Towns / Cities Visited: 110
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 12,381
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,981,734
Today was to be one of knowledge and education, and if you are to have a day of learning in England, what better place to do so than in the home of the country’s oldest university; Oxford. Thus it was that we hopped in the car, and drove to one of the many park and rides that reside on the outskirts of this historical centre. Understandably, a city with buildings stretching back almost a millenia isn’t really designed for the needs of the modern day, and as such there is little parking to be found within its narrow streets, and what parking there is comes at a high price. Luckily their alternative, of which we were taking full advantage of, is comparatively cheap, fairly quick, and extremely convenient.
Before too long we were bundling off of the bus and seemingly stepping back in time. Take away the cars and traffic accoutrements and this place looks almost exactly as it did centuries ago. For anyone with even a rudimentary interest in architecture and historical buildings, this place is a wonderland. Every stone speaks of a time when frock coats and top hats were the height of fashion, further back to a time when reading was a pastime only afforded to the wealthy, and even further still to a time when a king made his own church just to get out of a marriage. This was a point in history, not so long ago, when the tallest structure in any town was the spire of its church, and so it remains here in this time capsule of a place. The buildings may all be a weather worn shade of beige, but this place is anything but. In fact, if any location in the world was going to convince everyone that perhaps gothic style windows should come back into vogue, this may just be it. As we wandered the streets it was hard not to wonder what it must have been like to see the hustle and bustle here in days gone by; when the sound of cars was replaced with the sound of horse drawn carriages trundling down cobbled streets, and the sound of once sided conversations on the newest iPhone was replaced with the nattering of some of the time’s greatest thinkers scurrying off to the universities which seem to jut up around every corner.
Finally our time travelling found us walking up the steps to the oldest surviving university in the English speaking world, a university older than any other in the country by more than 100 years; Oxford University. Although it has obviously expanded and changed over the eras, there was been a place of learning on this site since 1096; a time when universities were really just places to teach the clergy in order for the church to retain control over the masses, and when theology was thought to be the height of educational studies. Later it moved on to include the education of philosophers, medical practitioners, mathematicians, and others of that ilk; and eventually came to teach and inspire students on the wide variety of subjects we now expect from tertiary education providers. Its inner courtyard, complete with its intricately carved stonework, and its latin signs denoting the department which originally resided in each corner of the space, oozes a heady mix of medieval and gothic charm. The bronze statue of a rather poncey looking moustachioed William Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke and a former Chancellor of the university, really rounds off the over-the-top show of wealth so stereotypical of a time when wealthy men were not only the only ones who had the privilege of an education, but who also felt the need to use their wealth to ensure that future generations would remember their names. As we stepped round his rather smug likeness we ducked inside to join the tour we had come here to enjoy.
Headsets on, and out wonderfully knowledgeable, if not a little waffly, guide acquired, we began our tour in a room that looked strangely familiar for a place we had never visited before. It took but a moment to realise why this was so, as our guide pointed out the fact that this room, as with quite a few locations around the town, was used in the filming of the first Harry Potter movie. Long before its use as the infirmary of Hogwarts, when it was built in the 15th century, it was the Divinity School and the exam hall of all of the theologists who studied here. The interior of the room is truly breathtaking and we soon found out that this much beauty took quite some time to create, more than half a century to be exact, with the walls being completed long before the ornate ceiling with its four hundred and fifty five stone bosses and a its gravity defying hanging stone pendants. The main problem they faced in regards to this room was the fact that it is located directly below the Bodleian library, of which was why we were here in the first place, and of which we would be visiting at the end of our tour. Unsurprisingly when you place a large collection of rather weighty books above a room with no pillars and an already heavy stone ceiling, it takes some rather impressive feats of engineering to ensure the entire structure doesn’t just go ahead and cave in on itself. Much like many people in this world who suffer in silence, this room managed to appear light, airy, and flawless, despite the huge burden on its shoulders, and I for one left the room thoroughly impressed.
Next we moved into the Convocation House, with its fan vaulted ceiling, and its dark wood furniture, it was just as stunning as the last. It looks almost to resemble parliament, and in fact during the English Civil War in the 17th century it was temporarily used as the House of Commons. However for the most part it was, and still is, used by the Chancellor and the directors of the university, known as the convocation, to discuss and come to decisions on any and all matters regarding the establishment.
From here we passed into the third and final room of this section of the tour, the Chancellor’s court, again aptly named as it was historically used as a court for internal university affairs. It dealt with matters such as students unpaid debts, and even public drunkeness which was a massive taboo back in more conservative times. You know, back when O week wasn’t a thing, and getting absolutely plastered with your uni pals was frowned upon more than seen as a right of passage. Our guide had many an amusing story of some of the more famous names who had been called to appear here for their transgressions, including Oscar Wilde, who seemingly very much lived up to his name and managed to rack up some rather extravagant debts.
