180: Oxford

OS Explorer map 180, Oxford: Witney & Woodstock – I own this map, and have visited before starting this blog. Visited for this post 17th February 2018.

I went to Oxford this weekend in order to attend the annual Banquet of Taruithorn, the Oxford Tolkien Society, of which I was a member in my Oxford days. [1] The Banquet is one of a few occasions in the year to which old members tend to return, and so return I did! The Banquet usually lasts all day, from about 2pm until well into the night, with feasting and various kinds of fun; there is also always a theme, this time Beren and Lúthien. This year’s, however, was a little different than previous ones, in that guests were asked in advance to bring a foodstuff to share. After exchanging some emails with the organisers, in which I asked for ideas, it ended up being the case that I would make and bring an onion tart. [2]

Therefore I looked up a recipe, and two days before the Banquet I made a practice tart which I inflicted upon my Cambridge friends. It didn’t go too badly, but it was a bit burnt, and I mistakenly put it on foil rather than baking paper resulting in it having a thin burnt layer on the bottom. Also I didn’t have a rolling pin so I used a roll of brown paper covered in cling film instead, but that worked surprisingly well. The bread base of the recipe I used also meant that it looked rather like a pizza.

The second try went better, although it still looked like a pizza. It did go a little grey overnight, so I tried to hide the colour with some rocket. I didn’t actually get to try the second one, as at the Banquet it disappeared before I could get to it (my kitchen shift was during the time when the starters were going out) which I suppose is a good sign.

But yes, the banquet happened. There was lots of food, as evidenced below. I came directly from Cambridge, but didn’t leave until after the Chief Necromancer had visited to do my hair…

Various activities happened, including the hallowed game of lemon jousting, where one takes two spoons and a lemon, and attempts to keep one’s lemon on one spoon while using the other to knock other people’s lemons off theirs.

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A round of lemon jousting about to start

Another notable annual happening at the Banquet is the destruction of the piñata, which this year was (as usual) really very impressive, taking the form of the wolf Carcharoth, who notable for in The Silmarillion biting off Beren’s hand with the Silmaril still in it.

It was generally a very pleasant day; I got to see a lot of people whom I hadn’t in a good long while. Other activities included having to get a Silmaril out of a maze of string spider webs without waking the spiders by ringing the bells, and some dancing. A slight unfortunate occurrence was that while various children [3] were running around throwing lemons at each other, one lemon went a little off course and collided with a wine glass, which then deposited its contents on me and the wall behind me, leaving me a little stained.

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Me showing off my wine-stains.

People often dress fantastically for the Banquet – I was wearing a red dress / waistcoat thing, which I had made for the previous year’s banquet. Here’s a better picture, from the previous year:

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That year’s theme was Númenor, and I was attempting to channel “morally dubious Númenorian aristocrat”; I made it from the same 1830s waistcoat pattern that I used for my Childermass costume, described in my London North entry, which for this thing I lengthened considerably and added the four lighter red triangular panels.

I ended up being very pleased with the result (although the buttons kept detaching themselves), and have worn it a good few times since; I think I like the close shape in the upper body, without any abrupt waist, which is something I find to be lacking a lot of modern mens’ clothing. I think the most pleasing curve on most bodies is the inward curve of a person’s back when they’re standing straight, and it’s for this reason that when looking at suits I very much appreciate closely-fitting waistcoats, but trousers that are quite loose-hanging. In fact I think that’s why I generally love waistcoats so much – I usually end up adjusting my waistcoats precisely so that they fit more snugly to the back.

In the picture from last year I’m wearing it with a puffy-sleeved white shirt, which I also wore with my Childermass costume – not that you can see the puffiness in that picture as my arms are behind my back. I made that shirt (using a pattern called “Man’s Shirt 1750–1800) in 2016 while I was on my summer course in Iceland, and it’s the only piece of clothing I’ve ever made by hand-sewing rather than using my sewing machine, but, tragedy of tragedies, I’ve lost that shirt somewhere. It was made of rather too thin a fabric that meant it kept ripping, and I do intend to make another, but it was a lot of effort. A few months ago I bought some fabric for another one, but I haven’t started yet, and I’m concerned that this fabric might be too thick…

But yes, anyway, after that long digression, the Banquet was very good, and I left at about 10:40pm, helping to transport some things to a fellow member’s home before I left, to go to Northampton and home for the night – I’d return to Cambridge the next day.

