6 Things You Shouldn’t Miss in your Summer in the UK
A summer spent in the UK can be an unforgettable experience.
Whether you’re here to improve your English, learn more about your favourite subjects, get ready for university or simply enjoy some tourism, there’s so much to see and do. At Oxford Royale Academy’s summer schools, we make sure that our students don’t just enjoy an amazing academic experience; they also get to experience the best of what the UK has to offer. If you’re spending your summer here in Britain, whether with us or independently, here’s what you should make sure not to miss.
1. The incredible history
One of the very best things about the UK is the wealth of well-preserved history that can be seen in the country. There are Neolithic tombs, Roman baths, Saxon towers, Norman castles, medieval colleges, Jacobean maor houses, Victorian museums, and that’s just the start.
Just take some of Oxford Royale Academy’s locations to start with. In Oxford, you can see the Martyrs’ Memorial, which commemorates the spot where the Oxford Martyrs – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer (author of the Book of Common Prayer) – were burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs, as one key moment in the long 16th century struggle for religious supremacy in England.
Too gruesome? Then how about visiting Parker’s Piece, in Cambridge, arguably the birthplace of modern football. It was here in the 1860s that the rules that define modern football were laid down, taking it away from the often wild and unpredictable medieval game towards the codified and regulated sport – requiring skill, not brute force – that we know today.
Or heading north to St Andrews, a town that played a pivotal role in medieval Scottish history as the home of the shrine of St Andrew. It was the most important pilgrimage site in Scotland, and one of the most important in Europe; it was in this context that the ancient University of St Andrews was established, when war and discord prevented Scottish scholars from accessing the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris.
Of course, there’s Oxford Royale Academy’s most storied British location: London. From fire, plague and war to culture, music and sport, it’s hard to know where to begin in exploring London’s incredible history. You could visit some of the city’s outstanding museums, go to the source somewhere like the Tower of London – or simply, as in so much of the UK, simply explore and take in the remarkable historical sights that are all around you.
2. The beautiful landscapes
For a small country – 78th in the world by area – the United Kingdom packs in a remarkable variety of landscapes. British landscapes don’t break that many records, with none of the world’s largest mountains, deepest lakes or driest deserts, but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular and beautiful. And the locations where Oxford Royale Academy centres are based demonstrate this diversity.
Cambridge is surrounded by fenland – an unusual manmade landscape that was once marshland, which could be crossed either by boat, with some difficulty, or on raised causeways that cut across the flooded areas. Even now one of the main roads into Cambridge is called the Fen Causeway, though the area around it is dry. The marshes were a remarkable landscape in their own right, but were also deeply unhealthy, providing a home for malarial mosquitos, and thanks to a remarkable feat of engineering, have been continuously drained of their floodwater since the early 19th century. The result is a flat landscape of farmland, where the sky seems to go on forever.
Oxford borders the Cotswolds, the largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England. If you think a clichéd view of what England looks like, you’re probably picturing the Cotswolds: villages of thatched cottages nestled in among rolling hills, old growth woodlands, and green fields. The houses particularly stand out as most are built of honey- or golden-coloured Cotswold stone.
While few people would think of London in terms of landscapes, the capital city is home to an impressive number of landscaped parks and gardens. But the height of beautiful landscapes among ORA locations is surely St Andrews, with its dramatic coastline, wide sandy beaches, wild sea and mountains rising in the distance. Even the town’s many golf courses, a sport not always known for its harmony with the natural environment, have worked hard to fit in with the landscape around them.
3. The weird and wonderful traditions
With a long history inevitably comes some strange traditions – and the British are not averse to making new ones, either. For instance, while the Oxford tradition of wearing sub fusc for exams is very long established, the accompanying tradition of wearing different coloured carnations to signify how far through the exam cycles a student has progressed (white for the first, pink for the middle, red for the end) dates back less than a century, but is still celebrated as if it had been followed since the university’s foundation.
After all that effort comes the tradition of “trashing” – where after their final exam, the student gets their precious sub fusc covered in silly string, glitter, whipped cream and just about anything else that their friends can think of, in celebration of it all being over. For the unprepared, this can make exam time in Oxford a bit alarming – and that’s just one example of Oxford’s many, many traditions.
In St Andrews’ version of the same tradition, it’s a bit more straightforward: students after their final exam are soaked in cold water by their friends. And while St Andrews’ students also wear gowns for special occasions, theirs are a distinctive shade of red, worn differently depending on which year the student is in and which subject they’re studying. Nor is the “soaking” the only time when students at this university find themselves drenched in cold water; there’s also an annual tradition of the May Dip, where on the first of May, students go to the beach and run into the North Sea.
