Get out of town: Living in a non-central college

Features Student Life

“Ohh, interesting… that’s quite far out, isn’t it?” – The automatic response of any high street collegiate in the textbook exchange of introductory questions. One repressed eye-roll later and I find myself speaking in defence of my humble, radically modern home, St Hilda’s, perched on the river across Magdalen Bridge (that’s right, Cowley country). Yes, I have to cycle to all my lectures. No, I can’t fall out of my bed and into exam schools at the end of Trinity. And yes, I do have to get a taxi home from Park End (or, you know, avoid going entirely). But there is also something special about living in a college outside the centre – and it’s not just the reduced likelihood of being taken out by a selfie-stick in my own college, or my hangover-ridden face non-consensually featuring in several dozen Instagram stories.

There is, unarguably, a snobbery about colleges. The perceived hierarchy is founded on more than location – history, wealth, number of awful prime ministers – but it does play a large role; central colleges like Queen’s and Trinity are, simply, more visible, more readily accessible and, as a general rule, older and therefore more established than most of the “peripheral” colleges. It is easy, especially when first arriving in Oxford, to harbour a kind of college-envy about these things. And there are tangible downsides; there is a sense, for instance, that it’s harder to establish friendships outside of college; neighbours are sparse. You’re more likely to bump into people you know on your way home down Turl Street than at the infernal roundabout over Magdalen Bridge. And a Balliolite persuaded to make the 15-minute walk to your obscure peasant-college? Unheard of, about as morally defensible as passing Hassan’s on the way to Houssain’s. Hearing the inevitable “Is it even a real College though” is going to make your heart sink a little.

“There is, unarguably, a snobbery about colleges. The perceived hierarchy is founded on more than location – history, wealth, number of awful prime ministers – but it does play a large role”

But being ‘out of town’ has its advantages. Away from the pressure of maintaining an air of prestige – the untouchable quads, staff-manned bars and formals that don’t descend into carnage – college energies and funds are focussed instead on forging a sense of home-life and community. Democracy overrides tradition; at Hilda’s, our LGBT+ community, rather than having to fight for the rainbow to stay on the flagpole, is integrated into everyday life – an unchallengeable chamber of the college’s beating heart. Our bar unites generations; humming with the sound of slightly dodgy speakers and the undertones of conversations between college kids and their grandparent’s peers. (In the daytime, the hum is usually attributable to the house-sized drill in our college construction site). Our lawns are not untouchable and host picnics, football games and shared Prosecco with the principle. Perhaps thanks to our geographical isolation it is possible – and necessary – to become a part of the college family – and this includes college staff, tutors and the college cats.

Counter-intuitively, as a result of the close-knit communities in colleges that are further out, there is also more of an impetus to make contact with other colleges; wheedling into inter-collegiate crewdates, sport’s teams and cultural events, or even gathering small groups to ‘venture out’ together to political and subject-specific society events in town give us endless opportunities to meet new people (even if it takes a good walk to get there first).

“Perhaps thanks to our geographical isolation it is possible – and necessary – to become a part of the college family – and this includes college staff, tutors and the college cats.”

Outskirt colleges also have the advantage of much cheaper (and better) local pubs – while centre colleges have to flock to Spoons for an affordable pint, Cowley has a whole array of affordable and lovely bars, cuisine from around the world and live music and open mic nights all week long, without the men in sub fusc angrily citing Kant at each other at full volume. So, in those, for me at least, very regular moments where I feel like packing my things, rusticating, and opening a turtle sanctuary in the Caribbeans, its generally easier just to get a taste of ordinary life outside of Oxford for a couple of hours.

Our Oxford experience doesn’t involve a back exit onto Radcliffe Square, but then it also involves so many opportunities and freedoms that are simply not available to central colleges. It involves looking at the ‘dreaming spires’ stencilled against the horizon – while sprawled across the lawn by the river Cherwell together, sharing five-pound wine and overlooking tulip-fringed paths and ineffective punters. Of course, when I walk into Queen’s, straight off high street, my heart still twangs a bit; there is no denying the beauty, the sense of historicity, there is no denying that Queen’s students experience Oxford in a very different way to my adrenaline-fuelled cycle relay race. But this is just the point; the idea of a unified “Oxford Experience” is a fallacy. Student life here differs immensely from person to person and this is down to so much more than just the location of your college. Perhaps its time to accept that college snobbery is just another unneeded segregation in the small percentage of people privileged enough to be at one of the top institutions in the world. At the end of the day, crossing the bridge, having a longer walk home from lecture halls – I don’t think these things make a difference, so long as Oxford feels like home.

Photo credits: Oxonist