It was the same with the college gardens. They were beautiful and we did go in there sometimes when the weather was right. If there was the right kind if snow, perhaps a trudge and sone snowman building was in order. Or on the rare, very rare, right kind of Summer day, we might attempt a picnic. Otherwise, one would need to brave the likelihood of wind and rain or hayfever or lack of time to go in there and read. I scarcely knew an allium from a japonica besides and seldom ventured into the spread much further than the immediate vicinity of the gate. Youth is wasted on the young, I have often heard, but perhaps I was not such an atypical youth with regard to my lack of focus upon horticulture and architecture.
The college was a specimen of Victoriana, largely built of red brick with white facings. Due to the generosity of benefactors it had come about at all, originally as a womens' college and in that way it had been built and extended, land acquired right on the River Cherwell and on the edge of the University Parks. We had our own boathouse with punts that we could hire during the Summer term and we used that alright, as often as we were able. That was possibly the most time that I spent in the grounds, going to the boathouse and then gliding through them on the way to the pub at the end of the line.
In case this sounds ike we had no marked natural curiosity about our surroundings, this is not the case at all. It merely appears that we had a different perspective on them from Proper Adults. One demonstration that we were not Proper Adults was the night that a bunch of us decided to hit the |Fellows' Garden. It was a nice night, we had wine, we wanted to be outside and... we decided on a place that we knew we weren't allowed to be in. Generally speaking, we could go in there any time we wanted as long as it was day time or early evening. It was neither, but we were on a mission. The main garden gates were locked tight, but we could have got in by climbing into the Parks and back over. People often did and it was a security concern. Once, a guy I knew did so with the express purpose of stealing a punt. He succeeded in this endeavour with the help of some drunken mates and his complete lack of conscience. We did not have much conscience either, but the Parks route seemed like too much effort. With a certain amount of low cunning weaving and local knowledge we knew that we could reach the Fellows' Garden without any climbing at all. Of course we were caught as the alarms went off in the Porters' Lodge, but our main concern was not getting into any trouble as opposed to causing trouble for e.g. the poor porter who had to come and investigate the breach at midnight, not knowing if he'd run into a mad axeman instead of foolish undergraduates. As it was, a bit of cheeky banter and we were allowed to slope off to drink our wine in a permitted place.
There were also incidents like the time that a friend took up the carpet in his room and found a trapdoor beneath. Naturally, this had to be jimmied up and about half of our year climbed inside an intriguing cellar... until the porters stopped us again. The cellars were the stuff of legend, mostly because we were not allowed access to them. On one fabled occasion, two guys found their way into the wine cellars and made milkman style deliveries to peoples' doors, liberating and sharing the wealth. On another, a friend got in there and stole a case of Cava, which lived in hiding in various folks' rooms until the heat was no longer on. We did not judge our light-fingered pals harshly for their misdeeds.
In the other direction was the room which had an access panel to the roof. In the year that I lived on that floor, a mad biochemist had that room and spent more time on the roof than almost anywhere else. At nights we could hear him and his friends running around up there, which was funny the first ten times, but got tedious after that. His piece de resistance was getting into the mechanism of the college clock which went through several sets of chimes at about 3am, which was... Yeah. We totally wanted to shop him then or shove him off the damn roof. Mysteriously, college padlocked the hatch after that, which simply delayed his moonlight climbs.
That was what we used our time and curiosity for. It was traditional. A friend's mother had attended one of the womens' colleges during the sixties and was full of tales of having to climb over the back gate of the college – both in and out – after curfew time, a task further complicated by short skirts. In our era, we had keys to the college gates. Back then, any visitors of the opposite gender had to be entertained with the door open and a minimum of three feet on the floor per two people at all times. Go back a couple of generations and it was considered outrageous to so much as talk to a member of the opposite sex without a chaperone present. We had no such strictures, yet still made our attempts to flout the rules, however weakly.
I think that I am glad that we indulged our 'naughtiness' back then. Now I have come to the time in my life when I can better appreciate the gardens, even if I am not part of them any longer.