I can’t remember when I first encountered C. S. Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’; they always seem to have been part of my life. No other book has impacted my life in so many ways. This site is intended to be a place where I can continue to explore this fascinating world and the hold it seems to have on my imagination. I’ve completed a chapter-by-chapter commentary, and my next challenge is to eat and drink my way through all the meals mentioned in the books. I’ll also be posting reviews of books relating to Lewis and the Chronicles and sharing images and information from my Lewis-themed visit to Oxford. I’d love to hear from any other Narnians – or Archenlanders, Calormenes, Telmarines or Lone Islanders – too.
There were only a couple of hours left of my visit to Oxford now. I wanted to squeeze in some more exploration while I could. I headed to the Museum of Natural History, which is the sort of place anyone who has had to entertain under fives will be familiar with. Housed in a neo-Gothic Victorian building, with a lawn full of picnicking families in front, it was a busy, bustling place full of stuffed animals, dinosaur bones and ever-patient grandparents corralling small children and doling out snacks and juice boxes. It was light and bright and I really liked it. I walked through the museum to a doorway in the far wall. This led into the Pitt Rivers Museum.
What an astonishing place. The eight-year-old me (who is never very far away) squeaked with joy. The entire place (one large open room, with galleries across multiple floors) was a gigantic cabinet of curiosities. Miraculously, it had been spared over-modernisation, streamlining or ‘tidying up’. There were tens of thousands of artefacts from all over the world. Weapons, clothes, toys, money, models. I wandered about for some time and didn’t see anything I wasn’t interested in. The items were all displayed in traditional glass cabinets. I chanced upon some shrunken heads which may well have inspired the prop designers who worked on Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Numerous pre-teen children were skipping around the place, evidently enjoying it as much as I was.
Time was running out, so I left the museum and, just around the corner, I entered the Weston Library. I’m very glad I did. It was a pleasant, modern building. First, I visited the Shakespeare exhibition, which included a first folio. Next, I headed to the ‘Treasures’ room. Here was a small display of immaculately selected, lovingly displayed items of particular interest. Of course, my favourites were the Pauline Baynes sketch of Puddleglum, and Tolkien’s picture of Hobbiton, but they were given a good run for their money by the other pieces on show.
Next door to the Weston was Blackwell’s, the famous bookshop. I picked up some gifts and admired another original Baynes (Wimbleweather, priced at slightly more than I spent last time I bought a car) and some interesting first editions: Narnia, Dymer and A Grief Observed. I also made a mental note that such a thing as an Inklings Colouring Book exists.
After a last visit to Keble’s chapel, I collected my suitcase and walked to the train station. (It only took about 15 minutes.) At the station I stocked up on snacks and waited for my train. I was sorry to leave Oxford, but as ever missed my own bed and home comforts. I was looking forward to sharing my adventures with my husband when I arrived at home.
My return journey was to Newcastle via Kings Cross, so naturally I popped into the expanded Platform 9 3/4 shop. Why they have still now sorted out the air con in this place? It’s like the seventh level of hell in there. Is it intentional, to discourage dawdlers and gawkers? I got out as soon as I could squeeze past the people and displays. The queue for Platform 9 3/4 photos was unbelievable. I’m glad I got mine when it was still on the outside of the building, with nobody there.
All the way home on the train, I plotted my return to Oxford, my new favourite place. I’d made my literary pligrimage and had not been disappointed.
Another jam-packed morning of my Oxford visit. First, once I’d packed my bag, I took it down to Keble’s storage room, where a friendly man tagged it for me. This left me free to wander without dragging my little wheelie case along with me. Having checked out of Keble, I then headed through town to Christ Church College. The journey was a pleasant one, as I passed through the College’s beautifully kept gardens, noting the memorial to fallen soldiers. I arrived at the entrance to the buildings a little early (it opens at 10am) but there was already a queue – and multiple coach parties arriving.
