The view from my office window is close to idyllic: deep white snow across the lawn and coating the slate gables and stone pediments and acorn-shaped finials above the mellow red brick buildings of our main quad. Two magnificent magnolia grandiflora alongside the Library and a lovely old cedar in the quad bow gently under the weight of snow. The huge crane installed for construction of our new building on the edge of Oxford’s exciting new Radcliffe Observatory Quarter is still at work. The building team, wrapped up in woolly balaclavas under their hard hats, continue despite the record temperatures, which are further below freezing than Oxford has experienced since records began, or so we are led to believe.
Elsewhere the scene is the opposite of idyllic. Our TV screens have been filled for days with appalling scenes of traffic chaos and thwarted travellers sleeping for days at Heathrow. A persistent dirty sludge fills the Oxford streets and is keeping shoppers away. At the weekend a small and valiant band of craftspeople set up their Christmas market stalls in Broad Street but gave up half way through the day. And throughout the city and the college people are sitting miserably at home, frustrated by their failure to reach their holiday destinations, or to reunite with family. I feel deeply thankful for the cosy Principal’s residence, Radcliffe House, where we’ve installed a tree with the usual decorations, and hopefully await our family guests. Our Christmas Eve party for students staying in Oxford over the break is likely to be larger than anticipated.
There seems to be something appropriate about this most uncertain year for higher education ushering itself in with such unprecedented iciness. The reports piling up on our computer screens and the promise of more student demonstrations portend a time of difficult decisions for all of us. But the beauty of Oxford under snow lends a certain sense of timelessness. And that is perhaps a hopeful reminder that we have a lot to build on.