Once upon a fresher’s week, like all my fellow first years, I nervously made the pilgrimage up to Oxford. Under overcast skies, I had my first thrilling glimpse as a student of the aptly named dreaming spires- after all, the city holds all the magic, expectation and romanticism of years of ambition- but thanks to Covid-19, our fresher’s week was very different to all those that have gone before.
It’s Monday the 5th and I arrive at Worcester. The car boot is chock full of uni essentials; cushions, barware (in anticipation of the new 10pm closing time) and three suitcases optimistically packed with clothes that may never see a bop or ball.
Moving in is slightly more difficult without the wheelbarrows that I’m told usually welcome arriving freshers, but soon I’ve waved off the parents and handed round some brownies to win over my household.
After eating in hall, we’re straight into pres. Because endless people helpfully inform us that “Spoons is, like, totally rammed”, and that the college bar has all the atmosphere of a graveyard, we venture out to the Rickety Press in Jericho, which must be the most swelteringly warm pub in the city. Cosy and content with our overpriced pints, we soon forget about the October chill and frisson of nerves.
Over the course of the week we get to know the pubs of Jericho pretty well- our favourite, The Old Bookbinder, boasts bijou outdoor seating and a fit bartender- and just about everyone gets college engaged. “Better get a move on”, is the resounding sentiment, “or all the good ones will have gone”. I propose to a lovely householder, close friends with my college mum, and we exchange cheap ring substitutes. Ah, domestic bliss.
So, the visions of Fever that danced in our heads were not to be, but the group chat made every effort to stay cheerful. A wickedly sarcastic postgrad, knowing our reorganised entz included paper crafts rather than club nights, sent me origami tips- though I will admit, I bowed out on that one. But all things considered, the lovely entz team made every effort given the circumstances to give us a good welcome. Later in the week, we are all in uproar at the news that other colleges are hosting formals- scrolling through insta stories gives us gown envy and serious FOMO. There are mutterings that the college is going overboard on social distancing, requiring even members of the same household to sit two metres apart, three to a lengthy hall table, making flirtations or introductions seem impossible.
Come matriculation, everyone gathers in little household huddles on the lawns, resplendent in our sub fusc and downing champagne. It finally starts to feel like fresher’s. After lunch in The Four Candles, we trek to the Rad Cam for some essential photos and are greeted by a hundred others who all had the same idea. Even though we chatted and drank in distanced groups (under the locals’ beady stares of disapproval) we are frustratingly written up in the Oxford Mail as reckless rulebreakers.
Freshers week is not complete without outrageous stories, few of which I can supply by myself. I asked a fresher at Jesus about his experience.
“I came thinking it was going to be dead, and that we’d only be able to mix in bubbles or households- I already knew the ones in my household were pretty boring, so it wasn’t looking good.”
“Sometimes the rules stopped us meeting people at other colleges, that’s been the most annoying part. We did see people in other households in college. Closure of clubs and bars made it tricky to socialise, as did limits on numbers.”
“My best experiences were probably the parties in college. Until everyone got deaned. I gave a fake name and said I was at Brookes- some people got fined.”
Had Covid impacted his sex life?
“If anything, Covid has made people want to link up more.”
Being deaned or escaping from the porters at illicit gatherings becomes a familiar breakfast table tale. With work piling up and bars closing at 10, it’s hard to blame people for wanting to party. I spoke to others at my college, worrying that I’d had a particularly boring time of it.
One girl told me that she’d been apprehensive about not making friends- “though there were good activities for our household- my fears were realised, as it’s been really hard to meet other people”.
Another fresher agreed- “there’s definitely less of a sense of college community. I barely know people beyond those I’ve bumped into at bar nights or friends of friends.”
Their wildest story? “We spotted Richard Osmond in Tesco. That’s about it really.”
Another friend of mine streaked around main quad and skinny dipped in the lake after a night of boozing, completing two of the three college challenges in one fell swoop.
How did he find fresher’s week?
“I spent more time getting to know people in college and bonding rather than just meeting and forgetting people while clubbing. But the restrictions across the uni are quite unrealistically tight- I feel like it just forces people out of college because there’s nothing to do and then they’re more likely to catch the virus out at bars or restaurants. Now they’re even tighter, and there’s talk of the alert level stepping up… it’ll be a disaster for our mental health and work/life balance.”
Many a fresher were warned that the first week may well be an anti-climax- this year quite literally, as strict rules on mixing households wrote off overnight guests completely for lots of us (college staff bursting in is, I should imagine, the ultimate mood-killer). I fear after a few more weeks of monastic living, the truth universally acknowledged, “never sleep with a housemate”, may be breached across Oxford on an unprecedented scale.
Sadly, my housemates are all spoken for, with girlfriends set to visit come Christmas. I’ll have to ask Father Christmas to put a vaccine or a vibrator in my stocking this year.
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