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.