The Oxonian Experience (Part 2 of Oxford), England

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The biggest benefit of living in Oxford – you get to meet Prof Richard Dawkins fairly often.

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This is part 2 of Oxford city. The post will focus on the life of residing in Oxford, rather than just introducing the sights.

This is of course not going to be a comprehensive guide, and I don’t have the photos to demonstrate everything (some intentionally withheld as I don’t want to post photos where my friends’ faces are visible).

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The typical applicant may start their Oxonian experience by going to an open day. Staff and current students work on the days as helpers and we get a free exclusive Oxford-branded t-shirt as a gift.

There are many different information sessions so you will need to do your research before getting there, as even walking through the city looking at the buildings would cost you the entire day.

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Congratulations! You have been accepted and you have met your offer!

After your first week, you are expected to show up for matriculation, the official ceremony that makes you a member of the University. You have to do it in your first two terms or you’re sent down. If you are a graduate who has attended Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin, or Oxford as an undergraduate, you go for the aforementioned incorporation route instead. Basically, you don’t do anything and you get an instant degree just by living another day.

Us matriculants, with our gowns – either the commoner’s gown for undergrads or the advanced students’ gown for grads – wait our turn to sit in the Sheldonian Theatre. The latter gown is a full version of the former. You will need your gown for many events, such as certain dinners at your college, your graduation, your examinations (if you do one at the Examination Schools in person), your viva (if you’re a doctoral candidate), the honorary degree ceremony (if you manage to get a ticket), and if unfortunately you are being disciplined.

The mortarboard/cap is a controversial part of this. Many say you don’t wear it before you’ve graduated, but that’s just a myth. In reality, no-one cares when you’re outdoors, and traditionally, you’re only asked to take it off indoors (if you’re a man) before it’d be improper for a man to wear a hat indoors.

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After the ceremony, you go to your college and take individual and group photos. And you eat.

You don’t just walk around with your gown, but with your sub-fusc. In Latin, it means dark brown; at Oxford, it means this – shirt with black trousers/skirts (with a suit if you’re a man), white or black bowtie, or black necktie (white bows are the traditional and most common one), or a black ribbon if like Shania Twain, you feel like a woman (you don’t have to actually be a woman to go for the traditionally feminine rendition of this). If you don’t want the cap, you wear a soft cap (feminine alternative) – but you can’t take it off if you choose that option. Very, very few people go for a soft cap.

If you don’t have the correct attire, you can actually be denied entry. Your college may ask you to buy something on the spot, or maybe someone will be able to lend you something.

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A big part of student life is to go to the Oxford Union.

The Oxford Union is not the students’ union but a debating society. It has produced many prominent politicians such as some British prime ministers, the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, as well as other people like Secretary Boris Johnson, former mayor of London.

Many famous people, such as Shakira, Michael Jackson, Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellan, and President Dilma of Brazil have spoken at the Union.

If you’re very keen, you may participate in student politics here. If you’re active enough, you may get the title “union hack”.

I never really cared for the union but I was a representative for social sciences graduates at the Oxford University Student Union (used to be called OUSU, now Oxford SU). I sat on the University’s Social Sciences Board, Social Sciences Graduate Studies Committee, and Social Sciences Library Committee. It was an extremely interesting experience.

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After that, you will probably start going into other colleges just to sightsee. This was from Hertford College.

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Then you will also need to study. This was taken in the library of the OUP.

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How about some sports? Not good at sports? Don’t worry!

There’s always quidditch. Yes, the one from Harry Potter. It’s for everyone.

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Along with my other stuff, I volunteered a lot.

I was the coordinator and English tutor at St Gregory’s The Great Catholic School for the Schools Plus programme at Oxford Hub. I was a trainer and active listener at Oxford Nightline. I was a mentor at IntoUniversity.

As a member of Hong Kong Round Table, I joined Oxford Round Table as a guest member and helped them out with the annual Fawkes’s night bonfire and fieworks.

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We had to build it up very tall. 

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Some people just like to watch the world burn.

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You probably will join societies and attend events.

This was a talk with the Chancellor of the University, The Rt Hon Lord Patten, advisor to His Holiness The Pope, former chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party, former Secretary of State, former European Commissioner, former chairman of the BBC Trust, and of course the last governor of Hong Kong.

That was an event organized by the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA). It was free to join during freshers’ week.

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Inevitably, you will want to try punting. It’s quite physical and not that easy, but still fun.

Lots of ducks.

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If you’re a graduate student, you may also do some graduate stuff like making an academic presentation.

