After a long Michaelmas term the vac has finally rolled around, and with it a mass exodus of students from Oxford to their home turf. I’ll be spending this Christmas just over the county border in Gloucestershire, in my small countryside village on the southern sweep of the Cotswold hills. It’s rather like an Oxford college really, in that everyone knows everyone’s business, but in other ways it couldn’t be more different. I’ve swapped a choice of pubs and bars, all a stone’s throw from the gates of college, for a lone village pub, which is in any event closed for the near future. Instead of waking up to entertaining stories of mass deanings overnight, the most sensational gossip I can expect to hear about is the grisly demise of someone’s adored family guinea pigs at the paws of the sly village fox.
As sleepy as life may be back home, I’ve missed it in many ways. Once I’d settled in in Oxford, the novelty of hearing sirens at all hours through my thin window panes wore off rather quickly, and though it was a blessing to be able to walk to Tesco, meal deals are no match for home cooking. During term-time, a group of friends from college and I made a weekly trip down to the river via Botley Park to go wild swimming in the freezing water, and I often went along for the walk. From our spot on the bank the green fields stretched all the way into the distance, and we were screened from civilisation by thick brambly hedgerows. It was almost too reminiscent of home, and those walks were the only times I really noticed myself feeling homesick.
Fast forward to the end of term and, after ferrying all my worldly possessions through the grounds of college and into the boot of the car, it was but a short journey through the Cotswolds back home. My wellies, long neglected, were soon dusted off as I squelched up the all-too-familiar woodland path with dog in tow. Emerging at the top from the gloom of the trees into endless bright white skies over farmers’ fields, I felt tremendously small. The niggling claustrophobia of being boxed in by buildings was at last blown away by a bitterly cold December wind.
Soon enough, Christmas will be upon us. This year Covid may have paused some of my favourite traditions, but I remember them all vividly. Though I never thought I’d admit it, I’ll miss the annual Christmas fair in the school hall that saw all my own great nativity performances (it’s a shame I can’t put “six-time Angel Gabriel” on my LinkedIn). Highlights include endless bric-a-brac stalls, jolly Christmas crafts made by kindly grandmothers which never seem to sell very well, a tombola with rather sorry prizes (mostly everyone’s unwanted Christmas booze from last year) and tickets to visit Father Christmas in his magical grotto by the back porch, actually a local dad with an Irish accent heavy enough to rouse suspicion in the older children.
I’ll miss the carol service we attend every year the most, at a tiny but beautiful chapel in the grounds of a nearby country estate. Everyone is packed together like sardines on rows of wooden chairs, and candles are passed around to read the order of service, each with a little cardboard disk to catch the wax, whilst more candles rise out of the masses of holly and ivy on each windowsill. At the start of the service everyone cranes to see as the chosen child is ushered to the front and squeaks out the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” to much ooh-ing and ah-ing. Carol services inevitably seem to go on forever, so despite everyone bundling up in long coats, gloves and fur hats, we only thaw out hours later over tea or brandy by the fire – next year I must remember to smuggle in a hot water bottle! The Beaufort Hunt’s Boxing Day meet in a neighbouring village is also sadly cancelled this year, so there’s no chance of seeing the lovely hounds squirming about in the snow. I’ll be contented with our greyhound on the rug by the fire instead.
No doubt we’ll all rediscover things about our hometowns over the vac that we’d quite forgotten. This year, more than any other, we could all benefit from recharging and finding small things to be thankful for. On balance, perhaps the loss of Pret and the Four Candles won’t be quite so bad after all.