It was December afternoon. Not late enough to be described as evening, but already dark. As it is in December. My first time visiting Oxford. It was before the days of having GoogleMaps on my phone, days before free roaming. The year was 2012. Feels like a lifetime ago now.
I had a simple enough task ahead of me. I had to walk from Gloucester Green, the Oxford bus station, to New College, also in Oxford. Half a mile walk, as technology told me. How hard could it be, I thought.
I got off the coach from Luton Airport at the bus station, wrapped in my puffy orange winter coat that my mum insisted I wore, on account of it being, well, winter. I reclaimed my large suitcase from the driver, for travelling lightly was a foreign concept to the 18-year-old me, and, a printed out map in hand, I set for my destination.
December Oxford was beautiful. The weather was mild and, especially in my puffy coat, I was warm and could enjoy the Christmas decorations already in place, as I walked down the main streets of this quaint, historic city. I have to admit, I was excited out of my mind. I was on my way to make my dream come true – I was about to have an interview for a place at the Oxford University. That December evening I was both scared and slightly afraid of the unknown, but it also felt as if everything I had worked so hard for was finally becoming a reality. Of course I knew I could still get rejected. But I’d beaten so many amazing candidates already, and a little voice in my head was saying ‘Darling, you got this far already, why wouldn’t they absolutely love you’.
I was thinking all those lovely thoughts as I passed the Cornmarket Street, with its plethora of shops and places to eat (and the place where I later purchased a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey). I carried on walking, past Balliol College which I initially wanted to apply to, with its large banner welcoming interview candidates, then past stores full of university merchandise, which I knew I wouldn’t be buying. University of Oxford hoodies were for tourists, I knew that much.
Oxford was working its magic on me. I don’t think there is a person who could remain impervious to the charm of those cobbled streets, stone buildings, the feeling that you’re in the middle of a place that has a history stretching further than many countries’ existence. The atmosphere of learning, of great things still to come, is almost palpable there. I simply couldn’t not become enchanted, when I passed by the Sheldonian Theatre where, even though I didn’t know it yet, I would become a matriculated Oxford student some months later.
And then I reached a crossroads. I could either continue down the broad, well-lit Holywell Street, or change my course, and take myself down the New College Lane.
I was an Oxford applicant, a candidate to read Law, no less! I therefore decided to use cold logic here, which had served me so well when writing my aptitude test. Yes, Holywell Street was more inviting, but where else would you find New College if not on New College Lane!
I chose to change my path and take the route logic dictated. I soon found myself under the iconic Bridge of Sighs – a beautiful bridge over the street connecting two buildings belonging to Hertford College. Seeing a sight I recognised from numerous pictures I’ve seen of Oxford filled me with conviction that this surely must be the right way (why it filled me with such conviction, I wouldn’t be able to tell you now).
I carried on walking. During the day, and especially in warmer months, New College Lane is quite beautiful. There are all those old buildings, and you pass by some sweet little houses with gardens full of flowers. It’s a winding street, between buildings a few centuries old, some probably dating back to the days when my own country still had castles built of wood.
At night, however, it’s not quite so lovely a walk. The walls are tall, making the path dark and lit only with street lamps that give a feeble, yellowish light, adding to the slightly sinister feel of the place. New College Lane is also not the most frequented of Oxford paths, and even on the sunniest of days walking down it can feel rather lonely.
That night I was there almost alone, walking behind two young men, who didn’t seem much concerned with me, but who did make me slightly uncomfortable. The heavy suitcase was beginning to weigh down on my unmuscled arm, and the coat my caring mother had put me in began to make me unreasonably hot. Puffy winter coats are not really suitable for mild English winter, I learnt. It wasn’t nice and warm anymore, it was sweaty and uncomfortable. As I was walking, and spotting no entrance to the college, the realisation began to dawn on me.
I was on my own, with a heavy suitcase, and I was completely and utterly lost.
But I decided to power on. New College Lane turned into Queen’s Street, and I was becoming less sure of my earlier ‘logical’ decision with every step. The buildings on either side looked the same. It all looked very same-ish. After more walking, or rather dragging my feet, as the suitcase I was forced to pull behind me was making this walk even harder, I emerged onto the High Street. It was broad, and busy, and so much brighter and more welcoming than the winding lane I had just exited. I was no closer to finding my destination, but at least I no longer felt like one of those characters in a horror movie, at which you’d be shouting from the comfort of your armchair ‘Why on earth would you go down there alone, you moron, you were asking for those zombies to bite your head off, you silly!’
I consulted my map again. I’m sure you forgot I had a map on me, didn’t you? Following its instructions, I walked a bit down the High Street, and then up a street that absolutely had to finally take me to my destination, didn’t it? I passed by the Magdalen College, which I later discovered had one of the most amazing gardens I ever had a chance to visit, but at that moment I couldn’t give two straws about any garden even if the Queen herself was sitting in it.
Sure enough, that street took me to the grand entrance to New College. Which was, funny you asked, on Holywell Street. Yes, roughly two minutes walk from the spot where my Oxford-worthy logic told me to change my course. I walked through the gate, and was welcome by a concerned face of one of the porters.
‘Gabriela? Good you’re here, we were beginning to get worried.’
I explained about getting lost, and noted the surprise on the gentleman’s face.
‘Lost? But how did you manage that? It’s a straight way from the bus station!’
Oh, yes. If only I had known that…
(In my defence, to this day, when asked to show the way to New College, Google Maps will direct you down New College Lane. There is, indeed, an entrance there, but it is rarely open to the public and only accessible to those lucky enough to be the members of New College.)
Cover photo by http://pher.ch/photos/