An Oxford education

England: You don't have to be a scholar to enjoy your stay at the historic British university.

April 15, 2001|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Cue the college choir. Roll the "Brideshead Revisited" footage. Lay out the strawberries and clotted cream. We're in Oxford, England.

The morning sun through the high stained-glass windows of the dining hall; the undistinguished food on the table; the expertise and eccentricity of one's classmates; the time-honored squalor of the dormitories; the history underfoot and overhead.

Those Oxford days were great days -- all seven of them.

My wife, Mary Frances, and I came here last summer, stayed a week and then scooted, unburdened by diplomas or aristocratic connections. But we were not mere tourists. We were part of an Oxford University program short on academic rigor, long on atmosphere, erratic in food and lodging and full of good company. The program, called the Oxford Experience, is run every summer by the university's Department for Continuing Education.

Our classmates were about 60 half-serious students from North America, Europe and Asia. Thirty-eight were Americans; 14 were retired; and the rest were librarians, lawyers, economists, teachers and such. Most were older than 50.

Beginning with lunch on Sunday and concluding with breakfast the following Saturday, we studied and slept at Christ Church, the largest of the more than 40 colleges and halls that make up Oxford University, about 50 miles northwest of London.

We ate in its dining hall, which was built in the 16th century and is grand enough to shame most cathedrals in the United States. We walked to class through that stately quad trodden by Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey in the 15th and 16th centuries, in the 19th century by a math professor named Charles L. Dodgson, who wrote children's books under the name Lewis Carroll, and in the 20th century by a chap named Albert Einstein.

Across the lawn at the main gate stood the college's porters. Bowler-hatted and hawk-eyed, they shooed away common tourists from our private preserve and served to remind us how comfortable a class system can be if you're in the right class.

There were six course choices for that week: the Rise and Fall of the British Empire; the English Country House; the Tudor Age; the Architecture and History of Oxford; the History of British Gardens; and English Cathedrals.

Class sizes are capped at 15. The only admission requirement was a valid credit card.

I cast my lot with the empire. Like the others, the course entailed about three hours of classroom instruction each weekday morning, along with various field trips, garden parties and campus tours in the afternoons and evenings.

I liked the idea of studying the empire in the same town that has been training its leaders since the 12th century. I liked the program's choice of tutor -- Chandrika Kaul, born and raised in India, who arrived in Oxford as an 18-year-old freshman and had just completed a dissertation on British propaganda in India.

The course's greatest attraction, however, was the simple absurdity of digesting four centuries of global expansion, and then contraction, in 15 class hours.

Arriving at Heathrow on the first day of my trip, I was confronted by an immigration agent, who asked my reason for visiting. Short course at Oxford, I said. Rise and fall of empire. Smiling broadly, he suggested that this was premature.

"It's still falling," he said, then turned back to inspecting passports.

The fine town of Oxford

The town of Oxford, which enjoys easy train and bus connections to London, teems with more museums, bookstores and pubs than a city of 115,000 deserves and is surrounded by classic rolling English countryside. (The Cotswold Hills begin just west of here.) Then there are the university buildings.

You learn a lot just wandering from the semicircular Sheldonian Theatre (architect Christopher Wren, completed in 1668) to the domed Radcliffe Camera (architect James Gibbs, completed in the late 1740s); climbing the tower of the gargoyle-dotted University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (circa 1315); navigating by the landmark Magdalen Tower and bridge; renting a boat and pole and joining the punters on the River Cherwell.

One night we caught a string trio's candlelight chamber-music concert in the chapel of Exeter College. Another night we joined my tutor and classmates for a round at the Head of the River Pub. Still another night we joined Oxonian friends Doug, Claire and Joe for dinner at a country pub called the Boot.

Poet John Keats called this "the finest city in the world." Henry James, the American author and Anglophile, called Oxford "the finest thing in England." Poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde called Oxford "the most beautiful thing in England." And Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, called it a "mighty fine place."

That last sounds suspiciously inelegant. But you can look it up, as I did, in "The Oxford Book of Oxford" (Oxford Paperbacks; $9), a compendium of quotes and Oxfordiana compiled by another celebrated graduate, Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris.

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