Best Cafes to Study at in Oxford | Holly Goes Abroad

Staying in Oxford over spring break made me discover a new favorite pastime: studying in cafes. During term time I tend to do work in Mansfield College’s cafe or in the library, simply because that is where the majority of my friends do their work as well. However, being here over spring break when most students were away gave me plenty of time to explore beyond the reaches of my usual studying sphere. Here are a few of the great study spots I stumbled upon this spring:

Waterstones Cafe

My favorite part about this cafe is the location. Not only is it in the heart of city center, but it is also on a top floor of a bookstore. It has amazing floor-to-ceiling windows that look out at the bustling intersection below, letting in plenty of natural sunlight (or grayness, depending on the day!). Bookshops, windows, and a great view… what more could you ask for?

Cafe Nero in Blackwell’s

How could I not mention the cafe in my favorite Oxford bookshop? Not only does this cafe have a friendly, welcoming vibe, but it also looks out at the Bodleian Library and has the most comfy chairs. I particularly enjoy spending afternoons reading here with a nice cup of tea. It’s also in a pretty convenient location, which makes it enticing to pop into whenever the weather is a bit damp.

George Street Social

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this may be my favorite cafe for studying in Oxford. I adore the relaxed, fun, quirky vibe it exudes as well as its bookishness. Used books line shelves all along its walls and nooks and crannies as part of a book swap, meaning that anyone can take or leave a book. The staircase is even painted to look like book spines with names of bookish cocktails! George Street Social also always has an awesome playlist playing, which is a bonus.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my cafe adventures! Stay tuned for even more cafe fun…

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Do you like studying or doing work in cafes? Do you have a favorite cafe you always go to? What is it like? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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I visited Platform 9 3/4!! | Holly Goes Abroad

It’s happened, folks. I’ve become a wizard, which means I’ve officially peaked.

While my mom was visiting me in Oxford for a week during my spring break we decided to spend two days scurrying around London, trying to fit in as much as possible. When she asked me what I wanted to do during those two days, I immediately had one request: go to the Platform 9 3/4 sign at King’s Cross Station. I’ve wanted to visit this iconic location ever since learning years ago that such a sign actually exists making it the perfect first stop on our London adventure.

Interestingly enough, J.K. Rowling was apparently thinking of Euston Station instead of King’s Cross when she wrote her famous series. The platform sign is actually located between platforms eight and nine due to the fact that platform ten is in a different building and there would be no convenient brick wall on which to build this magical scene. There are attendants organizing the photo-taking process and even a photographer taking photos of each wannabe-wizard, although it is absolutely free to take your own photos. A cute Harry Potter gift shop is next to the sign with everything from small souvenirs to an impressive selection of fancy wands. We waited a little over half an hour to take a photo, so keep waiting times in mind if you’re planning a visit.

When it’s your turn to take a photo, the attendant asks you which Hogwarts House you’re in to determine which scarf you’ll where. You can imagine my dilemma as a self-declared Ravenpuff/Huffleclaw when I realized this was how it worked. I had to pick just one House?! The injustice! The indecision! As you can see from my photo, I ultimately went with Gryffindor on a whim. (I’m studying abroad for a year–that counts as courage and determination, right?) Who knows? Maybe this is the beginning of my Gryffindor identity?!?!

Waiting in line to take a photo in front of a random sign marking a platform that doesn’t even exist may sound ridiculous, and perhaps it is. But it is worth it. Everyone in that line was ecstatic to be there, grinning from ear to ear as the attendant wrapped a scarf around their necks and handed them a wand to take a photo. I couldn’t help but marvel at all of the people who traveled great distances just to celebrate a fictional world that they love. If this doesn’t speak to the power and importance of books–especially ones that so many of us associate with our childhoods–then I don’t know what does!

All in all, I’m so glad I was able to visit the Platform 9 3/4 sign like my eleven-year-old self always dreamt of doing. If you’re ever near King’s Cross Station and have some time to spare, I highly recommend checking out this incredible place!

