Source: Iris Petrillo

As some lockdown restrictions are eased, more and more of us are heading back to Oxford to clear out our old college rooms. Whether this is our first room that we’ve had in Oxford, or our last, the experience is bound to be an emotional one.

Of course some people aren’t able to collect their belongings. I personally live over three hours away – a manageable trip, but still a lot of driving. Even so, I’m grateful to be planning one last visit to my old room, I suppose in a way to say goodbye. I’ve taken this opportunity to reflect on such a visit, and to anticipate what this unique trip down memory lane might feel like. 

Perhaps, this is an opportunity to say goodbye, as many of us didn’t get to say the goodbyes we would have said if we had known just how long we would be apart. We packed up our rooms back when this thing called ‘Covid’ felt like it might just all blow over, with few anticipating the full-scale pandemic it turned out to be.

This is an added emotional weight as we return to such a major place in our lives, something that brings to mind various theories about how emotions leave impressions on material places. This got me thinking about a particular explanation for sightings of the paranormal, called ‘Stone Tape Theory’. 

According to Wikipedia, this is ‘the speculation that ghosts and hauntings are analogous to tape recordings, and that mental impressions during emotional or traumatic events can be projected in the form of energy, “recorded” onto rocks and other items and “replayed” under certain conditions’.

Somehow, to my sceptical brain, this makes a lot of sense. This isn’t to say that my uni experience has been ‘traumatic’ so far, but I bet we’d all agree that it’s been ‘emotional’- especially in our rooms. These spaces have witnessed stress, tears, laughter, as well as innumerable pre-drinks held before a night out. It makes a lot of sense that the space might absorb some of that. A theory such as this might explain why our old rooms feel ‘haunted’ when we step inside them once again.

This ‘tape recording’ analogy seems to further reflect how places become frozen in time, posing the question of how it will feel when we’re momentarily allowed to dip back into the past. 

I seem to be writing this as if I’ve left Oxford for good – I will of course return for my third year. But as quarantine restrictions are eased and we dive back into the ‘new normal’, things will never quite be the same again. This only makes the memories we’ve made so far all the more precious.

Please indulge a romantic English student as I conclude with a few lines of poetry, which I think perfectly sum up my thoughts. This is a poem titled ‘Oxford’ by Keith Douglas, who attended Merton back in the 1930s. These are the closing lines:

For them it is not a city but an existence;
outside which everything is a pretence:
within, the leisurely immortals dream,
venerated and spared by the ominous hours.

Sarah Lewis

Sarah is a non-fiction contributor, primarily writing about film, TV and music. When she's not writing she enjoys spending time on the Cornish coast, and working on her poetry.