It was Mam’s idea. With the summer weather threatening another washout and the joys of home exhausted, we needed to go on A Road Trip. Dad’s precious days at home had already involved decorating and the installation of The Big Boy Bed. The exotic entertainments of our home city were fading, and we needed to explore. And so the Great Road Trip was planned.
An insistence on opening his own orange juice left The Boy engineering a change of clothes before we’d left our own postcode. Vintage family stuff that naturally warmed the paternal bosom with affection towards favourite offspring. But after pointing the nose of the car towards and setting a Mercedes turbo-diesel to Gas Mark 7, we arrived in the city of my alma mater with plenty of time to explore before a picnic lunch in the lovely University Parks.
Oxford University’s magnificent Museum of Natural History is one of the nation’s great assets.
It’s a small cathedral of curiosity built in the Victorian confidence that knowledge is A Public Good In Its Own Right, from its soaring cast-iron arches on columns of all the mineral rocks of the UK to the glass-cased paleontological spoils of stiff-collared and leather-journalled Long Vacation digs throughout the Empire. It’s a museum characterised by superb exhibits, British humour, exquisite and friendly courtesy, and some of the best disabled parking anywhere. We compared skeletons, posed with T Rex, and in a brilliantly tactile experience stroked a King Cobra, Canadian Bear, and a stuffed fox. We saw the statue to Sir Humphry Davy, he of the Lamp That Tests For Stinky Gas In a Coal Mine (TM). We also took a selfie with the Dodo, naturally.
A picnic interval took us to the glories of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This, my friends, is a real museum. Copperplate-scribed labels on exotic artefacts, packed into glass cases in the most magnificent collection of human posessions. Or dispossessions, if we’re honest. Essentially, its a museum founded on the collections of General Pitt-Rivers, one man’s collection of stuff taken at the point of trade – or the point of a British Army Lee Enfield rifle. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox was born in the brilliantly named Bramham cum Oglethrope, son of an Earl’s sister. After a career in the Grenadier Guards, holding the thin red line in the Crimea before exchanging the front line for the staff officer, Wikipedia tells us he spent much of the next 32 years on leave. Observers of the more eccentric colourful families of Britain’s minor aristocracy may also note that his notable descendents include a grandson rightly detained during World War II under emergency powers for being a eugenicist and anti-Semite, and another considerably less justly put on public trial in the 1950s for Buggery. But this colourful aside aside, he essentially started and donated a collection of arms, writing materials, every form of apparel, canoes of every description pinched from indigenous populations across the globe, a couple of totem poles, and the favourite artefacts of every little boy of every age: the cabinet entitled “treatment of enemy dead”.
The Shrunken Heads are worth the price of admission alone. Which is free, but you get the point. Certain Scots regiments may rely on the pugilistic deterrent of their motto Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, but it’s a sentiment that packs considerably more vim and vigour when communicated with a dessicated enemy’s head, still communicating “I say, old chap, this is a bit thick” in its distorted features, or the German army helmet combined with animal horns and an arrow right through the forehead. It’s a cabinet of delicious thrill for everybody who peers through its immaculately clean glass, morally complex and humanly compelling.
Being with a six year old, we dispatched both museums in under four hours before heading into the city for a few hours. We navigated through packs of tourists and American teenagers being bollocked gumpily round the sites of The Sights, watching them rapidly running out of iPhone battery as well as will to live, for I privately agree as a proud alumnus that once you’ve seen one Oxford college you’ve seen them all. We visited Duckers for shoes, Walters for ties, and The Bear for refreshments (and more ties).
We also saw a wonderful concert being advertised for my dearly loved and much missed hon. uncle Mervyn, but alas had to repair to the Metropolis for Day II before we could take in the joys of his music. Not sure a six year old could have stuck a concert of his more highbrow work in any case, if we’re honest, and I very much doubt the Exeter College chapel was likely to play host to the kids’ operas.
The day finished with more history, although much more recent. A quick abandonment of the family had me released to the lovely grounds and the lovelier welcome of St Anne’s College, where a courtesy became the warmest of greetings on the mumbled realisation that here was an alumnus and it was 20 years ago that I Went Up.
A look in the Library: I was troubled to see that the works of Lenin and Marx have moved to contemporary political theory. I hope my memory is at fault, because I recall them being in History two decades ago. Perhaps PPE undergraduates now read the discredited ramblings as part of their understanding of the political (non-) thinking of the Loyal Opposition of today, if it could be called such. As a commentary in one image on leadership in progressive politics in Britain, oh, how we have gone backwards.
But that couldn’t spoil the experience. Our former principal is fond of saying to groups of alumnae (we spell it the female way as a former women’s college) that we may now be approaching middle age, but to each other we will always be 20. And so was the case as I wandered happily remembering times in these buildings but so much more the people I shared that time with, the things I learned, and the horizons that it expanded for me. The College doesn’t change, even if the reflection in the windows has aged. It’s still a place that unlocks talent, draws in potential from every part of the UK. Beyond my family home, St Anne’s College, Oxford remains perhaps my favourite place in the world. Buildings aren’t the essence of a University: it’s the people and the experiences that make it.
An ice cream on the site of the Martyrs ‘ Memorial (they needed cooling down too) and a vigorously dispatched early dinner led us to the road to London, saying “until the next time” to this most lovely of cities. Beside an image of my Son proudly finding the door to the music school, I leave you with an image of that vital Oxford pursuit for music scholars and performers alike during the many bars’ rest enjoyed listening to great music in that wonderful place. Yes, you get it. We counted the bums on the Sheldonian ceiling.
The next day, as they say, was next.