Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A quick trip to England

I was away in England for four days visiting a friend and picking up a few things. Weather was pleasant, did a bit of shopping, did a nice londonwalk tour of the Strand, hit a bunch of pubs, and even went to Stamford Bridge (no, there wasn't a game going on at the time).

My friend came up with an excellent idea, spend a day visiting Oxford. I've never really been outside of London so it sounded like a great idea.

Unfortunately as we were leaving an emergency came up and my friend had to leave but I decided to continue on, if only to get out of his hair for a day so he could deal with things in peace. There is an excellent bus service called OxfordTube that runs buses 24 hours a day between various places in London and Oxford. Cost about 16 pounds round-trip which isn't bad given that it's about an hour-and-a half to two-hour trip each way.

Oxford was really nice, a lot of old historic buildings surrounded by a town with lots of shops and services. First order of business, get the breakfast my friend was planning to introduce me to:

An Irish fry, from an Irish bar and restaurant in the city.

Yes, this breakfast is just -- wrong. Fried food and lots of it, and potato bread. And yes, that's a beer (it was actually a little after 12 so it wasn't technically breakfast). My mother's cringing right now as she looks at the photo :-)

When I was younger my family and I would have a similar breakfast on Sunday, which we referred to as an Ulster Fry, and was much like what I got at the restaurant. The thing that really made it remind me of those breakfasts at home was the potato bread (in the photo hidden under the eggs), I can't recall eating potato bread at any other time back home except with a Fry.

I believe that my Mom, who works in the health profession, eventually stopped the Ulster Fry at home just due to how unhealthy it was but it was nice to have one for old times sake.

After that huge meal I wandered around to take a look at a lot of the old buildings and then lucked out and happened by a tourist office just as they were having a walking tour. I got one of the last places and off we went to see a couple of the major buildings, including some of the original university areas and the exam hall, followed by a tour of one of the colleges.

Now Oxford has a method of teaching its students that is very different from how universities are run in North America. Oxford is divided into a number of colleges, I believe about 38, and you apply to enter one of the colleges. At the college you will be given residence with the other students (at least during the first year, possibly longer), eat in the college dining hall, participate on the college teams and so forth. But don't think of this college in terms of a North American one -- each college tends to have a few hundred students. You will also be assigned a tutor (or maybe tutors?) whom you will meet with weekly to discuss subjects in your field of study and provide him with essays that you will read out to him. This forms the vast majority of your homework. They do have lectures at the University and you will usually attend certain ones based on the recommendation of your tutor, but most of the work you do is through your discussions and essays for the tutor. My friend also told me (as he went to Oxford) that you become very specialized in your field of study -- there are few if any electives, your time is spent studying your field. At the end of each year you write exams.

Now these colleges are not split up by field of study, colleges have a wide variety of tutors available for most subjects so your colleagues in your college will be from a wide range of fields. You might be studying English but the person who stays next to you might be studying music, history, science, or whatever.

Each college has a lot of autonomy so has different traditions, rules, and so forth. Some colleges allow tourists to visit it at certain times for a fee, other colleges never allow tourists (such as the college Bill Clinton attended). Our tour group got to visit Queen’s College, which only allows in tourists from this particular tour, and only 19 at a time. We got to see the grounds, the dining hall, the garden of the Dean, and its chapel, all of which were centuries-old, while the tour guide told us about the specific traditions and things that go on in this college. We were also shown the outside of some other colleges, such as Oriel (sp?) College, where Cecil Rhodes (of the Rhodes scholarships) studied. It was a great tour. I also liked how the guide pointed out that, for the benefit of Harry Potter fans since some parts of the films were shot in Oxford, that Harry Potter was fictional and doesn't really exist! Twice though he did point out where certain scenes in whatever Potter film were shot. Not surprisingly Harry Potter fans love Oxford and I think you can get specific Harry Potter-based tours.

Both J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Narnia) were at Oxford and our tour showed us a door that the tour guide claimed inspired the doorway in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. I tried a brief Google search it but didn't really come up with much so I'm still not sure about the claim, the door seemed pretty new and looked designed to inspire mythical figures.

I also learned that Rhodes scholarships, which per Mr. Rhodes Trust are given to citizens of the Commonwealth plus the United States and Germany (though Germany fell off the list twice around the war years). I always wondered about that as I thought it was always just for Commonwealth citizens so how did Bill Clinton get one?

I also learnt that former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke holds a beer drinking record at Oxford.

I kind of wish I could've gone to Oxford as the system they have their sounds interesting but intensive. Let's face it if you are having discussions with a tutor every week he will quickly figure out if you're slacking off.

No comments: