Friday, March 25, 2011

The day I fell in love

Until it happened, I didn’t know it was possible. Like most teenagers, by the age of 18 I’d been in love, or thought I had, but that was always with a person, and, sadly for me, he was usually completely ignorant of the fact. I had no idea whatsoever that one could fall in love with a place.

Growing up as I did in industrial east Lancashire, just outside a typical cotton town, I was very used to seeing mills and shops and rows of small terraced houses snaking up the hillside, or the sturdy, grey stone cottages in the scattered moorland village where we lived. What I was not used to was architectural beauty on a grand scale, at least not in a place where it was possible I might actually live.

In my mid-teens I was lucky enough to visit Paris and Arles on a school French trip, and later Hamburg on a German-language exchange, and was bowled over by their beauty and antiquity. But these were holiday destinations, not places where I could imagine myself living.

Everything changed when a couple of my teachers at the local grammar school encouraged me to consider applying for entrance to Oxford University, and believe me, I needed their encouragement.

We were a working-class family, with no experience of higher education, let alone Oxford; indeed my parents hadn’t even had the chance of a secondary education, but had to stay at their elementary schools until they reached school-leaving age at 14. Because of these missed opportunities they believed strongly in education for their daughters and supported me to the hilt when I said that I wanted to try.

As a family we knew no-one who had ever been to Oxford and thus had no idea which of the five women’s colleges I should apply to. In those days the colleges didn’t even produce a prospectus, so I felt completely in the dark as I tried to choose.

The decision was made for me one evening, when my father called me away from my homework to watch University Challenge.  The winning team was from Lady Margaret Hall and I took it as an omen. I sent in my application, in due course sat the entrance exams, and, to my amazement, was called for interview.

It was a cold, grey day in December when I arrived in Oxford by train. The taxi ride from the station to the college passed in a blur of excitement and nerves, and I couldn’t have told you anything about the town through which I’d just been driven. The college was welcoming and the interviews, though nerve-racking, were fair and encouraging, and by the next day I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I desperately wanted to study there. What had been an abstract ambition had become an urgent desire.

When all the interviews were over, I had a free afternoon before catching my train next morning. So I decided to walk into the city centre and explore a little, before the short winter daylight disappeared. The weather was still cold and grey, indeed it was starting to become foggy. It was the worst possible day for discovering a new place, but it was the only chance I had and I took it. Having bought a town plan, I started to wander. What followed is still as vivid to me now as it was when I tried to describe it to my parents on my return home.  

As I wandered past the ancient college buildings and along the little back streets, walked up the majestic High Street or down Broad Street to Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre and the world-famous Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, I fell hopelessly in love with Oxford.

I loved the extraordinary beauty of its buildings and the profound sense of history which permeated the place, an awareness that for 700 years at least people had been coming here to study and learn and increase the store of human knowledge and understanding.

I knew that it would be the most enormous privilege to be allowed to be part of it all for three years and I still feel this. When I was fortunate enough to be awarded a place, I was aware that life would never be the same again for me and so it proved. For it was in Oxford that I met DH and fell in love for the last time, but that is another story.

Even today, 46 years on from that unforgettable winter's afternoon walk, Oxford is still for me one of my most special places. We all have them, and our lives are the richer for them. I’ve told you one of mine, will you share one of yours?


  1. Venice, Rome, Aix-en-Provence, Cordoba and Sopron in western Hungary. That's five, cos I am greedy.

    But one and only one? Llanidloes; a small mid-Welsh market town of Georgian and Victorian streets and warm-hearted approachable people, surrounded by sheep-studded hills. It just suits me. It's my size. The fact I have bought a house there and we will retire there before long is in no small part owing to you. THANKS!

  2. You're very welcome :-) I myself have lots, but one at a time is enough to think about for my ageing brain. I'll be visiting another in May, but that's for a different post.

  3. What a lovely account. I have never really fallen in love with a single particular place more than another, although I love the Dales and the Lakes. We lived in Germany when I was in my teens, I love some of the houses there, also the Black Forest.

  4. I went for interview at St. Hilda's..and at Somerville at both but plumped for the LSE.
    I know now I missed out on all the networking to get on...but, an innocent, I thought it was all about ability!
    My mother was from a 'town' family in Oxford....

  5. Thanks, Sue. I understood a bit about loving landscapes at that point, but the idea of emotional connection to a place because of how it looked and what it stood for, was conmpletely new and almost overwhelming.

  6. Fly, I was also interviewed at Cambridge, but my heart was at Oxford already. Luckily for me LMH wanted me, while Girton just put me on the waiting list.

    I've always been glad that I went into professions where networking didn't count, as I made only friends, not contacts at Oxford. Given my innocence back then (we were so young at 18) I hadn't a clue about cultivating people who would matter.

