Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we travel through history, see Harry Potter’s stomping grounds, and have a cuppa.
13: Oxford Proper, Properly Done
We decided we’d go back to Oxford on Friday. We were getting pretty good at maneuvering through the various transit methods, so getting from home to the bus to the tube to the train went very smoothly. This cockiness would cost us later, though.
While the countryside isn’t grand through Oxfordshire, it is pleasant, and I spent this trip looking at the undeveloped areas instead of the buildings. The wildlife has made a good comeback, from what I’ve read. The first species of interest I saw is what Brits call a “buzzard,” but isn’t like the vultures we call buzzards. A British buzzard is a proper raptor, hawk-like bill, the size of a very large hawk, and the only similarity to our American version is the deep “V” dihedral in the set of their wings while soaring. It’s sometimes called the “tourist’s eagle” since we tend to mistake it for the larger bird. Even so, it’s of an impressive size.
Magpies flashed tree to tree. Grouse and pheasant flew up from the hedgerows as we sped past, as did the more prosaic crow and pigeon. As we wound around, over, and alongside the river, we occasionally saw wild swans cutting v’s in the still water. And, while not a wild species, it was nice to see a long, green paddock in which a heavy horse (it looked like a Shire horse) munched on new shoots of grass.
We arrived in Oxford, and this time we walked past the S3 bus stop and struck out for the heart of town. Oxford is essentially a broad crescent of old colleges situated along the River Thames, all focused on the even older Norman (and even Saxon) castle and towers. When you walk around London, you get an idea of the age of things: family homes are often 100 years old; churches often date back to before the Declaration of Independence; and here and there, some buildings even predate the Great Fire of 1666. Here in Oxford, though, we’re talking the kind of old I hadn’t been around since my time in Jerusalem.
Christ Church College was founded in the 13th century. It’s cathedral was founded in the 12th. And Oxford Castle was built in the year 1071 (by my great(x27) grandpapa William). We’re talking Seriously Old, here, but in direct contrast to all this antiquity is the youth that surrounds it. Oxford is still a working university. I know that only a small fraction of the kids I saw around us appreciated the true gift and privilege they were experiencing, but it truly warmed my heart to look in through glass panes that are older than my country and see young, spiky-haired heads absorbing an education from dons at one of the finest teaching institutions in the world.
Our first stop was the Ashmolean Museum, which we expected to be a smallish, regional museum. What we found instead was five full floors of art and artifacts ranging from Assyrian, Greek, and Roman antiquities in the basement up to Impressionists on the top floor. It’s an extensive collection, well-organized and presented in a way that leads you logically from one technique and technology to the next. Our problem here, was time. We hadn’t expected the museum to be so large or, frankly, to be so intriguing. And the collection was so disparate that my wife would sail through one room only to discover that I’d been snagged by a particular piece of marquetry, and then I would swan through a room of art only to find that I’d lost her at a Greek vase. Time was ticking away, and the town had over thirty colleges still to explore. In the end, we got a bit stroppy with one another, only to reach détente somewhere near the collection of Stradivariuses and Amatis and reconcile over a hilarious moment in the Pre-Raphaelites.
I was admiring a Burne-Jones painting and I overheard a woman talking to someone about the painting across the room that had something to do with Lord Byron. “Lord Byron invited Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife to Lake Geneva…You know who Lord Byron was? No? Percy Bysshe Shelley? Or his wife, Mary Shelley? Who wrote Frankenstein? Surely you’ve heard of Frankenstein…” I looked up to see an older woman talking a young museum employee, a spiky-haired kid like the ones I’d seen behind centuries-old glass just a bit ago. “You’ve never heard of Frankenstein?” The youth, sensing danger on an instinctive level, backed away just as my wife came up. The woman turned to my wife. “And he works in a museum?” It was an immediate bonding moment for them, and as the young man beat a hasty retreat, we fell into a conversation.
The woman—of middle class background but with enough quality to her education to know who Percy Bysshe Shelley was—told us that she was just discussing how, though the painting she was discussing showed where Byron’s ashes rested, he’d actually been cremated on the shore of Lake Geneva by his friends, the Shelleys. “I just thought, it’s rather unusual to be cremated on a beach, but this young man…he was just a blank.” My wife asked if she thought he was just having one on her and she said, “No. There was absolutely nothing there!” As we chatted, the woman we’d met accrued more of the friends she’d come with—”Is she misbehaving again?” asked one—and soon it was a hen-party up on the fifth floor of the Ashmolean.