I was presenting my research on Ed Ball’s Day.

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If you’re lucky, you can see a day of snow!

Needless to say, there are many student parties but I’m not going to post any of those photos. They are called “bops”.

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To make a tiny little bit of money, you can also volunteer at your college. This was me stealing a Master of Arts as a helper. We had a graduation ceremony that day.

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I got a ticket to the encarnia, the honorary degree ceremony! Dame Hilary Mantel was honored there.

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Towards the end of the year, you get to the balls’ season. (There are balls throughout the year but most of them are in May/June.)

I went to my college’s ball and pictured above was at Magd’s ball. Some balls are black tie, few are white. The white ones are more expensive and more formal. Different colleges do different things, but it’s basically a night of excessive drinking until 3am.

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Gay pride. LGBT History month is a big thing at Oxford with many colleges flying the rainbow flag, even some of the religious PPHs.

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In the end, you graduate.

I actually missed my own ceremony – we can delay for however long we want, but I didn’t want to wait, and I didn’t realize there were ceremonies during the summer as well, so I opted to graduate in absentia.

I went back this summer partly to take photos. Different degrees get different colours on the hood, and different levels of degree get different types of gown.

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That’s Keble College. I thought it was absolutely beautiful from the inside, but back in the days, people hated it. St John’s College has/had this thing to steal one brick from Keble at a time until it collapses (it was built on John’s land).

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If you have a bike, you will need to secure it. Oxford and Cambridge are the Top 2 cities in the nation for bike theft.

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My department’s garden, As a graduate student, you get a mail box not just at your college (and wherever you’re living in), but also at your department. You also get two email addresses – one with your college’s name in it, one with your department like the one used by academics.

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Inside of my college.

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Exeter College.

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Your thesis, if you have one, is forever stored in the Bodleian Libraries (even though it may be in the closed stack if it’s old). If you were awarded distinction, you get a sticker (pictured above).

As for the study experience, the undergrad and postgrad experiences are quite different, and different postgrads courses certainly vary depends on your discipline and specific course. But if you have a question, you’re welcome to ask me!

I did quite a lot during my year, actually. Apart from the above and the parties and normal socials and pulling and a student union representative (I even attended an NUS conference in London), I was a coordinating tutor at St Gregory’s The Great Catholic School on the Schools Plus programme at Oxford Hub, a mentor for IntoUniversity, and trainer at Oxford Nightline.

Beyond being an MSc, a member of Kellogg and the Education Department, I have several more connections to Oxford. I’m a life donor of the Bod, a “friend” of Exeter, and one of my exes went to Magdalen. I was, for two years, also a “country champion” at Oxford Education Society.


With my Oxford part concluding (for now), I’m planning to update this blog only periodically. I’m currently thinking of one update per week. We will see I guess!

Oxford, England

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The ancient city of Oxford, the home of the oldest surviving university outside of Bologna, Italy. With teaching started from at least the year 1099, the University is older than numerous civilizations such as Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Incas.

No-one knows the actual circumstances of the University’s founding, and for sure it was nothing like how universities and colleges are founded these days. Legend has it that teaching began after King Alfred the Great debated with a group of monks around the area.

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The Radcliffe Camera in the Radcliffe Square, is a part of the hundred plus Bodleian Libraries. It was named after University and Lincoln Colleges alumnus Dr The Hon John Radcliffe MP, and is now the University, as well as the city’s, most iconic structure.

In the past, people were allowed to walk on the balcony, but alas, that’s no longer the case for safety reasons.

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It is a truly magnificent building, most felt when it’s sunny and you’re circling it from the ground. One of Florence’s famed buildings was similarly designed (albeit in a different colour), but without the open space on the ground, it felt nowhere near as impressive as the Rad Cam did.

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The Oxford skyline is world famous and various colleges and churches near the square are just as brilliant.

The best spot to take a good photo of the Rad Cam as well as the skyline, in my opinion, is from the tower of St Mary’s the University Church. The University Church charges merely around £5 for a trip to their terrace, but since the paths are narrow up there, only a few visitors are allowed up at the same time. Allegedly, a former parish priest of the church publicly proclaimed his lack of belief in god – the CofE is wonderful.

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Whilst All Souls College is a must-see from the inside, it’s challenging to do it justice with a photo from their quad.

