“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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.