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.