In Britain, Dorms Have Summer Jobs
By JENNIFER CONLIN
Published: July 29, 2010
WHEN I walked into Victoria Hall at Oxford University’s Keble College last month, I was sure I had entered a far more genuine Hogwarts experience than anything Universal could have created at the new Harry Potter theme park in Orlando. Before me was a Gothic dining hall nearly the length of a football field, filled with long wooden tables illuminated by reading lamps. From the cathedral-high brick walls hung portraits of the college’s former wardens and founders beneath stained glass windows. As I lingered over a breakfast of sausages, roasted tomato, baked beans and eggs, I found myself staring up at the image of the college’s namesake, the Rev. John Keble, and could have sworn I saw him fidget within his frame. All that was missing was a flurry of owls delivering the mail.
Never mind that the dining hall used in the Harry Potter films is down the street at Christ Church College. Victoria Hall — the longest hall in Oxford — is an excellent doppelgänger. And unlike Christ Church, which is open to tourists only at certain hours of the day, visitors at Keble can actually spend the night in the dormitory rooms of the 19th-century college, have meals there (the dinner menu comes with a wine list) and roam the university’s manicured quadrangles, at least one of which has an outdoor cafe where guests can enjoy a cool pint of beer on the pristine lawn.
Keble College is one of more than two dozen universities in 20 cities in Britain whose bustling dormitories are transformed into tranquil bed-and-breakfasts during spring, summer and sometimes even Christmas vacations. According to Charlie Ramsay, managing director of University Rooms (universityrooms.co.uk), the consortium behind the Web-based business, some 3,000 accommodations — from singles with shared baths to family suites — are available during the summer season alone.
“There are two reasons to stay in our rooms — price and a unique experience,” said Mr. Ramsay, a 2003 graduate of Oxford University who thought up the business while he was a student, sensing an opportunity to funnel the extra revenue into the maintenance of university buildings, as well as keep student housing costs lower. The site went live in 2007.
“Staying in a university accommodation is a really affordable way to visit cities across the U.K. where a hotel might easily be at least twice the price,” said Mr. Ramsay, adding that the average cost of a room is £25 to £40 a night (about $37 to $60 at $1.49 to the pound). “What’s more, getting behind the walls of world-famous institutions are experiences that will be remembered for a lifetime.” Mr. Ramsay is now expanding the business throughout Europe (two universities in Madrid and Barcelona will be available for guests later this year).
My rediscovery of dorm life began in April, when my college-bound daughter and I decided to visit the University of Exeter in Devon, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from London in southwest England. Looking for a place to stay, I noticed availability in what the English refer to as their “halls of residence.” With two dormitories open to guests, we had a choice of staying either in Holland Hall, a “stunning modern dormitory with a glass fronted dining hall and panoramic views of the Exe Estuary,” or Mardon Hall, built in 1933 with “original features” that included a “wood-paneled library and grand staircase.”
Noting that Holland Hall’s rooms were all “en suite” (the British term for having a private bath), while many at Mardon had only a sink with a shared bathroom down the hall, I opted for the former and was pleasantly surprised to learn we would be paying only £52.95 a night for the two of us, including an “English breakfast” (everything from cereal to ham and eggs).
Not only was the elderly porter welcoming when he checked us into our hillside dormitory, generously offering sightseeing tips as he pointed out a rack of tourist brochures, but the room was lovely and clean, with sweeping views of the countryside that more than made up for the lack of television and Wi-Fi. Though the double bed was a disappointment (only Mardon Hall’s rooms had twin beds), we found fluffy towels, supplies for making cups of Fair Trade tea and coffee, and even toiletries.
Had we not been investigating the academic side of this beautiful red brick campus, we would have taken advantage of the sports facilities, all accessible to overnight guests; headed to one of the many sandy beaches nearby; or explored the Dartmoor National Park, 20 minutes away.
Instead, we took a break from our tour at the Queen’s Cafe, an airy campus restaurant with pine wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and fantastic food — we shared a roasted duck panini with ginger, soy and fresh coriander, as well as a prawn sandwich with tomato and orange dressing (£3.95 each).
A quick convert to staying in dormitories, I next reserved a room at Imperial College in London for my husband and me for a trip in June. Since it was located in what I knew to be the desirable neighborhood of South Kensington, steps from Hyde Park, the Royal Albert Hall and many of London’s top museums, I could hardly believe my luck when a double room with a bath at Imperial was available for just £75 a night. A five-minute walk away, hotel rooms easily cost at least double, if not triple that price.
After checking into our room, again in a modern dorm, with all the conveniences of Exeter (minus the minibar, though it did have an alarm clock and lots of closet space), we headed straight to the Eastside Restaurant for a quick drink before meeting friends. It was on the ground floor of our building and too convenient not to visit. Because the drinking age in Britain is 18, most of the cafes and restaurants on university campuses serve alcohol at student rates. Had we wanted to spend the afternoon watching Wimbledon on one of the two flat-screen televisions, we could have ordered a bucket of five Budweiser beers for a mere £9.50 or a jug of Pimm’s for £12.
Later, I decided to try staying in an Oxford dorm with a friend. Though my companion insisted we change rooms just before bedtime (she said the room smelled like stale socks), the porter could not have been more accommodating, moving us immediately to a room that met her olfactory standards. At breakfast the next morning, even she could not help but take photos of Victoria Hall, between bites of croissant.
Speaking to our fellow guests — an elderly Belgian couple, a Swedish family with two pre-teenage girls, and an American couple — one traveler summed it up best. “Staying here you feel more like a guest than a tourist,” said Michael Marcinko from Pittsburgh, adding that he did not mind the simple rooms or lack of television, as the college’s atmosphere “allows me to wander back to the time of Lewis Carroll or J.R.R. Tolkien.”
IF YOU GO
University Rooms offers an online booking service with accommodations across Britain from Edinburgh in the north to Plymouth in the south (universityrooms.co.uk). Prices below are approximate as room rates vary with time of year and demand.
KEBLE COLLEGE AT OXFORD UNIVERSITY Open to visitors until the end of September, and from March 23 to April 20, 2011. A single room with shared bath costs about £45 (about $67 at $1.49 to the pound) and includes breakfast, while a two-bedroom family suite that sleeps four costs about £185 ($276). Each room has an Ethernet point, with cables available for a small charge. Visitors have access to the grounds, the campus chapel and bar.
UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, DEVON The Streatham Campus is open to visitors this summer until the end of September, and during spring vacation next year, from April 6 to 27. Single rooms with shared bath are about £20. Doubles with private baths and minibars are about £50, including breakfast. Some rooms have Internet access. Sports facilities are available at a discount.
IMPERIAL COLLEGE, LONDON Open to visitors until the end of this September, and next year from July 4 until Sept. 27. With more than 1,200 rooms in six dormitories, both old and new, prices vary depending on demand, but never exceed £95 (including breakfast) for a double room with bath. The least expensive room is about £35 for a single with private bath and breakfast. For £5, guests have access to Imperial’s sports facility, which includes an indoor pool.