Oxford: The Land of Tolkien and Lewis
After London, I was excited to spend some time in smaller towns. I caught my bus to Oxford, arriving around 11am. After wandering around for a while, I found my hostel with the help of a few kind pedestrians.
The hostel let me leave my bags, gave me a very basic map of the city, and I set off to explore. It was raining (not very shocking considering the last few weeks) but I still found myself enjoying the streets, store fronts and hanging baskets despite the drizzle. One of the first places I found was the Bodleian Library, and I found that there was a cost to enter the library. I filed that away and stepped out of the little gatehouse with the information, happily finding Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs just across the street. The bridge connects the two buildings of Hertford College… which has it’s own cat, Simpkins, who roams at will. Sadly, I didn’t see Simpkins.
It’s as though I was made for this city.
I continued wandering, stepping into cute shops and passing pretty little cafes, eateries, and bakeries with determination. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats. I will not step out of the rain, sit in a cafe sipping tea and nibbling tasty treats.
I stopped and took a few photos of an interesting side street just behind the Radcliffe Camera, continued wandering, soon finding the Covered Market. With over fifty retailers, the covered market is a little like Granville Island, just more crowded. I wandered through the covered market, passing a florist, butchers, little cafes, bakeries, trinket shops, shoe shops (no, I didn’t buy any more) and, to my delight, Pieminister! I heard about this chain of savoury pie shops first from a friend who sampled their products during his recent time in England. I chose a Heidi pie, which had goat cheese, spinach and sweet potatoes. It was piping hot and so delicious!
After my tasty lunch I joined a free walking tour of Oxford which I had seen offered in my initial search for my hostel. The rain, which had been steady, was now pelting down furiously and I stood with the guide for several minutes as he tried to call out through the rain for others to join the tour. Eventually, the group swelled to five, which was enough to run. Our guide’s name was Lawrence, a long-time resident of the city. He took us through various parts of the city for the next two hours, and we listened, often straining to hear him over the rain, traffic and other groups.
One of the places that we stopped was a little side-street just behind the Radcliffe Camera, a street I’d walked past earlier and had taken photos of. I had liked the look of it, even in the gloom of the rain, but it is far more special than just an intriguing ally.
The side street has in it a door which our guide has never seen open. Into the door has been carved an intricate lion’s head, with leaves intertwining with it’s mane. The door itself is flanked with two carved fauns, one holding a flute and the other a small harp. If you look down the cobbled street from the main road, with the door on the left towards the Radcliffe Camera, you see the door with the lion’s head, the carved fauns and a lamppost. C.S. Lewis was known to have regularly walked down that little side-street between Magdalen College and the Bodleian Library. Yes… what I’m saying is that that little side street is considered locally to possibly be the inspiration for Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Our guide went on to say that the he has passed that door hundreds of times but he’s never seen it open, never seen anyone coming in or going out…
The tour was full of information, and unfortunately, this post is sooo late that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to remember… here are a few snippits of what’s left…
There is a pub with a wall of neckties called The Bear. A previous owner of the pub, upon seeing a patron with an especially nice tie, would lean over the counter and snip it off to add to his collection! The tie-less patron would receive a free pint in recompense (but I doubt it that quite made up for it).!
In the 14th century, there was a two-day riot between the Town and Gowns (the “town” refers to the residents and “gowns” refers to the students, who traditionally wear long black gowns when they matriculate). The St. Scholastica Day riot left over ninety people dead, and four hundred and seventy years of penance in the form of a bareheaded (out of respect) march of the mayor of Oxford and town councillors through the town as well as a fine of a penny for every scholar killed.
The River Thames flows through Oxford, just out of the centre of the city. It is not, however, called the River Thames. Instead, residents of Oxford have re-christened it the River Isis. …Because they can.
On my second day, I booked a tour of the Bodleian Library. The tour was short but, again, brimming with information. The Bodleian Library was renovated and really, built by Sir Thomas Bodley, who made a deal with the Royal Printers that made it a copyright library, which means that it receives a complementary copy of every book printed in the UK. It now has over 11 million books.
The Bodleian Library was also a location for the Harry Potter films- they shot the infirmary in the Divinity School.
I won’t detail everything about the Library that I found interesting or note-worthy- there is too much to tell and not enough time. Suffice to say that by the time the tour was finished, I was half-way ready to rob a bank and apply to one of Oxford’s colleges and study for ever and ever, soaking in the history and brilliance of the city and the university.
There was a free exhibit on Charles Dickens- again, so much information, but I think I will attempt to read one of his novels when I get home. I felt woefully ignorant as I toured the little exhibit- rather like an impostor. Solution: read Dickens!
I had unwittingly booked myself into Oxford the weekend of two events. First, and more widely advertised, was Alice Day, a celebration of Lewis Carrols’ stories of Alice and her adventures. This meant that I frequently passed people of all ages (literally toddlers and infants to young adults to not so young adults to seniors) dressed as Alice or the Cheshire cat or the Mad Hatter or the Queen of Hearts. A little surreal.
The bizarre sight of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum strolling down the street clashed dramatically with the three Quidditch teams staying in my hostel. The second event was the International Quidditch Championships. The Canadian, Australian and American teams were staying in the same hostel that I was in. They have sponsors and team jerseys and strategy. I was both impressed and a little bemused. They had two photographers travelling with them. They have their own website*. I was encouraged to watch the match, which was happening, unfortunately, the day I was leaving Oxford. Sad, as that is just the sort of even that I would have been intensely pleased to attend. It would have been hilarious.
Just one more thing to add to this atrociously abbreviated post (whose lack of length is completely disproportionate to my enjoyment of the city):
On my last evening in Oxford, I made my way to the Eagle and Child Pub. I ordered Sausage and Mash and a pint of Oxford Gold. I settled into a little nook and read The Hobbit.
If you don’t understand the significance of the above paragraph, I have nothing more to say to you.
For those who do understand, I invite you to share in my thrilled glee. I was just so very pleased. The food was delicious, the pint was decent, and I was reading The Hobbit in the meeting place of the Inklings. I couldn’t have been happier.
The next city I visited was Bath, which I enjoyed very much, except! The whole city is wildly expensive! So I didn’t spent the incredible £3 per hour online to write a blog post.. and that is where my posts hit a bump. And until now, I hadn’t managed to get over the bump, and even though I’ve finally managed to post this entry, I’m home in two days! So… I will try to finish, but I realise that the blog of a person no longer travelling have much less of a pull than that of someone is is currently in the city they are writing about. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go!
*International Quidditch Association site: http://www.internationalquidditch.org/worldcup/