Saturday, June 9, 2012

I can’t believe my groggy eyes this morning. There is sunshine in Somerset. Oh, hallelujah!  

I rush through my breakfast at 3 Abbey Green and then dart up to the Royal Crescent and over to Pulteney Bridge and back. I’ve got to catch a train to Oxford, but I am determined to get at least one picture of Bath with a pleasant, blue sky overhead before I leave.

By the time I arrive in Oxford, it’s just past one in the afternoon and dense clouds have gathered overhead, casting a dull shadow over the city. I check into the Royal Oxford Hotel just down the street from the railway station, where my accommodations remind me vaguely of a dorm room. I drop off my bags and then follow the map in my hand down Park End Street and across to George Street and Broad Street, which are lined with book stores and souvenirs shops that have an endless variety of Oxford University t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, and coffee mugs in their front windows.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with such beautiful and harmonious architecture that the poet Matthew Arnold once called it the “city of dreaming spires.” Both C.S. Lewis—author of the Narnia Chronicles—and J.R.R. Tolkien—who wrote The Lord of the Rings series—taught here and met regularly at a local pub as part of a literary discussion group known as The Inklings.

My own academic credentials are sturdy enough. I was fortunate to spend six years at Yale University in the 1990s, earning two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., but for the first time ever in my intellectual life—as I wander past the Sheldonian Theatre, Radcliffe Camera, and the Bodelian Library—I find that I am green with envy. Sterling Memorial Library at Yale is beautifully ornamental, with stained glass windows and gargoyles and fan-vaulted ceilings, not unlike those seen around Oxford, but Sterling was built in 1931 in the neo-gothic style, a modern ode to the great cathedrals of Europe. In contrast, the Bodelian Library dates to the mid-15th century, and the circular Radcliffe Camera with its beautiful Palladian proportions, was completed in 1749, when Yale was still in its infancy.

The sprawling Oxford campus, make up of 38 individual colleges, is impressive to say the least, and on this June afternoon it is pulsing with energy and excitement because there are new graduates, dressed in black gowns, hoods, and mortarboards, posing for photographs alongside their proud families.

From Radcliffe Square, I slip between Brasenose and All Souls College and emerge onto the High Street, where I spend some time browsing Jigsaw, Reiss, Whistles, and L.J. Bennett—all of Kate Middleton’s favorite shops, if Britain’s tabloid press is to be believed. When I reach the clock on Carfax Tower, with its two “quarter boys” chiming the bells at every quarter hour, I turn left down Saint Aldate’s, past Old Tom and a bookstore that inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Old Sheep Shop” in Alice in Wonderland, and into the War Memorial Garden at Christ Church.

The sun has broken through at last, and the view of the cathedral is sublime. The manicured lawn looks emerald green against a stone retaining wall, from which cascading waves of purple flowers fall. For the first time in more than a week, I take off my jacket and sit on a park bench, my head tilted back, soaking in the rays.

I check my watch and see that there is still time to tour the Christ Church before the evensong service at 6:00 PM. I head down the stone path to the Meadow Gate and follow a small crowd inside and up the stairs toward The Hall, a grand dining room crowded with old portraits and heraldic shields that inspired the filmmakers who created the Great Hall at Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. There are parallel rows of long wood tables that run the length of the room, lit with charming sconces and set with college china, and there is a medieval ceiling supported by thick, oak beams high overhead. I glance around and wonder if they would mind if I pulled up a chair and stayed for dinner and some delightful conversation? The looming presence of a guard tells me they probably would, so I take my pictures in quiet resignation and file out toward Tom Quad. 

The tour also includes Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the diocese of Oxford and the college as its chapel, dating back to the days of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. It’s a small space by the standards of European cathedrals, but it lacks nothing in grandeur. There is a long nave and a chancel with a fan-vaulted ceiling, and a beautiful rose window in stained glass above the altar. There is also an impressive early-17th century window depicting Jonah with the ancient city of Ninevah.