Lest you think that these odd ideas are restricted to Scotland, one University of Cambridge tradition is the annual Cardboard Boat Race – in which students take to the Cam and race boats made mostly of cardboard (though often secured and made at least a little bit waterproof with acres of duct tape). Inevitably, many of them sink, so it’s a good job the Cam is shallow. If you’re visiting the city, be sure to keep an eye out for them.
4. The fabulous shopping
If traditions, history and landscapes aren’t your thing, how about a more modern pastime? Shopping, especially with duty-free perks depending on where you’re travelling from, is excellent in the UK. Of course, where you might like to go depends on the shopping that you’re looking for. If you’re interested in rows of interesting independent shops selling everything from boutique fashion to speciality cheese, you might enjoy visiting Edinburgh from St Andrews, and you’ll probably get to catch buskers playing the bagpipes while you’re there. Cambridge is similar, including its own independent shops such as the Cambridge Satchel Company – only without the bagpipes.
If you prefer markets, Oxford has the wonderful Covered Market (helpful on a rainy day), which was opened nearly 250 years ago in the late 18th century. It’s a lively mix of traditional market shops such as butchers, greengrocers and florists, and newer outlets where you can buy souvenirs, clothes or curios. It’s also home to the original store of Ben’s Cookies, which is an enduring favourite of Oxford Royale Academy students.
How about designer outlets? Another favourite excursion for our students is a trip to Bicester Village, not far from Oxford, a massive outlet shopping centre for designer and luxury items at significant reductions from their usual price. Looking for Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein or Givenchy? They’re all here, alongside cafés, restaurants and kiosks to keep you going while you shop. One that’s particularly worth a mention is the exquisitely Instagrammable Maitre Choux, for afternoon tea or maybe just a treat of a flawlessly iced éclair.
Of course, this is saving the best until last: whatever your tastes are in shopping, from malls full of designer swag to second-hand bookshops that feel like they belong in a fantasy novel, London will have what you’re looking for. Trips to London are a popular excursion across all of our centres in the south of England – just make sure that you have enough room in your suitcase.
5. The stunning architecture
At Oxford Royale Academy, we don’t choose our summer school locations on the basis of architecture – but if we did, we’d still be doing well. You don’t have to be joining our Summer Architecture Programme to enjoy the stunning settings of our centres. Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews all share a similar Harry Potter vibe, with medieval buildings clustering around perfectly mown lawns, spires reaching into the sky, and the peal of chapel bells ringing out in the evening. Even the more modern colleges in Oxford and Cambridge are built in reaction to this style, whether they deliberately avoid it, or try to update it for the present day.
That’s not to say that these three locations have identical architecture. Cambridge has a much more eclectic look than either of the others, because being out by the Fens means that the city lacks a local stone. Meanwhile most of Oxford is built in the same gentle honey-coloured Headington Stone, giving an impression of greater uniformity; stripey neo-Gothic Keble was built in brick to deliberately break with this style, signalling the college’s differences. Though the college’s architecture is generally appreciated now, the decision not to build in Headington Stone was highly controversial at the time.
Heading north to St Andrews, the architecture is often similar to the medieval Gothic styles seen in Oxford and Cambridge. However, the local building stone is heavy grey carboniferous sandstone, and that gives the buildings a more solid appearance. In fact, even though some of the Harry Potter films were filmed in Oxford, not in St Andrews, the dark grey stone means that the architecture in St Andrews can have even more of a Hogwarts feel than its more southerly counterpart.
The exception, of course, is London. The architecture of the capital is hugely varied, from the intricate Gothic Revival buildings such as the Houses of Parliament and the stunning St Pancras railway terminal, to the hyper-modern glass and steel skyscrapers such as the Gherkin and the Shard, to remnants and reconstructions of a London that harks back to its long history, such as the reconstructed Globe theatre, or the surviving 11th-century White Tower of the Tower of London.
6. The best of friends
The absolute best thing about visiting the UK for the summer – especially if you do it as part of an organised summer school – are the friends that you’ll make here. After all, visiting and exploring a new country is at its best when you have great friends alongside you.
At Oxford Royale Academy, we do everything we can to help our students get to know one another and make friends during their time with us. This even begins before students arrive, with welcome packs sent out to all students joining us to enable them to feel part of the ORA community. Then, on arrival, there are icebreaker games and activities, led by our counsellors, so that students can throw themselves into the fun of life with ORA right away.
Throughout students’ time with us, alongside classroom study, there are excursions, activities, and – perhaps most excitingly – glamorous parties. These also provide students with the opportunity to mingle with their peers from other centres, getting to make new friends from all over the world. Students of 160 different nationalities are attending our 2019 summer school, so if you join us, you might end up making friends from countries that you’ve never even heard of before. Whatever you choose to do, we hope your summer in the UK is unforgettable.