Previous visits

Now, since I did my whole physics degree there, I’ve spent rather a lot of time in Oxford, living there for three years from 2012–15. Therefore naturally I won’t tell you about everything I ever did there, and will instead just pick a few things that are memorable or interesting or of which I have good pictures – this is similar to what I did for Cambridge and Northampton.

So yes, I arrived in Oxford in 2012, fresh-faced from school, having had the last haircut that I’d have for years. These three pictures are from one day, 13th October 2012, which was the day of my matriculation ceremony into the University:

Oxford makes rather more of matriculation than Cambridge does; there is a formal ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre, in which the Vice-Chancellor themselves formally welcomes you to the University; one is also required to wear sub-fusc, Oxford’s uniform that’s otherwise used for exams and graduation, [4] and process through the streets from College. (In Cambridge, matriculation is an internal College affair, and there tends not to be any more ceremony than a photo and a speech at dinner.) Naturally we tried to take a picture looking as posh as possible on some steps (it was the steps on the Clarendon Building of the Bodleian Library). In my year, amusingly, during the ceremony the Vice-Chancellor started speaking with a very squeaky voice, coughed a little and had a bit of a giggle at himself before carrying on.

The latter two pictures are from later in the same day, when a group of us went, at Little S’s urging, for dinner at a restaurant with the somewhat politically-charged-seeming name of the Red Star Noodle Bar. On the way back, just before we got back into Exeter College – my College, where we all lived – we noticed some metal protrusions from the outer wall in Brasenose Lane, and Unicorn and No Longer Hairy decided to try hanging off them. Alas, this wasn’t a good idea, as a few minutes later, as we were rounding the corner into the Turl, a police officer who fancied himself something of a comedian approached us and asked us whether we “knew we were movie stars” – we’d been seen on camera and it looked like we were trying to break into the College. He was persuaded to leave after we explained it was our own College, and he had a look at our cards to prove this. And that is the one time in my life I’ve been stopped by police (except when in cars, but still never when I’ve been driving).

So yes, my College in Oxford was Exeter, which is a fairly middle-sized College, central, and the fourth-oldest, being founded in 1314 – I had a very pleasant few years there. These two pictures are from a snowy day in my first year, the first being of the Front Quad, looking in a northeasterly direction, with the Chapel at the left. The other picture features me, Lapsed Lawyer, Unicorn and Little S in the Fellows’ Garden, having made a snowman, which we naturally dressed in cap and gown!

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Unicorn eating chips in the Chapel after a fire alarm

One thing that was a little odd about Exeter was that the fire assembly point was inside the chapel, and so whenever there was a fire alarm, probably due to someone being unwise with a toaster or something, everyone would have to gather there, whatever they were doing. This resulted in some rather strange scenes of people sitting around in the chapel in pyjamas, or dressed for partying, or wet-haired and wrapped but in towels, as well as the pictured occasion when Unicorn had just got some chips from Exeter’s beloved Hassan’s kebab van, and so ate them in the chapel.

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“Prospectus photo”

Ex-Linguistician likes to call this picture of some of us working in Exeter’s Fellows’ Garden the “prospectus photo”, because with the Radcliffe Camera in the background and us looking so studious it does look rather like one.

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Upstairs in the Radcliffe Camera

I now have to mention the Rad Cam itself, of course, because it is the most breathtakingly beautiful library space I’ve ever worked in, especially upstairs. It used to hold the Bodleian’s science materials, but by my day it was mainly the History Faculty Library, and so I only ever got to use books from there when I did a one-term History of Science option. Somehow I never got around to going upstairs in there until my third year, but after one time I started going rather a lot more!

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A first-year calculus lecture

I include this picture of one of my lectures just because I always loved the rotating sliding blackboards!

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One year’s Tolkien Society bonfire

To go back to Tolkien Society things, here you see our annual bonfire party, conventionally named Gandalf’s Fireworks, another one of the major events each year and probably the most awkward to organise, since everything has to be carted to the bonfire site on Aston’s Eyot from the fairly distant nearest road, and acquiring wood is always a challenge.

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Being filmed in the Eagle and Child for the documentary

Continuing with the Tolkien theme, this picture is from a time when I and three others were featured on a French-German television documentary called Looking for the Hobbit / À la recherche du Hobbit – in the picture we’re being filmed in the Eagle and Child pub, along with Leo Carruthers, a Sorbonne academic and one of their presenters. I haven’t seen the whole of the series, but the broad premise was that John Howe, a fairly well-known Tolkien artist, was exploring a variety of Tolkien’s inspirations in a variety of somewhat unlikely locations around Europe, seeking the source of the idea for the Hobbit. (The conclusion, as it was found at the close of the final episode, when John for some reason was filmed having a casual conversation with us at the high table of Exeter College’s dining hall, was that of course, we’d been the hobbits all along.)

