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Oxford (and beyond)

Oxford is everything I imagined it to be and more. It oozes history and tradition, and there is a romance about it that is quite seductive. The University of Oxford is woven into the very fabric of the city, but ‘town and gown’ has not been without its conflicts through the centuries.

I was lucky enough to spend some time at Balliol College - the oldest of the University’s 39 colleges. It was established in 1263 by John de Balliol who, after a falling out with the Bishop of Durham, was whipped and given a penance of a substantial act of charity. Balliol established a house of scholars and, when he died in 1269, his widow (Dervorguilla of Galloway - what a name!) created a permanent endowment and Statutes in 1282 to ensure Balliol College lived on. A house of scholars it remains 760 years later!

Balliol College has its own halls of residence, teaching spaces, gardens and a chapel. It even has a patron saint (St. Catherine of Alexandria) and, like all colleges, its own coat of arms. We (me and my fellow Oxford Strategic Leadership Program participants) had afternoon tea in Balliol’s student dining hall. The tables were already laid for dinner (three courses with wine being tradition, so tables laid accordingly), and the seating hierarchy was obvious (another of those traditions), with the elevated ‘high’ table and its plush dining chairs, another long table (but lower) also with comfy dining chairs, then several long tables with benches.

After the course (an amazing learning experience in so many ways), I spent the better part of the weekend in Oxford. By the time I left, I confess I was feeling a little conflicted… with history comes baggage. Take off the rose coloured glasses and you see lots of portraits and statues of old, white men of privilege, and in some cases, men of questionable ethics such a Cecil Rhodes. Take off the rose coloured glasses and you see museum collections that reflect a history of colonisation and cultural appropriation. None of this is lost on the scholarly community, but contentious and controversial issues are not easily resolved.

When I thought about buildings (and books) whose history pre-dated Australian settlement by more than 500 years, it makes me very conscious that Australia is home to the oldest, continuous culture on the planet dating back at least 40,000 years.

On Saturday night, I took myself off to listen to The Marian Consort, a choral group performing renaissance and modern (renaissance inspired) choral pieces. Two of the composers - both talented, young women, were in the audience. It was wonderful, and in addition to resuming viola and piano lessons, I now want to take singing lessons!

After lunch on Sunday, I jumped in a car and headed to Leeds via Blenheim Palace. I knew next to nothing about Blenheim Palace before I arrived (other than some vague notion that Winston Churchill had some connection to the place) and confess I assumed it would be a preserved example of a lifestyle of the past. Sure enough, there was a Churchill connection (indeed, there is a Churchill exhibition) but boy did I assume wrong. I had to booked ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ tours, and I was in for a few surprises.

  • Blenheim Palace is home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough - Charles James Spencer-Churchill (yes, those Spencers are connected too). Family photos on display, we walked through bedrooms (including the Duke’s, Churchill’s favourite, and the one Bill Clinton stayed in), and the mattresses are monogrammed (in every bedroom… and there are many)!

  • There are three acres of ‘downstairs’ (though about a third of the space is now used to house the Churchill exhibition). Kitchens, laundry, wine cellars, flower room, you name it. The Butler’s quarters also contain a massive walk-in safe for all the silver - which he is responsible for polishing (among other things).

  • The bell system (i.e. the bells linked to various rooms to summons staff) is purportedly the largest still in operation (there were more than 40). The bells have different ring tones to help staff identify the room and a little pendulum swings on after the bell stops ringing too for those not familiar with the different tones.

  • Even the stables are palatial and hunting is still a pastime, !) but… the 11th Duke of Marlborough changed ‘servants’ to ‘staff’.

  • The staff dining room and common room is also ‘downstairs’, but sleeping quarters for all other staff is above the ‘upstairs’. The current Duke now only has five staff.

The Duke’s heir is his son, George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford. The aristocracy is alive and well in another world not that far away.

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May 27, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Very interesting. Past (and inherited present) institutions of power, wealth, privilege, status and class laid bare. V

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