My town and my gown: from the Dreaming Spires to semi-rural obscurity

Maxim Parr-Reid laments the parochial mediocrity of a vacation spent in rural Buckinghamshire.

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The term ‘rustication’ historically meant ‘to be sent (back) to the country’ — the term dating back to the days when Oxford students would all be the sons (this was before women were admitted) of the landed (no new money thanks) gentry (i.e. before they let in slack-jawed yokels like me). Despite the small town of Olney being only 40 miles — “just down the road”, as my parents often remark — from Oxford, my vacation certainly has the air of rustication about it.

Released in 1995, the song ‘Country House’ by Blur includes the phrase “lots of rural charm in the country”. Sure, we have “rural charm”, but there exists bugger all else to do, except walk your dog and act all innocent when it leaves its business on the grass in the park. If this constitutes “rural charm” you can keep it. Though both firmly in the Home Counties of England, the small market town of Olney — population circa 40 at the last count — and Oxford — “too much like London” according to a former work colleague — couldn’t be more different.

I am greeted with the juxtaposition that is beaming suspicion — the locals appear hostile to the new ideas I have acquired while being “at Uni”. I am sure to leave my “airs and graces” — as my former shop colleagues refer to my recounting of experiences at Oxford — at the door. It is quite obvious that my former, now quite distanced colleagues, are interested in how “I’m keepin’” and that’s about as far as it goes. Whether I’m on University Challenge or going to a Commemoration Ball is simply not of concern.

Nobody here is remotely interested in Bridge Thursdays or how much vodka I drank on Saturday night of 7th week, rumours instead zoom through the town about the inconveniences caused by the One Stop van “inconsiderately” parking on the High Street (how they had the cheek to name a street in this town after one of Oxford’s most happening thoroughfares, I’ll never know!). There were once whisperings afoot that a Sainsbury’s (cheap booze) would put the town on the map, but alas these proved to be a bit of a red herring. There isn’t even a Waitrose in the town, such are the depths of deprivation in this otherwise ‘pleasant enough’ patch of Buckinghamshire.

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Whilst some Oxonians hail from happening places like Brighton, London or Manchester, I have no such good fortune. As you drive (roads being the most recent injection of infrastructure, being laid in 2009) you are welcomed by a rather bullish sign saying ‘WELCOME TO OLNEY, HOME OF AMAZING GRACE’. The Banksy in me wants to correct it – ‘WELCOME TO OLNEY, HOME OF SAINSBURY’S (NOT!) AND MOANING’. The Olney ‘Noticeboard’ (Moanboard) is the glue that binds this thriving community of happy, happy people — lest Sainsbury’s attempt another invasion and lest anyone park more than 1mm outside their allotted space in the Market Place. Why did I ever leave?

There are joys to living in places like this of course, Olney, and the sheep which encircle this glorified village of do-gooders and nosy Parkers, gives perspective to the Dreaming Spires. It’s truly humbling — the town literally hasn’t changed since the year 1600 — to have a point of reference while at Oxford. Something to remind me where I’ve escaped from, and blot out while getting “bevved” at Parkend.

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