Things To Do




Locations - Oxford Through A Boy's Eyes


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The main difficulty that confronts me in setting down these random recollections of a now very distant past is to avoid the excursuses, the tempting bypaths, that start into sight and appeal to me at every step of my progress. For instance, I tried to begin in brisk and strictly historical fashion by stating that on or about Michaelmas Day, 1868, a bright and eager (sullen, reluctant, very ordinary-looking) youth of nine summers sprang lightly (descended reluctantly, was hauled ignominiously) on to the arrival platform of the Great Western Railway Station at Oxford; and at once I am arrested by those magic words Railway Station.

Can anything be more eternally immutable than Oxford Station? Paris, Berlin, Vienna, have built, and re-built, and built again, their monumental stations. Hundreds of feet below the surface of London, stations have sporadically spread after the manner of mushroom spawn. I have even lived to see Waterloo Station reconstructed and re-built. But Oxford Station never varies and today is exactly as it flashed upon my eager vision in '68. That it has been re-painted since then I know, for I was once staying in Oxford when this happened, and used to go specially to gaze at the man told off for the job, and admire his deliberate brushwork and the lingering care with which he would add a touch and then step back to admire it. But even then, when he had at last done, the station looked exactly as before.

What a tribute this is to the station itself and its designer! Had there been anything needed to achieve perfection, this, of course, would have been added long ago. But nothing has ever been added, so nothing can have been needed, and Oxford Station, in its static perfection, will be there to greet him as now, when the proverbial stranger comes to gaze on ruins of Christ Church from a broken arch of Folly Bridge.

But we must be getting on. Our hero then, still under the feminine control he was about to quit for the first time, was propelled into - what? - why, a fly, of course, for there was nothing else to be propelled into or by. All England at that period lay fly-blown under the sky, and flies crawled over its whole surface. Whatever station you arrived at, a fly crawled up to you and then crawled off with you. Oxford flies were no worse than other people's - a fly must not be confused with a growler or four- wheeler, though of course it had four wheels all right - flies were solid and roomy and had often seen better days in private service. Some years later, however, there descended on Oxford an extraordinarily shabby collection of what must have been the worst and oldest hansoms ever seen. What town had scrapped and passed them on to us I never knew. It could not have been London, because the beautiful “Shrewsbury Talbot” type, which revolutionised the London street, had not yet been designed. Aeons passed, however, and these unspeakable survivals crumbled into dust, such fragments as archaeologists could preserve being deposited in the Ashmolean alongside the dodo and Guy Fawkes's lantern; and at last, to make amends, Heaven sent Oxford hansoms that were clean, smart and pleasant to look on: cane or straw-coloured, upholstered in light grey, suggesting jinrikishas, skiffs, anything both swift and cheerful to look at: and these endured until historic times - until, in fact, the advent of the all-devouring taxi.

But this will never do. We haven't even started. On, then, my noble steed (a Tartar of the Ukraine breed). Past the castellated County Buildings, which a young friend of mine once, being up for the first time and bound for the House, mistook for Christ Church and insisted on being deposited there; past (on the other side) the ugly and quite uninteresting church of St. Something-Le-Baily, long ago swept away and replaced by a little public garden: a sharp turn to the left, and New Inn Hall Street burst on the enraptured view.

People who gaze on New Inn Hall Street as it now is must not imagine that things were always just so. On the left, or west side, first you had the buildings composing the Hall itself - the "Tavern" of Verdant Green's days, where the buttery was open all day; then, the grounds and solid Georgian vicarage of St. Something-Le-Baily aforesaid - a pleasant jumble. On the right or east side were little two-storeyed white gabled houses, of the sort common enough in Oxford then, and of which a few specimens still remain, running up to the old fifteenth century back gate of Frewen Hall, Then came St. Edwards, a stone-built mansion of two storeys, reaching to the end and then "returned'', as architects say, for its own depth and a trifle over. While the "fly- man'' is being paid, let us briefly polish off the rest of New Inn Hall Street.

There was no opening through into George Street then. The street turned at a right angle and ran right up to the "Corn'', this "leg" being now christened St. Michael's Street. Lodging-houses, and a few private residences, one of which was soon to be taken over by the School for Headmaster's quarters, Oratory, and a bedroom or two, made up the rest of it. Altogether a pleasant, quiet street, central and yet secluded.

Mr Simeon once told me that he could never find out anything about the house's previous history. Although Oxford climate and Oxford stone had worked together to give it the characteristic of all Oxford stone-built houses older than a certain date, I fancy it must have been a little late for the antiquarian. Quite roughly I should date it at about Queen Anne. One entered by a pleasant low wide hall, recessed to one side, on which lay the then Headmaster's sitting-room, soon to become a senior classroom. To the right, one passed through a low but well lighted eastward-facing room used as a dining-room and supplied with trestle tables, at the head of each of which during meals sat a "Big Boy'' (there was no "Sixth'' in those troglodytic days). We neophytes were always placed next to one of these great men, the idea being that they would watch over our table manners and deportment - "the juniors, Mr. Weller, is so very savage'' - and the theory seems a sound one, always supposing that the Big Boy has any manners himself.

