When I walked into Victoria Hall at Oxford
University’s Keble College, 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 doppelganger. 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 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 Ramsay, adding that the average cost
of a room is 25 to 40 pounds 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.” Ramsay is now expanding
the business throughout Europe (two universities in Madrid and Barcelona will
be available for guests later this year).
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
neighbourhood 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 pounds a night. A
five-minute walk away, hotel rooms easily cost at least double, if not triple
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 traveller 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.