For years, if not decades, Oxford has been calling. The history, the mystique, and the recent unshakeable addiction to the murder mystery series Lewis, known as Inspector Lewis here in the States, have only fueled the impulse to visit this artistic and intellectual epicenter. So, yours truly finally got a chance when an abstract proposal was accepted for Interdisciplinary.net’s 7th Annual Diasporas Conference held at Mansfield College this summer, which inquiring minds can read about here, but this post is about pleasure not business though the two often bleed together for this literary devotee.
Arriving 1 July, with a thankfully uneventful trip across the U.S. and over the Atlantic, we stayed at the Royal Oxford Inn. Clean, cozy with wonderfully accommodating staff and a surprisingly spacious loo, the inn is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the train station, proving convenient when we ventured into London the evening of our first full day in the U.K., but we’ll get to that shortly.
The evening of our arrival had us sight-seeing at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin sandwiched between All Souls College and Brasenose College and right smack dab next to the iconic Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library. Dusty and musty, we sneezed our way up the 127-step tower climb and took in the panoramic views of Oxfordshire, squeezing our way past other photogging vista-lovers and gawking at the hundreds of gargoyles who growled and grinned above us. The sights over head, below, and all around only affirmed we had arrived and were ready to conquer.
Our second day in Oxford couldn’t have started or ended better. First, a beautiful run along the Thames and then through Oxford Meadows, followed by lunch at The King’s Arms with good friend and great poet Dr. Gregory Leadbetter, who was one of the six fellow residents at Hawthornden Castle last June. Such a treat to catch up!
After our luncheon reunion, we boldly made the trip to London to catch Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic, which was no small feat facing the frenzied chaos of Wednesday rush hour in the tube. We might as well have been in the seventh circle of hell, but Mr. Armitage proved worthy of every ounce of frustration and discomfort that included being squeezed into cars, pushed and pulled through the thick and throng of commuters, and getting lost in the tropically humid labyrinth that is The Underground.
At the time of our visit, the production was still previewing to audiences, but performances were startlingly electric. I often found myself unable to breathe. Sarah Cooley deeply impressed with her debut as Abigail Williams and though many of the actors, including Mr. Armitage himself, fell back on yelling rather than emoting, Anna Madeley as Goody Proctor was able to command the house with just a whisper. The theater-in-the-round was also an unforgettable experience, being able to see the audience react as the story unfolded from so many angles. We didn’t return to Oxford until one in the morning, yet yours truly felt like she was floating on clouds from London.
The third day had us visiting the Bodleian, which featured an exhibit on World War I correspondence, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches. A letter from Yeats protesting the violence gave reason enough to shudder at this recent history that tore our world apart only one hundred years ago.
New College later lifted the spirits once we entered the cloister where Mad Eyed Moody turned Draco into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire. More than 600 years old, the gardens are just as impressive as the cloister’s ancient statues that haunt the corners with their shadow-like, ghostly figures. Here you can follow the ancient wall of the city and hear time rustle centuries old legends and stories.
Tea, tasty fat scones, and a wicked lamb stew at the Vaults & Garden Cafe next to Saint Mary’s Church reminded us, to our misfortune, of Sergeant Hathaway’s misadventures in the Lewis episode “Wild Justice”, which you’ll just have to see yourself to understand. Still, we managed an afternoon at The Ashmolean where twenty minutes before closing yours truly happened to stumble on the exhibits of East meets West during and after the age of exploration when Asia and Europe began to trade. So despite missing the Tutenkhamun show, which opened 24 July many notes were dutifully scribbled in the travel journal for a current projekt in the mix.
On our third day, we made our own garden party at the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the oldest gardens and the first scientific garden in Europe, but more notably for this telly junkie the sight of another favorite Lewis episode, where Sergeant Hathaway dallied with love and lost. Of course, this was where Lewis Carroll concocted many of his stories and just paces away from our picnic spot, two students tangled in heated debate over some professor and lecture. You can’t stop the brain power here.
Magdalen College across the street was the next jaunt. The chapel holds some of the most magnificent stained glass windows depicting Biblical images in smooth, velvety rich colors with Pre-Raphaelite attention to texture and movement. We took our time on these college grounds to amble a path following the River Cherwell, spy on deers in the deer park, and admire a Goliath plane tree. The weather for our entire stay was unexpectedly warm and welcoming. Our first few days greeted us with eighty degree heat, and we got soaked by rain showers only once, having packed jumpers and tights that only took up needless space in the luggage.
Some of the best eats we had were at The Inklings’ favorite pub, The Eagle and Child, a pilgrim’s destination for fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There were plenty shops to feast at The Covered Market, and we enjoyed the rare chance to dine at one of our favorite British Asian chains Wagamama with fellow colleague and Diasporas conference presenter Dr. Dana Herrera, her beautiful family joining us for an evening of fun. Dr. Herrera’s presentation was absolutely insightful and engaging on Overseas Filipino Workers and the use of social media. I look forward to reading more of her work and here’s hoping we can meet up again in California sooner rather than later.
Blackwell’s, Britain’s most beloved bookstore, pulled us in twice during our stay, and yours truly picked up a copy of Javier Marías All Souls to get more intimately acquainted with the university along with William Golding’s The Inheritors to read for later. Throughout our Oxford explorations, we were counseled by the good book The Pocket Guide to Oxford, a must for anyone curious about the history and the hidden gems of this sacred space.
We couldn’t help but take a peek at the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christoper Wren, where many of the graduation ceremonies are held, and where the dome offers yet another astonishing panoramic view of the city.
Before we knew it, our three days of soaking up the sights came to an end, and the three-day conference began. Pleasure soon turned to business, which means we didn’t get a chance to enjoy punting on the Thames, hire a bike to cover more ground, visit the Wolvercote & Trout–an old haunt of Inspector Morse–catch an evening of madrigals performed on punts, or see any one of the outdoor Shakespeare productions including As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Perhaps next time, fingers crossed.
If we had to go back in time for this trip, we really should have taken a double decker bus around Oxford on our first day since when we left we spotted all these sights we meant to visit but couldn’t find on the map or through the trusted but faulty inter-web. Those buses may be expensive and touristy but proved more reliable since there’s nothing like seeing the lay of the land with your own two eyes.
Our fourth trip to the U.K. only fortified our love for these great isles, and yours truly is already anxious for the next visit. In the meantime, what we won’t be missing are: double tap faucets, weak hand dryers, sharing a bathroom in the dorm at Mansfield College, showers in a separate quarter from the toilets, no lifts, and baked beans for breakfast.
What yours truly will be missing and eagerly waiting to enjoy again are: all the variations of accents, watching Lewis whilst in Oxford, Pret a Manger, the English countryside, Blackwells, tea and biscuits, ginger beer everywhere in all shapes and forms–not just Crabbies.
Should we find ourselves in Oxfordshire again, we’ll be referring to this New York Times travel article and The Oxford City Guide to help us plan our itinerary in the land of Radiohead and Stornoway. For now, I’ll be faithfully watching Lewis to savor the memories, ever grateful for the chance to set foot in such storied land.