Through the dining-room again, and completing the building in that direction, lay the School Room, a handsome room of some style, running up the full height of the building to a coved ceiling, such ornamentation as it had being classical and "period'' . I suggest that it may have been of rather later date than the rest, and that the designer may have had in mind a music room. But this, of course, is mere conjecture. Here were desks, allotted to our private ownership, and it also served as a general playroom when we were "confined to barracks''. And hence one emerged, by swing doors, into the playground.

This must have been, at one time, a pleasant garden, running north for the whole length of the house and bordered eastwards by the wall of its neighbour, Frewen Hall. Perhaps there were trees in it then, and there still remained, in the receding "waist'' of the house, under the dining-room window, some scanty flowerbeds, where the horticulturally minded were allowed, and even encouraged, to employ their grovelling instincts. The rest was gravel, with one or two gymnastic appliances. Northwards from the entrance hall, one master's room (I think), the staircase, and then kitchen, pantry, and other offices; rambling, stone-flagged, in the ancient manner. Some sort of stable or garden gateway gave issue on the street northwards; but this was never used, and I only happen to remember it because on my first Guy Fawkes Day we boys attempted a private bonfire, thinking, in our artless way, that in Oxford bonfires were the rule rather than the exception. The authorities, however, thought otherwise, and firemen and police battered at the stable gate aforesaid till explanations ensued and till, I suppose, somebody was squared as usual.

Upstairs, I recall little. It was rabbit-warrenish, and we were distributed in bedrooms, five or six or thereabouts apiece. There was also a master's sitting-room, a cheerful bow-windowed room overlooking the playground. Thither I was shortly summoned, and met a round and rosy young man with side-whiskers, who desired, he said, to record my full name for some base purpose of his own. When he had got it he tittered girlishly, and murmured "What a funny name!'' His own name was - but there! I think I won't say what his own name was. I merely mention this little incident to show the sort of stuff we bright lads of the late 'sixties sometimes found ourselves up against.

A more painful incident occurred a day or two later. The lowest class, or form, was in session, and I was modestly lurking in the lower end of it wondering what the deuce it was all about, when enter the Headmaster. He did not waste words. Turning to the master in charge of us, he merely said: "If that'' (indicating my shrinking figure) "is not up there" (pointing to the upper strata) "by the end of the lesson, he is to be caned.'' Then like a blast away he passed, and no man saw him more.

Here was an affair! I was young and tender, well meaning, not used to being clubbed and assaulted; yet here I was, about to be savaged by big, beefy, hefty, hairy men, called masters! Small wonder that I dissolved into briny tears. It was the correct card to play in any case, but my emotion was genuine. Yet what happened? Not a glance, not a word, was exchanged; but my gallant comrades, one and all, displayed an ignorance, a stupidity, which, even for them, seemed to me unnatural. I rose, I soared, till, dazed and giddy, I stood at the very top of the class; and there my noble-hearted colleagues insisted on keeping me until the peril was past, when I was at last allowed to descend from that "bad eminence'' to which merit had certainly never raised me. What maggot had tickled the brain of the Headmaster on that occasion I never found out. Schoolmasters never explain, never retract, never apologise.

Of course, the canings came along all right, in due time. But after I had seen my comrades licked, or many of them, the edge of my anticipation was somewhat dulled.

We used to play cricket under difficulties on Port Meadow (this must have been in the following year). The sole advantage of Port Meadow as a cricket pitch was the absence of boundaries. If an ambitious and powerful slogger wanted to hit a ball as far as Wolvercote, he could do so if he liked; there was nothing to stop him, and the runs would be faithfully run out. The chief drawback was that the city burgesses used the meadow for pasturage of their cows - graminivorous animals of casual habits. When fielding was "deep'', and frenzied cries of "Throw her up!'' reached one from the wicket, it was usually more discreet to feign a twisted ankle or a sudden faintness, and allow some keener enthusiast to recover the ball from where it lay.

But this expeditionary sort of big-game hunting ceased, so far as cricket was concerned, when we got the use of the White House cricket ground, since devoted to the baser uses of "Socker'' on half-holidays. This was a satisfactory and well kept little ground, and I never remember any complaints about it. How football fared I entirely forget.

Now for what I may call our extra-mural life, apart from games. During lawful hours we were free to wander where we liked, and it was my chief pleasure to escape at once and foot it here and there, exploring, exploring, always exploring, in a world I had not known the like of before. And when I speak of footing it, I am reminded that pious pilgrims now visit Merton Street to gaze on the only survival of the cobblestone or kidney paving of medievalism; but in the time I speak of, most of the Oxford streets were as cobbled as Merton. The High, to be sure, was macadam, and no trams yet squealed their way down its length to a widened Magdalen Bridge. But The Broad was all cobble, so, I fancy, was St. Giles, and most of the lesser streets, including Brasenose Lane.

