The City of Dreaming Spires takes its nickname from a little-known poem by Matthew Arnold. But when it was published in 1865, just one of 240 lines paid tribute to that celebrated skyline. The rest more or less memorialized the town’s incessant wetness—from “an upland dim” where the author walked, chased by “volleying rains and tossing breeze,” to the “shy Thames shore,” a quagmire of “river-fields…sedged brooks…[and] storms that rage outside our happy ground.”
Welcome to muddy Oxford.
As a newcomer to this university-town, I have transferred, one soggy workout at a time, dripping hunks of earth back to my apartment, where running shoes line the entranceway caked in mud from a multiplicity of footpaths: the riverbank, the canal, the sticky trails of Port Meadow, itself a floodplain bespeckled by feisty swans and apathetic livestock. Through the winter, so much silt has swirled down my shower drain that I have recently taken to rinsing off my legs outside the apartment, aided by an outdoor spigot, never mind the cold. Even in town, confined to the relative cleanliness of cobblestone and dressed in subfusc—that ceremonial garb worn by students—I rarely avoid a smattering of mud on a pant leg or a once-shiny wingtip shoe.
History suggests it has always been this way.
In essence, the story of Oxenaforda, as it was once called, begins much like the biblical creation story: a primordial confluence of dust, beast, mist, and man. It was, in fact, the Saxons who first drove their life-sustaining cattle not just to the water’s edge, but across it. And as the stream of hooves and boots and wagon wheels grew wider, a town formed at the river ford. Then, a fort. Then, a college. Then, more colleges. Today, like those first Oxonians, we too ply the waters, challenged and inspired to find a nobler version of ourselves on the other side.
It isn’t easy. Crossing the ford, as I have come to call my experience at Saïd Business School, is a transformative process, slow and arduous, sometimes painfully so. There are highs, lows, successes, and failures, like the time I bombed a two-hour exam worth 70 percent of my grade for a core class. It was January. Sleep-deprived and sick, I struggled to concentrate as watery snot fell in drops onto my answer sheet. So I closed my eyes and opened them again to see—what else but mud on my shoes—the unlikely genesis of this blog post, it turns out.
I remain hopeful. As an MBA candidate, I want to believe that I’ll succeed, that I’ll ace my classes, that I’ll land the perfect job, but if not, I know I won’t have struggled in vain. Too many friendships, pivotal conversations, and life lessons have come out of the past six months for me to go home unchanged. I admit that after my disappointing exam, I flew as fast as possible to Madrid, where 40 classmates consoled me over tapas and flamenco, a celebration of the end of Michaelmas term. As my spirits lifted, I realised there was nothing I could do about that test. So I let it go. I slept. I ran. I got to know my classmates, basking under heat lamps on a chilly hotel rooftop, marveling at our progress, our follies, our bonds – all under a fiery sunset. I took a breath. Warmed up and cheered up, I returned to England with the strength to keep fighting.
Since then, I have often paused to consider a lone statue next to the business school, a bronze ox, gazing out over what was surely meant to be a river, perhaps a wider, faster version of the Thames we know today. I sometimes wonder if this cow in the creek is Britain’s equivalent of what Theodore Roosevelt described in 1910 as “the man…in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming….” I imagine that for that first bold ox, a hulking, heaving beast thrusting its hoof into the current, the initial crossing was a muddy, messy affair—not unlike the emotional, intellectual, or even physical journey of an Oxford MBA.
No one said it would be easy, not even Matthew Arnold. Having strived and erred and strived again myself, I think the ford is a metaphor worth clinging to—like mud to a Wellington boot.
Victory is rarely tidy.
I might as well get my feet wet.Back to top of article