Oxford – the City of Dreaming Spires

“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Ah, Oxford. Even before I first visited this place two years ago, it had been very much alive in my mind. From the writings of Lewis and Tolkien, to the beautiful descriptions in Bridehead Revisited, the dreaming spires of Oxford had captured my imagination.

My first trip only lasted a day, but now Aaron and I had several at our disposal, and we intended to use them richly.

Keble Quad

We arrived in the afternoon and checked into our rooms. As usual, Aaron’s excellent travel research skills had landed us in some neat digs: we would be staying in some empty rooms in Keble College that the college rented out. Not only that, but our breakfast would be taken in the great hall itself every morning!

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We wasted no time, and as soon as we had dropped off our bags and freshened up, we went off to explore! The golden afternoon light glowed on the pale, cream-colored sandstone of the buildings, and the chatter of students and tourists was punctuated by the ever-present sound of bike-bells as students in academic robes flew past, peddling to classes or dinner.

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In the last-minute rush of leaving, Aaron had accidentally left his tie at home. Though normally a tie is not required for a trip to Oxford, it would be this time: we were meeting an old friend for dinner in his college, and it was a jacket and tie affair. He ended up finding a nice garnet one in a men’s shop nearby, and now suitably attired, we left for Merton College, at the gates of which we met our friend.

Tyler could not have been a kinder host. A friend from college days, Tyler went to Harvard, but we met at several of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s summer conferences. Finding a common ground in our love of seersucker, paleo-conservatism, and horse races, the three of us had been eager to resume the acquaintance, and when we planned our trip to England, a stop to see Tyler in Oxford was a must.

Tyler led us into Merton – the college home of both JRR Tolkien and TS Eliot – so yes, I was in heaven. Merton is one of the three that vie for the title of oldest Oxford college,  and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful.

 

Tyler explaining some of the (unclassified) rituals of Merton

 

We entered the great hall, where the students lined the tables in their academic regalia, and stood as the faculty occupying the high table entered and took their seats. One of the members of the high table offered grace in Latin, and we then sat down with much scraping of chairs that echoed throughout the high-ceilinged hall.

We had a lovely dinner, and went afterwards for a drink at the Turf Tavern, where many students and locals had gathered around small outdoor tables surrounded by old sandstone walls. We left Tyler afterwards with the promise of lunch the following day.

The next morning, after another delicious breakfast in Keble great hall, we went to the Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers museum, both conveniently across the street from Keble. We viewed dinosaur bones, foreign and ancient weapons, costumes, and artifacts, and then felt ourselves ready for some lunch.

We met up with Tyler again at Merton for a quick bite in the great hall, and then picked up some boat poles, and headed to the river Cherwell for an afternoon of punting!

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The weather was lovely, and after we got the hang of the boat’s motion, we had a splendid time. There were plenty of other boats out, but the section of the river we were on was much less touristy, so it was mainly students. We talked about our schools, about England and America, and after a few glasses of wine, we found ourselves in a quiet stretch of river and sang a few songs for good measure.

The wildlife on the river was beautiful and abundant, and even though I did not get to see an otter (alas) I did see lots of beautiful ducks who seemed quite unconcerned with our intrusion, and came right up to our punt.

After our lovely afternoon on the river, Tyler left us to go to a college function, and we went out to the Eagle and Child for some good British fare and a toast to the Inklings, who used to meet and eat there. Afterwards we went across the street to the Lamb and Flag, where the Inklings had moved their meetings after the Eagle and Child got too crowded. We had a delicious pint of Belgian beer (ironically) and then headed back to Keble for the night.

The next day was our last full one in Oxford, and we concluded with a tour of some of the colleges, led by our intrepid guide, Tyler. We also met up with another friend from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute – Elizabeth Ridgeway. Elizabeth and I have kept up a little over the years, and she was the one who wrote the interview in Humane Pursuits that first got me interested in writing for the blog. It was so good to reconnect, and so healing to my soul to be able to chat with a woman like Elizabeth who valued intellectual discipline, creativity, beauty, and truth.

After a lovely lunch with Tyler and Elizabeth at Greens, we went to New College, and Magdalen, Tyler and Elizabeth providing us a free entrance to the colleges with their student cards. New College is not in fact new, but is actually one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, built in 1379. Most modern folk will recognize it from the iconic Draco-Malfoy-gets-turned-into-a-ferret-scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (see picture below).

The college greens were lovely – cool grass underfoot and glowing sandstone walls all around. We walked around the old college walls for a while, and talked until Elizabeth had to leave us.

