On Headington Hill, Oxford

Friday, January 1st, 2010 by Dr Keith J. White

It was a misty, rather dank if not bleak, winter morning as the double-decker bus headed down Headington Hill into Oxford: the very same type of vehicle and bus route taken by C.S. Lewis (though he was actually going up the hill at the time) 80 years earlier when he recalls the beginning of his Christian journey (Surprised by Joy, page 179). As the bus passed the Marston Road and went over Magdalen Bridge, memories came flooding back to me. Between 1966 and 1969 I had been an undergraduate at Oxford and it seemed as if every turn in the road, every pavement, each building and tree, and the waters of the Cherwell evoked associations, feelings and longings.

There were two of us traveling together on the top of the bus. We alighted in the High opposite Queen’s College. There was a warm welcome as we passed through the gate into the front quad. The young person in whose company I had been travelling had been invited to an interview for a place as an undergraduate reading history. Before long he was settled in his spacious rooms. From the bedroom you could see the spire of St Mary the Virgin, the dome of the Radcliffe Camera, and the twin towers of All Souls. In the sitting room there was a large modern television, and perhaps it was this that precluded us from recalling the view from there!

I left him in the company of other prospective students and spent some time in my former college, Hertford, before buying some books at Blackwell’s in The Broad. Then I boarded the bus once again as it set off south towards Headington Hill. The journey over the Chilterns back to London was remarkably smooth and speedy.

Three days later, my young friend arrived back home full of his experiences in Oxford: the interviews, the company, the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum, and dining in the college hall (three cooked meals each day!). When pressed to describe the best part of the stay he didn’t hesitate at all: waking up to the sound of bells, and walking in the college quads. That really stirred memories for me: in 1965 I was given the opportunity of spending a few days as a sixth former at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and as I looked out from my rooms down to the beautifully manicured college lawn, and then drank in the morning air on my way to the college hall, I resolved there and then that, should I have the opportunity to study in Oxbridge, I would welcome it with open arms. There was nowhere I would rather study, and if I couldn’t study effectively there, then I couldn’t study anywhere else on earth.

(As providence would have it I ended up at Oxford, although my initial preference had been Cambridge, and so it was that I only travelled to Cambridge when representing Oxford at Badminton. But my love for both these beautiful historic cities remains.)

Were there any other reasons why our visit to Oxford was so special or memorable, you might muse, or was it just a trip down memory lane: a morning of nostalgia? Well, seeing as you ask, there was something else that was rather notable. My young friend had not been able to live “in the community” with his family, and so he (and his sister and mother) had lived at Mill Grove virtually all his life: it had been the only home he had known. Those who study them, know that the life-chances of those who are looked after, or “in care”, are significantly less promising than the norm. Specifically the prospects of higher education are reduced considerably. So this interview was bucking the trend in a big way. After all, we were not looking at any college of higher education, but one of the most prestigious universities in the world. How come?

Well, the young man had clearly inherited a good brain: he has a superb memory for a start, and when he was very young her used to write long novels. If you were to ask him about an incident in the TV series Lost, for example, he would tell you the number of the episode! He took to philosophy at school so readily that his teacher was disappointed when he got only 99% for an A/S level exam. But brainpower is not everything when it comes to achieving, and in his case there was also the constant encouragement meal after meal, conversation after conversation, year after year, book after book, to be inquisitive, to wonder, and to explore ideas. The social and cultural environment at Mill Grove was conducive to learning.

He had Oxbridge graduates living with him or nearby; he worshipped regularly at church and listened carefully to, and critiqued, sermons week by week. He spent holidays in North Wales and together we explored castles, towns, mines, valleys, villages, drinking in their stories, and how they connected with the larger sweep of British and European history and social movements. We had trips to our extended family in Holland and Switzerland getting to know other cultures and ways of living. And when it came to apply to Oxford he had plenty of support, moral and practical, including his request that I join him on the way to the interview.

At the time of writing this piece I do not know the result of the interview process (and there are interviews to come at other universities), but I will try to pass it on to readers of the Webmag in due course. Meanwhile let me round off this column with a few concluding thoughts. I do not want to suggest that everyone at Mill Grove ends up at Oxbridge: we have a very mixed range of abilities, gifts and talents. But on the other hand, it is important to know that the nature of our life together and the prevailing ethos and values, focus on the potential of each and every child and young person. We are seeking to create an environment in which they can thrive: that is where they discover their gifts and find ways of developing and expressing them.

This is not to advocate residential care over any other form of extra-familial care, but to point out that probably more important than the label put on the care (residential, foster, therapeutic community, and adoption) are the values, motivations, and ethos of the home and the carers. I have taken it for granted, for example, that my wife and I have been here for the young man all his life (and a lot longer than that). This, I suppose, reflects the commitments and values that lie at the heart of what we do, and this continuity of care has no doubt been a vital factor in the development of this young person’s self-esteem and confidence.

In 1965 when I was interviewed at Hertford College, Oxford, there was also, if I remember it correctly, a student from Manchester Grammar School, There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that he had the better intellect (he understood Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for a start!). But our don formed the opinion that I made up for what I lacked intellectually with my determination and strength of character. I cannot comment on that, but I have come to see that what counts is a rounded character, and this will depend in part on the long-term personal and social environment of the young person.

Intelligence is ultimately moral, practical and social, as well as academic. I guess that after his Headington Hill experience, C.S. Lewis might have added spiritual as well.

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