“Will, look out the window,” my friend Chris said. We were on a train heading north to Worcester for a rowing regatta and were passing the time for our hour-long journey. “Look,” he said, “See the fields and meadows, those little cottages? This is what we fought for in the war.” He sounded like a very old man, but of course he wasn’t. He was talking about the Second World War, when English civilization itself seemed vulnerable to the armies of Adolf Hitler, when a great, mechanized enemy threatened to destroy what England held dear. The scenery Chris was pointing to—half-jokingly because I was American and apparently needed a lesson in the British national identity—represented a vital part of the idea of England. Those green meadows and stone cottages represented an old England, one full of men and women who led humble, honest lives and meddled in no one’s business but their own. Every country has a mythology of some kind, and this is theirs: the lush countryside, the quiet life and the individual strength of heart.
Churchill’s government—and the man himself—used the imagery to great effect to rally the British people during the war. And while a mythology must always be manufactured, there are certain places at certain times when it becomes difficult to distinguish myth from reality. Oxford in the summertime is one of them. The trees, the stone buildings, the creeks and the pubs—these are inseparably part of the idea of England. The British can be a very historical people, merging past and present to create a sense of mission, of destiny. Walking through Oxford’s more scenic parts, you might start to believe it yourself.
Oxford is a changed city in the summer. The sun has been hiding for much of the year, but in the last month it finally emerges, and the effect is glorious. The trees light up in a lush, almost tropical green and the stone buildings, especially the colleges, glow golden as the sun starts to set. Oxford’s skyline is nothing but trees and stone turrets. It has looked like this all year, but never as good as now. And finally, the river and creeks become open to the public. Before, only the rowers really used Oxford’s waterways, but now they are filled with all kinds of people: students, children, couples, families—but friends most of all, paddle-boating, punting and even swimming. Students dressed up in white ties and black robes celebrate the end of their exams by getting cornered by their friends and bombarded with confetti, shaving cream and champagne. It’s easy to spot a third-year who has just been “trashed.”
The creeks here are narrow. They weave quietly through pastureland and are hugged by greenery on the banks and a canopy of tree branches above. Punters—propelling flat wooden boats with long metal poles—have to be precise navigators unless they want to get stuck in the underbrush. In the meadow by Christ Church College, cows roam and graze, occasionally grunting at passersby. Everywhere, a breeze makes the trees sing. This is the world of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the inspiration for Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. It is easy to see why others before you were so moved by the scene. Oxford teaches you to think critically, objectively, to hold analysis above all. But this defies analysis. With this before you, you begin to understand something about the English people. For a brief moment, you feel like you are even one of them.