Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Visit to Hogwarts...uh, Oxford

After spending Sunday and Monday touring around London with Emily and Curtis, they were comfortable venturing out on their own, so I took my tour guide hat off for a couple days while they visited Greenwich, Harrods, and National Gallery and saw The Lion King -- all things I've done before.  We try to save some of the more popular tourist attractions for when people come to visit, but now that we've been here for nearly a year, and have had a fair number of visitors, that list is getting shorter.

One thing that was still on my list -- and Curtis and Emily's -- was a visit to Oxford.  Josh went last year for a conference, but this was my first opportunity to go, so on Thursday Emily, Curtis and I took the 9:21 from Paddington, and by 10:30 am we were in the center of one of the oldest and most well-known universities in the world.  No one knows for sure exactly how old the University of Oxford is, but there are records of students being taught here as early as 1096.  Today, over 21,000 students attend Oxford's 38 colleges and 6 halls, and from the look of things, each and every one of them rides a bicycle.  Many of the colleges started out as religious schools and have their own chapels in addition to various towers, domes, and other impressive architectural details, so Oxford is often referred to as the City of Dreaming Spires.
Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires
Despite a chill in the air, it was a beautiful, sunny day. Due to the complexity of hours when various things were open to the public, we ended up retracing our steps several times during the course of the day.  If you mapped it out, it would look like one of those Family Circus comics where Billy's meandering path from A to B is traced with a dotted line.  So rather than try to describe our day in a linear fashion, here are the highlights...

I'm a fan of the TV series Lewis (or Inspector Lewis as it's called on PBS in the US), which is set in Oxford, so I was tickled to see a reference to it at the Turf Tavern, which dates back to the 13th century.
Emily & Curtis outside the Turf Tavern
Inspector Lewis at the Turf Tavern (on the chalkboard)
Among other famous people reputed to have frequented this tavern is President Bill Clinton, who attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

Because Oxford has such a long and storied history, you can see examples of nearly every British architectural style from the past 1000 years.  This lovely old Tudor building on the high street apparently houses the world's oldest Pret a Manger and a currency exchange.  And there's a Burger King right next door.  Well, I guess this is a college town...

Old meets new
Being a classical scholar (he teaches at Vassar), Curtis was particularly interested in visiting the Bodleian Library, which is the second largest library in the UK, after the British Library.  The library receives hundreds of new books every week, most of which are stored off-site, while the main part of the collection is housed in several buildings.  The most iconic is the Radcliffe Camera, which once housed the science library.
The Radcliffe Camera, ca 1749
We signed up to take a guided tour of the library.  Before it began, we visited a small exhibit called "The Romance of the Middle Ages" which contained books that were both from and about that period of time.  Since I am most certainly NOT a classical scholar, I was most intrigued by the "modern" examples, particularly a handwritten page from Tolkien's "The Two Towers" displayed in the same case with an original screenplay from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." There was also a book with handwritten notes by C.S. Lewis and an original edition of Mark Twain's "A Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
Central courtyard and main entrance
Our tour guide was a female student with a most unusual accent who turned out to be from Norway.  We started out in the Divinity School, which was built in 1488.  If this room looks vaguely familiar but you've never been to Oxford, then you must be a Harry Potter fan.  The Hogwarts infirmary was filmed in here, and it also served as the hall where the students took dance lessons before the Yule Ball.  The ceiling is very elaborate, and bears the initials and/or crests of the many donors who helped fund the school's construction.
Divinity School
Ceiling detail
We were not allowed to bring ANYTHING (including cameras) into the main part library with us, so she stored all our bags in a padlocked wooden chest by the entrance.  No one is allowed to check books out of this library -- not even the monarch, although Charles I tried and failed -- so you must use one of the many reading rooms to study any books you borrow.  At one time, the books were all chained to the shelves and you couldn't even sit down to read them, but now it's a bit more accommodating.  One of the oldest reading rooms was also used for all the library scenes at Hogwarts.  There is a chair just outside the room that only librarians are allowed to sit on.  I think Curtis is seriously considering going to library school just so he can come back and sit in that chair!