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Have you ever been to the Platform 9 3/4 sign? Which Hogwarts House do you most identify with? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

The Ashmolean | Holly Goes Abroad

Spending spring break in Oxford has given me plenty of time to do some extra exploring that I couldn’t squeeze in during the past two terms. One of my recent excursions has been spending an afternoon at the Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. Founded in 1683, it is the world’s first university museum as well as the oldest public museum in the world. (Not too shabby!) As someone who loves strolling through museums back home in the States, I was eager to finally spend some quality time in the Ashmolean.

The first thing that strikes you as soon as you walk into the Ashmolean is the sheer number of artifacts it holds. From coins and ceramics to sculptures and paintings, this museum has a little bit of everything. It’s refreshing to have such a variety of pieces all in one place–when you’ve seen enough Egyptian tablets to suit your fancy, you can head on over to the Impressionist paintings. With that said, I would definitely recommend grabbing a map at the entrance before you dive into any galleries. I got lost too many times to count and ended up doing laps around certain floors in order to find the way out!

The front of the Ashmolean.

While I must admit that I did miss my usual favorites from museums back home (especially Monet!) it was lovely to explore art by artists that I wasn’t familiar with before. One of my new favorites is Camille Pissarro, to whom the Ashmolean has nearly an entire room dedicated. I particular adored his painting Bouquet of Pink Peonies (1873) because it is so beautiful and peaceful. I must have spent several minutes just standing there admiring it!

Pissarro’s Bouquet of Pink Peonies

I also really appreciate the fact that this museum is free, although they do encourage donations at the door. In a city largely populated by students for many months of the year, I think it’s incredibly important to keep art and history accessible to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Free entry also gives people the flexibility to come and go from the museum throughout their time at Oxford without worrying about trying to cram everything into one visit. Rather than try to see everything the museum has to offer at once, museum goers can leisurely explore the galleries at their own pace.

I would highly recommend visiting the Ashmolean if you’re ever in Oxford. Whether you adore paintings, ancient artifacts, or simply want to spend the afternoon in a peaceful, quiet environment, this remarkable museum is a must-see!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever been to the Ashmolean? What’s your favorite kind of museum? Do you have a favorite museum in particular? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Carfax Tower | Holly Goes Abroad

I’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a few friends and family members visit me in Oxford throughout my year abroad here, meaning that I’ve developed a bit of a “tour” of Oxford that I like to take them on. One of my favorite stops on this mini tour is Carfax Tower, which my dad and I discovered when we first arrived in Oxford. Not many people seem to talk about it, but I think it’s one of the fun hidden gems in town!

View from the top!

Carfax Tower (also known as St. Martin’s Tower) is located at the intersection of St. Aldate’s, Cornmarket Street, Queen Street, and High Street in Oxford. Standing 74 feet tall, the top of this tower offers an amazing view of the surrounding city, especially on days when the sky is clear. The tower was built in the twelfth century as a church, but now it is mainly a tourist attraction that you can pay a few pounds to climb up. The steps up to the top of the tower spiral upwards in quite a narrow tunnel, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to walk all the way to the top and see the open sky once more.

Another view from the top!

I love climbing up Carfax Tower for many reasons. Not only does it provide a remarkable view of the city streets below and the rolling hills surrounding the town, but it also lets you get away from the bustle of everyday life for a few minutes and take in a different perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of reading, researching, writing essays, going to lectures, and meeting with tutors during term. Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself of where you actually are: this wonderful city with so much history, beauty, and places to explore.

Me when I first climbed the tower.

 

If you’re ever in Oxford, be sure to check out this tower! (And if you’re ever visiting me, get ready to climb to the top!)

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Have you ever climbed Carfax Tower? Do you like showing people around places you’ve lived or visited? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Student Accommodations | Holly Goes Abroad

Spring break is officially here! Since I’ll be staying in Oxford for the next six weeks in between traveling, I thought I would talk a little bit about where I live and how the experience has been thus far. The majority of students at Mansfield College live on campus, but the visiting students and a few matriculated students always live in off-campus housing. My particular building is about a fifteen minute walk from campus, whereas the other off-campus housing is about a twenty-five minute walk (I definitely lucked out!). As someone who has only ever lived in dorms on Wheaton’s tiny campus back home, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

My student accommodations are barred with a large gate that opens with a key we all carry. At first I wasn’t quite sure if I was in the right place when I first arrived, but then I noticed the large Mansfield crests hanging on the gate. This dorm is quite far from town, meaning that it feels more like a normal residential area than the more “academic” part of Oxford. Although it’s a bit of walk to town from my accommodations, we’re much closer to restaurants, bars, and shops. Definitely helpful when you don’t want to walk far for food!

