Nikki Spencer - 2009-06-15
A unique bed and breakfast scheme means the public can now experience life behind the walls of some of Oxford University’s oldest and most prestigious colleges - without having to sit an entrance exam.
My memories of student accommodation date from my time at Manchester University way, way back in the 80’s and are of cell-like rooms, tiny beds with unbelievably thin mattresses and cold draughty shared bathrooms, so as I arrive for an overnight stay at Keble College, Oxford, just opposite the Pitt Rivers Museum, I am very much hoping that things have moved on a little.
I step through the 19th century main gate and a cheery porter takes my bag and asks me if I have had a good journey. We make our way across an immaculate grassy quad and climb the stone steps of an impressive neo-gothic brick building and I know this is going to be a notch or two up from my experiences all those years ago in the industrial North West of England.
My warm and nicely done out room certainly doesn’t disappoint - there are even a couple of smart chrome lamps that I wouldn’t mind at home - and I have to admit that my 19 year old self is pretty envious of the jammy so and so’s that get to live here during term time especially when I see there’s a tasteful white tiled en-suite shower room too - no freezing dashes down corridors in towels for this lot!
It’s certainly not hotel standard - no TV’s, trousers presses or room service - but then it doesn’t claim to be. These are student study rooms and for most guests it’s not so much what’s inside, as what’s immediately outside.
Looking through the window you see Victorian architect William Butterfield’s handiwork with Keble’s chapel to the left and the grand library and dining hall to the right. Not a view you get in your average B&B!
University Rooms is the idea of Charlie Ramsay who graduated from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, back in 2003 with an Honours degree in Geography.
At the end of each term students usually have to vacate their accommodation but Charlie noticed that not all the rooms were being filled by conferences and summer schools and his bed and breakfast idea was born.
“I just knew that people would love to stay in such amazing surroundings but the administration was all too much for the colleges to deal with,” he explains. Ramsay created a website to advertise and administer bookings and in 2007 Keble was the first college to welcome B&B guests.
“We wanted to start with one college as an experiment,” he reveals, “before raising our heads too far above the parapet”.
The scheme has now expanded to include seven Oxford Colleges and four Cambridge colleges as well as Newcastle, Nottingham and Leicester universities, now receiving over 700 bed and breakfast bookings a month.
Now I have to admit that I’m not a morning person - when I’m away I often opt to eat in my room rather than face the world first thing - but at Keble I’m so looking forward to breakfast, which is served in their magnificent dining hall, that I arrive with the early birds rather than the stragglers.
As I start to climb the imposing staircase and my steps echo loudly around me there is only one word going through my head and that is simply – “wow!”
On walking into the huge wooden panelled Victorian Gothic hall a fellow guest comments that it reminds her of school - well not any school I ever attended! It really is like entering another world and you half expect to see Harry Potter whizzing past on a Nimbus 2000.
Being greeted by Dining Hall Manager Gerard McHugh only adds to the experience. With his bow tie and swept back grey hair, it doesn¹t surprise me to discover later that he’s recently taken part in Mastermind where his specialist subjects were Greek Mythology and the poems of Catullus.
We’re seated at a table signed ‘Bed & Breakfast Guests’ and invited to help ourselves. It’s pretty standard fare - cereals, fruit and yoghurt, pastries and toast followed by a fry- up if you want - but it’s the surroundings that are the USP.
Brass lamps, very, very old and very, very long oak dining tables and benches, huge oil paintings of past students (no household names but lots of very serious looking reverends), and arched stained glass windows all add to the atmosphere.
It’s pretty empty now but in term time, Gerard tells us, up to 318 students and fellows eat here three times a day - except at weekends when they offer a more relaxed brunch. Six nights a week, he adds, dinner is a more formal affair with the top table wearing gowns.
We discover that Oxford also has its own language. For example, they have ‘scouts’ rather than cleaners and when guests depart they are given a ‘battel’ rather than a bill. As we leave the hall we take a quick peek through the doors of Keble’s magnificent library opposite but we are not allowed to go in as finalists are studying hard for their exams. Most of them, we are told, are holed up in their accommodation block, where an indication of the stress they are under is perhaps the long line of wine bottles I notice all along one window sill!
The B&B experience at Oxford varies from college to college, with some offering more facilities than others.
At Keble out of term time guests can also book for dinner (£9.75 per person, sit down 7pm prompt) and have access to the college bar, situated in a Grade 2 listed 1970’s building, as well Keble’s Chapel where Holman Hunt’s famous painting The Light of The World hangs in the Side-Chapel. Keble is also one of only two Oxford colleges (Mansfield is the other) to take children as bed and breakfast guests.
As I walk across the quad and see a couple of families enthusiastically exploring, I reckon those other colleges are maybe missing out on an opportunity. At a time when both Oxford and Cambridge continue to face charges of elitism what better way to break down the mystique than to let the next generation see what it’s like for themselves? I’m certainly bringing my teenagers with me next time.
University Rooms (www.universityrooms.co.uk) have B&B rooms at Keble College Oxford from £40 for a single and £88 for a twin. There are also some double rooms available at University College from £90. Rooms in Newcastle start from £28. Most accommodation is available out of term time. The Easter vacation generally runs from mid-March until mid-April, Summer is from mid-June until mid-Oct and Christmas is from the beginning of December to mid-Jan.
And while you’re there…
All Oxford Colleges are very centrally located so you can explore on foot easily. There are a staggering 900 buildings listed as having historic or architectural merit in just one square mile.
Attractions range from the popular Pitt Rivers Museum with it’s outstanding collections from cultures around the world, to treasure house of riches, the Ashmolean Museum, and more recent addition, Oxford Castle Unlocked, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city once you have climbed the 101 steps to the top of St George’s Tower.
You can book guided walking tours of Oxford alongside your accommodation on the University Rooms website plus there are open top bus tours.
29 University of Oxford Colleges are open to the public. Access varies considerably from places which are by appointment or vacation only to others which are open every afternoon.
If the weather’s good you can’t beat a punt on the river. From mid-March until mid-Oct you can hire punts from the Cherwell Boathouse (see our article).
For more ideas of what to do and where to go in Oxford visit the Tourist Information Centre at 15/16 Broad Street Oxford (www.visitoxford.org).