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.
Dining hall ceiling.
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!
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!
I wonder which Lewis planted.
An interestingly shaped tree.
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.
The window above Harry’s bed.
The door to the entrance hall.
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.)
View into the Convocation House.
The Chancellor’s Court.
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.
Coco pops – classy!
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.
Having spent the afternoon in Magdalen College, I now made my way down High Street, known as ‘the High’. I’d expected to see a number of colleges on my visit, but was not aware of just how dominant college buildings are in the centre of Oxford. I couldn’t keep count. The street was busy, but not unpleasantly so. Pausing regularly to peer into interesting windows, I particularly liked the look of Sanders of Oxford, and went inside for a nose around. (website listed below)
Keble in the sunshine.
My picnic spot in Pusey Quad.
By now, I was getting hungry. I’d thought carefully about how to organise my meals during my visit. I’m quite comfortable dining alone (I know many people don’t enjoy it, but as long as I’ve got something to read or a window to look out of, I’m happy.) but I have some allergies which can make finding somewhere suitable and safe a little tricky. Also, if I were to experience an allergic reaction (they have led to hospitalisation in the past) I was miles away from home with no-one to help. So I picked up the makings of a picnic from Marks and Spencers and headed back to Keble.
The University Parks cricket pavilion.
Blossom in the park.
Once back in my room, I had a snack and a shower, then headed back out into the early evening sunshine. Just across the road were the University Parks, where I decided to have a leisurely stroll. (see link below for details and map) The park was much larger than I’d expected, and was being well used by people relaxing, picnicking and so on. I made it as far as the cricket pavilion, then turned back towards the main road. My feet wanted a rest, and the rest of me wanted a proper drink, so I walked back through St Giles to the Randolph Hotel. I’ve seen it mentioned a number of times that Lewis took tea here, and the film Shadowlands used it as a location. But for once I didn’t just have Lewis on my mind. I really enjoy the Inspector Morse series, based on Colin Dexter’s novels. Dexter famously drinks at the Randolph, and Morse was filmed there on more than one occasion. The hotel bar is now named the ‘Morse Bar’ in his honour.
Salute to Morse, and Dad.
Plaque in the Morse Bar.
The Morse Bar is small but perfectly formed, the staff attentive but unobtrusive. Having a drink alone in some bars can be an uncomfortable experience for a woman, but I felt completely at home there (although it’s quite a bit fancier than my usual haunts.) The decor is traditional, and I settled into a leather armchair next to the stone fireplace. The barman brought me a delicious French Martini, which I sipped as I worked on a crossword. Drinking a strong drink while solving a puzzle was not only my little salute to Morse, but also to my late Dad, who loved Morse, crosswords and having a ‘decent drink’ in a ‘civilised place’. He would have loved it here.
Strolling back through St Giles I felt most at ease (thanks in part to the French Martini, no doubt.) I gathered up the picnic items from my room and took them down to the Pusey Quad. There, I sat on a bench, munching my way through pork pies, beetroot salad and cake. I was quite alone under a blue sky, the only sounds coming from some distance away. Bliss.
The decorated organ pipes.
Tile and stone.
After my higgledy-piggledly meal I decided to visit the Keble Chapel, which was on the far side of the Liddon Quad. After some time doing battle with the door, which was so stiff I almost gave up once or twice, I managed to gain access. Unsurprisingly, the chapel’s design was completely in keeping with the rest of the college buildings. It was strikingly decorated with brightly coloured brick and tile (the hallmark of the architect, Butterfield), as well as the more usual stained glass and stone carving. Everywhere I looked were patterns and pictures, including friezes of Bible scenes on the wall, with life-size figures in bold colour. Even the organ pipes were covered in dazzling geometric patterns. As I was the only person there, I felt able to just sit for a while, staring at everything and trying to take it all in. In the side chapel I found Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’. I thought at first that it was badly lit, but after a while I spotted the button to press which illuminates the painting for visitors.
Keble in the evening.
Hogw- I mean Keble at night.
