8 Oxford Eccentricities
Oxford may be grand, noble, storied and historic – but it’s also more than a little eccentric.
In fact, both the city and the university seem to revel in their eccentricities and collect more every year. Eccentric people are thoroughly celebrated, such as the man who every year on May Morning arrives dressed as a tree, and eccentricity is enjoyed in everything from, the traditions to the architecture. There’s even a book about it. In this article we take a look at some of Oxford’s oddest and most notable eccentricities.
1. The Headington Shark
The shark is perhaps Oxford’s most striking artwork.
Go to 2 New High Street, Headington, in the east of Oxford, and you might see something a little unexpected. This otherwise typical and unassuming terraced house has a 7.6m long fibreglass shark sticking out of the roof, as if it’s crash-landed from the sky. The sculpture – Untitled 1986 – was installed by radio presenter Bill Heine, on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This piece of eccentricity has a more serious message behind it, expressing impotence and frustration in the face of destructive power.
However, the authorities didn’t see it that way, and Heine had to fight a lengthy battle to be given permission to keep it, with Oxford City Council suggesting it should be relocated to a public place such as a swimming pool – somewhat misunderstanding the point of its location. It reached the Secretary of State for the Environment before a resolution was found.
The ruling that allowed it was a joy to read in its own right: “The council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the city. This fear is exaggerated… any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark must be allowed to remain.” Now the shark is rightly celebrated, and the house underneath it can be rented on Airbnb.
2. College tortoises
When you think about what would be a sensible pet for a college, you might think of a cat, at least for the sake of keeping mice away from the library books. Or you might think that some porters might like to have a guard dog. But in fact the most popular pet for Oxford colleges is the tortoise. Several colleges keep them, including Christ Church, Corpus Christi, St Peter’s and Wadham, and a student is typically given the role of caring for the tortoise over the academic year.
If that didn’t seem eccentric enough, some colleges take it a step further. Balliol College has a long-standing association with left-wing politics, and though its students now belong to any number of political persuasions (one graduate was Boris Johnson, after all), students still enjoy the odd ironic reference to that former reputation. One such reference is the names of their college tortoises, which are typically named for famous Marxists. The longest-living college tortoise, who sadly went missing in 2004, was called Rosa Luxemburg. The student tasked with looking after the tortoises is called, appropriately enough, Comrade Tortoise.
Yet that is, perhaps, not the oddest approach to tortoise-keeping that colleges have chosen. Magdalen College students wanted to have a tortoise, but were wary of looking after it appropriately; several colleges have decided against keeping tortoises on animal welfare grounds. Magdalen therefore found a different solution by appointing a student as a human tortoise with the title Oscar d’Tortoise, who participates on Magdalen’s behalf in Corpus Christi’s Tortoise Fair every year.
3. St Catherine’s fish
It can sometimes seem like Oxford’s modern colleges – which by Oxford standards mean anything founded after about 1900 – are less eccentric than the older colleges. After all, they’ve had less time to build up strange traditions, and in some cases are more likely to attract students seeking academic excellence rather than the chance to be really odd for three years of their lives. Yet that’s not always the case, and sometimes they find their own ways of being eccentric.
A case in point is St Catherine’s College, which is celebrated for its Functionalist architecture. The college was designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, who also designed, among other things, the cutlery used as props in 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Jacobsen didn’t confine his efforts to the architecture of the building. He had a clause added to his contract stating: “Professor Jacobsen should undertake as much as possible of the landscape design and the design of fixtures and fittings” – and he meant it. Jacobsen designed not only the buildings, but chose the shade of the curtains, designed the cutlery, determined the species and height of the college’s trees, and, perhaps best of all, specified the type of fish that should be purchased for the pond, namely chub and golden orfe. The college has been maintained according to Jacobsen’s undeniably eccentric requirements, so you can still admire his vision today.
4. The Story Museum
Oxford’s most obviously eccentric museum is the Pitt Rivers Museum; despite being a modern museum in approach and curation, it retains its original cases and resembles, at first glance, a Victorian cabinet of curiosities. It’s easy go in there and imagine you’re looking for an item to fulfil a mystical quest.
Perhaps even more eccentric than the Pitt Rivers Museum is the Story Museum, tucked away just off St Aldate’s. The entrance to the small museum can be spotted by its lanterns, which read “Speak friend and enter” in homage to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series. Inside the rooms celebrate stories in all the forms, with the chance to step through a wardrobe into Narnia, hear a bedtime story on a vast, oversized bed that makes everyone look like Borrowers, and the brilliant “story machine” – a device that looks like an explosion in a junk shop, or exactly the kind of thing an eccentric inventor might devise to generate stories. The museum is much bigger than it first looks, and you don’t follow a precise route through the rooms, but instead are encouraged to explore, so you might find dead ends, twists, turns and surprises – much like a good story. The museum is currently closed for refurbishment, so it remains to be seen what changes will be made and what new and unexpected features will be added.