Before coming to Oxford I had never lived in a room alone. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about not having a roommate. Would I miss having someone else in the room? While I was a bit lonely at first, over time I’ve come to really enjoy having my own room. Not only is it easier to be on my own schedule (I can go to bed and wake up whenever I want without having to worry about my roommate’s schedule, etc.), but it’s also nice to have some privacy whenever I go back to my room at night. While I would love to have a roommate again at Wheaton, I also wouldn’t mind having a single now that I know what it’s like.

My favorite part about having my own room is decorating. We’re not allowed to put much on the walls due to fire safety regulations, but we are given huge bulletin boards to cover as we please. I brought a few decorations from my dorm room back at Wheaton (the little flags, the “It’s OK” banner, the Wheaton pennant, etc.) and I’ve accumulated a bunch of postcards since coming here. Of course, my absolute favorite decoration are Polaroid photos. Pretty soon I’ll have run out of space for them all!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into my student accommodation at Oxford! Living here in my own room has been much more enjoyable than I initially expected, especially since I had never lived alone before. It’s remarkable how quickly a place can feel like a home away from home!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever lived in a dorm? Did you have your own room or share it with a roommate (or two)? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

The London Underground | Holly Goes Abroad

Folks, I’m here to tell you that I have discovered my long-lost love: the London Underground. I had never used the tube until a few weeks ago when my friend and I made a spontaneous trip to London for the day (click here to see the resulting bookshop crawl) and now my life has changed. Without further ado, here are eight reasons why I love the London Underground:

1. It’s easy to use. I’m just going to come right out and admit it: I am a horrible navigator. Thank goodness I live in the age of Google maps and cell data because otherwise I would likely still be lost somewhere. However, the tube is SO EASY to use– so easy that even I can do it!

2. It’s efficient. Perhaps I went on a day that wasn’t that busy, but my friend and I hardly had to wait for a tube to arrive whenever we needed one. Definitely beats waiting for buses or trains!

3. So. Many. Escalators. Because the tube is underground there are many escalators leading up to the street level. Not only are very strange– you have to stand on the right side so people can walk up them on the left– they’re also SUPER steep.

4. “Mind the gap.” I love the vaguely passive aggressive announcements repeatedly reminding everyone to “mind the gap” whenever the tube stops.

5. Comfy seats. Honestly, how are some seats on the tube so comfortable? That’s one form of transportation that I wouldn’t mind commuting on!

6. The logo. The tube has such excellent branding. I love how simple the logo is and the fact that everything coordinates so nicely from stop to stop.

7. Oyster cards. Prepaid cards make using the tube in a hurry so much easier than buying tickets every time. It’s also nice to not have to worry about constantly keeping track of how much you’re spending.

8. Convenience. The efficiency and convenience of the tube allows for maximum touristy-ness and makes sightseeing all over London possible in just a single day. I was definitely grateful to not have to walk all over the city on our bookshop crawl!

And there you have it! I’m looking forward to (hopefully) seeing more of the London Underground in my last few months at Oxford.

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Do you like riding on the tube? Do you have a favorite form of public transportation? Do you use public transport on a regular basis? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

London Bookshops | Holly Goes Abroad

One of the best things about Oxford is its location: removed from any loud cities, but only an hour and a half bus ride to London. This makes it possible for my friends and I to take spontaneous day trips to London (when our work loads allow, of course). A few weekends ago a friend and I decided to escape the Oxford bubble for a bit and head to London to spend the day bookshop-hopping and sightseeing. Here are some of the bookshops we visited:

Hatchards

What’s a London bookshop crawl without a visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop? Hatchards was established in 1797, meaning that it has been located at 187 Piccadilly for over two centuries. The highlight of this shop is definitely the seemingly endless staircase that spirals both up and down from the first floor, making it feel like the shop goes on forever and ever.

Waterstones

The thing I really appreciate about the Waterstones chain is that each location feels vaguely familiar yet still unique. I’ve been in several Waterstones already (the one in Oxford center is fabulous) yet the Waterstones we visited in London nevertheless had its own charm that drew me in. I loved the winding way it was built as well as the little art gallery we found on one of the lower floors. You never know what you’ll find in a Waterstones!