As I queued, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of the people in front of me. A Spanish man, who looked to be in his late twenties, was talking to his English guide: “So, the Chamber of Secrets, is it under this college?” The guide looked perplexed. He replied, “No, the Great Hall was based on the hall here, and the staircase was used for filming, but not the Chamber of Secrets.” The Spanish man seemed puzzled, and asked, “Well which college has the chamber then?” He genuinely believed that one of the Oxford colleges concealed a massive underground labyrinth (accessed by a toilet sink) featuring a massive statue of a dodgy wizard and filled with the bones of a basilisk and everything it had eaten. Bless him. The guide’s polite explanations continued, as he pointed out the differences between film sets of imaginary schools and genuine locations.
I paid my £10 and entered a small courtyard filled with the scent of lavender bushes. Moving on (the leaflet I’d been given specified a path to follow, rather than just wandering about) I arrived at the famous ‘Hogwarts’ staircase. (It’s the scene of McGonagall’s welcome and explanation of the house system in the film of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, for example. Harry’s met up with Ron and Hermione there, encountered Filch, and watched Tom Riddle via his diary.) The ceiling is reminiscent of the decorative ceiling in the Bodleian’s Divinity School. I took plenty of giddy snaps to remember it by, then filed into the Dining Hall with everyone else. You can clearly see how it inspired the film version of Hogwarts’ Great Hall, with its long tables, high roof and large stone fireplaces.The walls are filled with stained glass windows and painted portraits. I filed round, duly taking snaps, but was surprised to find myself a little underwhelmed. I think it must be a personal taste thing, but I preferred Keble’s (far newer and less celebrated) hall. After the hall came a large quad, and the cathedral, which was full of interesting things to see wherever you looked. I particularly liked the Pre-Raphaelite windows.After lighting some prayer candles I wandered back out of the cathedral and through another quad, and returned to the streets of Oxford near Oriel College.Christ Church is undeniably gorgeous, historic and everything else you could want from an Oxford College. I’m not sure why, I just didn’t warm to it in the same way I did Magdalen or Keble. Maybe it was too large-scale for me. I’m a small scale sort of person.
Having some time to spare, I sought of the ‘Tumnus’ carvings, situated either side of a doorway near and old fashioned lamppost (coincidence, I’m sure, but fun nevertheless) and visited the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was pleasantly cool and calm. I picked up some souvenirs from the Bodleian shop, noticing the doorway nearby marked ‘grammar and history’. Tailor-made for me!
I’d had a busy day. I’d ‘done’ Christ Church meadow, the Bodleian, the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve, Lewis’ home, his church and his grave. My feet hurt and I’d taken a ridiculous number of photographs. But I was determined not to waste any of my time in Oxford, so on I went. I had thought about visiting Christ Church College, but abandoned this plan as a consequence of a rain shower. Instead I headed to the Ashmolean, which turned out to be a very good plan indeed.
It’s the first university museum in the world, but is thoroughly modern in its organisation. A bewildering selection of items from everywhere and everywhen were enough to satisfy all my Indiana-Jonesish tendencies. Rather than follow any particular plan, I wandered about haphazardly, which allowed me to ‘discover’ find after find.
I moved happily from room to room, enjoying excellent displays of artefacts, scultpures, carved friezes, musical instruments, pottery, paintings and more. The items from antiquity were particularly of interest to me. A pair of carved stone lions reminded me of Ember and Umber, the gods of Lev Grossman’s Fillory.
Faces of people long dead stared back at me. I wondered which ones Lewis might have stared at in his time.
A carving of a bird-headed god caught my eye. Surely creatures like this inspired Tash, the Calormene god?
What a brilliant space to spend a drizzly afternoon. After a satisfying mooch round, I sat on a handy bench and pondered my next move.
Should I visit Lewis pilgrimage: the pub where, in a cosy back room, the Inklings met regularly to talk and hear each other’s work, including Tolkien’s Middle Earth work and various books of Lewis’. But it’s a pub. Would I feel uncomfortable? Self conscious? Despite it being the 21st Century, women are still not really expected to drink alone in public. Also, as a woman, you do feel a certain vulnerability in certain places, and an unknown pub in an unfamiliar city is definitely one. But I didn’t want to let this stop me visiting a key place associated with Lewis. I decided to give it a try.