5. New College’s wall inspection
One of the main sources of eccentricity in Oxford is the maintenance of traditions that once made sense, but become eccentric when carried out in the modern world. A good example of this, is the inspection of the walls of New College. In 1379, William of Wykeham founded New College with land bought from the city. The college then abutted the city walls, so the city made it a requirement that the Lord Mayor should inspect the wall every three years to check its condition. In the 14th century, this was a sensible precaution; much like a landlord wanting to inspect a property to ensure the tenants weren’t leaving the doors unlocked, the city wanted to check the maintenance of the walls so that they could be sure of their safety in case of attack.
As the centuries wore on, and the role of city walls in defence became less important, such stipulations – where they existed elsewhere – were abandoned, but not so in Oxford. Every three years, the Lord Mayor and assorted councillors still dress in their formal robes and make a procession to New College, knocking on the Non Licet Gate and requesting entry, before inspecting the walls – though now the inspection isn’t carried out with much rigour, and is mostly done in a spirit of fun and tradition by the mayor, councillors, and New College members involved. With the city and the colleges still sometimes finding themselves at loggerheads (though not so much about the defensive capabilities of walls), an eccentric celebration of their combined history can be a worthwhile activity, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first glance.
6. Poohsticks World Championships
Several generations of children have now grown up with the Winnie the Pooh stories, written by AA Milne in 1926 and adapted for film and television by Disney. As a result of the huge popularity, both of the original books and of the adaptations, lots of us are familiar with the game Poohsticks, which comes from The House at Pooh Corner. Players stand on a bridge and drop sticks into the water; whoever’s stick emerges first on the far side of the bridge is the winner. It’s a simple, gentle game that’s mostly a matter of chance.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the eccentrics of Oxfordshire from trying to compete in it all the same. This began with the Oxford University Poohsticks Society, which has since closed, and now takes the form of the Poohsticks World Championships, which don’t take place in Oxford itself, but not far away in Witney. The Championships are run by the Rotary Club of Oxford Spires and act as a fundraiser for the RNLI. Championships are divided into individuals and teams, and no team or individual has ever won more than once – not that this has stopped competitive Poohstick-players from trying. It’s hard to imagine many other places in the world where not only do people gather to competitively throw sticks into a river, but also where over a thousand people gather every year to watch
7. The Merton Time Ceremony
In the early 20th century, the concept of British Summer Time was made law – the idea that clocks would be put forwards an hour in the spring and back an hour in the autumn, to maximise waking daylight hours. Then in the late 1960s, an experiment took place to see the impact of remaining on BST – rather than GMT – all year round. The impact on accident rates with the changed levels of daylight was unclear, as drink-driving legislation was introduced at the same time, and the experiment was ended in 1971. Barry Press, a student at Merton at the time, decided there should be some recognition of the fact. So he and four friends, at 2am BST when the clocks went back, donned full sub fusc, and walked backwards round Fellows Quad drinking port for an hour until it became 2am GMT again.
Press’s idea caught on, and the ritual has continued every October since – and now, most of the college’s population takes place in what has become an organised event. Press, who describes himself as “Keeper of the Watch”, has returned for the ceremony every year. Some students insist that the ceremony must be carried out to ensure that time returns to normal when the clocks are reset.
8. Hunting the Mallard
As perhaps Oxford’s most notable eccentricity, this one is worth saving until last. All Souls is already Oxford’s most eccentric college, with its vast endowment, tiny number of students and hugely competitive and deceptively simple entrance exam. So naturally it makes sense that that is where this particular eccentricity finds its home. Once per century, in a tradition that’s only achievable in a university that has been around for nearly a thousand years, Fellows of All Souls parade around the college carrying “Lord Mallard” in a chair, while brandishing flaming torches and singing the Mallard Song. This is because when the college was built, a giant mallard flew out of its foundations, and the Fellows continue to hunt for it every hundred years. Originally the procession was led by someone carrying a dead mallard on a pole, but now a wooden one is used instead.
It’s not clear just how long ago the ceremony began, though it seems that the one-a-century aspect of it dates from the 19th century version, as a writer was complaining about it in 1632, which would be 31 years after the ceremony should take place on the hundred-year cycle. However, in 1801, 1901 and most recently 2001, it has been faithfully observed on the 14th of January. While non-Fellows are not invited, maybe if you’re lucky enough to be in Oxford on the 14th of January 2101 you should stand by the gates of All Souls and listen out for the song.