Blog: February 2014

Guest Post 2: Brahm Capoor (Part 2)

This is the second part of Brahm’s Blog about Oxford Summer Courses, which we are reblogging here. You can find his great blog over at Abzonnian Ramblings!

11/07/14

Dreaming Spires, Redux

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As I write this, I sit in the lawn of Somerville College, relaxing on a bench in the shade of a tree as I devour a bag of chips (crisps, as they are pretentiously called in Britain. The more pedestrian ‘chips’ is reserved for what the common man would call ‘fries’.). A minor heatwave in Oxford has granted the sun an opportunity to display itself in its full glory, and it hasn’t compromised. The heat prompts people to do all sorts of things they’d never otherwise do such as sunbathing, and as is the case right in front of me, have a lesson outside.

Two of my friends are playing Frisbee in front of me, generally being rather dexterous with their catches, but they’re not above the occasional swearword after a particularly dramatic miss or when the Frisbee hits their fingers and damn near lacerates them. The gentle gusts of wind carry the Frisbee as though it’s weightless and makes for some rather elegant throws. Vague, unformulated thoughts about homework and reading mull around in the back of my mind, but I ignore them. For now, I am at peace.

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Surrounding me are the buildings in the college. To my right, the library, which is currently being renovated. Right in front of me is Wolfson, one of the dorms in the college. Behind me is Darbishire, which is my dorm and home to a door which makes a very irritating beeping noise when it closes. Directly above me is the formal hall, the room in which we have all our breakfasts. It’s a magnificent room and rather reminiscent of scenes from Harry Potter.

I mentioned in my previous post that I would be digressing from the subject of my activities in Oxford to discuss the overall feeling of being in the city. I think that it’s now time to revert to my original statement and give you an idea of what it is exactly that I’ve spent my time on.

As a result of the idyllic environment I find myself in, it’s hard to remember that I’m less than 200 meters away from Woodstock Road, amongst the busiest roads in Oxford. If you were to, for example, take a right when exiting the college, walking down Woodstock Road for about a kilometer (or maybe less, I’m terrible with distances) will bring you to a pedestrian street whose name escapes my memory.

Directly before this street is the Ashmolean museum, which claims to be Britain’s oldest museum. It sports an exhaustive collection, with Stradivarius Violins, mugs in the shape of Winston Churchill’s head, and just about everything in between. Each item, no matter how small or large has a corresponding information card, and it’s fascinating to see just how rigorously scientific the study of human history and culture can be.

Let’s now exit the Ashmolean and revisit the aforementioned pedestrian street. It acts much like the center of my Oxford Universe. It has restaurants, bookstores, music stores, and most importantly, a Starbucks. It’s where most of the purchases I’ve made in Oxford have taken place (My personal favorite is a poster that reads ‘Welcome to the Madhouse’, which I will hang on the entrance to my bedroom).

I love this street

On the left of this street are two other streets, Broad street (and yes, it’s named Broad Street for the obvious reason) and High Street. Broad street seems to be, to all intents and purposes, a normal street. However, near the entrance is a spot on the road that has not been covered in tar and instead is covered in a rough cobble. It is on this spot that three men, Thomas Crammer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, famously known as the Oxford Martyrs were burned at the stake for practicing the protestant faith. Amusing anecdotes aside, the street is home to numerous stores which sell Oxford-related memorabilia, a few cafés, and a bookstore named Blackwells. I mention this store by name for a reason. It seems, to all intents and purposes, to be an utterly normal bookstore, but go down an innocuous-looking flight of steps and you enter a room named the Norrington room, which just so happens to have three and a half miles of shelves. It’s hard enough to find a shelf at which to start, let alone to choose a book. The second thing this store is notable for is being the only store I’ve found which has been able to procure a copy of The Virgin Suicides (required reading for my IB literature course). At the end of Broad Street lies the Sheldonian theater, the venue for all of Oxford’s formal events such as graduations, and from which the view is apparently stunning.

The second street, High Street, is as you can imagine, the main street of Oxford. All I’ve really done there is eat, but it’s a nice street to be on because it’s just so lively.

If, instead of going down Woodstock road, you cross the road and go down a small little alleyway, you emerge directly in front of Oxford’s natural history museum. Unfortunately, when I happened upon the building, it was closed for renovation and so I could only see small parts of their no doubt extensive collection of dinosaur skeletons. I did, however, see a ten million year old piece of pyrite, the surface of which is an extraordinarily cool phone background:

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Inside the natural history museum, there is rather confusingly, another museum with the interesting name of the Pitt Rivers museum. It is a sanctuary for all manners of anthropology, and as a result, it is perhaps the only room in the world where a shrunken head is but a few steps away from a 20 meter tall totem pole. It’s a fascinating room, but some innate part of me just kept craving to go back to the ancient weapons.

Near the natural history museum is another, lesser known building: the department of chemistry. Ironically, It is here that I have my physics lessons for my summer course. It’s amongst the newest buildings in Oxford, with newfangled Hydraulic lifts and an air circulation system that completely refreshes the air in the building every 12 minutes. It’s here that my tutor (who was, incidentally, a street magician before getting to Cambridge) teaches me about things so esoteric, so innately counter-intuitive that the most fundamental part of me struggles to comprehend the elegance of the universe. He traverses these topics with ease and there’s nothing as exhilarating as the feeling you get when everything you know comes together like the pieces in a laser-cut jigsaw puzzle.

