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. University Parks, The Randolph and Keble College.

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Aslan door-knocker.
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Sanders.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Further information:

http://www.parks.ox.ac.uk/

https://www.sandersofoxford.com/

http://www.cslewis.org/resource/walkguide/

http://www.britainexpress.com/History/bio/Butterfield.htm