Naturally, the very second the six of us were setting off on the first Director’s Walk, a cloud-burst forced us to take shelter underneath a tree right across the road from Ertegun House’s limestone façade. Surrounded by new faces after many months of isolation and uncertainty, we made tentative introductions and conversation. Any fears I had of running out of small talk were quickly quelled - my new cohort’s various areas of study and interest knocked me for six, each one more fascinating than the last. Once the rain had let up a little, we pushed on towards the centre of town, where Gervase regaled us with his extensive knowledge of the city. From long-standing student jokes and Saxon watchtowers, we came to a leaning Chaucerian medieval townhouse on the corner of Ship and Cornmarket Streets (whose warped wood had stood the test of time to see it turned into a Prêt A Manger, where students might now satisfy their cravings by buying overpriced sandwiches instead of attempting to seduce carpenter’s wives)!
Prêt A Manger on Cornmarket Street, Oxford
Arriving on Broad Street, we were suddenly treated to the sun’s reappearance and the wet world around us reflected a stunning blue autumn afternoon with the rather damp statues of the Muses on the roof of the Clarendon building presiding over our group as Gervase pointed out features of the young Sir Christopher Wren’s and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architectural endeavours.
The Clarendon Building on Broad Street with some of the nine Muses visible
We spent the afternoon strolling, chatting and getting to know each other as well as the rich historic fabric of Oxford. Wandering down to Christ Church meadow through the winding backstreets, we took in excellent views of the High Street and squinted at the river in the distance, the site of the original ‘oxen ford.’
Our last stop was the University Church’s Vaults and Gardens café. Much needed and restorative cream teas were the order of the day, and we continued to swap enthusiastic stories of our backgrounds and our hopes for the months to come. Our stories may be just another inkblot on one of the pages of Oxford’s annals, and 2020 will certainly not be remembered as a year of bounteous good fortune; but sitting beneath the vaulted ceiling of the old Congregation Room where the university had its medieval beginning, I felt lucky. Lucky to have my start at this extraordinary institution surrounded by extraordinary people who are motivated by their passion and undeterred by the adversities of life and a global pandemic. Most people will agree that a walk is always a good idea, but instead of clearing my head, my new cohort filled it with hopeful excitement. This year may not be like any that Ertegun Scholars have experienced before, but there is hope for us yet as we explore who we wish to become, with the House and the people inside it intrinsically part of this journey. With such a benchmark, how could I not look forward to the many more Oxford wanders sure to come?
Wilmien Janse van Rensburg