Bridging the Watford Gap

Student Life

For Northerners in Oxford, it can sometimes feel like a constant battle against a southern way of life. Everywhere you turn it seems there is someone else who softens their a’s, “arsks” if you’re going to supper as if this meal actually exists, and who never repeats personal pronouns. I find it hard, me. So did some fellow northerners at St Anne’s. As a way of combating the southern dominance, they decided to start a Northern Society to celebrate all things we hold dear the wrong side of the imaginary iron curtain that separates the North from the South.

For those of you who have never ventured further than Watford Junction, Up North it’s consistently below freezing and Newcastle is sufficiently far into the Arctic Circle that it only receives light for half of the year. It would be possible to enjoy aurora borealis from Durham were it not for the thick blanket of smoke that covers the sky. It’s like north Oxford, but grimmer. In such remote, desperate locations, people soon appreciate the essentials in life: gravy and alcohol. Natalie Theodolou and Philippa Shellard are both from Lytham St Annes, near Preston; together they make-up St Anne’s northern core. They agreed to talk to me about their northern antics.

Essentially, Northern Soc, which unfortunately is not yet recognised by OUSU, organises dinners at well known gravy outlets like ‘The Big Bang’. Having started as a St Anne’s phenomenon, students from across Oxford have been tempted to sample some northern culture. Philippa Shellard stresses that the North is “the same country, not a different planet”. Perhaps above all the society is concerned with advertising the friendly, welcoming nature of the northern human, so don’t feel you have to self-identify as northern to join in.

Our Scottish and Welsh cousins are even more outnumbered than the Northerners. The essence of the Caledonian Society is beautifully captured by its Senior Member, Dr. Whittow:  “Cal Soc has no greater agenda than the fact that Scottish dancing is huge fun, but does require people roughly to know what they are doing; otherwise it gets a bit dull.” Established in 2002 by a Teddy Hall undergraduate, Charlie Ramsay, the format of society events has involved black tie dinners, piper-led processions, live (presumably fiddle dominated) bands, with an emphasis on the dance. Clearly, Cal Soc embodies all the romance its Latinate name suggests.

Dr Whittow says that “everyone’s welcome provided they can dance or are willing to learn (which isn’t difficult).” As an historian, Dr Whittow notes the English beginnings of many of the dances performed by Cal Soc members. Crucially, however, “the Scots had the sense to realise what fun they were”.

For the Welsh among us there is, of course, Welsh Society.  Outings often involve trips to drinking establishments in order to watch the national pastime, rugby. However, the girl dressed like a giant daffodil at the Fresher’s Fair did not manage to attract the membership of the Welsh people I have spoken to.

Minorities within Oxford don’t just come from abroad. There are home-grown groups of students who also feel outnumbered in the southern stronghold of Oxford. You will be pleased to hear that this rare breed of Oxford student has discovered a vital survival technique: the society.

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