We also toured Christ Church, which is one of the largest and most prestigious of Oxford's colleges.  Thirteen Prime Ministers attended this college, as did King Edward VII, philosopher John Locke, Albert Einstein, and Charles Dodgson, also known as Lewis Carroll.
Entrance to Christ Church College
Rather than bore you with more historical details, here is another highlight from my Harry Potter film tour:  these stairs are where the students are welcomed to Hogwarts in the first movie.
Stairs to the Great Hall
Ceiling detail
Christ Church cathedral is the seat of the Oxford diocese, and was built on the site where St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint, was buried in the 8th century.
Christ Church Cathedral
Cathedral interior
Emily and I were the only people in the cathedral when we walked in, so we struck up a conversation with the docent.  He gave us some history about the building, and then took us out a side door marked "private" and out into the garden, at which point we briefly left Hogwarts behind and went down the rabbit hole.  When Charles Dodgson taught at Christ Church, his office was in the building on the other side of the wall, and he used to watch the Dean's three daughters playing in the garden from his window.  He became friendly with the girls, one of whom was named Alice, and used to tell them stories, which he was eventually encouraged to write down and later publish.  Many of the elements of Alice in Wonderland were drawn from things Dodgson saw around the college, including the door in the garden wall, which was always kept locked, so Alice couldn't open it.  It reminded me a bit of "The Usual Suspects"...
Alice's playground
OK, one more Harry Potter scene: The Great Hall at Hogwarts is modeled after the dining hall at Christ Church, complete with the long wooden tables and portrait-lined walls.  I kept expecting them to come to life and start talking.
The Great Hall
Look, Mom, I'm at Hogwarts!
OK, back to Alice. It's believed that these elongated andirons in the fireplace gave Dodgson the idea for Alice growing taller with a telescoping neck.
Long-necked andirons
If you look closely at one set of windows in the Hall, you'll see Alice, the white rabbit, and several other characters in the lower corners.
Alice window
Christ Church China
We were shocked to read the prices on the menu posted outside the dining room.   Most of the breakfast and lunch items cost less than £1, and a full dinner was only £3.  That's less than they charged us just to look inside the room!
Across the street is Alice's Shop, which was featured in Through the Looking Glass. We didn't go inside, but I'm pretty sure this shop isn't run by a sheep.
Alice's Shop
We had lunch with one of Curtis' students, who is doing his Junior year abroad at Oxford, and also visited All Souls College, which had a lovely chapel.
All Souls Chapel interior
Most of the colleges are self-contained with only one or two entrances monitored by porters, so you can't just stroll onto the campus.  Some are only open to the public during certain hours, and many charge admission.  The colleges we saw all had beautiful buildings, manicured lawns, and lovely gardens, but none of them had a clock.  They did all have sundials, though.
All Souls quad
All Souls quad - the grand dormitory
Ornate gates cast cool shadows
We ended our day at Blackwell's bookstore, where Emily and I sat and had a cup of tea/coffee while Curtis browsed around.  This turned out to be the low point of the day, as Emily tripped on the stairs on the way to the ladies' room and badly sprained her ankle.  We were about to head home anyway, but she could barely walk, so Curtis and I did our best to support her as we took a taxi to the train to the Tube to another taxi to get back to my house in Wimbledon.  Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with Josh as he was leaving work, and he picked up some dinner for us on the way home.  We broke out the Advil, ice, and an ACE bandage (to keep the ice on her foot), and suggested Emily visit the walk-in clinic at St. George's Hospital the next morning to make sure it wasn't broken.  (It wasn't, thank goodness!)  While they weren't much help with my clogged ears when I first arrived, I was sure they'd be able to deal with something like a sprained ankle.  They even lent her some crutches, which made her last day here a little less miserable.

Despite the unfortunate ending, I enjoyed our visit to Oxford/Hogwarts/Middle Earth/Narnia/Down the Rabbit Hole.  I'd happily go back if the opportunity arises, so if you are planning a visit and like history, architecture, libraries, museums, universities, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien,  Inspector Lewis and/or lots and lots of bicycles, put Oxford on your list.

1 comment:

  1. My friend Rachel David's father taught at All Souls for a while (maybe still does? he has an arrangement with Stanford which allows him to live for three terms in Oxford, one term at Stanford, rinse repeat for the last 20 years or so). I traveled with Rachel there in 1996 and '97. Even got to attend a Passover Seder there.


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