Earlier Posts: One Two Three Four Five Latest Wrap-Ups: One Two Three
On Monday night of our second week, I parked a block away from our flat in London near a local park. When you get into the outskirts of London, the parks are ill kept. It reminds me of certain inner-city parks where we live. You look like you could be in two different countries. We left our flat together Tuesday morning, the four of us, and I was relieved the car was still there. We took off to Oxford, which was going a different direction from London. It would take us a little less than an hour to drive to a car park outside of Oxford, and then ride a bus into the city center. It's hard to park and drive in Oxford.
If any place is a university town, it is Oxford, a sort of university with a town wrapped around it. The architecture of the city’s medieval center, essentially the 38 colleges that make up the University, led poet Matthew Arnold to nickname it the "City of Dreaming Spires." Oxford is the oldest English University in the world, dating back to 1096. It is also the location of many important historical events in England. Because Oxford itself is so old, it feels like you are arriving at a medieval city, which is not something you could experience in the United States. I've been on the Harvard campus in Cambridge Massachusetts, but it seems to try to copy Oxford in miniature. The closest to looking like Oxford though, that I have seen in the United States, is the United States Military Academy in West Point, related to style and immensity. West Point is amazing if you have never visited. It is the oldest scientific college, certainly the oldest engineering school, in America.
We arrived in town with the idea that we would first find something to eat, and we stopped at a British pie shop, called Pieminster. By pie, I mean a hot meat pie. It was the perfect combination of English, satisfying, and fast before we would start a tour of Oxford, and it checked that off our list of food items to have tasted in England. The hot savory pie, when done as such in the English way, is a highlight of English food, worth the buying and eating.
At different locations on our trip, we took tours. Even when we didn't pay for a tour, we often used the Rick Steves travel app for the various tours he had of places, which will save you money on a tour. I'll talk more about that later, because we used him in Italy and France. Oxford has numerous tours you can use, and it's difficult to know which one to use. I read the reviews and weighed them against the cost. If you're going to get all the way to the location, you want to take full advantage and a tour can help -- we paid for some of these tours all through the trip to Europe.
We used Footprints for our Oxford tour and paid for the walking one -- there was also a free one where they assume you'll pay anyway with a tip to the guide at the end, a totally different business model -- but I wouldn't take the one we took again, if I could choose. The young man, who gave it, someone who had grown up in Oxford, the town, and did not attend the University, gave it in an interesting manner as related to his delivery. He didn't, however, know much and so he was weak on the information, which is what I would have wanted. He played to the popular material that, I guess, would have satisfied more people. It also gave me nothing on the city and I was wanting more about the city of Oxford in addition, because I knew that Bloody Mary executed famous Protestants right there in Oxford. We weren't brought there. It was a 100% university tour against what was advertised.
Our tour guide kicked off our tour by taking us to Balliol, one of the oldest of the Oxford colleges. He was good at explaining how college worked at Oxford. One would think, even as I had, that each of the colleges focused on a certain subject matter, but that's not what each college is about. Each college is based on a social arrangement. You join a college, because it has its own unique niche or view or take. Today, if you are a lesbian, you know to prefer to join such-and-such college, and that kind of thing. It would be something like the idea of fraternities or societies in the United States. J. K. Rowling, it is said, modeled the four houses of Hogwarts after the varied colleges. A lot of Harry Potter matches up with aspects of Oxford, and it was used heavily for the films.
A student may apply to go to a particular college at Oxford with the plan that he will reside with that college, so as to develop camaraderie, connection, stability, and the unique traits of that college, a particular imprint. Each college has its own dining hall, chapel, residence, coat of arms, and scarf color. All of the dining halls and chapels look about the same, all ancient and traditional. The dining halls have the paintings of notable graduates of that college on every wall, in many cases including a prime minister or some important head of state.
When we left Balliol, I asked our guide if he knew of John Wycliffe. He didn't. This tells you the state of education at least in the town of Oxford, but also the condition of the tour. A house in Balliol College is named Wycliffe Hall after the one time dean, John Wycliffe, also the morning star of the English Reformation. Balliol grads make up a who's who list of prime ministers and significant thinkers, including Adam Smith.
Physically attached to the Bodleian library is the oldest building still remaining at Oxford, the divinity school, which was the first full student assembly building and the oldest surviving. It was an armory for the cavaliers, the side supporting the crown, in the English civil war.
The last stop of the tour was at a special door opposite the entrance to the University Church, where C. S. Lewis spoke in chapel at Oxford (you can read about here). It was this door and the lamp in close proximity that are said to have inspired the Narnia tales by Lewis. Lewis would have walked by this place about every day.
After our tour, we took in a tea, which includes scones and small sandwiches, in a cafe in a fourteenth century building next to what's called, Radcliffe Camera, which is a famous part of the Oxford library, a circular building. It was a nice break to get off our feet after a lot of walking. Across the street is the actual Bodleian library and we had a ticket to the Tolkien exhibition there. There were many first edition and handwritten and hand drawn items of Tolkien, telling the story of his life and books. Tolkien and Lewis both taught at Oxford, both lived in town, and were friends. Tolkien taught Middle English and Middle English literature at Oxford, something that would have paralleled the unique language he created for Middle Earth.. He not only wrote The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, but also translated Beowulf into modern English and wrote a commentary.
We also had a ticket to see the Christ Church College chapel and dining hall. Christ Church is one of the largest and most well-known colleges at Oxford, begun by Henry VIII. Among its buildings are Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren, also the architect of many famous buildings in London, including St. Paul's Cathedral. Parliament met in its dining hall during the reign of King Charles I, which was during the English Civil War. In the floor of the chapel is a memorial to John and Charles Wesley, who attended Christ Church and also met George Whitefield, studying at Oxford at the same time.
There was much more to see at Oxford, but we didn't have the time. Most Americans wouldn't know that Blenheim Palace is just a few minutes away from Oxford, the birthplace and childhood home of Winston Churchill. We did a lot of Churchill on this trip, so we couldn't fit in Blenheim. Some reading here perhaps knew that President Trump just dined with the present Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace with Prime Minister Theresa May.
While we were at Chartwell, the day before, a guide there explained why Churchill didn't inherit the title Duke of Marlborough or Blenheim Palace. One of the guides at Chartwell, we were told, was a secretary for Churchill, and typed his letters. She would have been old enough to have been one of those. John Churchill, the son of an earlier Winston Churchill, was a war hero of various battles in England, so received Blenheim and the title from various English monarchs. Winston was not the oldest heir, so he didn't receive the inheritance. Blenheim though was his house and the place he was engaged to his wife.
We took the bus back to our car and then took a quick trip, very nearby to the Kilns, which was the home of C. S. Lewis. Maybe it was in the country at one time, but now it is in a residential area on the fringe of Oxford, and you wouldn't really know that you had arrived to it, if you weren't looking for it. We had tried to get a tour of the house, which was by appointment only. We were not able, but we did get a look on the outside, since it was so close to where our car was parked. After a little look and some pictures, we drove back to London.
We would get packed that night, because we were leaving the area the next morning and for the first time in a week. We would drop off our rental car and take the underground to the King's Cross Station to head northward by train to the area of York.