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The Tower of the Five Orders

I would tell you that Oxford means “door” in Latin, but it doesn’t, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you that Oxford has a lot of doors, most of which were built to keep out prying eyes. When I visited two years ago, for instance, I got a beautiful tour of Oxford’s facades; the inner workings of the University were closed to tourists. Yesterday, however, I got a golden ticket in the form of a student ID card. I’ve since used it to see behind the large stone walls my own college, about ten other colleges, and the sacred Bodleian library. As a student, very little at this hallowed University is closed to me. It’s awesome. It’s amazing. And then… oh wait. What’s this? A door without a card swipe? You mean to tell me I can’t get in there? That’s just… that’s just elitist!

It was a small metal door in the Bodleian library, an unassuming door, but nonetheless a door I wasn’t allowed behind. I had heard tales of dark passages and darker societies at Oxford, all mentioned in a whisper and with a sideways glance. My thought was that perhaps one of these societies took up residence behind the door. If that were the case, I wouldn’t want to miss seeing it. So when the librarian turned her head, I ducked in.

I found myself on a stone spiral staircase. To my right, the stairs disappeared down into the dark. To my left, they continued upwards towards light. I made a left, clutching tightly to the rusted handrail that ran along the wall. I was dizzy. Stained glass windows the size of dinner plates dotted the walls at odd intervals, and looking through them I could see the entire city of Oxford. I was dizzier. Still, I kept climbing. Up and up, up, up, and up! Then the stairs stopped, and I found myself in front of a wooden door.  It had a keyhole, so I bent down to look through it and took a blast of cold air to the eye. I backed away quickly, but had seen enough: I was at the top of the Tower of the Five Orders, one of the tallest buildings in Oxford.

After I had taken my fill of the view, I walked down the stairs past where I originally entered and continued down into the Tower’s depths. It ended in a locked oak door, and I could hear voices coming from the other side.

“A secret society,” I said.

“I just stepped in some gum,” said a voice from the other side. Needless to say, I had not found any secrets but merely a door leading outside. Turning back, I headed halfway up the Tower and went through the only door I had not yet tried. In front of me was a reception desk, and three librarians turned to look at me as I entered.

“Are you staff?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said.

“What were you doing back there?”

“I went through a door.”

“Well, don’t go through any more doors.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m just looking for the exit.” Hearing my American accent, the librarian softened.

“You can head that way with impunity,” she said, and I didn’t know which way she meant, and I didn’t know what impunity meant, but I ducked my head and pressed onwards.

It didn’t take long to find a dictionary in one of the world’s best libraries: impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines.” I suggest that if you come to Oxford and want impunity, you get yourself a student ID card. And don’t go through any metal doors. Or do, but be sneakier than I was. The view is unbeatable.

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