First I bought a newspaper, then headed inside. The pub, dating from the 17th Century, was divided into different cosy snugs and seating areas at the front, with a long, narrow extension at the back. The old ‘Rabbit Room’ where the Inklings sat has since been opened up, but is still clearly marked with signs on the walls for tourists. I bought a glass of wine and sat down. Just where they used to sit. A group of men, including two whose work had dominated my childhood, and my imagination ever since.
And I realised that my self-consciousness was unnecessary. Nobody cared. Nobody was looking. I relaxed, and wrote in my diary, and thoroughly enjoyed my drink. It felt liberating.
So liberating, in fact, that I decided to continue my afternoon in the Lamb and Flag pub across the road (another popular spot with the Inklings). Bagging a prime seat in the bay window – which I recognised from episodes of Morse and Endeavour, I enjoyed another wine and worked on a crossword puzzle. Again, absolutely nobody paid me the slightest bit of attention. Is this how it is now for women in pubs? Or is it dependent on the city you are in?
I was greatly cheered when a (quite posh-looking) lady, I think about 8-10 years older than me, also entered the pub alone. She ordered a pint and sat at the next table. We exchanged pleasantries. The sun was shining through the window so my next two drinks were Pimms. The lady stood up to leave, but as she did so asked if what I was writing was a diary. She told me she always kept one, and I really reminded her of herself. She was in Oxford teaching a Summer school on Hepworth and Moore. I explained the purpose of my visit.We admired each other’s style (going to pubs alone and enjoying it, basically). As she left, we waved happily at each other through the window. It was the first time in many years I’d been so struck by a warmth of friendly feeling between me and stranger.
I was immediately and forcefully reminded of two things:
- Lucy’s short encounter with the mermaid in VDT. (See my re-read post on Chapter 16.) She sees a mermaid, but the rapid movement of the ship means that they stare into each other’s eyes for a brief moment, wave, and then are separated. Lewis tells us: ‘Lucy had liked that girl and she felt certain the girl had liked her. In that one moment they had somehow become friends. There does not seem to be much chance of their meeting again in that world or any other. But if ever they do they will rush together with their hands held out.’
- Lewis’ own quote: ‘Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…”‘
Lewis was everywhere I looked! I strolled merrily home and revisited the chapel of Keble College. Again I was quite alone. I wandered around the different quads and sat for a while on a circular seat beneath a tree. Upon returning to my room I pottered for a white, thought about my day, and – feeling tired, particularly my legs- I climbed into bed.
Again I woke early, and snuggled contentedly into my bed. It had rained in the night and the air was cooler and fresher that yesterday. Keble’s colours suited the rain, with the patterned bricks looking brighter than before. This time, I sat at the dining hall’s high table for breakfast, smiling to myself as a nearby couple impersonated Dumbledore.
Back in my room after another pleasant Keble breakfast, I rested, then packed my bags, surprised again by the chime of the clock in the tower opposite my room.
I am resolved to return to Oxford. Some parts I haven’t seen; others I want to revisit. I want my husband to see the Bodleian so I can see his face when he walks into Duke Humphrey’s library.
I’ve thought a lot about my late dad here. History, architecture, pubs, literature: all the things I’ve enjoyed here are the things he relished. It feels like a very ‘him’ place somehow. He’d have liked the Lamb and Flag. I really enjoyed my solo drink, but would happily swap it for one with him.
Having spent the morning at the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve, and his old home, The Kilns, I had one last place to visit before I left Headington and returned to Oxford city centre. Holy Trinity Church is only a few minutes walk away from the Kilns, and I knew it would be open as I’d called ahead the week before and spoken to the vicar. He’d been really helpful, letting me know where the light switches were etc.
Holy Trinity looks old, but in reality only dates from Victorian times, having been designed by Gilbert Scott. It’s small but charming, and the churchyard had a quiet, pleasant atmosphere as I walked along the path. The way to Lewis’ grave was clearly signposted, so I had no trouble finding it. As I was walking through the churchyard, I passed a young man sitting on a bench, clearly grieving for a recent loss. I felt fraudulent, coming to visit the grave of a man who I’d never met, who in fact died years before I was born. Here was someone with a real reason to visit a grave. I didn’t want to intrude so I turned right and went instead into the church itself.
