Photography by Andrew Campbell Black and Naomi Omori
A spire in the sun, the sound of bells echoing in a cloister, and the swish of a scholar’s gown down Queen’s Lane are celebrated without shame in Evelyn Waugh’s oft-quoted Brideshead Revisited. Is the story of Charles and Sebastian the most romantic of all time? This ultimately doomed relationship enjoys a golden stage in Oxford. As a first year, Charles spends his time feeling that he’s not quite making the most of life in Oxford – that is, until Sebastian Flyte vomits through the window of his ground-floor room and a beautiful friendship begins.
Playing croquet in straw boaters in the sun and picnicking on Plover’s eggs and champagne may earn you a few disdainful stares in 2011, and anyway, it’s a bit cold for that in February, but there’s nothing to stop you from trying to recreate a bit of your own Brideshead magic with your Valentine on the 14th. Although the college Charles is at is never named, it’s assumed to be Merton. Why not go for a romantic frolic around the sundial, look at the sunset over Christ Church meadows, or count the snowdrops growing on the lawn? If it’s good enough for Charles and Sebastian, it’s good enough for us. Retrace their steps and quote The Waste Land at each other – bringing your own oversized teddy bear to join in the fun is optional.
Philip Pullman immortalised every single bench in the Botanical Gardens with the heart-wrenching ending of The Amber Spyglass. At the end of this fantasy book, the two main characters, Will and Lyra, make a pact to sit on a bench at the back of Oxford’s Botanical Gardens and talk to each other on Midsummer’s Day every year, despite whatever happens in their lives. So, to really show your Valentine that you love them, take a flask of winter Pimm’s and a mushy attitude to the back of the gardens and canoodle to your heart’s content, with the spirit of Will and Lyra only adding to the romantic atmosphere.
Magdalen College’s Addison’s Walk is one of the most secluded and peaceful spots in the whole of Oxford. The likes of C.S Lewis, Tolkien, Oscar Wilde and Lawrence of Arabia have walked this hallowed path, with the ethereal woodland apparently the inspiration behind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even if you don’t speak Elvish, it’s hard not to be touched by the beauty of this place. The path is framed by trees and follows the river part of the way, with tree roots, spring flowers, and mossy branches making up some of the surrounding scenery. Look out for the stone bench half way around the walk, where you can sit and watch the sky turn pink and the sun fall behind Magdalen tower.
If even all this gorgeousness can’t work its magic and you and your date aren’t quite feeling the spark, at least you can watch the Magdalen deer having fun: it’s the rutting season – well, sort of – at the moment, so your own personal view of a deer orgy could make for some rather unusual alternative entertainment.
Matthew Arnold, in his poem remembering his great friend and fellow-poet Arthur Clough, writes about their time at Oxford. He coined the famous phrase often used to describe Oxford when he wrote ‘And that sweet city with her dreaming spires/ She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,/ Lovely all times she lies – lovely tonight!’ Share some of this loveliness with the one you love, and inhale the sweetness of the spires together. Two of the most picture-postcard views of the spires are from the top of Magdalen Tower or the spire of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. From such a height, Oxford looks like a toy town, and you can trace the streets of the whole city spread before you.
If you’re trying to impress a musical other half, take them on a pilgrimage to see one of the first violins constructed by Stradivari at the Ashmolean Museum. Made by the renowned Italian musical instrument craftsman in the seventeenth century, this violin is also known as ‘The Messiah’, and is one of the famous violins in the world. So, even if you don’t feel you’re capable of playing your own string serenade, you can look at this violin and use the power of imagination to recreate the tunes of courtly love that this little instrument has sung. The same goes for the other treasures of the museum: plan your own personal tour of affection, tailored to the interests of the one you want to impress.
If you can’t quite face the inflated prices and antiseptic atmosphere of some of the High Street’s more classy establishments, why not take your date for a meal at Cafe Cous Cous on St Clement’s? This friendly restaurant is a far cry from the Oxford of Brideshead, but a perfect example of the Oxford we know and love now. What could be more romantic than sitting cross-legged on Moroccan cushions, sipping mint tea and scooping houmous and harissa, and then finishing off with a shisha pipe? It’s a universally acknowledged fact that awkwardness disappears when eating with your hands, so relish the whole tactile experience and let the conversation flow.
What NOT to do with your Valentine:
It’s 2-4-1 at Pizza Hut this Valentine’s Day. Do not make the mistake of thinking that thrift and romance are perfect partners. You will be shamed by the waiter, laughed at by 13 year olds on their first date, and experience the queasy post-stuffed crust slump guaranteed to snuff out any flicker of romance. Having said that, the ice cream factory does still retain a hint of post-ironic charm (who doesn’t love mini smarties?!) – but then, equally, so does singledom.
At the end of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure the tragic wannabe-Oxford-student eponymous hero dies in a draughty room in town, while his wife abandons his dead body to go and watch boat races on the Isis. If you’re really looking for an unsuccessful date, why not recreate this scene? You can leave out the death part, but one of you could sit with the heating off in a single-glazed room in Cowley whilst the other wanders down the river, alone. Suitably tragic – Thomas Hardy would be proud.
The most famous wedding of the decade will be happening in just a few short months’ time. Would it be a bad idea to stage your own early version of Wills and Kate’s nuptials this Valentine’s Day, just for the laughs? Be inspired by the limited edition memorabilia on sale in the tourist information office on Broad Street and put on your very own royal wedding. Serve tea out of commemorative mugs, stirred with silver plated spoons bearing the image of Kate’s head on the handle, and then do your drying up with the official tea towel. Boys, dress in your sharpest suit, and girls, don’t worry about getting the real Issa version of Kate’s royal blue frock, you can pick up the Tesco imitation for £14 – bargain! And if your wedding breakfast is more quiche Lorraine than lobster, fear not – for real love is transcendental.