When I travel, I stay in hostels. I love hostels. Mostly. Sometimes when I'm just trying to cook up a meal in a kitchen filled with staggering, drunken teens, or read the morning paper over the thumping sound of bass, or sleep in a crowded bunk room where one person is snoring, one has a constant cough, and one has a boy sleeping next to her, I think, "I might be getting too old for this."
That thought hung over me like a gloom as I searched for hostel options in Oxford. I already had some familiar mainstays for London, but I knew nothing about Oxford, and the hostel reviews were grim. A bed and breakfast might give me some of the same group atmosphere that hostels are good for - less drunkenness too - but I wasn't quite ready to bump up to that level.
That's when I discovered a great site called University Rooms. The site works with various universities around the world to rent out their vacant rooms, especially during school holidays. Rooms cost more than a hostel but less than a bed and breakfast.
In most cases you might ask, "Why on earth would I want to pay to sleep in some kid's empty dorm room?" But for Oxford it was perfect. For Oxford, it meant that I got to march boldly into colleges that are normally closed to the public. It meant I could loiter in the quad in the morning and watch the light shine through the stained glass at night, and there was no tour guide looming over me to rush me along.
I stayed in Oxford for several nights, and each night in a different college. Like a bed and breakfast, my stay always included breakfast in the main dining hall. If you want to imagine what that's like, picture the dining hall at Hogwart's, but smaller and with no floating candles. Picture servers who won't let you raise a finger, dishes engraved with the school's crest, and rows upon rows of austere scholarly dead guys gazing down upon you. (Non-moving portraits, sadly.) And then picture contentedly strolling back through the gardens, up the narrow stone staircase to your room, recently cleaned by the scouts, where you make a cup of tea while looking out the window at the rooftop spires while the bells of half a dozen towers ring out the hour in discordant unison.
To think, right now I could be tiptoeing over the mystery stain on the carpet in a hostel while Tuberculosis Girl hacks over the communal sink.
Of course, not all Oxford rooms are created equal. At one college I was in a room several hundred years old, while at another stayed in an addition build in the 1960's. The newer rooms lack charm, but the older ones lack...heat. Plumbing. I think there has been a general philosophy over the centuries that the more uncomfortable you are, the better you learn.
Here are the rooms I stayed in. Can you guess which colleges they're from?
A modern (and teensie!) room that overlooked a street. A little too much traffic noise for my taste, but I imagine you get used to it if you're into your reading deeply enough. (If you're not into your reading that intensely, what are you doing studying here?)
And old room that's been modernized. The little fireplace was sadly non-functional. (It had carpeting underneath it.) But pretty classy, otherwise.
I drew the curtains because it was nighttime. I'm pretty sure these curtains (also the furniture) were original to the circa 1960's room.
Wow, a room that doesn't have gray carpets! I really liked the permanent Dutch angle feel to this room, which, as you can see, was shoved right up against the sloping roof. Kind of a hobbit room. Did Tolkien ever stay here? Hmm...
This room might not blow you away, but man oh man, you should have seen the view out that window. Plus those shutters opened up completely and the ledge was two feet wide, so I could sit halfway out writing in my journal while eavesdropping on conversations below. I might be biased for this particular room just because it was the first one I stayed in.
Did you guess the colleges? Did you see the wicked trick I just played on you?? One of those rooms is a Cambridge room, of course! Bwa-ha! How delightfully droll of me.
In that last picture, notice the one brilliant, rebellious, eye-popping decoration on wall. Weee! This is one of the big differences between Oxford/Cambridge college rooms and American ones. When I was a university student, I moved in to my room big time for the entire year. And by that I mean I grew tropical plants there, strung up Christmas lights, got an awesome ghetto $20 recliner, flipped the beds, had a gecko, stuck posters and postcard to every surface...That room was mine, baby.
(Well...and also my roommate's, to be fair.)
At Oxbridge they do a pretty good job of communicating the fact that you are just passing through - nay, that you are a wispy seed of a person who hardly deserves to settle more than a moment upon the venerated stones of those schools. If you should go out into the world and do well for yourself, that's another matter. Then you can donate a lot of money and have a renovated section of rooms named after you. But you want to hang a picture on the wall? Forget it. To make sure of this, they uproot you from your room every eight weeks and rent it out to ogling tourists like me.
So, if you ever find yourself in Oxford (or Cambridge!) without a place to stay, I highly recommend you take a look at University Rooms.
That way when you get sick with a cold and have to sleep and sip tea for half the day - like what happened to me - you can stare at the walls and at least feel like you're still having a unique travelling adventure.