Inside, the church was empty and silent. Plain white walls and rich, dark wood pews gave a clean, simple feel to the building. On the left hand side of the church I found the pew where Lewis and his brother Warnie generally sat. His usual seat was marked by a brass plaque attached to the pew in front. Naturally, I sat down there (I’d been on my feet all day) and thought a little about what I was doing here. Travelling 300 miles to visit places associated with a long-dead author seems a strange thing to do when I think of it objectively. However, the very fact that so many other people want to do exactly the same thing tells me I’m not as peculiar as I sometimes think I may be. After all, the Kilns does a brisk trade in guided tours. Holy Trinity has a whole section on its site dedicated to the Lewis link. If I’m strange, then there are plenty of other people out there who are just as strange as me!
I wondered how it must have felt to be the vicar here, giving sermons to a congregation which included Lewis, a man who had the ability to explain and communicate ideas about faith and Christianity so convincingly to the layman. Did the vicar worry about comparisons or judgements?
Close to Lewis’ old pew is the ‘Narnia window’. It’s a beautiful tribute to the Narnia stories, but with a sad story behind it. It is dedicated to a brother and sister of the parish, who both died in childhood.
The window is not made from traditional coloured stained glass. It is etched, with some suggestions of colour in places. The result is delicate but beautiful. I spent some time looking over the different panes, identifying the different characters and items represented.
At the top of the window is the lamppost. In the left hand pane, Aslan’s head is shown above the word ‘Narnia’. Below that Jill can be seen, riding on Glimfeather’s back. Further down is the Dawn Treader, with Aslan’s face on its sail. To the left, a bird sits in a tree – possibly the phoenix from Aslan’s garden. At the bottom of the window, another bird stands next to a dwarf, whom I assumed to be Trumpkin. Beside them stand Lucy’s cordial bottle and Peter’s sword (Rhindon) and shield.
In the right hand pane, Polly and Digory fly across the sky on Fledge’s back. Susan’s horn hangs on a tree branch below them, and her bow and quiver of arrows are underneath. Reepicheep stands in the foreground, and behind him are a number of animals, including a stag (the white stag?), Jewel the unicorn, a boar (from The Last Battle?) and a bear. Behind them Cair Paravel can be seen, along with the mountains and forests of Narnia. Oddly, I couldn’t see anything (as far as I was aware) which represented The Horse and His Boy, but the other six books were referenced. Maybe I missed something.
Coming back out of the church, I saw that the graveyard was now empty, so I walked across to Lewis’ grave. It was marked by a long, low stone, with a simple cross carved at the top. Warnie and Jack were both buried here. The quotation on the stone, ‘Men must endure their going hence,’ was taken from a calendar owned by their mother, Flora. It was the quote shown on the calendar on the day she died. Previous visitors had left flowers and poems or letters (I didn’t want to read them to check – they weren’t for me) on top of the grave. I said a silent ‘thank you’ for the huge amount of pleasure and comfort I’ve had over the years from the books Lewis wrote, and turned back to the gate, leaving the churchyard.
Near to the church I passed the Mason’s Arms, unsurprisingly patronised by the Lewis brothers on many occasions. The afternoon was getting on, and I still had lots of Lewis haunts to visit, so I made my way to the nearest bus stop, to catch a bus back to central Oxford, feeling happy to have paid my respects to the person who played such a large part in my childhood, and more.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my tour of the Bodleian, I booked a taxi to take me to Headington, the Oxford suburb where Lewis lived and died, where I’d booked a tour of his home, The Kilns. I asked to be collected from ‘The Bodleian’, then after hanging up, realised my folly. The Bodleian consists of 30 different buildings situated across the city. The staff and I wondered where it might appear. (Answer: opposite Blackwell’s.) I was duly driven to the C. S. Lewis nature reserve. When I gave him the address, the taxi driver upbraided me for having said that I was going to Headington. Apparently the reserve is considered to be in Risinghurst, not Headington. Shame on me for not knowing the difference between two adjoining areas in a city nearly 300 miles south of my home!
