Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Black Tie at Oriel College, Oxford University


I realized my mistake only when I tried to sit. A long gown seemed appropriate for a black tie dinner at my husband’s alma mater. There was the added benefit of hiding my old shoes. When Henry was at Oriel, it was all male. No student would have had to hike her dress up to her knees to straddle the bench, although he would have worn an academic gown.

The men on the wall side actually climb onto the bench and then the narrow table to reach the other side. Grown men in tuxedos were stepping through china, linen napkins and wine glasses. The elders sat on chairs at the high table. I must have been one of the youngest at the Oriel Society dinner.

Framed in gold, Oriel forbears, such as Walter Raleigh, watched the scene with imperious detachment. The dark oak-paneled room had a high vaulted ceiling and was far longer than it was wide. Cavernous! Add brooms and it would be Hogwarts.


The dining hall at Christ Church (above), the grandest college at Oxford, was actually featured in the Harry Potter movies. This wealthy and aristocratic college was also the setting for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Oriel is more intimate, but the feeling is similar. Founded in 1326 Oriel has 300 undergraduates. Christ Church dates from 1524 and has 450 undergraduates. Oxford University is really a congregation of many small colleges with separate admissions and faculty. The colleges compete in sports and have individual identities.


Henry was in his element sporting his boating club blazer for coxing the second eight. Oriel is known for being the rowing college at Oxford. In Henry’s day there were fifteen 8-man boats, steered by a cox. At the Oxford bumps races a team moves up the rank by actually bumping into the next boat. The winning team tosses the cox into the river. Then the Head of the River has a big drinking party around a bonfire of an old boat followed by a bumps supper in the hall.

It appeared Oriel was also the drinking college. With every course came a different drink: champagne before dinner, white wine with the fish, red with the lamb and a dessert wine with the chocolate pudding. This was followed by two types of port, always passed to the left. The first port came in a silver flagon!


To my right was Tenzin Wilberforce, a Tibetan from India married to another Oriel alum, and to my left was Henry’s chum, Vince Warner. He was wearing a most unusual waistcoat, as were several distinguished gentlemen. I asked one man with silver hair, “What’s with the turtles on your waistcoat and bow tie?”

“Turtles? Turtles! My dear, those are tortoises.” Only the first eights crews are allowed to join the Tortoise Club.

Makes no sense to me. Turtles like water, and tortoises are slow land animals. It isn’t about making sense. The Leander Club of rowers wear pink hippos on their ties and have the exclusive right to enter the steward’s enclosure for the Henley Regatta.

The English are all about signaling who belongs in the inner enclosure. Like peacocks, they strut their plumage, marking their territory. Imagine the shock of an American woman flying into the flock, snapping pictures for her blog.


The gentleman in the butterfly-embroidered waistcoat asked if I was from Vogue! He belonged to no secret club. His talented wife, Marion Clegg, designed and embroidered his garment. The inspiration came from the Beatrix Potter story, The Tailor of Gloucester.

I am indeed living a fairytale. It hasn’t rained in the three weeks since we arrived, and I’m finally connected to the internet.

5 comments:

Tom B said...

Hi Sarah. I'm afraid that Isaac Newton isn't on the wall in Oriel hall, much as we would like to claim him as an Oriel man!

Tom B said...

(we do have Walter Raleigh up there though.)

Sarah Laurence said...

Tom, welcome to my blog and thank you for flagging my error. I have updated the post. It was fun to revisit this post. I miss England and Oxford especially. I'm still working on my novel inspired by our year there.

Tom B said...

I leave after I finish my exams this year, which is sad! (Oriel is a beautiful college but also a great place to live and work).

Tom B said...

Really enjoying reading this blog by the way - great photos and intriguing stories!