Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Keble College and Christ Church College.

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The tower of Christ Church college.

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.

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Hogwarts at Christ Church.

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.

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Leaving Christ Church.

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!

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Tumnus and the lamppost.
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My favourite doorway.

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford.The Ashmolean, The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag.

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The Ashmolean.

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.

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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.

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Tash?

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.

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The Eagle and Child.

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.

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The rabbit room.

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.

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The Lamb and Flag.

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?

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A lovely afternoon.

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:

  1. 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.’
  2. 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.

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Holman Hunt in the Chapel.

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.

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Breakfast at the high table.

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.

 

 

Visiting C. S. Lewis’ Oxford. Holy Trinity Church, Headington.

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Holy Trinity entrance and war memorial.

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.

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Interior of Holy Trinity.

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.

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Memorial plaque on Lewis’ pew.

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?

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The Narnia Window.

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.

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The lamppost.

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.

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The left hand pane.

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.

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The right hand pane.

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.

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