The journey took around 15 minutes, then the unsmiling driver deposited me at the entrance to Lewis Close. Yes, it’s in Risinghurst. Sorry. Excited about being so close to Lewis’ home, I walked along the street to the end, where the Kilns is situated. Having seen it in photos online, I recognised the house instantly. The sun was shining and the floral border outside the Kilns’ hedge looked glorious. I had about half an hour before I was due for my guided tour, so I continued past the house and along a narrow path, into the C. S. Lewis Nature Reserve.The reserve in modest in size at 2.5 hectares, so it was easy to negotiate the pathways which run through it. The reserve used to belong to Lewis, as part of the grounds of The Kilns. He and Warnie planted some of the trees there, and used to swim in the pond. It’s a little oasis of calm and green surrounded by housing, with the many colours of the trees reflected beautifully in the large pond (the old kiln’s clay pit). I followed the path through the trees, passing one or two other visitors on my way. After a short walk, I stopped at one of the benches provided and pulled out my packed lunch. Sitting in the quiet of this little woodland, I thought about how this was one of the hundreds of ideas, places, memories and stories which fed Lewis’ imagination when he set about writing the Chronicles. I wondered how Paxton, Lewis’ gardener and the inspiration for Puddleglum, managed such a large area. Finishing my lunch, I made my way back to Lewis Close.
I arrived at the Kilns in good time and frantically snapped away, taking pictures of the plue plaque, the garden and the well kept, inviting house, much to the amusement of a German couple sitting in the garden. The garden inside the hedge was much simpler than the borders outside, with a small lawn reached through a flower-covered arch. I took a seat, staring at the house. It was so strange to be somewhere I’d pictured and imagined for so long.
Gradually, the garden filled up, mostly with Americans. A smartly dressed man of indeterminate age and background appeared. He gave us a potted history of Lewis’ life. I listened attentively, and even braved answering a question about Lewis’ nickname. I was interested to note, but not at all surprised, that the uncertainty surrounding the nature Lewis’ relationship with Mrs Moore was not referred to. Entering the house, I was struck simultaneously by its homeliness (normally when you tour a house it is partly because it is grand) and its significance to anyone who loves Lewis’ books. So many ideas have poured out of this place, into so many people’s lives. We were shown into the living room, where a desk looks out into the garden. There was a feeling of familiarity, mixed with excitement. The house has been restored to look as it did in Lewis’ time, a style familiar to anyone growing up in Britain in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Next was the dining room, then the kitchen. In the hallway stood a large mirrored wardrobe. (I see what they did there!) Climbing the narrow stairs, we looked into Lewis’ old bedroom, with single bed, desk and fireplace. The tour was very interesting, and I enjoyed hearing anecdotes which were new to me, such as a story about Joy (Lewis’ wife) and her proficiency with a rifle.
Returning downstairs, we visited Warnie’s room (where I think the photographer Jonathan Kirkpatrick was in residence), Joy’s room and the room in which Lewis died. I felt a little odd at this point, as if I were invading someone’s privacy. What on earth Jack would have made of people touring his old bedroom I have no idea. The tour was much more personal than, say, the Bodleian tour. As the tour finished, I made an idiot of myself. Thinking it cost £8, I handed over a £10 note, and told the guide to put the change in the upkeep fund. The tour costs £10. Exit, stage left.
I know that The Kilns was of huge importance to Lewis, and I was really excited to be where so many of my favourite books were written. However, I think that the colleges and gardens I’d visited previously possibly gave me more clues about his inspiration and ideas than this peek into his domestic life did. Maybe the best way of all to find out more about Lewis is to read his books.
At 10.15 I arrived at the Bodleian Library, one of the most famous and prestigious libraries in the world. Nearly all the day’s guided tours were already sold out, so I was glad that I’d booked online a few weeks ago. I was excited about the tour, but it ended up surpassing all my expectations.
I was given a sticker, and asked to wait on a bench in the Divinity School. (This is the name of a large room on the ground floor.) I recognised the unusual ceiling, as I knew this room had been used in the Harry Potter films as Madam Pomfrey’s infirmary. (Harry’s adventures often ended up with someone needing medical attention, after all.) Our guide, Naomi, gave everyone in the group amplifiers, so that we could all hear her, without her having to raise her voice. (It is a library after all!) We began by exploring the Divinity School, learning about its fascinating past. The ceiling was even more ornate and interesting than photographs I’d seen suggested, and my eyes kept being drawn upward as I listened. Naomi was engaging and knowledgeable, the other visitors friendly and attentive, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I was unprepared, however, for the next stage of the tour.