Those few days were a very strange experience; the film crew would take us to lunch for a good two hours in a restaurant, and hang about having wine and starters and desserts, which was pleasantly luxurious. The director, seeking close shots of a cup of tea when filming us in the Eagle and Child, declared that he just loved the way that one of us stirred our tea. One of the crew broke my mobile phone when looking after it as we were filming in Exeter College’s Library – fortunately they gave me money for a replacement. (The Library got out the copy of Eliot’s Finnish grammar that Tolkien used as an undergraduate for us, complete with his annotations! [5])

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Me punting

Punting is a very Oxford thing as much as it is a Cambridge thing – although, of course, Oxford and Cambridge punts are not identical, given that in Cambridge one punts from the platform end, while in Oxford it’s from the other – and this picture is from a punting outing at the end of my first year, when we decided to have a go at dressing vintagely in some way or another – for that reason I’m wearing that straw hat that I had bought just then from the punting station! The long red jacket I’m wearing is one that I originally got to be part of a hobbit costume, but unfortunately it’s rather large on the shoulders so I don’t really wear it. [6]

The Dark Knight hanging from a bridge

Now, one rather daring pursuit of some when punting is to attempt to bridge-jump, that is, when one’s punt is passing under a bridge, try to climb up and over it in time to get back onto the punt on the other side. I’ve never been brave enough to try very seriously, but The Dark Knight was completely successful on this outing – we then went back to the bridge so that he could be left hanging for this amusing photo!

Now after all of the very institutional, Oxford-specific stuff above, I’d better represent my experience more fairly, because of course the best times I had at university were just those spend sitting around in friends’ rooms late into the night with tea and cake and conversation. So here are four pictures for you. (I believe they can be clicked on to make them bigger.) The first is of an time when, tragedy of tragedies, I managed to enter a room full of friends and overbalance in the doorway, stagger forwards a little, and promptly deposit the cheesecake I was carrying on the Monopoly board. We then proceeded to eat it off the board with forks…

The second image is of a board covered in maths (I spy Cauchy’s integral formula, the Euler-Lagrange equations, and the integral form of Ampère’s Law), IPA, and Tengwar; the board in question belongs to No Longer Hairy,  and the scrawlings are the his work along with me and Little S. However, I’m not entirely sure what the Tengwar says, because I’ve forgotten how to read it despite having written that myself…

The third picture is of my 19th birthday, for which Ex-Linguistician made the wonderful One Ring cake pictured! I believe that something went wrong with the baking, leading the middle to be soggy, and so they scooped it out and made the cake into the wonder that it was! The final image is of a shop-bought cake with two of Maxwell’s equations written on it in icing; my physics class and I brought them to our final tutorial with our electromagnetism tutor!

Now in my second year in Oxford, it was my College’s 700th anniversary, for which occasion they held a white-tie commemoration ball; I’d never worn white tie before, so naturally this was rather exciting! No Longer Hairy and I decided to buy our tailcoats second-hand rather than hire, and here you see an evening where we did much messing about with different clothing, having just brought them home! [7] Unfortunately I’ve never had cause to wear my evening tails since that ball, but I would like to change that. These pictures are taken in the living room of the house I lived in in my second year, which was a very pleasant experience and the only time even now that I’ve lived in a house with peers I chose to live with rather than in a College room, although that’s going to change next year.

These three pictures are from summer 2014, when I worked for three weeks on an internship in Balliol College’s library. My project while I was there was to research the history of the Library’s buildings, to inform some vague ideas they were having about redeveloping the space, and it was a lovely few weeks – I got to spend a lot of time with very cool 19th-century architectural plans. One 1830s plan, of the cellars under what was now the Library’s Reading Room but used to be the College’s dining hall – and so the cellars its kitchen – was proving very difficult to match up to the more modern plans I had, and so, together with some of the Library’s staff, I descended into the cellars under some of the buildings of the College’s Front Quad.

It was a wonderfully interesting place, just room upon room of things stored up and not, it seems, looked at very often since – the taxidermied stag’s head on a pile of unused library shelving was the first thing we found, but much more impressive than that was the boxes and piles of stained glass! Some, which had been removed in the 50s, was well-packed up and labelled, but there was plenty more, probably rather a lot older, that was just lying around in need of love.

