Keble & Merton Colleges, Oxford

Friday 1 January 2016

December was, as it probably always is for everyone, a pretty busy month. The final weeks of the first semester of my Master's degree, planning essays, a winter party at Maggs Bros booksellers, sorting out a new house, a bout of illness, two interviews (and a new job!), a little more planning for an event at the V&A in 2016, and a fleeting visit to Scotland to see family all kept me occupied. I also managed to squeeze in a visit to Oxford with my coursemates, to view manuscripts at Keble and Merton Colleges.

When I was younger and considering the madness of an Oxbridge university education, I only had eyes for Cambridge. Everyone told me it was less stuffy, more relaxed (or as relaxed as a place like it could be), more modern. I didn't even go to Oxford to take a look. As it turned out, I decided neither was the place for me, and in classic indecisive fashion changed my mind about what to study approximately fifty times. Years later, and I'd still never visited - so a trip inside two of the Colleges and their libraries plus a wander around the town was something I was looking forward to.

Keble College was beautiful: it's made up of magnificent red brick neo-gothic buildings (once described as 'the ugliest building in the world' by art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who I believe was slightly unkind in his assessment!) including a giant chapel, and the grass is mown - even in the middle of winter - to a level of striped perfection that would once have given my father heart palpitations. On the lower floors of the library, through carefully locked vaults, we were shown some of Keble College Library's most precious manuscripts; including the spectacularly illuminated Regensburg Lectionary (MS 49), a thirteenth century text made for a group of Dominican nuns ... which I appreciate is probably less exciting to most people than it is to me.

A wander through the town via lunch in the vaults of St Mary's took us to Merton College. It was interview week, so we were surrounded by wide-eyed, terrified teenagers clutching their preparatory notes (though one confidently waded into our conversation to insist Merton is the oldest college at Oxford). William de Brailes, one of the most famous English manuscript illuminators of the thirteenth century, worked in Catte Street, just around the corner - and at Merton we got to handle a manuscript attributed to him! Here was where I really felt like perhaps, actually, Oxford would have been a great place to study - a Christmas tree, stone buildings and tiny doors straight out of Harry Potter, and a fourteenth century library complete with chained books and medieval tiling. Looking at the interviewees' scared little faces though, I suddenly didn't feel too envious.


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