Leaving the chapel, I had a wander around the different college quads, where lavender and jasmine made the evening air sweet. There was even a little water feature. I couldn’t help but think how utterly different it all was from my own university accommodation, in run-down terraced houses with shared bin yards and metal grilles on the doors and windows. Upon returning to my room, I pottered for a while, and read. As the night drew in, I looked out of my window across the quad. The buildings looked even more Hogwartian, thanks to their turreted silhouettes and the odd twinkling light in a window. I slept well.
After sitting for some time by the lily pond, soaking up the loveliness, I decided to continue my stroll back through the Fellows’ Garden and onward. Addison’s Walk pulled out all the stops to make itself memorable. Shafts of sunlight turned the leaves to gold, and made dappled patterns on the path in front of me. Branches reached forward from either side in salute as I passed. Butterflies and squirrels led me onward, pausing just long enough for me to take their pictures in suitably charming poses. Punts passed alongside me with gentle creaks and splashes. Magdalen tower presented and re-presented itself in a series of perfectly-framed views. I passed a handful of other people, but retained my sense of solitude. Everyone moved as if in their own private world. The experience was all I’d hoped for. If I had had to return to the train station at this point, I already felt that the trip had been worthwhile.
This was where Lewis used to walk with Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and other friends. This was where he was finally convinced by them that Christianity was a myth, but a true myth – one of the pivotal points in his life. This was where he would stroll, smoking a pipe or cigarette, talking about life and books and nature. I’d made my pilgrimage. A number of interestingly shaped trees made me think of Tolkien walking along this path, creating Ents and Huorns for his Middle Earth stories. Just before returning through the gate, I stopped to read the Lewis poem which is carved into a plaque set on the wall. It suited my mood perfectly.
Returning through the gate, to my right was New Building. I knew that this was where Lewis’ rooms were located so I headed towards it. I’d reached another stage of my pilgrimage. I believe that his rooms were the two windows to the right of the central section of the building (see below).
The light in New Building.
The door used to access Lewis’ old rooms.
View from outside the door.
Gate leading to where the deer were grazing..
New Building, along with the other buildings of Magdalen where staff or students would be working, is not accessible to the public. (For understandable reasons.) Giddily, I snapped some selfies and explored as far as I was able. As I was doing so, probably looking a little peculiar, a woman – presumably on the university staff – approached and entered the door pictured above. I wondered if she was lucky enough to have Lewis’ old rooms. Lewis wrote about the views he enjoyed from his rooms, mentioning the herd of deer which still graze there today. It was in these rooms where he entertained the Inklings, with tea and beer and conversation, where he worked and wrote. I wonder how much of the Chronicles of Narnia were composed there.
I sat on a bench outside New Building, looking back across the lawns to the older part of the college. I realised why so many of the politicians who studied at Oxford are so out of touch with the realities of modern life, and why they make such terrible decisions. If you’d spent your formative years in a place as attractive and timeless as this, particularly if you’d already spent time at a similarly appealing school, then gone straight to Whitehall, you would think that Britain is just perfect as it is. Who would want to improve a country which arlready seemed this wonderful? If this was your main experience of life in modern Britain, you’d have a very different view of the country from most of its population.
Magdalen Tower across the meadow.
Magdalen Tower across the meadow.
The dappled light on the path.
Bull rushes by the meadow.
The sun was shining ever brighter, so I decided to make the most of it and return to Addison’s Walk, travelling in the opposite direction this time. Dawdling along, I soaked up all the little details around me and wished I knew the names of more plants and trees. Partway along the path is a bench which offers a fantastic view across the water meadow towards Magdalen Tower. A man sat painting the scene.
Yet another view.
After a good fifteen minutes of happy strolling, I was back at the gate. I took a closer look at the borders, which were in full bloom, then returned to the cloister, delighting repeatedly in different views of it from different windows. A set of stairs leading off to the left took me to the dining hall, where Lewis would have eaten his weekday meals. I could almost hear the clink of glasses from the hundreds of dinners and celebrations it must have hosted over the years. (I defy anyone not to think of Hogwarts when they see the long tables in college halls like this, something I’ll be returning to in later posts.)
Medieval precursor to speech bubbles?
Backlit stained glass.
Seating in the chapel.
