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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

In The City of Dreaming Spires or A Librarian in Oxford

tolkein's grave
After decades of longing, I finally took my dream vacation to England in May. Naturally I was eager to experience London, the countryside, and ancient ruins, but one of my “must-see” places was Oxford, “the city of dreaming spires.” I’d been a fan of authors (and Oxford professors) J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”) since my childhood, and was delighted to see the walls and towers of the universities where they taught—and to enter the “quad” of Exeter College, where Tolkien studied philology as a young man. We stayed at a tiny bed-and-breakfast right across the street from the cemetery where Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried. Late on a misty afternoon, we followed small wooden signs to their picturesque plot filled with blooming forget-me-nots and tokens left by fans, including a beautifully hand-stitched White Tree.

organ pipes
Our too-brief visit included a tour featuring William Morris and the other pre-Raphaelite artists of the mid-19th century. Rain was expected and I’d lost my umbrella the day before, but I found a compact, charmingly flowered and ruffled umbrella at the original Oxfam charity shop for just a few pounds. Fortunately we experienced only a few scattered rain showers. Students were studying hard—it was examination week-- so we could not enter the interior of the Student Union to see some of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite art. However, we were privileged to enter Rhodes House, which contains one of my favorite parts of the tour, one of the Romance of the Rose tapestries designed by Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.   One of the last stops on the tour was Harris Manchester College, founded by the Unitarians so their faith would have a presence at the great university, to see the chapel with stained glass windows and uniquely decorated organ pipes.

spiral staircaseThe tour included discounted admission to a special exhibit, "Great British Drawings," at the Ashmolean Museum (you can still catch that exhibit if you're fortunate enough to be in Oxford before late August). The exhibit held not only had many pre-Raphaelite drawings but also works from medieval times through the end of the 20th century.  The main collections at the Ashmolean included more literally jaw-droppingly-amazing items than I've ever seen in a museum, including the very first archaeological find recognized as valuable—the Alfred Jewel—found in the 1600s.

Simply walking around the city, and taking buses with the locals, was an experience.   I quickly realized why so many of the people I’ve seen on the TV version of Inspector Morse mysteries use bicycles rather than cars—the narrow old streets and throngs of people make driving often as slow as walking.  Many places—such as one of the city’s oldest pubs, right alongside the original city wall—are accessible only through narrow alleys.

nesting mother goose
We finished our time in Oxford in the southern end, near the beautiful spires of Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis taught, and we walked in the Botanical Gardens, site of the final scene of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. During our visit, I’d imagined Lyra clambering around the numerous, close-together roofs of her Oxford, and at this final stop my husband and I each took our turn sitting on a quiet bench as she and Will each do in the story.   Then we boarded the bus to leave Oxford, with me already planning a return someday—which I hope will include a detailed exploration of  “Alice in Wonderland” sites.

Beth C.

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