The college is most famous for not really having any students around 6-8 at any given time. This is because they don’t accept any undergraduates, nor do they admit postgraduates in the usual manner. A finalist, or a registered postgraduate matriculant must sit their unique and somewhat unpredictable examination, in order to gain the opportunity to win an “examination fellowship” from them, that guarantees a full seven years of funding to live, study, and/or work at Oxford. (They don’t offer all courses, however.) The successful candidates may likewise opt to collect a reduced sum of money in lieu of staying in academia at the college.

Fun fact: They used to have undergrads, but only as household servants.

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Other students may, with the endorsement of their supervisor(s), visit their library should there be a genuine research need.

I believe this photo was taken from the terrace behind the fellows’ garden at Exeter College.

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In the square, there is also Brasenose College, one of the more popular ones and the one attended by former British prime minister The Rt Hon David Cameron, a distant cousin of Her Majesty The Queen.

The college has a weird arrangement with the nearby Lincoln College, providing extraordinarily crappy beer to them once a year, due to a duel several centuries ago resulting in the death of a Lincoln man.

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A popular alternative to St Mary’s tower is to go on the Sheldonian Theatre (free for Oxonians). It has got quite a different few and the Rad Cam is not the focal point from there. The only issue is that the theatre closes very often for a variety of reasons, as it’s the go-to place for university ceremonies.

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Even though it may be more difficult to capture the magic in the evening/late afternoon, in person it was a real sight.

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University College – they have now dropped their bogus claim of being the oldest college at Oxford.

Rhodes scholar President Bill Clinton went there and might or might not have smoked weed. He did a BCL – Bachelor of Civil Law – it’s weird because despite the name, it’s actually a master’s degree, equivalent to the MJur degree, with the only difference being whether you’re reading for common or civil law.

Degrees at Oxford are all quite messy. Most undergraduates read for a BA – Bachelor of Arts – degree, regardless of their discipline. 21 terms after matriculation, they may “upgrade” it to an MA – Master of Arts – with only a minimum payment and next to no requirements (they cannot be in prison at the time – although in the past the conversion might also be delayed if the royal court wished to). Science undergraduates most likely to integrated master’s degrees (unless they fail the test to progress), but they may still get a BA that can turn into an MA with no additional studies or examinations.

Postgraduates do not enjoy that.

To make it even more unfair, there is the system of “incorporation” between Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College Dublin. If you were an undergraduate at any of the three, and the move to the other, you get an instant free degree after the ceremony.

So:

Person A –

Studied BA at Oxford;

studied MSc at Cambridge;

studied PhD at Trinity College Dublin;

gets designated MA (Oxon) MA MSc (Cantab) MA PhD (TCD) in the end. Five degrees for the price of three.

At Oxford, academics with a college fellowship (usually lecturer or above, but only those getting the title from a college, instead of just a department), likewise get awarded an MA as the MA status is essential for them to vote in the congregation, ie the university’s parliament (the second-highest authority, only below the convocation that has everyone in it and meets very rarely).

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St Edmund Hall. One of the two colleges that have kept their historic name “hall” – it is the oldest surviving academic society that houses and teaches undergrads.

I now have bad blood with them tho. I, out of sheer politeness, asked to take a quick picture of the front quad, identifying myself as an alumnus. The staff didn’t let me do it, citing the need to keep the corridor I was already standing in free for the entire time (it was empty and it would’ve taken literally 2 seconds). He refused even after learning that I was flying on the Saturday and couldn’t have waited until open day.

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Exeter College. I stayed here for my summer school earlier this year – on this day, they welcomed Their Catholic Majesties The King and Queen of Spain (and so forth), even though I missed them as I flew to Ireland for the weekend.

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Merton College. It contains the oldest-surviving academic library. They have the strange tradition of walking backward in the circle when daylight-saving time hits.

There is also a real tennis court close-by where I played, although I’m uncertain whether the college owns it.

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(From left to right) The Clarendon Building, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the Museum of the History of Science.

The first one used to be the second home of Oxford University Press and is now some random offices. The theatre is one of the most important buildings at Oxford, as it is the place for both matriculations (entering the University) and graduations (leaving the University). When a massive attendance is expected, congregation meetings may congregate there.

The museum is the oldest-surviving purpose-built museum building, and it used to house the internationally renowned Ashmolean Museum, the first public museum in the world.

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St Mary’s at night.

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As a “life friend” (life donor) of the Bodleian Libraries, the secretary took me on a tour that ended on the terrace of Weston Library.

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One of the most significant, yet lesser-known, structures in the city. The Oxford Castle is a Norman complex where Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Matilda, Holy Roman Empress, Queen of the Romans, Duchess of Normandy, Lady of the English hid during the anarchy. Her Imperial Majesty was an English princess whose regal father made the lords agreed to make queen after his passing. The barons broke their promise when the King died, she reluctantly attempted to seize the throne but failed, mostly due to Londoners not welcoming her. 