Our next stop was Magdalen College – the beautiful place where C.S. Lewis taught from the 1920s to the 1950s. We strolled past the river and meadows on the beautiful Addison’s Walk, where a young and atheistic Lewis purportedly had quite a few theological debates with his Catholic friend, John Ronald Tolkien.

By the time we ended our walk, it was high time for tea (or time for High Tea?), so we had “the best scones in Oxford” in the Vaults & Garden Cafe right across from the Radcliffe Camera – and the scones were as delicious as the view!

 

Scones and tea across from the Rad. Cam.

It was a lovely way to end our magical time at Oxford. We only spent a few days in the “cloistral hush” of the city that grew Tolkien, Lewis, Eliot, and a host of other literary heroes, but it was enough to refresh our minds and souls, and bring fresh vigor and delight to our life at home.

Oxford is, and will always remain, one of my favorite places in the world.

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The Lake District

After the stifling heat of London, and the long train ride to the North West of England, the sight of the green hills of the Lakes and Fells was just about the most soothing sight possible.

The second stage of our England trip had begun, and I was beyond ready for it. It was hard to believe that the hills I was looking at I had last seen with eleven-year-old eyes, when my family stayed here for five weeks so that my father could preach in the little Congregational Church in Keswick. That time was a truly life-changing one for me, and one that will shape my life as long as I live. Being back there was like walking into a familiar dream, and finding it even more vibrant and alive than you could have imagined.

One of Cumbria’s many Herdwick sheep

We arrived in Penrith late on Monday, and Mr. and Mrs. Foot were there to pick us up. This precious couple has kept up a friendship started many years ago, and have visited us many times in the U.S. They even made it to our wedding! Seeing their faces at the station was like seeing the faces of family.

They took us to their lovely home in Keswick, and we had an excellent “tea” with them, talking about old times while enjoying lovely pasties, salads, and toast. Over the meal, Mr. Foot reminded me of a story from when we were in the lakes thirteen years ago. After a particularly good dinner by Mrs. Foot, Zan (about thirteen at the time) said that he wished we had an older brother who could marry the Foot’s daughter in order to inherit Mrs. Foot’s recipes. Ian, (five years old) piped up: “No! I must marry Katherine!”

We shared lots of stories (and tea and pudding) together during dinner, and looked forward with delight to the next few days.

The next morning, after breakfast (and wonderful Bible-reading led by Mr. Foot), we set off to explore. The weather was somewhat rainy, but we were blessed to have a mostly sunny morning.

We missed the famous bluebells by a few weeks, but these gorgeous foxgloves were everywhere!

We stopped first in the lovely Rannadale valley, which is famous for its beautiful carpet of bluebells. Unfortunately we were too late for the bluebells, but the sheep, foxgloves, creek, fells, and general scenery were more than worth the stop.

The rain clouds started moving in, so we hopped in the car and headed to Kirkstile – a little pub nestled in the fells near Loweswater, and had a lovely lunch in an establishment that was built before our country was founded.

Mrs. Foot had heard about the 1000 year old viking cross at a nearby church in Gosforth, so we headed there to check it out after lunch. The cross itself was standing beautifully tall and ancient among gravestones larger than any I had ever seen. The cross was carved with a mix of pagan and Christian symbols, still barely visible on the worn stone.

Hogback viking gravestones.

Inside the dimly lit church were two massive carved stones. I had never seen anything like them before, so I was interested to read that they were called “hogbacks” – a sculpture form that was used in the 10th-12th centuries. They were beautifully carved with mythological scenes, and intricate patterns.

Out of the rain for a cup of coffee.

We stopped for a coffee as the rain increased, and enjoyed it in a lovely little inn – the fire crackling pleasantly and the drinks absolutely delicious. While we were there, we had an interesting lesson in the Cumbrian dialect, as Mr. Foot pointed out the word “sneck” in one of the ales being sold (see the explanation in the picture below).

We returned for a late tea/early supper, and by then the sky had cleared and the air was crisp and cool. We walked down to the water, and then back up through the village, passing the church where the relationship between South Carolina and Keswick started about fifteen years ago.
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The next morning, the Foots took us down to Lingholm Estate – a farm right on the water where Beatrix Potter stayed often as a young person. Unlike so many of the other Beatrix Potter sights, it has not yet been entirely swamped by tourists. Beatrix Potter was one of my favorite authors as a child, and her connection to the Lake District, as well as my interest in watercolor and illustration has increased my interest in her as I’ve grown older.

Lingholm Estate has a lovely cafe where we sat in the sunshine and sipped tea and coffee, gift shop, and a whole garden made like Mr. MacGregor’s in “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”!

