If you wander around Oxford long enough, you begin to realize that it is actually two cities sharing space but taking turns in time. Oxford by day is weathered Gothic architecture that looms over fast-flowing rivers of bicycles and clusters of tourists skittering from place to place like water bugs. At night, Oxford shape-shifts into vaporous phantoms who keep watch over pub goers, kebab seekers, and late-night studiers. Where Day Oxford is industrious and imposing, sheltering the accumulated wisdom of history and those who maintain it, Night Oxford is indifferently protective, looking down bemusedly on those who venture out into the dark.
Dusk was falling as we joined the queue for the first Evensong of Michelmas term in the New College chapel. Evensong is a religious service in the Church of England that is mostly sung, and in a town overflowing with talented choirs, New College’s is one of the best with over 100 CD’s to their name. New College is known for several other things as well, starting with its name. It seems odd to call anything 600 years old ‘new’, but this is probably better than it’s official name, The Warden and Scholars of St Mary’s College of Winchester in Oxford. Then there is the college’s motto, “Manners Makyth Man”, which is notable for its surprisingly egalitarian suggestion that a person’s behavior rather than their noble birth or accumulated wealth is what makes them who they are. And this being Oxford, New College has a bizarre tradition. Every first of June, the duly appointed Mint Julep Quarterperson uses a 150 year old endowment to provide free mint juleps to all college members. There is a story behind this, but it feels more in keeping with the spirit of Oxford if you just take such things at face value and tell yourself, “of course they do.”
Perhaps in alignment with the college motto, even scruffy American tourists draped in cameras are allowed to attend Evensong, though sadly we had to stow our gear out of respect for the strict No Photography policy. Once seated we gazed around the high, narrow chapel and as the twilight straining through the stained glass got bluer and dimmer, the candles set amongst the choir felt warmer and brighter. As the service began, the ethereal sound of the New College Choir filled every crevice of the chapel. Oxford is a city where on some nights you can choose from four or five Evensong services, so the combination of centuries-old architecture, sublime acoustics, and the best choristers in the world is perhaps a bit old hat for the locals. But speaking for wide-eyed Americans, it transported us to an astonishing other place and time.
As a photographer, my favorite time of day has always been night. The day bathes everything in a smothering, normalizing light that elevates the bland and trivializes the brilliant. In the day, everything can feel the same. But at night, selective illumination plays favorites and changes the story. This is especially true in Oxford where the night reveals all sorts of architectural details that go unnoticed during the day.
When I dream of Oxford, I am always there at night. The crenellated towers and mullioned windows are what I see, and the moon is always out. The honey colored stone takes on an even warmer glow in the dim light, and curtains yet to be drawn reveal tantalizing glimpses of private libraries and studies. The few other pedestrians are hurrying past with purpose, and only I seem to appreciate the sturdy beauty all around. Oxford is the one place to which I must always return, in person as much as possible and in dreams when I am lucky.