Gay pride also ends here.

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Two different sides, built obviously at different times, of the Old Library, It houses the Duke Humfrey’s Library, better known as Hogwart’s library’s restricted section.

Up there you can see a statue of His Majesty The King James, King of England, King of Scots, King of France, Lord of Ireland. Yes, the one who was gay and made King James’s Bible happen

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Another iconic site at Oxford, the Tom’s quad at Christ Church (a college, but officially without “college” in its name). His Majesty The King Henry VIII (the one with many wives) founded the college, as well as the cathedral, in order to further cement the supremacy of the newly protestant Anglican church.

The college produced the most number of prime ministers and my college, Kellogg, rows with them.

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The Christ Church dining hall, better known as Hogwart’s dining hall before photoshop.

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Christ Church garden. This and the overrated Christ Church meadow (very typically English, basically just grass) are free to the public. Going into the college, the fee isn’t that big of an issue but rather the huge, huge queue.

As a student, there may be events at the college from time to time and you don’t have to queue for them. Or you may just go to church. They still use the obsolete Oxford time (5 minutes behind Greenwich time).

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At Christ Church, this is supposed to be the oldest recorded graffiti in the world. People argue over whether this was a protest against prime minister Sir Robert Peel, or just something to do with the food.

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Owned by Wadham College but closer to New College, this is the oldest music room in the world.

Wadham is usually known as the most leftist and liberal college at Oxford – it’s difficult to tell if heterosexuals actually exist there.

New is “new” only relative to Oriel College, so named as both are officially called “St Mary’s College blah blah blah”. Oriel is where prime minster Cecil Rhodes went, and where his controversial statue stands (honestly you won’t notice it despite it being in quite a prominent position).

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Magdalen tower at Magdalen College. Every evening before May Day, people stay up all night drinking and party, then at around 6am we get here to listen to their choir sing two songs. A few years back, some people jumped into the shallow river and hurt themselves.

I stayed up too, but before 6am I volunteered for Oxford Nightline to be a cartoon owl promoting our services. Loads of drunk people. Quite awkward when you couldn’t speak.

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The defunct observatory at Green Templeton College. GTC is a graduate college with a few undergrads due to their being medics, and represented the first merger at Oxford, as there was a Green College and a Templeton College before 2008.

The observatory was modeled after Temple of the Winds (the name is not very consistent…) in Athens, Greece. It’s better than the Roman one in Athens, actually.

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The oldest-surviving structure at Oxford, St Michael’s tower. St Michael’s is the city church (not always has been) and was built by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were immigrants from what is now today around Denmark.

I believe it also acted as the prison for the clergy members from Oxford Movement.

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The Bridge of Signs of Hertford College, one of the other main attractions of the University, just opposite to the Sheldonian Theatre. Hertford College was where the author of Brideshead Revisited attended.

Two things:

  1. Even though in Venice, Italy (as well as numerous other places in Europe) there also is a Bridge of Signs (near St Mark’s Square), theirs look nothing like this. This looks more like a smaller version of Venice’s most famous bridge, aka Shylock’s Bridge.
  2. No matter what people tell you, the Hertford today came actually from Magdalen Hall. Magdalen Hall used to be a house near Magdalen College and their building was burnt down by an undergrad. They wanted to be renamed Magdalene College like the one at Cantab, but for obvious reasons, Magdalen College opposed to it. That’s why they completely took over Hertford College, both the body and the heart – the coat of arms at Hertford’s porter’s lodge is still the same as the Magd one. So what happened to the original? Their head died and even though people still went to work (or pretended to be working), they stopped admitting students and so they just died off.

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A Lego version of Hertford College displayed on open days. Very popular.

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The School of Divinity (entrance from the Old Library). This was the first department at Oxford (universities were basically priest-training institutions) and leads also to the usual congregation house as well as the now defunct university court (I was told Oscar Wilde went on a trial there for not paying his battels).

Nowadays, this place, when not a tourist spot, is a waiting/changing room for when people attend a matriculation or a graduation ceremony (as we are required to change gowns midway).

Harry Potter was likewise filmed here.

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All Souls from the inside. Told you it’s not that flattering.

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In the Museum of the History of Science, a blackboard used by Nobel laureate Prof Albert Einstein (who didn’t invent atomic bombs, btw).

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In Blackwell’s, the Norrington Room holds the world record for the largest room selling books (many qualifiers).