Naomi led us up a staircase, explaining the history of the next place we would see: Duke Humphrey’s Library. This is a large upper room, the oldest reading room in Oxford University. As I walked into this historic space, I found myself quite overcome, and welling up with tears, a reaction I hadn’t expected at all. I was taken by surprise at the strength of my response. The room was so beautiful, so precious, so significant. It represented a love of learning, and of sharing learning, everything good about culture and civilisation. It was like the Plato’s Forms ideal version of a library, the library I somehow felt I knew without ever having been there. (And, of course, it is also the Harry Potter films’ Hogwarts library, including the restricted section. Books were actually chained to the shelves – although this was due to their value, not their magical powers.) I thought immediately of Sam Tarly entering Oldtown Library on Game of Thrones. I felt like I probably had the same expression on my face.
A woman dressed in sportswear appeared, looking quite incongruous in this ancient place, showed her security pass, and wandered off to get on with some reading. I don’t think I’ve ever been so envious. Naomi explained how the library had been created, where the books had come from, why they were chained, why they were made of certain materials and so on. It was fascinating. I asked about the Inklings’ links to the Bodleian, and she asked me whether I could name any Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien, as she’d momentarily forgotten their names. I felt like I was channelling Hermione Granger as I listed them off, then for some unaccountable reason got embarrassed and turned bright red. She jokingly suggested I give a presentation on the subject, and I turned redder still. She also tipped me off about some Faun carvings next to a lamppost which she thought would interest me.
After some time, we returned to the Divinity School, and through it entered the Convocation House, a room which definitely evoked the Wizengamot. Naomi described Charles I sitting in the royal seat and demanding loyalty from the assembled college masters, as roundheads made their way through Oxford. It was another room full of history, and so interesting I could have stayed much longer and listened to more stories. (The standard tour takes an hour, but I’d have happily doubled the time spent in the library.)
Last of all, we went through another doorway into the Chancellor’s Court, where Oscar Wilde was once tried for debts owed. Again, there were lots of interesting stories attached to the place. One lady, on the tour with her Harry-Potter-fan grandson, told us about her husband’s involvement in a political protest in the 1960s, when he and a number of other students had occupied the room.
As the tour ended, I thanked Naomi, She mentioned that she’d noticed my tears on entering Duke Humphrey’s Library. She told me that it’s not an unusual reaction, and that one Japanese lady cried quietly throughout the entire tour. I felt a little less foolish knowing that.
The Bodleian is a phenomenal place with a rich history. It represents freedom of speech, and the desire to acquire, share and preserve knowledge. And it’s almost Hogwarts.I can’t wait to go back.
I awoke early, taking a moment to remember where I was. The stiffness in my calves was testament to yesterday’s walking. It was only 5am, so I lay in bed for about an hour, listening to the quiet of the morning. The only sounds I could make out were the occasional distant rumble of traffic and the noise of leaves rustling on a nearby tree. Peering out of the window, I smiled at the now familiar sight of Keble’s Pusey Quad. What must it be like to wake up every day to this? And how different would it feel during term time? Sound carries up to the windows from the quad, so that conversations are easy to make out. If you returned drunkenly to your rooms at night (which I may have done on rare occasions during my own university years) you’d be seen and heard by the whole college. It would be impossible to sneak anyone back to your room either, without all your neighbours spotting what you were up to, and with whom.
Just before 6am, I clambered out of bed, pulled on some clothes and set off to explore early morning Oxford. My reasoning was that I’d be able to wander around more easily at this hour, and take photos which had fewer random people milling about in them. Plus, ‘early walk’ was in my spreadsheet itinerary (fair weather column only) so I was powerless to resist. This is the lovely part of travelling alone. I didn’t have to wake anyone up, agree on a time, negotiate what to do, explain a plan . I just got up and got on with exactly what I wanted to do.
