“Remember, as long as you get to the inside lane of the roundabout as soon as you enter, you’ll be fine.”
It was a Thursday morning early in January, the start of my second term at Oxford and my first day riding a bike into center city. My friend Katya, another yearlong student had used a bike all fall and she was graciously helping me out. I had spent Michaelmas term getting to know the city on foot; to and from tutorials, lectures, and coffee shops I had walked her broad streets and narrow lanes, always sticking the sidewalk (or pavement, as it is called there). Now though, I was to take to her streets, streets that included a roundabout.
Keeping close to Katya’s blue-coated figure I headed out from the Vines, the Victorian mansion where many of us lived, and down into the city. Riding along High Street I saw it appear, the roundabout that connected the district of Cowley to Oxford City proper. I steeled my breath, adjusted my grip on the break, and slipped into the inner bike lane. Before I knew it, was out on the other side, crossing the bridge over the Cherwell river, Magdalene College bell tower rising up to my left. Alive and proud, I laughed, releasing the breath I had inadvertently held and continued on my way to the Radcliffe Camera, perhaps the most striking of Oxford’s many libraries.
So began my Oxford biking adventures. Happily perched atop bike 36, soon to be renamed Bucephalus in honor of Alexander the Great’s horse, I traversed the city daily. Each morning began with the adrenaline-laden rush of descending Headington Hill, either taking the steep neighborhood road, or the more gradual but far busier main street, where double decker buses routinely came within a foot of you. In the winter months, the wind rushing past made your eyes water. My daily schedule took me to the examination schools for lectures, where I parked next to the gates of Merton College, T.S. Eliot’s old stomping grounds. I went to the Bodleian library complex, praying for an open spot to park, and jolted my way across the cobblestones to get to one. On Fridays and Mondays I traveled north to Wycliffe Hall and the offices of Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) for my Latin or Roman Art tutorial. Tuesday nights always found me winding my way through Lamb and Flag passage to and from Compline service at Pusey House. There I stood in darkness and incense singing Psalms by candlelight. On the way home at eleven, I would stop for a minute and gaze at the sky awash with stars. The service and ride back became “a nightcap for the soul,” as my friend Joy called it, offering breathing space in the midst of a hectic life.
The cycle-life was not all sunshine and roses, however. There was the morning in February when Bucephalus made a horrific sound and skidded to a stop, its mud flap broken and preventing the back wheel from properly working. After twice dragging it forty minutes to and from Cowley my bike was fixed. My mood was not. Even in its fixed state, it still made an obnoxious rattling noise that announced my presence to all persons within fifty feet of me. Several of my friends ended up with injuries after tumbling off their bikes. Moreover, every evening finished with the painful slog back up Headington Hill, a five-minute enterprise spent out of breath and in stuck in first gear.
Still, it was while biking that I felt a part of the city, not just the university. Something about cycling alongside men and women headed to work, parents with their toddlers carefully strapped in bike-seats, and other students, dissolved my status as an American and visitor. I knew how to avoid the pothole in front of St. Mary’s, how to swerve between the barriers at the entrance to the park path with hitting the breaks. I knew to glide up at a red light and queue in front of the waiting cars, that I might slip away unhindered as soon as the light turned. Granted, once an elderly British man reminded me to “keep to the left!” when I forgot and drifted to the right side of a cycle path, but for the most part, I was just another Oxonian, navigating that ancient city on the back of a bike.
Elspeth Currie is a Senior double majoring in History and Classical Studied through Pike Honors Program who studied in Oxford University this year.