiful Cloisters where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed; the glorious 14th century Chapel and had time to wander around the fabulous garden with the longest herbaceous border stretched along the medieval City Wall.
The rest of the day was free so that all could explore what Oxford had to offer the visitor, including the oldest pub in Oxford, the Turf Tavern. There was a little rain in the afternoon but that does not matter in Oxford as it’s home to four fine museums and other indoor treasures. I showed my family the wonderful Divinity School in the Bodleian Library and then a fine exhibition called “Shakespeare’s Dead”, a play on words as it was presenting how Shakespeare treats death in his play. He came up with numerous methods of death and these were listed in an exhibit ranging from drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine to being baked in a pie.
We re-convened in the Old Library of the University Church, where the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief held its first committee meeting in 1942. We had a very fine meal of Wild Seabass Fillet; Free-Range Guinea Fowl and Apple Tart.
Sunday morning arrived and was overcast but dry as we had a long walk through the centre of the town to Salter’s Boatyard to pick up the boat that was to take us cruising on the River Isis which is how the Thames is known in Oxford. Our guide for the cruise was Mark Davies who entertained us with the background to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its author Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, who taught maths at Christ Church. For seven years Dodgson and an adult friend would take three of the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church rowing on the river. Dodgson would invent these fantastic tales to entertain the girls who otherwise would have quickly got bored. It was Alice Liddell, the middle daughter, who suggested to Dodgson that he should write them down and publish them.
Our weekend of fellowship was nearly at an end but we had one final event which was to have lunch at the Head of the River, a delightful inn on the river. I think even refugees from ‘the Other Place’ enjoyed the weekend.
[i] If a Warden had not chosen a coat of arms there was still a shield with his name but it was blank