Spring is in the air

Spring in England is a very welcome season. Granted, we have not had the record cold temperatures and large amounts of snow that I know you have had this winter, but it’s been a dark, chilly, rainy one all the same. Spring does come much earlier here; our daffodils came and went weeks ago, and our trees are almost fully leaved. The spring flowers here are beautiful and more prolific than the ones I remember in New England. I think this may have something to do with the relatively mild winter here; they are able to grow perennials that we are not, because it gets too cold for us over the winter.

This past weekend I went with a friend to the Harcourt Arboretum, which is associated with the Oxford Botanical Garden, to take advantage of the spring blooms. At the Arboretum they have a bluebell forest. Bluebells are native to the UK and adapted to growth in woodland, and when they bloom this time of year it looks as though the forest floor under the trees is carpeted in purple — beautiful!

Oxford also has its own particular springtime traditions, which is not so surprising for a city and a university that is steeped in them. May Morning, also known as May Day or the 1st of May, is a big celebration here. It begins at dawn with the Magdalen College Choir (pronounced “maudlen”) singing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the Magdalen Tower, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. You have to get there around 5:30 a.m. if you want a good spot to listen from — the best place is from the Magdalen bridge right below. Alternatively, if you are a young, energetic undergraduate, you can stay up all night and make your way to the bridge at the end of it. I am not one of those. We did, however, manage to get up early and make it to the bridge in time for a good spot. The bridge and High Street are packed full with people waiting to ring in May morning, and buzz with conversation and laughter. The bells in the tower ring out the time at 6, and everyone quiets, even those rowdy undergraduates. The choir sings out and it’s a bit chill-inducing, standing there in a silent crowd at dawn, listening to the beautiful harmony coming from the top of a 500-year-old tower. Once the hymn ends, a short blessing is said, full of allusions to spring time and new life, and then a few more songs and finally the carillon starts. That’s it! Until, that is, it’s time for breakfast at one of the many places that opens early, where if you are lucky you will be serenaded by Morris dancers also breakfasting. Afterwards, it’s off to watch those Morris dancers dance. They perform all over the city on this day and come from towns all around Oxford, invited by the local teams.

May morning takes place in the beginning of Trinity term, usually, which is the last term of the year for the university. Trinity is a busy term, full of exams. Studying for exams here is called “exam revision,” and the libraries are chock full all term of students revising. At Oxford, even exams cannot escape tradition. Students have to sit their exams in “sub fusc,” which is the outfit worn for all important ceremonies here. It consists of black shoes, black pants (or skirt and tights), white blouse, black tie or ribbon around your neck, and your gown and mortarboard. Students wear different colored carnations pinned to their gown depending on which exam they are sitting — white for the first, pink for the ones in the middle, and red for the last. You have to watch out leaving the Exam Schools with a red carnation — someone might be waiting to dump flour or champagne (or worse!) on you!

I am anxious for my own exams to come and go, so that I can truly enjoy the coming English summer. For now, though, I am revising away — and grateful for springtime.

Catherine McCosker is a former Peterborough resident currently living in England with her husband, where she attends the University of Oxford and thinks about food a lot. She would love to hear from you at

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