Daunt Books

I think Daunt Books was my favorite stop of the day. Not only is it an adorable bookshop–I love the color of the walls, and those lights!–but the books are also organized by country, which is really interesting. I also love how deceivingly big it is on the inside (quite like the TARDIS?!).

Here’s the real surprise of the day: I managed to not buy any books! (As someone who has to think about luggage capacity for flying back home, this was a miracle.) I can’t wait to go back to London within the next few months and explore even more lovely bookshops!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever been to any of these bookshops? What’s your favorite bookshop (in London or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

My Year Abroad Is.. HALF OVER?! | Holly Goes Abroad

Yes, you read that title correctly: I’m officially halfway through my year abroad!! *screams internally* How can this be so? Where has the time gone? It feels like just yesterday that I was walking through Oxford for the first time, lugging my suitcase behind me and wondering how I would ever learn my way around without a map. How things change!

Mansfield College has this fantastic tradition called Halfway Hall, which is a formal dinner for all second years and visiting students to celebrate the halfway point of their Oxford experience. Formal hall is one of my favorite parts of Oxford, so I was ecstatic when I found out that we were all invited to this special event. After three courses of delicious food (and a dessert that was actually safe for me to eat with my allergy!), we laughed over the announcement of who won the superlatives we voted for earlier that week. There’s nothing that makes you feel like you belong to a place more than sitting at a long table with friends, laughing over wine, and savoring the delicious chocolate dessert.

In some ways, recognizing this halfway mark feels like an acknowledgement that my time here at Oxford is dwindling away fast. At the same time, I keep having to remind myself that I still have another four months abroad– the end is far from here! I suspect that the next term and a half will fly by faster than I expect or would like it to, but it’s nevertheless nice to know that I still have a significant amount of time left.

There are still so many things I want to do and places I want to go in the next four months… Fingers crossed that I can check off as many items as possible from my list!

Thanks for coming along on this journey with me through this weekly series. Also, please let me know if there are any topics you’d like me to talk about in future weeks! Food? Bookshops? Libraries? Restaurants? Cafes? Tell me what you’d like to hear more about!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Do you feel like the past six months have gone by quickly? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Extracurricular Activities | Holly Goes Abroad

Back in the States, there’s one aspect of high school and college that people seem to prize most of all: extracurricular activities. Be it sports, honor societies, clubs, performance groups, or community service, American academic institutions send a very clear message that they expect you to be busy at all times. Is this a uniquely American view, or would this obsession with being busy remain prevalent when I traveled abroad? What sorts of clubs and activities are available to students at Oxford? Would I be able to participate in them as a visiting student? These are some of the questions I’ll be answering in today’s installment of Holly Goes Abroad.

Activities Fair

In the beginning of Michaelmas term, all freshers (and visiting students!) are invited to visit the university-wide activities fair to explore what societies (what they call “clubs” here), organizations, and student campaigns Oxford has to offer. Like most third year college students, I’ve gone to my fair share of activities fairs in the past and thought that this would be no different.

I stand corrected.

The Oxford University activities fair was ENORMOUS. We wound our way through the Exam Schools for hours, simultaneously overwhelmed and excited by the plethora of options before us. They’re not joking when they say they have a society for nearly everything. There’s a society for every academic subject. Every sport. Spelunking in caves. Volunteering in nearby public schools. Tea drinking. Board game playing. Gushing over Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, and virtually any other fandom you could think of. The list goes on and on and on and on, and after joining email lists for more societies than we could ever feasibly attend in a week, we finally made it out the other end.

The point of the activities fair is to expose you to everything the university has and then allow you to weed out what you really enjoy and what you’re not quite interested in anymore in the following weeks. Now that I’ve been here for more than an entire term, I’ve finally narrowed down my list to just a few commitments.