After the hall, I made my way to the college chapel, where Lewis attended services after his return to Christianity, but I was disappointed to find the seating area roped off, as I had hoped to look at the plaque which marks where he sat. The chapel did contain other items of interest, however, such as stained glass and stone carvings.
Behind the chapel was a quiet area, the Chaplain’s Quad, containing a modern sculpture. The bright sunlight made it appear that the woman in the sculpture (Mary Magdalen) was shielding her eyes from the sun. Returning to St John’s Quad, I had one last happy look around, spotting the gargoyles above me, and then headed back onto the street outside, buzzing with excitement at having retraced Lewis’ footsteps, and at experiencing such a beautiful place.
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.’
So the day is finally here. I’m going to Oxford. Despite the July heatwave, Newcastle Central Station retains its crown – awarded by my family – as the coldest place in the North of England, particularly when you’re sitting on a delightfully modern metal seat with custom draft-holes. For once, however, this is a relief. I’m about to sit on a train for over four hours, so I’d rather not be flustered and sticky before I even begin.
Stations without steam have lost a good chunk of their ‘romance’, but there’s still a feeling of possibility. My fellow travellers and I could go anywhere. Do anything. Escape. Be anonymous.
I’m full of anticipation for the mythical Oxford of my mind’s eye, peopled by characters both real and fictional: The Inklings, Wilde and Bosie, Nicholas Jenkins, Inspector Morse/Endeavour. I imagine gorgeous, otherworldly views of ancient buildings shrouded in swirling mists (based chiefly on my Morse box-set and a guidebook I’ve borrowed from the library).
Of course, waiting at a train station stirs specific Narnia memories; I’m choosing to focus on the events of Prince Caspian rather than The Last Battle. Just as the children were whisked away into another world, hopefully I will be. But I’ll be able to use the buffet service.
My brother-in-law mentioned to me recently the idea that humanity, whether secular or not, often feels the need for a spiritual or emotional quest of some sort. (As discussed in my previous post.) I can’t quite articulate why this visit means more to me than just a sight-seeing tour would. Logically, I understand that standing in a room where Lewis worked on the Chronicles won’t help me to understand or enjoy them more. But still, I long to do it.
On the train, I’m awaiting the final whistle. I’ve calmed down a little now, the mundane reality of 21st Century travel overriding my dreamy mood: I’ve not got a window seat. To see out of the window at all I have to lean forward and peek past the seat in front.
I was intending to be very grown up and scholarly, by reading one of my books on the Inklings. (If any of my fellow passengers glanced across at me doing this, they’d surely think, ‘What an interesting, sophisticated person she must be.’ Unless they happened to look when I was shovelling jelly beans into my mouth.) Instead I’ve succumbed to the lazy pleasures of the Prince Caspian audio book on my iPod. Childish excitement means I can’t focus on anything properly for more than five minutes. It’s just as well I’ve brought entertainment, as the philistine in the seat in front of me has, without consultation, closed the blind. Hasn’t he heard of the romance of rail travel? How am I supposed to gaze dreamily at blue-remembered hills passing the window now? Curse you, Anton J****, and your desperate need to check your emails every ten seconds. (Yes, I had a good nose at his screen. I’d do it again, too.)
So, I’m sitting here thinking about why Lewis and the Chronicles mean so very much to me. I devoured lots of books as a child, but the only ones which came at all close to Narnia in my affections were Tolkien’s. Even then, the world of Middle Earth felt like it belonged to me and my family – we listened to, discussed and enjoyed the stories together. But Narnia was mine. A private world just for me.
Maybe part of the appeal was of a place where I fitted in. I’ve been thinking about ‘fitting in’ recently. I’m pretty adept at doing so in a variety of situations, with many different people. But when I stop to think about it, I’ve always felt inwardly like I’m a little off to one side. Out of step. Observing rather than being. (A terrible thing in these times of mindfulness, no doubt.) I don’t mind. I’m not sad about it. It just is what it is.
