An excursion into the Oxford countryside.
It’s often that said that Oxford is a beautiful place. This is not untrue. But there’s a caveat.
Many of Oxford’s most handsome architectural features—the stately medieval halls where centuries of serious scholarship have transpired; the immaculate green fields, speckled with gently grazing deer—are off limits. They exist, invisible to the public, behind the kind of tall, fortress-like wall that would satisfy Vlad Putin in its ability to discourage unwanted visitors. You could be walking down an otherwise grungy and unappealing street (always grey and damp, inexplicably, even if it hasn’t rained) with no idea that behind two feet of sandstone lays several acres of verdant, Narnian paradise. This paradise, evidently, would be spoiled by your gaze. You are not a member of the club.
Even for someone who goes to the university, you are in all likelihood not part of the relevant club. Within the university itself, Oxford is parceled into thirty-nine constituent “colleges.” These colleges are the owners of most of the property (not, as in most other institutions, the university itself). As a rule, being a member of one college does not grant you access to another college without a compelling reason to be there. The only way to gain access is to be invited, or to shell out a few quid to enter within a limited window of visiting hours. In other words, you can be in Oxford a long time without ever really getting to see it.
This is one of the minor joys of playing football (footie, world football, soccah—call it what you will). The area surrounding the city of Oxford has an astounding number of football pitches. For one thing, almost every college has its own football pitch. Add to that the entire population of Oxford, most of whom have nothing to do with the university. They all play footie as well and require their own recreational accommodations. Given that such grounds take up a fair bit of square footage, and you don’t see any such pitches in the city itself, it stands to reason that the Oxford city center is essentially an island of semi-urbanity in a sea of mostly vacant football pitches. You could play a weekly bout of footie in Oxford for a year and find yourself at a different pitch every time. In fact this is not an unlikely reality, since if you play in a league the “home” side chooses the pitch, and each team has its own home grounds.
And so it was, not so long ago, that I found myself one cold, wet Saturday morning setting off toward a novel set of coordinates, in a part of Oxford’s outskirts I’d never visited before. It must be said that I wasn’t in a healthy state of mind that morning. I can’t identify any proximal reason for this. But I decided that it would satisfy me emotionally would be to listen to Into You by Ariana Grande—”a little less conversation, a little more touch my body”—on repeat. Like forty-seven times. In a row.
I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with the place I was going to. It was in north Oxford, not especially far from where I live. Google Maps said 12 minutes via bicycle. So I didn’t bother checking the exact route before taking off on my bike. Instead I just turned on the voice navigation and immersed myself spiritually in an Ariana-induced trance.
In retrospect, the first red flag was that Google attempted to take me through a path where bikes are prohibited. This is the park where I take my dog to run around. Not only are bikes not allowed, the gate it was asking me to go through has the kind of turnstile expressly designed to prevent anything but humans from entering. This should have given me cause for reflection. I should gone the other way around the park, following the path I usually take to get to this part of town. But I lacked the mental resources to devote to thoughtful navigation. There was only room for Ariana. So I defaulted to Google’s proposed auxiliary path.
This took me much further north than my destination, to a highway meant to convey cars from one corner of Oxford to the other. Having travelled some ways down this road, Google instructed me to turn right. This struck me as a peculiar directive. There was nothing to turn right onto. Or rather there was a very large field, and a small sign which read “foot path.”
I am optimistic, even a bit credulous, by nature—believing that any challenge can be overcome if embarked upon with sufficient enthusiasm. Plus I was on my eight-hundredth repetition of Ariana Grande and in no mood for circumspection. So I think I supposed that beyond the field, across the foot path (which was simply mud instead of grass), there would be another road. This was a shortcut. Google knows. Google always knows.
At first I was pretty proud of myself. Less ambitious individuals wouldn’t take their Peugeot road bike across a muddy field. They would’ve given up and gone the long way. They’re too averse to risk, unwilling to consider unconventional solutions. Then, in the midst of receiving this commendation for extraordinary valor, the path forked. Both paths were mud. Neither led to a road, but to separate fields. Google remained steadfast in its assurance that the best course was straight ahead.