I realise now that I’ve written over 1000 words, so let me try and summarise. As I sit in the train back from Windsor (Having visited Windsor castle and Eton college, the latter of which I found extraordinarily pretentious.), I gaze out of the window in a contemplative mood brought on both by sleep deprivation and a boredom due to a phone that is out of battery. As I watch the sunlight filter through the clouds as though the almighty himself is shining a spotlight on the countryside, I think of random things that have happened to me in the last two weeks. I think of visiting the great hall in the Harry Potter films. I think of that feeling of childlike wonder when I see some of the smartest people I have ever met working on the most interesting things I have ever seen. But most of all, I think about how incredible it is that all of these things can be done in one place.

Posted: February 20, 2014

Guest Blog Post: Brahm Capoor

We are really pleased to reblog this post from Brahm Capoor, who was a student with us at Oxford Summer Courses last year. He wrote this piece (and a second one) while he was with us last summer for his Blog Abzonnian Ramblings. Check back next week for part 2!

04/07/2013

Dreaming Spires

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Oxford is an interesting city.  It’s a dichotomy of old and new, of learning and culture, but most of all, it seems to be centered upon an obstinate refusal to change its ways. This comes to light in all sorts of eclectic manners. It shows in the way cutting edge research is performed in centuries-old buildings. It shows in the grass on some of the college quads, that to this day, you can be rusticated for walking on. It shows in the meandering lanes that wander their way through quaint parks, with the oldest college in Oxford on one side and the newest building on the other side.

For those of you who perhaps aren’t completely familiar with the nuances of the Oxfordian education system, let me attempt to summarize it. Oxford in itself is not somewhere you study, it is an umbrella-like institution encompassing 38 colleges.  As a result, when you apply to Oxford, you apply not to the university itself but to an individual college. On a personal note, it seems a daunting task to consider almost 40 colleges, each with their own flair and merit, and narrow them down to one that’s right for you. It takes a level of retrospection that I’m not entirely sure even exists.

These colleges, most of which have curiously religious-sounding names (indeed, they were generally instituted as institutes whose primary tenets included religious service), are scattered sporadically around the city, as though if there is enough space to build a college, no expense is spared. These aren’t tiny colleges either, they are all incredibly wealthy with many facilities, and if your college doesn’t have them, odds are the university will. The prime example of this is the Bodleian library, the university library, which gets a copy of every book published in the UK.

As part of the summer course in physics that I’m currently undertaking in Oxford, I’m staying in a college called Somerville College. It’s amongst the more unpretentious of the colleges; it says in its student-written prospectus that students are welcome to have snowball fights on the grass (unfortunately, being summer in the UK, the temperature averages a sweltering 14 degrees and so snowball fights aren’t quite possible) and in fact, I spend a great deal of time with my friends just relaxing and chatting with them on the massive lawn.

As sure as I am that you wish to know more about how I spend my time, allow me a momentary digression. Somerville college lies a 5 minute walk away from the high street of oxford, as well as a pedestrian street which seems to have jut about every shop you’d ever need to go. It’s one of those areas that you imagine in your ideal city, It’s got small clothes stores, massive bookstores (there’s one called Blackwells which contains a room with more than 3.5 miles of shelving. I had no idea where even to start.), computer and music stores, all of which are interspersed by the obligatory Starbucks. Stores selling university hoodies aren’t exactly an endangered species either. Buskers line the streets as well as street performers such as this peculiar individual:

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 Oxford isn’t a city you can visit without experiencing. When I say that, I don’t mean that you need to go out and walk around the city. I mean that by being in the city, whether it be relaxing in a dorm room, strolling around your college or shielding yourself from the rain as you walk to the seminar, an Oxfordian vibe permeates itself into your consciousness.

It could be when you go on a ghost tour with Bill Specter and he performs a magic trick on you that will give you nightmares until you figure it out.

This wasn't the magic trick. I know how this one worked

This wasn’t the magic trick. I know how this one worked

It could be when you gaze up at one of the city’s thousand dreaming spires.

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 It could even be when you lie on the grass of Somerville college, in an idyllic stupor, racking your brains as to how you’ll end a blog entry.

Posted: February 12, 2014

Windsor and Eton

One of the other trips that we love to do is to Windsor Castle and Eton College. This trip takes us to the heart of the establishment here in the UK.

Windsor Castle is an official Royal residence, and is still regularly used by Her Majesty. While there last summer we had the privilege of a private talk on the works of art created by members of the Royal Family going back hundreds of years, a talk given by no less than the curator of the royal collection. Followed by the chance to view an exhibition of them, before we proceeded to see the rest of the castle. One of the most marvelous features is St George’s Hall and St George’s Chapel. The Hall was restored after the disastrous 1992 fire and is decorated with the coats of arms of the members of the Order of the Garter. The Chapel is the Chapel of the Order, and includes the stalls reserved for members of the Order on those special occasions on which they gather. The Order of the Garter is the highest order of chivalry and the most prestigious honour in the United Kingdom.

Close to Windsor, across the river, lies Eton, home to Eton College. Eton College is England’s most prestigious Public Schools, and the best known of them all. It boasts more prestigious Alumni than we could name here, including the current British Prime Minister and current Mayor of London, not to mention Princes William and Harry.

After leaving Windsor we have the opportunity to visit Eton, where we are treated to a private tour of the historic school and its famous chapel. This visit allows you to see the classrooms used for teaching at Eton in its earliest days, and the famous Chapel and Hall, giving you a glimpse into life both now and historically at the world’s most famous school. With plenty of opportunity to ask questions it is an eye-opening experience.

Posted: February 4, 2014

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