VSP Representative on the Mansfield JCR Bench

I’ve been involved in the Student Government Association at my college back in the States ever since I was a freshman, so I was ecstatic to learn that the Mansfield JCR Bench (the SGA equivalent) has a position for representing the interests and voices of visiting students at the college each year. Determined to take on this exciting position, I campaigned and was successfully elected last term (thanks, friends!). It’s fascinating seeing how other colleges around the world operate their student government systems, especially because there are so many layers to the Oxford JCRs. Not only must they take the views of their specific college into consideration, but there’s also a larger tier that looks after the entire university as a whole. I can’t wait to continue becoming even more involved in this group as the year goes on!

Football

Yes, that’s right: I play sports now?! To be fair, the Mansfield/Merton Football Team is incredibly relaxed and no exorbitant amount of playing experience is necessary. I had never played soccer before, but my brother has played since he was much younger so I’ve watched countless games over the past decade or so. Because I’m awful on the field, I’ve been assigned to the position of goalkeeper. As you can imagine, it’s as nerve-wracking as it sounds. However, I really love the feeling of being part of a team and working towards a common goal. Fingers crossed that this season goes well!

Film Society

I’m also a loyal member of the film club back at Wheaton, so when I learned that Mansfield has a film society that meets on a weekly basis I immediately knew that I had to attend. It’s such a great way to spend Monday nights– relaxing with friends, eating snacks, and watching movies I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a chance to watch.

As much a I deeply enjoy participating in a lot of extracurricular activities, being here has taught me something important: it can be equally as enjoyable and worthwhile to take some time for yourself. Back home it often felt as though extracurricular activities should be prioritized over academics, especially in high school when students are trying to build “strong” college applications. Perhaps it is simply because I’m in the unique position of only being here for a year abroad, but I feel so much less pressure to be constantly busy with extra clubs, meetings, and other activities. And it feels incredible. 

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

What are your favorite extracurricular activities? Do you ever feel pressure to be constantly busy? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Oxford Union | Holly Goes Abroad

Today I’d like to talk about a wonderful, fascinating, and controversial aspect of Oxford University: the Oxford Union. Founded in 1823, the Oxford Union is a hub for debate and speech both by students and guest speakers alike. Each week there are a plethora of events, from celebrity speakers and formal debates to pub quizzes and even sometimes balls. There are also libraries and study rooms available for members in the various Union buildings.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some incredible speakers at the Oxford Union: J.J. Abrams, Sir Ian McKellen, Monica Lewinsky, and Alec Baldwin, just to name a few. Usually for these more famous speakers you have to get to the Union well in advance and stand in line to make sure you get a seat. This typically involves my friends and I studying in the Union library while simultaneously checking up on the line from the window, then running across the street to grab a burrito for dinner before heading over to wait in line. It’s amazing to hear these people speak in such an intimate setting, especially since members of the audience get to ask questions at the end of the interviews. Seeing these famous figures speak in person makes you realize that they’re just normal people in actuality. I’m so lucky that my time at Oxford has been filled with surreal experiences like these– I would never be able to see McKellen (GANDALF!) speak back in the States!!

Some Union buildings looking pretty sinister.

I also love attending the formal debates at the Union that occur at least once a week. The topics range could be anything and everything, from privacy policies in our technological world to celebrity culture’s impact on the feminist movement. Debate speakers are a mix of Oxford students and well-known figures in the fields of whatever the debate subject is at the time. Debates can be fascinating, tense, hilarious, frustrating, or empowering– you never know what you’re in for that night!

A blurry photo of J.J. Abrams!!

The controversial aspect of the Oxford Union is the fact that in order to attend these events you must become a member, which requires an exorbitant membership fee. I suppose the deal is better for matriculated students who live in England because they can simply pay for a lifetime membership and get their money’s worth over several decades. However, for someone like me who is only at Oxford for a year, the expensive cost is pretty ridiculous. Of course, I have found ways of justifying buying one to myself– I’m only here once so I might as well experience everything while I can, if I go at least once a week for the entire year then it makes it worth it, etc.– but it’s still a hard bargain to swallow. Besides, what about Oxford students who cannot afford to buy a membership? In my opinion, if you attend Oxford University you should automatically be considered a member. I understand that this ideal situation would leave the Union with no substantial form of income, but couldn’t that be negotiated and changed over time?

While I love going to Oxford Union events, I will admit that it is a  bit of a problematic pastime.

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Have you ever attended an event at the Oxford Union? If you could listen to anyone speak, who would it be? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY