Monday 25th August 2016
What a day! Arriving in Oxford after an uneventful journey, I made my way towards my temporary home: Keble College. I had chosen to stay at Keble for a number of reasons:
- Have you looked at hotel prices for Oxford? They are not for the faint-hearted. Even the Premier Inn’s tariff was steep.
- Keble is, like most of the other colleges, located centrally. I was visiting Oxford by train, as the city centre isn’t really ideal for parking or driving. Keble placed me within walking distance of nearly everything I wanted to see.
- I wanted accommodation which was clean and safe, but wasn’t looking for a fancy romantic getaway. I wasn’t planning to spend much time in my room so didn’t need anything luxurious.
- Staying in a college, would, I felt, enrich my experience of Oxford. After all, university life was central to Lewis’ time here.
- Oh, did I mention, Lewis was based at Keble for his army training , for three months in 1917? I’d be staying where he’d stayed! (For more information on his time at Keble, including photographs, see http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/about/past/keble-and-the-great-war/an-unknown-photograph-of-c.-s.-lewis )
As I walked, I passed the usual city mix of old and new, posh and not. Then, as I began to get closer to Keble, Oxford just kept supplying old, gorgeous and above all interesting buildings everywhere. Little architectural details (doorways, lamps, carvings) fought for my attention. I passed the Ashmolean and the Randolph Hotel and suddenly found myself on St Giles. With a little thrill of recognition (and possibly a small squeak of happiness) I spotted two of Lewis’ favourite haunts: The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag pubs. I didn’t linger as I was pulling my case behind me, but was excited to know that I was really here, at last, in Lewis’ world. Making my way down Lamb and Flag Passage and then Parks Road, I realised that Oxford was different from other cities I’ve visited, in terms of the sheer number of things I wanted to stop and look at per square metre.
Keble is, to my mind, a most attractive set of buildings, but then I like fancy brickwork, which feels reassuringly northern. I was delighted to find that my room was in the Victorian section of the college, overlooking the library and Pusey Quad. The room was basic but clean. I knew it wouldn’t be Lewis’ actual room, as his was shared, but it was exciting to know that he’d stayed at this college. At this point, I must admit, I found myself a little agitated: I wanted to get going and start exploring. I got myself organised and headed straight back out.
Of all the places in Oxford associated with Lewis, Magdalen was the one I was keenest to visit. It also required reasonable weather to fully enjoy, so I took advantage of the afternoon sunshine and headed straight there. My route took me past lots of sights – the Natural History Museum, Trinity College, the Radcliffe Camera, etc. but I hurried past them all as I was intent on getting to Magdalen. I paid the incredibly well-spoken young man on the door my £5.00 to enter, and picked up a leaflet on ‘Lewis at Magdalen’ and one on ‘The History of Magdalen’. He gently suggested I might prefer the English language version, as in my excitement I’d picked up the French leaflet, which would be useless to me unless it chiefly consisted of people introducing themselves and buying jambon in a supermarche.
Magdalen College is gorgeous. Truly lovely. It consists of warm sandstone buildings, covered in humourous gargoyles, interesting statues (pictured above, and said to have inspired the statues in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and beautiful stonemasonry, all set off to perfection by wonderful gardens. I darted from place to place, unsure how to begin my exploration. Finally, I decided on Addison’s Walk as my starting point, headed through the ornate iron gate and turned right, following the well-worn path. (Addison’s walk is a broadly circular footpath through the grounds of the college.) At this point, I realised that when anticipating my visit here, I’d really hoped to feel something, a sort of special connection or heightened emotion of some kind. It was a most attractive place, but I didn’t. Was I expecting too much of Oxford?
I passed occasional punts on the Cherwell, which runs alongside the path, one of which contained some exuberant – and very wet – Italian students, who seem determined to run aground. There were ducks, and flowering shrubs, and willow branches skimming the water. Following the map in my leaflet, I found myself in the Bat Willow Meadow (At the time I thought it must be inhabited by bats, but have since realised that it’s more likely that the willows are of the type used to make cricket bats.) which contains the ‘Y’ statue – pictured above. It’s modern, but doesn’t feel out of place. However, just as I arrived, a group of young women settled in front of it and all pulled out their tablets. Their furious typing wasn’t really in keeping with the mood I was looking for, so I continued on my way, over a little wooden bridge and into the Fellows’ garden.
I reached the lovely – and silent – lily pond at the very end of the garden. It was only when I sat on a bench here, facing back along the path, and started to sketch the scene in front of me, that I relaxed. (I used to love drawing at school, but it fell by the wayside, as many things do, so it’s now a very occasional pleasure.) I drew the curve of the pond, the pattern of the lilies, the statue of a heron with dipped head, the carefully pruned bushes, the surprisingly tall trees. Finally, I felt that quiet joy that I was hoping for. To be in a beautiful garden, in England, in the sunshine, with total peace and quiet, is such a genuine pleasure. I loved it, and I was sure Lewis would have loved it too. It reminded me of this passage from The Magician’s Nephew:
‘Now that he could see the place it looked more private than ever. He went in very solemnly, looking about him. Everything was very quiet inside. Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound. The lovely smell was all round him: it was a happy place but very serious.’
http://www.keble.ox.ac.uk/ (about Keble College, including bed and breakfast)
http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/ (about Magdalen College, including its history and visitor information)
http://www.magd.ox.ac.uk/wallinger/further.html (about the sculpture in the Bat Willow Meadow)