We live in Oxford, when we’re not in North Northumberland, but I confess I had missed the great news until I read about it on Twitter, thanks to The Northumbrians author (and passionate Geordie), Dan Jackson. Yes, it’s true that, in 1291, the Benedictine monks of Durham Cathedral founded Durham College in Oxford which is, indeed, the oldest university in the UK.
Of course, no one’s heard of Durham College, because it disappeared during the sixteenth-century Dissolution of the Monasteries managed by Thomas Cromwell for King Henry VIII. But the Durham Quadrangle survives as part of Trinity College (someone once assured me that Trinity retains its links with the North-East, even boasting a set of Northumbrian pipes). Still, the foundation of an additional college during Oxford’s first couple of centuries of life was no mean endowment.
But now the region has given a gift to Oxford which, though it will undoubtedly be popular with the student body, will touch the entire population, town as well as gown (as university cities tend to describe the divide).
Greggs has opened a branch in Oxford’s Cornmarket. Yes, the great Northern baker and purveyor of pasties, sandwiches and even vegan sausage-rolls now has a presence in that great seat of learning and of car manufacture (well, they’re still building Minis at Cowley).
How that would have pleased fictional Geordie Detective Inspector Lewis, who learned his trade from the immortal Morse. I suspect the actor who created the famous sidekick’s role will be gratified, too. Come to think of it, Kevin Whateley is arguably another gift from Tyneside to Oxford.
Oxford is, of course, a tourist magnet, and Morse and Lewis play their part in boosting that trade. In Broad Street you can find extravagantly-dressed individuals selling tickets for Oxford Ghost Tours, Morse Tours, you name it. They probably run Harry Potter Tours, too, though I haven’t seen them advertised. But tourists flock in any case to Oxford to pay homage to the celebrated boy wizard.
Harry Potter? But he didn’t go to Oxford!
No, he didn’t. Hogwarts School is, apparently, the only education a wizard needs. But the early Potter movies used Oxford as a backdrop, until they (like the books) became such smash-hits that the settings were recreated (or CGI-ed) at Warner Brothers Studios. (Early on, they used bits of Durham cathedral and castle, too: and, of course, Harry famously learnt to fly in the courtyard of Alnwick Castle).
More precisely, to represent Hogwarts’ dining hall and its approach, they used the magnificent staircase and Great Hall of Christ Church, a college that has the triple distinctions of being founded by Cardinal Wolsey, of housing a cathedral within its walls and of being the home of Alice in Wonderland’s creator, Lewis Carroll. (It’s also currently in the news for less than desirable reasons, including internal politicking and wine theft).
Potter fans flock to Oxford. In one of the many souvenir shops, which sell everything from model London Buses to Mad Hatter tea sets, from Oxford University sweatshirts to Paddington Bears (no, I don’t know why, either), they purchase a Griffindor house scarf and, if really ambitious, a Firebolt (or possibly Nimbus 2000) broomstick, the models on which their literary hero plays the abstruse game of Quidditch.
Then they head to Christ Church, buy tickets and queue up at the side entrance, in the famous Christ Church meadow, for the college tour. Only the other day I was accosted and asked in broken English, “Please, where is Harry Potter Church College?”
It gets worse. A mutual friend tells me the Dean of Christ Church was recently asked, “What was this place used for before you sold it as a film set?”
Christ Church is, of course, a famously posh college. It always has been. Even back in my student days, 45 years ago, there was a popular piece of graffiti that declared, “Lots of camels in Egypt. Lots of Etonians in Christ Church. Egypt had first choice.”