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One of Exeter’s alumni is the current president of Perú, His Excellency President Pereo-Pablo Kuczynski #PPK. He donated money to do something to this particular room.

See the “MA”? It meant he was an undergraduate. If you convert your BA to an MA, you are not technically allowed to say you have both a BA and an MA, but only the MA.

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One of the buildings of my department. It’s got loads of different names and some of the doors still have its older name.

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My college, Kellogg. It’s the largest graduate college, one of the most international at Oxford, and by student population, the second-largest overall. The vice-chancellor is somehow traditionally an honorary fellow.

It’s the only college that focuses on part-time professional studies and was established by the Department for Continuing Education specifically for that purpose (although there are many full-timers now). Since it hasn’t got a royal charter yet (the other one being St Cross College), it’s still legally a “society” under the department. The president of the college has always been the director of the department.

Although the current president, Prof Jonathan Michie (son of Dame The Hon Anne McLaren and Dr Donald Michie – he worked with Dr Alan Turing during the war – as well as the grandson of Baron Aberconway), told me after him that may change.

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I’m a recognized “major donor” of my college. My name is somewhere here.

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The beautiful Lady Margaret Hall. My connection to it was that they gave us education students dining right at their college.

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Wellington Square, near where I resided, the University’s headquarters. That day it was converted to a fictional police station for a television series.

Whilst I don’t have photos for that, the other museums are also very worth visiting. And in front of the Natural History Museum, there’s a symbol representing evolution, and one representing creationism.

Additionally, the botanic garden was the first in the British Isles.

The current OUP complex is another hidden jewel. But to visit, you will need to make an appointment (it’s free). There’s a small museum and a library.

There’s a site for Beaumont Palace/The King’s House where King Richard the Lionheart (allegedly gay and famous for being a crusader who hadn’t really lived in England) and King John (the one who signed Magna Carta) were born. But there’s nothing left to see.

Tips:

  1. The entrance fees and punting fee and all that could add up, so ideally you should get a student or alum to take you around. It’d all be free as long as you’re not bringing a big family with you. But even current students can’t go into another college at any time they want.
  2. Oxford is very walkable, so doing the tourist bus would just be a waste of money (we did that the first time we went).
  3. If you don’t have much time, you can just try going into the colleges a bit to look at their front quads. Those are usually the best ones anyway.
  4. If you are really pressing for time, go to Magdalen College, Christ Church, Keble College, All Souls College, Rad Cam, Old Library/Divinity School, Worcester College (they have a lake), and look at Trinity College’s back garden. Walk on High Street and Board Street. Check their opening hours – All Souls, for example, only opens between 2pm and 4pm on weekdays.
  5. If you want to rush through all of Oxford, it’s possible to do it in a full day (as long as you’re not getting north of LMH, not getting east to Linacre/St Catherine’s, and not going south of Magdalen/Christ Church.

Cambridge, England

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Before heading to Oxford for postgraduate studies, I went to Cambridge for two summer schools, as an undergraduate student in Hong Kong.

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On King’s Parade, you’re welcomed by a really creepy display here. You may not be able to see this very clearly, but it’s an alien insect type of thing moving around the yellow circles. It’s creepier at night.

The Tabs and their eccentric taste…

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The most famous, and probably the only famous one, building the city has is the chapel of King’s College, a very radical leftist communist red college.

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King’s College from King’s Parade. It’s good that it’s all pedestrian here but the number of tourists still makes it extraordinarily difficult for you to move.

Don’t forget Cantab is a ridiculously small town and everything’s basically here.

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Inside the college, you can see their huge quads, á la Magdalen at Oxford. Except Magd has deer and King’s only has cows.

It’s quite clear who’s superior.

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Still on the main street. My home for a month.

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The chapel from the other side of the river.

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Gonville & Caius College, one of the colleges I stayed at (the other one being Selwyn). Prof Stephen Hawkings is a member, although of course he went to Oxford first.

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They do have a nicer river, if only because you can actually see the city on the punt.

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I saw one guy punting shirtless and jumped into the river.

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Clare College.

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The botanic garden. We had a garden party there.

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A fellows’ garden somewhere.

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This chair was owned by Sir Winston Churchill or something like that.

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The original Taylor Swift see you in court.

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Ha! Basically a clinic?

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Dr James Grimes from Numberphile and singingbanana, aka my favourite YouTuber.

His lecture was great. And he showed us an enigma machine.

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Did you know I learned how to tie bowties at Cambs?

And from the tower:

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