This is when I finally removed my headphones, having contributed approximately one-third of the six-hundred million streams Into You has received on Spotify. I looked back toward the highway. No, I told myself—by the time you back-track through this muddy field you’ll still be farther away from your destination than when you left home. I had followed Google into battle. I had no choice but to press on. I took the path which most resembled “straight.”
As it turned out, this was not a continuation of the footpath. This was a nature reserve. There was a sign that said as much, stating that this was private property, owned by Wolfson College, and that if you were neither livestock nor a member of Wolfson College this area was off limits to you. Cool, I thought. I’ll be the only person outside Wolfson College to know about this shortcut. I hoisted my bike over the fence, negotiated the barrier, and began traversing the next stretch of muddy field.
Then I made an observation which concerned me. The path I’d been following ended. It terminated in the direction that I wanted to go, instead turning back toward Wolfson College. This is when it occurred to me that my short cut might not be so short.
Again I made my way over the barrier and began to forge my own path. This time, however, it wasn’t through a field. It was a wooded thicket, a dense collection of deciduous trees encasing what I can only assume was a reclaimed marsh that had only recently coagulated into knee-high mud. I looked despairingly at Google Maps. It had since given up on dispensing navigational advice and instead had replaced the suggested path with a shrugging emoji. The surrounding area was unhelpfully blank for miles every direction, as if I had suddenly found myself not just outside Oxford but in suburban Pyongyang. No longer capable of making it through the mud, I began to carry my bike.
I made it some ways into the grove. Eventually, in a fit of desperation I abandoned my Peugeot. I figured my best bet for survival was to do some reconnoitering on foot. Part way through there had been a break in the thicket, leading into another open field, and I left my bike there in case that proved a better option. Ahead of me I could see daylight. I was coming to the end of the thicket. That’s when I saw them. The exit was blocked. Cows.
And not just any old cows. As far as I could tell, these were a special bovine strain. No longer grass-loving ruminants, these cows were clearly carnivores. They looked at me as if they intended to exact their revenge for every medium-rare ribeye I’d ever eaten. They started toward me. “No way,” I said. “Fuck off!” They didn’t.
I returned to my bike and scurried into the adjacent field, this one even vaster and more empty than the previous ones. The cows had followed me. They came up behind me as I surveyed this new territory. With a sense of startled urgency, I hopped on my bike and began through the muddy path circumscribing the field. Peddling furiously and covered in mud, leaves, and woodland detritus, I looked like Bear Grylls after an encounter with a pack of cannibals.
Having crossed three sides of the field, I finally came to a legitimate walking path. On it was a man with his dog. The first human I’d seen in days. He took in the scene as my bike came down on the other side of the fence, followed by a disheveled young man in a soccer uniform, pursued on the other side of the fence by a disgruntled herd of cattle. He took a moment to size me up.
“You come from across the bridge?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. I had no idea what bridge he was talking about.
I asked him which way the nearest road was. He said there was one in either direction. It depended on where I was going. I told him that I was looking for the Exeter College Sports ground. But of course he had no idea where that was, as it was only one of hundreds of Oxfords football pitches he’d never had occasion to visit.
I picked the direction which seemed closest to the one I wanted to go. Mercifully, I was out of the mud. But I had now made my way into a labyrinth of back-woods dirt paths criss-crossing their way through nowhere in particular. At length, after a few wrong turns and false starts—I ended up passing another dog walker on three separate occasions—I finally emerged onto a road next to which there was a soccer pitch. I had left my home forty-five minutes before kick-off. It was now five after.
I approached my teammates, still in a circle warming up. “Finally!” said one of them. Another looked me, then my bike, and said, “You’ve got some mud stuck in your tires.”
Soon the game started. We won 3-2. But the real victory was getting to see a portion of Oxford’s natural beauty so few have ever encountered. Heading home, I took the road I usually take to get to that part of town. I didn’t listen to Ariana Grande. It took me twelve minutes.
P.S., This week on Cognitive Revolution, I had my first repeat guest, Brian Christian. In the first episode, we talked about his background in poetry, writing, and AI. This time around we had an in-depth discussion about his new book on AI and Society, The Alignment Problem.