In part, this feeling of otherness may well have been because my interests haven’t always been those of my peers. At primary school, I wanted to talk about knights, castles, chivalry, poetry and military history. The other little girls in my class were less keen, and I learned to keep my passions to myself. This continued into high school, where I spent the day discussing all the usual stuff teenage girls discuss, and the evening devouring as diverse a range of writing as I possibly could. I hadn’t any prejudices or preconceptions. Books were books. I would read anything and everything – from The Way of All Flesh to Trotsky’s autobiography to Sweet Valley High – and would happily spend hours alone in the local library. But I didn’t really mention my reading to my friends. (I was at school long before the ‘nerds are cool’ thing started to gain momentum.) At University I was a little more open, partly thanks to the liberating effect which sharing large amounts of alcohol has on conversation. But as an adult, I’ve generally found myself working in environments where the main topics of conversation have been diet fads, gossip and the triumphs and disasters involved in potty training toddlers. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that, but I’ve not really felt comfortable talking about my love of fantasy stories and medieval history in these places. So whenever I’ve presented a face to the world, there’s always been a part missing.
So here I am, and whenever I read the kindly, paternal narrative voice of the Narnia stories, I feel I’m with a friend who understands me. Nobody in Narnia seemed like they would mind my bookish over-earnestness and complete inability to be ‘cool’. They liked stories, and knights, and all the things I liked.
Journey time from Newcastle to Oxford: 4 hours 5 minutes.
Cost of return ticked booked 12 weeks in advance: £90.00.
Nobody can sell you a ticket to Narnia. There won’t ever be any new Narnia stories. This leaves the die-hard fan (me, for example) always looking around for something to satisfy their appetite. The popularity of Narnia, coupled with the great affection many Christians have for Lewis due to his apologetics, means that information about Lewis, his books, and how they came to be, are of great interest to a lot of people. For some, reading books on the subject isn’t enough. They want to ‘get closer’ to Lewis in some way, often by visiting a place of particular siginificance.
This idea of ‘secular pilgrimage’ is evident wherever you look: visitors to Graceland; tours of filming locations for shows such as Game of Thrones; guided tours of ‘J. K. Rowling’s Edinburgh’; celebrity memorabilia for sale on eBay. We want to feel that we can visit, or experience, or own, something ‘real’, something ‘genuine’, which relates to our passions. We want to stand somewhere and say, it happened here. To walk where others walked. To see what they saw. I don’t entirely understand the psychology of this idea, but am certainly subject to it.
So this year I decided to go on my own Lewis pilgrimage.
The choice of location was simple. Oxford. Lewis lived and worked in other places, but Oxford was the place where he spent most of his adult life, where he wrote his most significant work, where Narnia was born. I’d never been to Oxford before, which always makes a place appealing. Although my family like travel, and enjoy a wander round an old building as much as the next person, I decided to make my journey alone. This meant I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about dragging anyone round places which were of immense importance to me (due to their links with Lewis) but not to them. (I’m not even sure anyone else in my household has progressed past The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so standing quietly outside Lewis’ old college rooms would not be particularly thrilling for them.) This suited my family perfectly – they were happy for me to do something I was so excited about, which involved no effort or expense whatsoever on their part. Plus, there was the possibility of souvenirs. Other people’s reactions were a little stranger.
It turns out that if you are not single, people become quite confused when you tell them you are going on a holiday alone. When you then explain (because people do ask, and it feels strange to be secretive about it) that you’re visiting a city where the author of your favourite children’s books lived, to, you know, sort of see stuff there, they generally smile politely and try not to convey their puzzlement. Conversations with work colleagues about my plans showed me how little they know the ‘real’ me. They weren’t sure what to make of my pilgrimage at all, whereas my family were entirely unsurprised, although a little amused at my excitement.
I booked myself a short stay in Oxford – two nights – and began to research how to spend my days there. I didn’t want to waste any time or opportunities. I’m a little ashamed to admit that this led to the creation of a very detailed spreadsheet. Not only that, a spreadsheet with two alternative itineraries listed, as in Britain the weather – i.e. torrential rain – must always be a consideration. (As is probably apparent, I like organised fun rather than crazy spontaneity. Maybe it’s better for everyone that I travel alone.)
Throughout my stay I kept a diary, and took a bewildering amount of photographs, in order to be able to add this information to this site upon my return, which I will be doing in subsequent posts.