With much glee it was time for us to head upstairs to the main event; the Bodleian Library. Now there has been a purpose built library at Oxford University since 1320, however this original room stands now as a vestry in the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. By 1488 the library had moved to the room we were now heading upstairs to see, and what was originally known as Duke Humfrey’s, as, shockingly, it was first filled with 281 priceless manuscripts donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V. This was a time before bookcases even existed, I imagine because there just simply weren’t that many books to call for their need yet, and thus books were simply stacked up on tables. In 1550 however, when Henry VIII was busy purging the country of Catholicism, all of the books were removed from the library, and maddeningly many were burnt. As the school was not wealthy at the time, it wasn’t until the late 1598 that Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, and a diplomat in the court of Elizabeth I, helped to refurbish and save the library by organising the collection and donation of some 2500 books, many of which were his own. His most lasting legacy though, was the fact that he entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company that stated that a copy of every book published in England must be sent to the library; an agreement which has been upheld and is recognised legally, and has resulted in the library now being in possession of literally millions of books. In fact there are so many books that over the centuries, more and more buildings have been created just to hold them, including the New Library across the street, and storage space under the Radcliffe Camera just next to the university, an equally fascinating library, but one we would not be able to see as it was not open to tours while we were visiting. There are even warehouses outside of the city to hold the overflow.
The library itself is truly spectacular, but unfortunately you are not able to take photos inside and thus the following photo from the annals of the internet will have to suffice. In fact you can only look into the space from one end, as entry is restricted, and you must apply to the University directly in order to view any of the books, and even sign a contract stating that you won’t damage them. Our guide was a wealth of knowledge about the library, telling us a plethora of fun facts, including the fact that books used to be placed on the shelves with the spines facing inwards to protect them, but this was later changed so that the books could have chains attached to them to prevent theft. There has also always been a ban on any sort of open flame here, for obvious reasons. Now considering that electricity is a fairly recent eventuality and the books could not be borrowed, this meant that for many centuries reading could only be done by daylight, and in the depths of winter this meant that there were but a few short hours of the day when students and knowledge seekers could peer through the dim light and behold the ageing pages held within. The final, and I’ll be honest one of the coolest, additions to the library is the Lamson tube. This is a tube which runs from here to the New Library across the street and, using a partial vacuum, was implemented to quickly shoot book requests between the two buildings so that an authorised library staff member could bring across the requested copy to the student, thus saving much time. This has since obviously been superseded by electronic methods, but it still sits as a reminder of how the library has changed over its almost 700 year history.
Image from: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/architecture/oxford-universitys-buildings-154006
With our tour over, but books still well and truly on the brain, we joyously skipped across the road to our next destination; the Weston Library. Now we weren’t just here to look at old books again, we were here to see one of the special exhibitions they hold periodically; ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth’. Now for those who know us, you will know that we are huge fans of fantasy fiction, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a personal favourite of both of us. Unfortunately we were a little early for our allotted time slot, but we were happy to discover that there was a second free exhibit just next to it that we were welcome to view while we waited. This exhibit, called ‘Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared’, looks at the women throughout history who dared to step outside of the box, and does so through the medium of viewing their contributions to literature, amongst other things. There was many fascinating pieces here, including quite a number of suffragette pamphlets and posters; photographs by Julia Cameron a Victorian photography pioneer; a musical score by composer Fanny Mendelssohn, sister to notable more famous composer Felix Mendelssohn; and a collection of historical works written by women, many in a time when female writers were almost unheard of, and often had to go by male pen names just to be published at all. From Sappho’s poetry from the 2nd century BCE written on papyrus, to Ada Lovelace’s mathematical notes, and from the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, to that of Jane Austen’s early work ‘Volume the First’, I left that room feeling both inspired and empowered.
Image from: http://aeternalswirlingfight.blogspot.com/2018/09/august-i-went-to-oxford-to-visit.html?m=1
The time had come to dive into the fantastical world of Middle Earth, thus inward we leapt. Although small, the exhibition is packed full of rare and one of a kind personal items and documents belonging to the famous writer and linguist, JRR Tolkien. The beginning of the exhibition looks at the man behind the works, a man who was a Professor and Fellow of both Pembroke and Merton Colleges; and a close friend of fellow writer CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, as they were both members of the Inklings, a literary discussion group associated with Oxford University in the 30’s and 40’s. He was a caring husband to his wife Edith, to whom he was married for over 50 years; and a loving father to his four children, two of whom are still alive and who are the reason this exhibition was possible. The displays show some of his personal effects, including some of his old study furniture, as well as few rather adorable letters he used to write his children when they were young, pretending to be Father Christmas. He also, rather reluctantly, fought in the first world war, although he managed to defer joining until after he finished his degree, and was scrutinised publicly, as many were, for not wanting to join the armed forces and fight right away.
