The prestige of Oxford welcomed us with grey skies and light rain. We dropped off our bags at our hostel and headed straight into the center of town to catch a tour detailing the locations of the famous Inklings. In case you don’t know, I have a particular love of Lord of the Rings and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. He, along with C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia fame, and a few other Oxford scholars, made up a literary group called the Inklings. They met in pubs in Oxford to discuss their works and share a beer or two. So when I saw that a tour was offered by Blackwell’s bookstore (one of the most famous bookstores in England), we had to do it. The tour didn’t go quite as in depth as I hoped, but there were some interesting tidbits mixed in. For example, our guide told us that Tolkien used to go drink at a pub called the Welsh Pony, and that there was a sign with a prancing pony at the entrance. This may sound familiar to those who know the Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien named the inn at Bree “The Prancing Pony.” It was very clear that the lives of these writers were very influenced by the environment they were surrounded in.
The other highlight was of course visiting the Eagle and Child pub, the legendary meeting place of the Inklings. The rooms were exactly what I would imagine them to be, dark and wooden, and I could just picture the clouds of pipe smoke drifting around the room as Tolkien or Lewis read a chapter from one of their books.
I also have to tell you about our guide. His name was Peter and I was reminded of an older and slightly disheveled Michael Caine. He had a disappearing white shroud of hair and his shuffling walk under a long black jacket made me think of a penguin. But he was a jovial sort and apparently enjoys giving these tours and meeting new people as he has been doing this for sixteen years.
Tour over, we went to the Bodleian Library which had a small but detailed exhibit on the history of magical books, which of course included everything from Arthurian legend to Tolkien and Lewis’ work, to more recent Oxford alum, Philip Pullman and his Golden Compass books. We got to see artwork hand drawn by Tolkien, as well as his handwritten notes and sketches for parts of his books.
We also took a tour of one of the oldest parts of the Bodleian Library, which was amazing. The books are literally hundreds of years old and are incredibly fragile, yet are still available to students who have a good reason to reference one. The only catch is, you have to be able to speak Latin or Greek…As for the rest of the library, we didn’t see it, but it would take a long time to look at it all, as it holds 11 million items and volumes! You probably wouldn’t get away with telling your professor you couldn’t find the right book…
Here are a few more pictures of sights around Oxford. Up first is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford. Some of the original timber can still be seen! (And I have to say, looks a lot like the town of Bree in the Lord of the Rings films. Maybe some more inspiration?)
The next picture is of the first great hall to be purpose built for the intention of learning and examination at Oxford. It was finished in 1483 where divinity students would do an oral examination in the form of a public debate with their professor. Now it is just a beautiful old hall through which graduating students make their way to the theater to receive their degrees.
Oxford is also a bicycle town. I suppose all the students use them to get around but I really was tremendous to see them locked up everywhere. You also have to be careful when you walk because they are extremely silent. I’d say the chances of getting hit by a bicycle could be very high so you have to triple check every direction before walking to make sure no cyclists are flying towards you!
Day two of Oxford saw us board a bus to Blenheim Palace, one of England’s finest country estates. It was awarded to John Churchill after his victory against the French in 1704 at Blenheim Battle. He became the 1st Duke of Marlborough and built a grand palace in the style of Versaille. It is surrounded by 2,000 acres of landscaped parklands, formal gardens, and a beautiful lake. Of note: Sir Winston Churchill was born here as a descendent of the first duke, although he was not in line to the dukedom. Here are some highlights:
Now it is off to the serene landscape of the Cotswolds, and as I write on the train, the green and yellow countryside flies by, highlighted by the rays of a disappearing sun, yet despite the speed in which they pass, these fields are timeless. Fieldstone cottages and little fluffs of white sheep dot the landscape and I can hardly wait to spend a quiet weekend among the hedgerows and fields hiking from one quaint and adorable town to the next. Next time I see you I will be in the little village of Stow-on-the-Wold. Cheers.
I will leave you with a picture of the Oxford ‘park and ride’ at the train station. Perhaps a little different from what we are used to…