  7. There's never been a female version of The Bullingdon Club. I don't think there ever could be, or am I STILL hopelessly naive and trusting in my fifties?

  8. I don't see it somehow, Goldenoldenlady. That kind of activity seems to me to come directly from the tradition of gentlemen's clubs, which have always excluded women or kept tham right on the edge.

    We women have our own ways of getting together, but back in my day they usually involved coffee:-)

  9. How lovely to learn some of your story. And what a wonderful opportunity. I have many favorite places, but I think the top of my list is Cape Cod -- cherished memories ... My favorite city is Rome, countryside is the Lot department of France and then there is Bavaria!!

  10. I have always been extraordinarily grateful for being given this opportunity, Broad. I learned so much at Oxford and not just from books. I still identify strongly with it and have just enjoyed watching the Boat Race win!

    Your list of favourite places is nicely varied. Do you get chance to visit Cape Cod nowadays?

  11. What a wonderful posting! I so enjoyed learning about a pivotal time and place in your life! Isn't it amazing how some of these life-changing decisions we make at the tender age of 18 turn out to be so right?

  12. It is indeed, Kathy, and I am still so grateful that it happened like that. I had never even been to Oxford when I applied, so was overwhelmed by what I found when I went there.

  13. Oh, I SO enjoyed reading this. I too fell head over heels in love with Oxford, and will love it to my dying day, I expect. My husband laughs at the misty-eyed look that comes over me when I talk about it! I was lucky to go there a little older, as a post-grad: at 18 I think I would have been too young to get as much from the experience. As it was, I had a passionate love-hate relationship with it while I was there, always waiting to be 'found out', struggling to find my way, fighting with my supervisor; yet also breathtaken by the beauty and history and opportunities for learning. It still haunts my dreams. But you cannot go back: when you do, it is not the place you remember, because you have aged while it has not. It belongs to another generation now.

    By the way, I do admire your parents for encouraging you to make that difficult leap of imagination; and I admire you for making the leap so successfully.

  14. And I so enjoyed reading your comment, Dancingbeastie! How lovely to find someone else in love with Oxford :-)

    I was 19 and a half by the time I actually went there, having spent 6 months in Germany and France improving my language skills. In those days one stayed on at school for an extra term after A-Levels to do Oxbridge entrance.

    For me Oxford was the place where I grew up and found my husband. We do go back, as our son lives there, but I try not to revisit the centre for the reasons you give. It doesn't belong to me now as it did then, but it still has part of my heart.

  15. I agree with ‘The Broad’ my favourite city must be Rome. I was so bowled over when I visited on a student trip to Italy from my Architecture course in 1971. Previous to that as a working class northern student I had only been to London for the first time the previous summer. In those enlightened days my educational (in every sense) visit was paid for by Lancashire County Council Education Committee.

    In the week we also visited Florence (gorgeous) and Milan but Rome got under my skin. I have still got the sketch, looking up the Via D Conciliazione towards St Peter’s, I made sitting in a pavement café. Whilst sketching a drink was suddenly delivered to me by the waiter with a nod from a smartly dressed, middle-aged man at another table! As I said educational in every sense!

  16. What a lovely story, Polkadot! I hope you gave him a nice smile :-)

    I can imagine the impact Rome would have on someone studying architecture. The sense of history too is overwhelming. Marvellous place, but yours rather than mine. Isn't it a good thing we're all so individual in this too? :-)

  17. I fall in love with places so easily – and it is normally to do with the scenery. From childhood I loved my Pembrokeshire home and then I got a bit polyamorous and fell in love with the Caribbean colours of our Mexico home and this weird corner of Turkey I live in now, all at the same time. Eventually I worked out that I just loved these places because I was discovering them with my husband and when he passed away what was left was the love of discovery. So I plan to keep falling in love forever.


  18. Karen, I know what you mean about the emotional link between places and the person you discover them with. DH and I have come to love areas together - our bits of Wales and France and Scotland, whereas I'm the one who is more easily enchanted by architecture and towns, such as Oxford.

    Oxford is unique because of what I experienced there and the sheer speed with which I fell in love with it, but there are other places I have come to love for different reasons - of which more anon.....

  19. Did you see the latest Lewis on Sunday? LMH doubled for Lady Matilda's College, scene of much mayhem, murder and shenanigans. I pointed out that it was your old college (and your DS's old college) to The Husband.

  20. Unfortunately not. We were at DD's and having an early night ready for an even earlier start. It wil be repeated again before long... and again... and again:-)

  21. Hi Perpetua,
    My favourite place on this planet has to be San Sebastián in the Basque Country of Spain. Have you ever visited the Basque Country?

    1. Hi Marie and welcome to my blog. I'm sorry to say that I've not yet managed to visit Spain at all, though I've heard wonderful things about the Basque Country. I'm now off to research San Sebastián. :-)


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