All that talk of dining halls means I should probably show you mine! Now, Exeter is generall architecturally very pleasant, but more in an archetypal way than for any unique features – its buildings aren’t the biggest, or the oldest, the front quad is very pretty, but lacks anything specifically outstanding about it; the main site is rather small. The Victorian chapel is impressive, but opinions vary on how tasteful it is, and it replaced a probably nicer much older building. However, the dining hall really is spectacular; I don’t think I’m being partisan when I say it’s my favourite Oxbridge dining hall, and I must have been in twenty by now. The occasion pictured is my year group’s Halfway Hall, a dinner to celebrate our being halfway through our degrees!

Right, I’d better stop writing at some point, so having started this section with the beginning of my time in Oxford, here is the end, as at the end of the final exam of my degree, my friends took on the traditional duty of showering me with a variety of disgusting substances (including, in my case, a fish – I fortunately avoided the flour and eggs), and watching me jump in the river.


[1]In fact I was on the Society’s Committee a good few times – I was Secretary in 2013–14, Treasurer and IT Officer in 2014–15, and magazine editor in 2015–16. I never quite managed to be President, because I kept putting it off until my expected final year in Oxford, which would have been the fourth year of my physics degree, but since I ended up leaving after three years to go to Cambridge, that didn’t happen. (I also was really IT officer for two further years, until 2017, but only unofficially, doing the work but without the name, as the University required IT Officers to be current students.)

[2] I was offered other ideas, such as chocolate truffles, but I’m not the biggest of dessert enthusiasts, so I thought I’d prefer to learn how to make an onion tart. When I told Erithacus this she was disapproving, having strong opinions about the supremacy of dessert. I do like desserts, I just don’t find them the most exciting part of a meal, and if given a choice between dessert and starter I would usually choose the latter.

[3] There are always children at the Banquet, because many of the old members who come back bring their families – I always find their chaotic presence adds some joy to the day.

[4] Subfusc, precisely, consists of: Dark suit, skirt or dress; white shirt or blouse; black shoes and socks; white or black bow tie or black ribbon; and mortarboard – plus the appropriate gown for your academic status. White bow ties were very much the norm over black. One’s dress would be inspected on sub-fusc occasions, like walking into exams, and one would be risking a fine if dressed in the wrong colour socks.

I always found it weird that, when dressing for exams, really the only thing one was dressing for was the walk into the exam room – one didn’t need to be fully dressed until in the bags-leaving area outside the exam hall, and once inside one could remove jackets and even ties. In my third year the University held a student referendum on getting rid of sub-fusc for exams, but it failed with about 75% in favour of keeping it – I think the referendum was initiated because examiners didn’t want to have to wear it anymore, but couldn’t be allowed not to unless the students didn’t either.

Now that I’m in Cambridge, where sub-fusc was abolished in the 70s, everyone naturally thinks it’s really weird that Oxford has it, presumably just as the rest of the world thinks it’s really weird that Cambridge has gowns and Latin graces at dinner. I commented in a recent conversation with Not Daddy that most people in Oxford tend to find it an endearing if slightly inconvenient tradition, much as most of Cambridge regards gowns and so on – Not Daddy, having started in Cambridge just this year for his MPhil, admitted that indeed, he thought that gowns and the like were just incredibly strange and couldn’t believe they still existed before he came up, and now finds them just a fun tradition. Naturally opinions vary widely on whether such fun traditions are a good idea to continue.

[5] I think this is also the book that features in Andy Orchard’s perennial story as being the volume in which he, as a green undergraduate, found a note in C. S. Lewis’s handwriting, written in Old Norse, telling of the next meeting of the Coalbiters, Tolkien’s Old Norse reading group of the time. I’m not entirely sure it was this book; it was certainly some old linguisticsy book in Exeter College’s library.

[6] In Oxford most every College either has its own punts or rents an eternal punt-ticket from one of the hire companies for the use of its students, which is always nice, unlike in Cambridge, where it’s mostly only the riverside Colleges that get such privileges.

[7] We both bought our tailcoats from a truly wonderful second-hand formalwear shop in Oxford called the Ballroom – I love that place; they have racks upon racks of interesting suits, waistcoats, ties, and all sorts of other things; I’ve seen top hats and frock coats in there and there’s a long rack of cravats. That shop is also where I got my heavy black formal cloak with the lion clasp, which I dearly love!

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