 

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin  and “Owl Island” behind it.

​After our pleasant stop at the farm, we drove among the fells, stopping occasionally to get out and walk around down some of the beautiful paths. Near a farm where the “Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle” (another Potter) takes place, we saw a shepherd marking his flock and administering medicine. We stopped and watched him for a little while: it was amazing seeing him work so quickly and efficiently.

​After we returned to Keswick, the Foots stayed at their house to prepare for the arrival of their son and two granddaughters, and Aaron and I went into town for a stroll, a cornish pasty, and some amazing gelato. We ended our afternoon with a row around the lake – the sunshine and cool breeze making it a perfect afternoon for an excursion on the water.

We left the next morning for Oxford, and the third and final stage of our time in England. The kind Foots took us to the train station and saw us off. As the fells and lakes sped by, I reflected on our time there, grateful to have made new memories in a place that had left such an impression on me as a child.

London – For 36 Hours!

We have been in Germany for a year and a half, and last week was our first trip to England; frankly, I am impressed we stayed away so long! Despite the fact that we had both been there before (though never together) it topped our list of “places to go” while in Germany.

It was definitely the trip I was most excited about, and it did not disappoint! We had three different locations to visit while on the lovely isle, so I decided to write a post on each one. They were packed full of adventure, quintessential English-ness, and more fish and chips than you could shake a fork at!

First, London.

Arrival in Liverpool Street station. 

We flew Ryan Air, so our biggest travel struggle was packing for three very different places (and weathers!) in a single carry-on bag. We did this by using “squishy” bags, and lots of layers (we also wore our coats, which may have been a mistake – it was almost 90 degrees in London!).

Our flight arrived dreadfully early on Sunday morning, but at least we had a full day to use for sight-seeing! Our time in the old city was the shortest, because we had both visited it already, and seen many of the chief wonders of the place.

Resting for a moment in JE Millais’ living room.


One of my favorite things about the stay in London was our hotel, the Arosfa. The tiny little hotel, tucked away near the University of London, was formerly the home of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. When Aaron told me he had found and booked the hotel, I definitely nerded out big time. One of my favorite college courses was Victorian Lit., in which we had studied Millais and the other members of the PRB. We also touched on them in Art History, so I knew the group from both its literary and artistic side. Every moment spent sitting in the little purple living room was magical – I could just feel the inspiration from those long-dead artists surrounding me.

The rooms are small and modern (though ample for our needs) but the downstairs area has all the feel of an old Victorian-style house. The sitting room in particular was fun:  a royal purple paint on the walls and lots of fun paintings hanging in ornate frames. There is even a small private bar for guests! We felt very distinguished sipping gin and tonics in JE Millais’ living room after a long day of exploration.

Trafalgar Square

Our first stop, after dropping our bags at the Arosfa, was the National Portrait Gallery. Attached to the National Gallery off of Trafalgar Square, the Portrait Gallery is a massive collection of portraits (mostly) from the history of Britain. In it are such famous pieces as the original Shakespeare, the Arnolfini (Wedding) Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I, and many others. A few hours would be enough to get you all the way through the museum, but it is so full of priceless works of art that you could easily spend a day there.

This Washington statue has a twin in front of our State House in SC!

Outside of the gallery we saw something that we had not noticed on previous trips: a bronze cast of the very same statue that stands on the steps of the State House in Columbia, SC! It was like meeting an old friend.

Striking a noble pose while sipping coffee in a church vault.

We took lunch right across the street in the cafe in the vaults of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. It was definitely an interesting setting, but the food was inexpensive and delicious! I had a big bowl of warm soup – in my view one of England’s best culinary successes is their excellent soup.

The next day we visited the British Museum after breakfast, and marveled at the beautiful Elgin Marbles, and the ancient Greek, Persian, and Egyptian ruins. It, like the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, had free admission! They have a five pound suggested donation, but it hands-down beats the expensive Parisian museum prices! (Rule Britannia!)

My favorite display was the Sutton Hoo ship burial – one of the most important early medieval excavations. I find it amazing to view the physical artifacts that have been illustrations in so many of my history books.

We were able to do a fair amount of walking about London during our 36-hour tour of London, and it was delightful to stumble unexpectedly on places we had heard of in books or seen in movies, like the London Horse Guards Parade Grounds.

All in all, though short, our time spent in London was lovely. It is a large, and somewhat spread-out city, so planning ahead of time is essential. The nice thing is, there are wonderful spots in almost every area of the city! So wherever you are, you’re bound to be near some amazing artifact of national and historical importance.

Just avoid Camden Town… but that’s a story for another day. 😉