Wanting budget accommodation in a university city? Bed and breakfast under those famously dreaming spires allows a glimpse into how the other half thinks, writes Steve Braunias.

Hilary watched from the door while I undressed, and climbed into her narrow bed. She was dark-haired, with dark eyes, pale skin, and an intense, serious face. She wore a white blouse. I noticed that her hands were quite large. It was a summer's evening in Oxford, England.

I had been walking all day. I strolled alongside the Thames and across a meadow for about six hours, and then around the cobbled lanes leading to and from the ancient university colleges, emerging on the main street of Woodstock, to Somerville College, where Hilary waited at the door of her bedroom.

Hilary's full name, and her photograph alongside her own brief, intimate memoir, were fixed to the door of the room she used to sleep in as a student of physics at Somerville in the 1960s. It was named after her in recognition of a donation she had made to the college. I slept there last May. I woke up in the middle of the night, sat by the open window with a glass of water, and wondered how she was - remarried, alone, happy?

Strange to think of the life and loves of a complete stranger; strange to sleep in her old room. But I felt lucky. I was staying in one of the smartest addresses in England.

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When I was arranging a trip to Britain last year, I chanced upon a website offering cheap and somewhat unusual accommodation. UniversityRooms.com offers bed and breakfast at university halls of residence in Canada, the US, Turkey, India, Chile, Argentina. Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand - $50 in Auckland, $70 in Dunedin. There are also rooms throughout Europe, and the UK.

In London, I took an attic room at Goodenough College in dreamy Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, for £108 ($204) a night. In Cambridge, I chose Westminster College, a grand old Presbyterian joint, costing 69 quid. Oxford's Somerville College was only £45 - it didn't include breakfast - and was the loveliest of the lot, set in a hushed and pretty enclave, with long grass and fuschias, jackdaws and tits, and a path leading to the unlovely Margaret Thatcher Centre. The great monster roomed at Somerville from 1943.

I had an upstairs room. There was a bath down the hall. It filled in seconds. The hall of residence was very quiet at all times of day and night. Students walked slowly, thoughtfully. They had something on their minds.

Oxford has an ambient IQ. It's everywhere, ingrained in the yellowish stone of the medieval colleges, tailing after the dons who whizz by on bicycles, and mingles with salt, vinegar and beer in the cramped pubs such as the Eagle and Child, and the Lamb and Flag. To stay in one of the colleges is to get an even closer sense of Oxford's intellectual temperature. It's a fabulous opportunity to see how the other half thinks.

I had to get by on minor acts of cunning. In the morning, I spied students opening the door of a nearby building. It had a security keypad. My hunch was that they were heading for breakfast. I ambled over there, and lingered by the door, pretending to send a text, and waited for the next student to come along. As soon as he opened the door, I slipped in behind him, and helped myself to a superb English breakfast - bacon, toast, beans, jam, tea, eggs, everything.

At the cash register, a nice old dear said, "You a visiting tutor?"

I declared that I was.

She asked, "Forgot your meal card, I suspect?"

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I declared this was the case. I paid cash - £3.60 for a feast. It was delicious. I ate it in a large, dark hall, with oval windows.

Afterwards, I relaxed in the library, and read a bound literary journal from 1853. It didn't look as though anyone had opened it since. It included an essay on Lord Nelson. "Well then," he told friends on going to the Battle of Trafalgar, "I will be a hero, and brave every danger." He was a hero. He braved the dangers, and was killed. His dying words, to ship's captain Thomas Hardy, were known to every English schoolboy for generations: "Kiss me, Hardy." But the essay claimed that he added: "Don't throw me overboard."

Who knew? It's possible that my discovery counts as an important contribution to scholarship.

Definitely I felt brainier leaving Somerville than before I entered, although the impression soon wore off.

My room was very small. It had a single bed, a closet, tea and coffee, and a window ledge. It also had Hilary. Her story on the door was candid, honest, exact.

She wrote, "I was born on June 6, 1943, in Newcastle. My father was in the Royal Navy. My heroine was Marie Curie. At Oxford I fenced (half-blue) and sang. After graduating I spent a year in the Middle East as a missionary.

"Hepatitis forced me to return home and I started research at Imperial College, London. I married a medical student. Pregnancy forced me to give up the research. At home with two small children and a failing marriage I looked for something to keep my mind active, and became interested in law. Four years later I was called to the Bar.

"I remarried, to another barrister. We moved to the US. I felt uncertain but was talked into it. When the marriage broke up I returned to my family in the UK."

I studied her photograph. She had such a frank expression. Her autobiography in miniature told of a brilliant mind - a physics graduate, briefly a medical student, a law degree - and also of a strong faith, with her year performing mission work. Later, back home, I put her name into Google, and read of her successful career in law, and also of an address she gave at Somerville. Her subject was Teresa of Cartagena - a nun in medieval Spain who became deaf, and was the author of an essay considered the first feminist writing by a Spanish woman.

Faith, feminism, the expert brain; Hilary is an impressive character, someone serious. But what made me wonder about her in Oxford was her decision to make public note of the two failed marriages. She was stating the facts. It was accurate. There was a briskness to her account, but also a recognition of despair, and wanting to face up to it.

My long walk that first day in Oxford took me across Port Meadow. A sign displays the famous lines by Gerald Manley Hopkins, written in 1879, after a row of poplar trees were cut down on the meadow: "After-comers cannot guess the beauty been." Hilary, who doubtless strolled the meadow as a student at Somerville, later wrote about Hopkins, in an essay on the subject of depression in his poems.

She wrote, "For many years I was plagued with depression related to hormonal disturbances. At times it was so bad I could barely function three weeks out of four, although throughout much of this period I was living the intense life of a litigation lawyer. When I was depressed, I found Hopkins' poems to be a source of comfort. He described vividly how I felt."

Hilary, putting it on the line; Hilary, laying it bare, again, as usual. There was a full moon that night I sat on the window ledge. It illuminated the lawn, shone on the dreaming spires. I went back to bed.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to London. Oxford is an hour from London by train.

Further information: See universityrooms.com.