Why I "drag in" Brasenose Lane, like Velasquez, at this particular point, is that I have reason to remember its cobbles well. We loved to pass with beating hearts along that gloomy couloir, pause on its protuberant cobbles, and point out to each other the precise window behind which, on that fatal Sunday night, the members of the Hell Fire Club (Oxford branch) were holding their unhallowed orgies when the blackest sinner of the crew expired on the floor in strong convulsions, while, out- side, a strayed reveller was witness of the Devil himself, horned and hoofed and of portentous stature, extracting the wretched man's soul slowly through the bars, as a seaside tripper might extract a winkle from its shell with a pin. There was always a thrill waiting for you in that little street; and though much of its terror has passed away, especially since they asphalted it, I should not much like, even at this day, to pass along Brasenose Lane at midnight.

I said just now that we were free to wander where we liked; but there were "bounds'', mystic but definite, and these we never   overstepped - first, because it was so easy for us to be spotted in our school caps, and secondly, because we didn't want to. These bounds chiefly excluded districts like St. Ebbes, St. Thomas's (except for church), the Cattle Market, Jericho, and their like, and there was little temptation to go exploring in such quarters. One result, however, of these bounds has been, in my own case, slightly comical. Though before I was ten I knew all the stately buildings that clustered round the Radcliffe Library like my own pocket, as the French say, it was only in comparatively recent times that I even set eyes on Paradise Square or looked upon the Blue Pig in Gloucester Green. And even as I write these words I hear rumours that the Blue Pig, like so much that is gone or going, is threatened with demolition. This seems to be a case for one of our modern poets to speak the word and avert the doom. Browning once wrote a poem which (he said) was to save the Paris Morgue from a similar fate - though I don't think he succeeded in doing so. Please, Mr. Masefield of Boar's Hill, will you not save us our Blue Pig?

Two things struck me forcibly when I began my explorations. The first was the exceeding blackness of the University buildings, which really seemed to my childish mind as if it was intentional, and might have been put on with a brush, in a laudable attempt to produce the "sub-fusc'' hue required in the attire of its pupils. Of course, one must remember that in those days there was not so much of the architectural "spit and polish'' that now goes on during the Long. A man could then go down in June with the assurance that he would find much the same Oxford awaiting him when he returned in the autumn. Now it is otherwise, though the climate sees to it that in a term or two things are much as before.

Perhaps the things most remarkable at that time for their exceeding nigritude and decay were the Sheldonian Caesars. Those who now pause to study their (comparatively) clean-cut features can form little idea of the lumps of black fungoid growth they once resembled. It is the original Caesars I am referring to, of course - not the last set - a comparatively fresh and good-looking lot. In the closing words of "A Soul's Tragedy'' the speaker observes: "I have known four and twenty leaders of revolution”. Well I have known three sets of Sheldonian Caesars: and perhaps, with luck, I shall yet know a fourth.

The Sheldonian should really be more careful of its Caesars. It uses them up so fast - almost as fast as old Rome herself did. There must be some special reason for it. Perhaps it is the English pronunciation of the Latin in which the Public Orations are delivered. No patriotic and self-respecting Caesars could be expected to stand that - and they don't. They flake, they peel, they wilt, in dumb protest. Or can it be the Latin itself? But no, that would be unthinkable.

The other most abiding impression that I then received was from the barred windows, the massive, bolted and enormous gates, which every college had, which were never used or opened, and which gave these otherwise hospitable residents the air of Houses of Correction. The window-bars, of course, were not the chief puzzle. The Mid-Victorian young were dangerous animals, only existing on sufferance, and kept as far as possible behind bars, where one need not be always sending to see what baby is doing and tell him not to. The porter's lodge system also has much to say for itself. But those great and lofty double gates, sternly barred and never open invitingly, what could they portend? I wondered. It was only slowly and much later that I began to understand that they were strictly emblematical and intended to convey a lesson. Among the blend of qualities that go to make up the charm of collegiate life, there was then more than a touch of - shall I say? - exclusiveness and arrogance. No one thought the worse of it on that account: still, its presence was felt, and the gates stood to typify it. Of course, one would not dream of suggesting that the arrogance may still be there. But the gates remain.

As to the exclusiveness, I have nothing to complain of personally. The only things I wanted to get at were certain gardens, and I never remember being refused entry, though this might very well have happened to a small boy, always such an object of suspicion. It was really better than at home, where, of course, one had friends with beautiful gardens, but they usually meant formal calls and company manners, and perhaps tedious talk of delphiniums and green fly and such. Here, one strolled in when one was in the mood, and strolled out when one had had enough, and no one took the slightest notice of you. It was an abiding pleasure, and to those who made it possible for me I here tender, ex voto, my belated thanks.

After the colleges came urban joys, and specially the shops in the High. There were more of these then than now, as Oriel had not "come through'', nor had Brasenose emerged into air and light, and both these colleges were shop-eaters. Then there was the market, always a joy to visit. It seemed to have everything the heart of man could desire, from livestock at one end to radiant flowers in pots at the other. It is still one of the pleasantest spots I know, and when I have half an hour to spare in Oxford, or one of her too frequent showers sends me flying to cover, I love to roam its dusky and odorous corridors, gazing longingly at all the good things I am no longer permitted to eat.

© The Kenneth Grahame Society