For the most part, my columns thus far have been vague about the place in which I’m living. I’ve written to you from Ireland, from Stratford and from a bus going to London, but I haven’t written to you from Oxford. I’ve written about backpacking, hero worship and the fleetness of time, but I haven’t told you what it’s like to live here and to be a part—a small, transient part, but a part nonetheless—of this city. And really, if you’re reading this column to get a sense of whether studying at Oxford is for you, that’s really the kind of reading that would serve you best.
But where to start? The culture, the academic structure, the atmosphere of the city itself? There’s really no way to cover all of it within the space of a column, at least not thoroughly.
Every place, though, has one area that serves as a microcosmic representation of the whole. At Mercer, this place is the Caf: we talk, we study, we sit with our respective social groups. You can get a fairly good idea of Mercer’s demographic and social dynamics if you sit in the Caf for awhile and people-watch. For Oxford—at least, from my experience of Oxford—that place is Cornmarket Street.
Cornmarket is far from being Oxford’s prettiest street: we’ve actually heard one of our tutors say that he finds it quite ugly compared to the more elegant and antiquated architecture of some of the other city lanes. As the name suggests, it was once the city’s market street. Now it is set aside for pedestrian foot traffic and a shopping district like any outdoor mall in the U.S. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have its history, or any aesthetics whatsoever. The Saxon Tower, Oxford’s oldest surviving building, stands right at the top of the street, and just beyond it is the Ship Street house, which looks like it hasn’t changed since Shakespeare’s day aside from beginning to lean a little. Shakespeare himself used to stay in the inn right across from the Golden Cross shopping center; his room has actually been preserved, and you can still see the original wallpaper. Most of the history is hidden behind the facades of stores.
It may not be the prettiest, but Cornmarket is always the most vibrant place in Oxford. The five-minute walk down the street is an absolute feast for your senses. A dozen different good smells are drifting from the little restaurants (especially the Cornish pasty stand). Street performers are everywhere. I’ve never been on Cornmarket without hearing the notes of a live performer, whether he or she is playing the guitar, a harmonica, a mandolin, or—I kid you not—a violin or a French horn. And that’s just the ever-present music. There’s a man who likes to dance (pretty well, too) to Michael Jackson music on the corner, and he always draws a crowd. Once there was a 13-year-old little gymnast, who had brought her equipment out and was doing tricks upside-down. The other day, walking back from the Covered Market where I’d been doing grocery shopping, I saw a human statue: a woman in Victorian dress who had painted herself entirely silver, and only moved when you dropped a coin into her cup.
I walk down Cornmarket almost every day, whether I’m walking to catch the bus for a tutorial or I’m running to the Covered Market for dinner supplies, or if I’m just going for a walk. This is the street on which I run into any Oxonians with whom I’ve become acquainted, because the university crowd is thick on Cornmarket Street. (Although, to be fair, the university crowd is thick on any street in Oxford.) On a clear fall day, with the music and the smells and the people, just walking down the street can be one of the most exhilarating parts of your day. And to top it all off, towering at the end of the street are the spires and bright blue dome of Christchurch Cathedral, glinting in the sunlight. Recently, the city has added additional decoration by putting out all the Christmas lights. When they turn them on, the four-way intersection at the end of Cornmarket is going to be the prettiest place in Oxford, because you’ll be able to see all four streets lit up at the same time.
This, for me, is Oxford. Bustling, musical, eclectic and vibrant. And familiar. It’s all become familiar now, and that only makes me love it all the more.