I was rewarded for my virtuously early start by glorious morning sunshine and practically empty streets. As I strolled around the Bodleian and High Street areas, the only people I saw were a few delivery drivers. I couldn’t believe I was in Oxford at the height of summer. I breathed in the fresh, quiet pleasure of the place, discovering little side streets and peering into half-open doorways. I noted places of interest as I passed: Oxford’s oldest pub (The Bear), various colleges – including Lewis’ alma mater, University College – and yet more of the pleasing sights I was now fully expecting wherever I went in Oxford. Just a short passageway from the high street, I found myself walking past Christ Church College’s meadow, where the bales of hay and birdsong made it seem impossible that I was so close to a city centre.
Sharing the footpath with a few joggers (all women) made me feel safe wandering about on my own. I followed a path between Merton Field and Christ Church Meadow, which led me towards the Botanic Gardens. To my right was the Cherwell. A ridiculously pretty scene stopped me in my tracks. Immediately in front of me were a number of trees, with leaves and branches picked out in the sunshine. Behind them was the Cherwell, which was so still and calm it perfectly reflected the summer sky. Beyond that was a cricket pitch and traditional pavilion. I seemed to have stumbled into that non-existent, idyllic England I’ve read about in so many novels. I stood and stared at it for a good few minutes. I felt I owed it that much.
Finally continuing on my way, I passed the fence where I could see, on the other side, the Botanic Gardens. I didn’t think I’d have time to visit them (they were only pencilled in as ‘possibles’on the itinerary) but hoped to get to them on a future visit. I know Tolkien enjoyed spending time there, surrounded by nature, and the trees in particular. (His favourite tree there, a black pine, unfortunately collapsed in 2014.) From where I was standing, peering through the fence like the little match girl, the gardens looked colourful and well organised, although the morning mist made parts difficult to see. The path continued, round ‘dead man’s walk’, past Tolkien’s old place of work, Merton College.
As I returned to the High, Oxford was beginning to come to life, with people making their way to work. I returned to Keble, and after a quick shower headed to the hall.
So, I’m obviously hugely nerdy about Lewis, but my nerdish leanings don’t stop there. Unsurprisingly, I also love Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling. Therefore I felt genuinely excited entering the Hall at Keble, purely thanks to its Hogwarts-Great-Hall-ishness. What a glorious room. It’s like a tile and brick re-imagining of a medieval church and feasting hall combined. I stood slack-jawed for a moment, staring up at the ceiling. Although enjoying my solo travel experience, at moments like this I did miss having someone to nudge forcibly and exclaim, ‘Eeh, just look at it!’ to. (Where I come from in the North East, women traditionally begin at least half their sentences with ‘eeh’.) The hall is the longest of all the Oxford colleges, with seating for 300. Maybe people who’ve been to boarding schools wouldn’t feel so excited about it, but I was delighted with the whole set-up. Other guests were dotted around, some clearly attending some sort of conference, others in couples or family groups. Again, being on my own was a non-issue. It turns out that other people don’t spend their entire lives noticing what you’re doing or judging it. They’re too busy doing their own thing, which generally means staring at their phone. They don’t know you’re there at all, let alone notice that you’re on your own.
As all British people know, it is your patriotic duty to eat as much as possible when breakfasting anywhere that involves a buffet or self-service. First, I filled my plate with those hot items that my tedious dietary restrictions allow, and sat at one of the long tables. (It turns out that it’s tricky to climb onto the benches in a maxi-dress. I don’t think I looked particularly graceful.) Tea was brought to me by a shiny-faced, helpful young man, and juice was provided on the table. Between giddy selfies, I tucked in. All I needed to be completely transported to the Potterverse was an enchanted ceiling and a couple of owls dropping post onto the tables.Hot food was followed by two rounds of coco-pops (I’m not allowed bread or pastry) and a yoghurt. I felt like making a pig of myself was a fitting salute to Ron Weasley. In the time-honoured tradition of hotel buffets, a banana was purloined for later consumption. I’ve eaten fancier breakfasts, but never enjoyed one more.
As the room filled up with people operating on a less ridiculous timetable (perhaps without even consulting a spreadsheet) I finished my meal, sent envy-inducing picture messages to my children and headed back to my room for a well-earned snooze, basking in the insufferable smugness of the early bird.