>> The England posts: “The Adventure Begins” (the story of our unplanned night in Denver); “First Class” (the story of our flights to London, written in Hemel Hampstead, England); “Made It!” (brief post that chronologically jumps ahead in our trip to share my arrival at the Eagle & Child, written in Somerton, England); “Last Night in Lyme Regis” (a short post written in Lyme Regis, the day before we journeyed back to London and home); “London 1” (first reflection on the trip written in Canada); “London 2” (you get the idea…); and “Warwick Castle“. <<
I’ve already written about our visit to Oxford in brief, but I’m going to talk about it some more. People occasionally ask what my favourite part of the trip was, or which part of England I liked most. My answer is always that it’s difficult to pin down any particular place as my favourite–each stop had something special about it: the crowds and landmarks of London; the everyday life of our English friends and family; the history of Warwick and Bath; the beach/holiday life (and cream tea) of Lyme Regis. Each of the things we did and saw was very special in its own way.
Yet my answer isn’t entirely true. Oxford stands above the rest for reasons I can’t clearly express (though I do know that it’s not simply because of The Eagle & Child). I think it had a little to do with timing and weather.
Toni dropped us off in Oxford by about 9:30 in the morning. It was a drizzly day and the streets were quiet. We walked down a couple of streets and looked in a couple of shops and eventually found ourselves in a covered market, and it was nearly deserted. A grocery stand, a fish monger, shoe shops, a tea shop, and whatnot. Its sights, sounds, and smells we had all to ourselves. It was almost as if we lived in Oxford, and we had left our apartment early in the morning to get to the market before the crowds. I wonder if that didn’t set the tone for the rest of our time in Oxford. We were calmed and quiet, and had no agenda, nowhere to get to. So we sauntered. And it helped, too, that I didn’t spend the day with my face behind a camera.
But more than that, the history of Oxford seems so real to me. What do the lords of Warwick mean to me? What connection to I have to the famous people buried at Westminster? But Oxford: these are the streets walked by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, men who have influenced my thought, my faith and my imagination; it is one of the historical centers of learning and study, which has been part of much of my life. And yet for all this history, the city seemed so sleepy and unassuming. It isn’t a tourist trap–or, at least, what tourist trappings they have are cleverly hidden.
This fact hadn’t occurred to me until last night, when I was describing Oxford to my friend Darren. He asked me what kind of indications there were that J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings used to frequent The Eagle and Child. The answer: very few. Once I thought about it, it was quite a startling and delightful realization. Where in other places you would expect there to be an entry fee, a trinkety gift-shop, and then a roped-off table marking the spot where the group met (Darren thought my suggestion of wax figures was too much), but there is none of that. All they have is three items on the wall: a couple of pictures, a small plaque mentioning who met there and what met there, and a framed letter signed by all the Inklings, thanking the proprietor of the establishment for his hospitality. There is nothing else. They do sell Inklings-related merchandise, but you have to ask the barman. It isn’t advertised anywhere that I noticed. Considering its cultural significance, The Eagle and Child is a rather unassuming place. If you knew nothing of the Inklings’ history there, it would be just another old pub. It was the same with the university buildings: they were just university buildings and, even though classes weren’t in session, they were mostly off-limits. Initially I found it somewhat disappointing that we didn’t have more access, but in retrospect, that’s one of the things that made Oxford special. It just went about its business.
I won’t say much about our day. We spent it wandering around looking in shops and at buildings. We spent some time at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first museum to be open to the public, which had many interesting displays (and it was free!). After a late lunch, we decided to do a wide loop around the core of the old city, passing by Magdallen College and King’s College and some of the other landmarks, but we soon realized that was out of the question: it had been and continued raining steadily, and we were without an umbrella. We were soaked within minutes. We took a shortcut back to the downtown area.
We stopped for a time in Blackwell Books. It is the most amazing bookshop I have ever been in (here’s a picture of just the basement, which actually extends much farther underground than the rest of the building.) Sadly, we didn’t have much time and had to find our car rental.
Once we got our car, we briefly considered driving back into the downtown to see the areas we missed, but it’s filled with no-access roads, so we decided not to. We were both a little disappointed with how the day in Oxford ended: rushed and soaking wet.
However! Dixie had bought a shirt that day without trying it on. Back at Chris and Toni’s place in Somerton, she discovered that the shirt was too small. So we decided that the next morning on our way to Bath we would stop by Oxford again.
It was a lovely morning, and we saw many more lovely old buildings, and climbed the steeple of St. Mary’s church. We didn’t get to Magdallen College, but we walked around King’s College and through many side-streets. Oxford was busier that morning than it had been the day before–the streets were crowded with shoppers and there were buskers all along the main streets–a golden juggling jester that stood frozen until you put some money in his pot and a very talented opera singer (probably a student) stood out for me. We left Oxford satisfied.