My wife was still laughing four blocks away, as we made our way over to Christ Church. The colleges at Oxford are not very helpful (or encouraging) of visitors. Some have restrictions and criteria that rival the rules of Fizzbin, while others, like Christ Church College, simply put out signs saying “Visitor Entrance” with arrows that point in contradictory directions. Eventually, we just stormed the place, walking in past an arrow that pointed us down the road, daring some Oxford don to chuck us out on our ear. Instead, we found the visitor’s entrance (it must have been an entrance exam…get it?), paid our entrance fee, and walked inside the oldest college in Oxford.
If you watch a lot of movies, or if you have teenagers, you’re going to get a heavy dose of déjà vu as you walk the grounds of Christ Church College. Step into the dining hall, and you’ll envision candelabra hanging magically overhead. Peek out into the Tom Quad, and you’ll think you see boys flying around on broomsticks. Yep, this is where a lot of scenes from the Harry Potter films have been shot (with CGI enhancement, of course), but we worked to dispel the glamer of movie magic, because the sites were quite interesting in their own right.
The dining hall has a roof supported by gilded dark wood beams atop limestone walls, with gothic lace groinwork over stained glass windows. One of the windows is famous for the little joke it embodies: down in the corners and along the bottom are Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mock Turtle, the Red Queen, and others, all there to honor Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) who taught mathematics here at Oxford. And all around the room are portraits of former students and faculty, including William Pitt (Prime Minister), William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania), and Elizabeth I (yes, the 1st). Outside the hall is the cathedral, established in the 11th century and very Norman in style. Don’t look for the frills and grillwork of the Gothic, here; this is heavy Norman work, built just to keep the roof up. But here the windows are the most famous part, including the St Cecilia (painted by Burne-Jones) and the “Beckett” window, which includes a panel depicting my wife’s great(x25)-uncle making a saint out of Thomas Becket.
By this time, we needed a sit-down and a cuppa, so we wandered in the direction of our last goal until we found a café. We found one in the graveyard behind the Church of St Mary the Virgin (a college on its own), with a view over the road of Radcliffe’s Camera, a round building (camera) that is now a reading room for the Bodleian Library. The café served From Scratch Scones (with clotted cream on the side), and provided us with a wonderful (albeit somewhat grisly, due to the gravestones at our feet) break. Refreshed, we pressed on past All Souls College to Hereford College, where we saw the famous “Bridge of Sighs”, a walkway over New College Lane that replicates the Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice. We took a peek in at the Bodleian Library (2nd largest in Britain, with 11 million volumes) and the Sheldonian Theatre, before deciding we’d had enough of walking through the city most Americans only know through Masterpiece Theater episodes of Inspectors Morse and Lewis, and headed back to the railway station.
We arrived, saw that it was 5:31PM, and that the 5:31PM train was about to leave. Thinking we knew what we were doing, we hopped on and left town. About a half-mile out of town we realized that the train we hopped onto was not one of the express trains that only stopped at Reading and Slough. Nope, this one was the milk run, and it was going to make twenty stops between Oxford and Paddington station. We couldn’t hop off and catch an express, at least not until we got to Reading, and by then, well, we’d be committed anyway. So we were in for a bit of a long ride.
As luck (or my wife’s social skills) would have it, we struck up a conversation with the woman across from us. She’d gone to Oxford in her youth, and had just popped up for the day to buy some books. With her company, the two-hour trip went by much more quickly, as we shared stories and opinions, learned each a bit about the other, and got a much better idea of what all the small towns between Oxford and London were like. We arrived home late, and had a supper of eggs and toast.
A sign-off travel tip: when switching from the National Rail to the Underground at a major railway station (like Paddington), make sure you “tap in” to the Underground system by tapping your Oyster card on a reader before boarding your Tube train. If you don’t, when you tap out at the end of your ride you’ll be charged the maximum fare. We learned this the hard way our first time to Oxford (Blenheim), but didn’t make the same mistake this time.
That’s our first week in Britain—pretty full, pretty busy. We were now looking forward to an in-town weekend with not too much to do.