The rest of the exhibit looks at his work not just on ‘The Lord of the Rings’ but also its prequel ‘The Hobbit’ and its sister book ‘The Silmarillion’. From early drafts with annotated notes; to drawings and illustrations he made to accompany the books, including the cover image for the Hobbit; and maps to help him flesh out his stories, it was fascinating to see how he went about combining his ideas into the classic pieces of literature he ended up creating. He was a man so fascinated in language that he created a fictional world just so he could make up languages to put into it. There was also a large display of his early drawings which he collated into a book called ‘The Book of Ishness’, and its amazing to see how these early pieces inspired many scenes in his later books. The centrepiece of the exhibit though, is a huge 3D printed map of Middle Earth, onto which is projected the landscape, and shows time lapses of each characters journey throughout the trilogy. Although we were not allowed to take photographs, the things I saw will live in my minds eye forever, and continue to kindle the imagination of both myself and my partner as we move forward with the completion of our own fantasy novel series.
Images from: http://www.factum-arte.com/pag/1229/-i-Tolkien-Maker-of-Middle-earth-i
By the time we tumbled back out onto the street, we took a quick moment to eat some of the food we had brought with us, before we scampered off to the last destination for the day; Christ Church College, one of the most famous in the city, founded by Henry VIII in 1546, and which proudly claims ‘Alice in Wonderland’ author Lewis Carroll as one of its alumni. Now, once again, if you are a fan of Harry Potter there are many parts of this college which will ring a bell for you, and as we grabbed our maps and followed the visitors route, it wasn’t long before we stumbled upon the first familiar scene. As we walked up the stairs toward the Main Hall, it was hard to miss the fact that these are the very stairs that Harry and all of the first years ascend towards the Great Hall in the very first film, back before it was all filmed in studios. You could almost hear Draco’s snide remarks and Harry’s rebuffing of them as we reached the top. As if that wasn’t enough, we then stepped inside the hall, which serves as the dining hall for the students of the college, it was no stretch of the imagination to see where the inspiration for the Great Hall in the film comes from. Just add a magical ceiling and you’re pretty much there. Its so akin to its fictional cousin that you almost expect the figures in the countless historical portraits to move, talk, or give way to the nearest common room.
Moving back outside, and past the aptly named Great Square which also features in the films, we made our way into the Christ Church Cathedral, which is, in fact, older than the college, and serves as its chapel. Much like the rest of the town, the church is a pinnacle of gothic architecture and features a mind boggling array of stunning stained glass windows which makes you feel as though you are standing within some grand biblical comic book. The windows include many religious stories, including that of Saint Frideswide, the Patron Saint of Oxford University. From here we continued on through the remainder of the tour route, past a picturesque cloister, and back out onto the streets.
The day was slipping away, and although there were many more colleges we could have ducked into, we decided to bid farewell to this stunning city, and head back to our Airbnb to relax before the next day’s adventure. As I thought about our day, my mind continued to run full speed, churning over the centuries worth of literature and the fantasy worlds which had been the nexus of our day. From dust covered tomes from the Middle Ages, to the wilds of Middle Earth, each book seemed more timeless than the next. From Alice in Wonderland to Narnia, Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, The Picture of Dorian Grey to Frankenstein, it seemed that my day had been one of following in the footsteps of authors who have shaped my life from early childhood, all the way to now. These writers who’s characters have walked beside me as I grew up, who offered me sanctuary in their worlds when I no longer wished to live in this one, who taught me everything from right and wrong and how to be strong, to the power of both friendship and independence. Although just one of these authors still remains amongst the living, their words are their legacy, and it is one which may never by die. Their stories and their worlds live on in spite of the fleeting nature of mortal life, and in doing so they bring joy, education, and inspiration to millions. It is in this thought I stopped for a moment and wondered, is it possible that the story we are writing may offer the same comforts to others, that these books have to me. Will my likeness in the pages of our novel encourage and empower the female audience who dare to pick it up? Will my partner’s likeness teach young men the destructive nature of rage, and its affect on the soul? Will our story offer solace and strength to those who, like us, sit in the darkness with the black dog of depression at their feet? Will one day, a century or so from now, someone lift our book down from a dusty shelf somewhere and in immersing themselves in its pages bring us back to life once more, if only for a moment?