I rest for bit in the War Memorial Garden and then make my way back to the cathedral in time for evensong, which by tradition operates on “cathedral time,” five minutes late. There is a mixed choir tonight, make up of both men and women, the harmonious sound they create is peaceful and soothing, the perfect end to a busy day.

For dinner, I’m not in the mood to wander or to wait. It’s after seven on a Saturday night in a bustling, college town, so I’m more than grateful that a table is available at a chain restaurant named Bella Italia. I order an arugula salad with parmesan cheese and a bowl of pasta carbonara, and both are reasonably tasty. On the walk back to my hotel, however, I can’t help but wonder what they’re serving in the Christ Church dining hall tonight, and the graduate student I used to be, countless years ago, wishes I was there.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

This morning, I’m sitting at the Pret a Manger on Cornmarket Street in Oxford with a cobbled together breakfast—a cup of fruit, a chocolate bar made with digestive biscuits, and a cappuccino. The man behind the counter surprised me by stenciling a Union Jack on top of the frothed milk in cocoa powder and I find myself staring at it, reluctant to disturb the pattern by taking a sip.

Actually, I’m thinking something through. I had planned to visit Blenheim Palace today, the grand country estate at which Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874, but the sky overhead is threatening rain, and I’m tired and not much in the mood to walk to the train station in search of a bus to take me there. Instead, I check my notes and see that the Tourist Information Office offers a two-hour walking tour titled “The University and the City.” I glance down at my watch and see that there’s still time to buy a ticket, but first I need to visit an ATM to get cash.

On my way back to the TI on Broad Street, I find a Barclay’s branch with an automated teller on Turl and pop my card into the slot. There’s a sketchy guy pacing behind me, which makes me nervous, so when the money comes out I grab it quickly along with the receipt and tuck it into the back of my wallet. As I turn to go, a sense of horror washes over me. I look down and realize that my card wasn’t ejected. It’s been eaten by the machine and there’s nothing I can do about it, especially on a Sunday.

Feeling deflated, but determined not to let it spoil the day, I decide to join the tour as planned. Our guide’s name is Linda and she leads us first to the Divinity School to see a magnificent vaulted ceiling that dates from 1483. We also walk through the Exeter College chapel and the city’s covered market, which has been active since the late 18th century. We emerge onto High Street and continue on past Oriel College and Merton College, and along the way I take pictures of nearly every gargoyle and grotesque I see clinging merrily to the stone façades, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m counting Pounds Sterling in my head and wondering if I have enough to get me through all the way to Edinburgh. I use my credit card for hotels and most meals, so I’m sure to get by, but I feel vulnerable nevertheless.

After the tour, I walk morosely back to the hotel to call my bank and tell them what has happened. Then, as luck would have it, I pull out my wallet and find the card stuffed between the bills and the paper receipt. In haste and without conscious thought, I must have pulled it out and folded everything together. Suddenly, I feel stupid. Ridiculously, embarrassingly stupid. And old. Surely, this is the start of a slippery slope toward senility. But on the bright side, my ATM card has rematerialized before my very eyes and it has not yet been cancelled by the clerk on the phone. Thank the Lord!

With a new found spring in my step, I head back into the city intent on spending a lazy afternoon wandering the eccentric halls of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with its clutter of shrunken heads and powder horns and Japanese nesuke. Afterwards, I move on to the endless galleries of the Ashmolean, where it’s easy lose oneself among the Egyptian artifacts. But I find myself struck most by a view of Oxford painted in 1810 by Joseph Mallord William Turner because—cars and pavement notwithstanding—it looks nearly identical to the High Street that exists today.

My legs give out shortly after five and I’m starving, so I opt for an early dinner at Jamie’s Italian, a chain owned by the celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. I order a plate of sweet roasted peppers on chickpea flatbread to start, and follow that with a massive bowl of Tagliatelle Bolognese, which disappears quickly and happily into my stomach. I need to keep up my energy for things to come.

It’s time to leave the literary home of Bilbo Baggins, Lucy Pevensie, and Alice Liddell. Other adventures await. I’m heading to Shakespeare country in the morning.