“Oxford is a town of private spaces obscured by walls”

Along the walk through the grounds of Worcester College in Oxford.
Along the walk through the grounds of Worcester College in Oxford.

“The big thing to remember is Oxford is a town of private spaces obscured by walls that were built to defend the students and dons,” Casey wrote to us before we started our visit here.

He had spent a term here back in his college days. How many years ago, Casey?

Let’s skip the carbon dating of Casey and go to the truth of his advice to us.

We have walked down Walton Street dozens of times on our way to the train station or just into the city center. Each time we have passed by the entrance to Worcester College, stopped to check on the hours it was open to the public and then gone on by as the hours never seemed to correspond with our walks.

Worcester College Chapel.
Worcester College Chapel.

Finally, the opening times and our walks aligned, and we went in for a visit. I expected some old buildings, a sward of vibrant green grass (which you could see from the street through the open doors) and a YAC (Yet Another Chapel). I had no idea there would be so much more obscured by its walls.

All of the above was there, plus a lake, centuries-old trees, gardens, a rugby pitch I envied and a circuitous walk that eventually led us back to the college entrance where we read about its history.

Founded in 1714 (which makes it young compared to other Oxford colleges) on the site of Gloucester College, which started in 1283 as a “place of study for 13 monks.” Monasteries ended in 1539 (Can you say Henry VIII?), and so did Gloucester College. The buildings served as palace and then entered 150 years of “chequered history” and decline. An endowment came to their rescue in 1714. Sir Thomas Cookes, a Worcestershire baronet, left the money for the founding of a college.

All the rail carvings in the chapel are of animals.
All the rail carvings in the chapel are of animals, including this serpent.

The college, now near the center of town, was once at the edge of the city, which is how it came to have enough land to incorporate its athletic fields and gardens within its walls.

All of which supports something else Casey told us: “Oxford is steeped in history.”

Thanks, Casey, for the help in introducing us to Oxford.

Kathy and Eddie stand in front of a massive tree trunk in the Worcester College gardens.
Kathy and Eddie stand in front of a massive tree trunk in the Worcester College gardens.

A garden, a pub and a meadow

The Botanic Garden with Magdalen College in the background.
The Botanic Garden with Magdalen College in the background.

It was in the 70s in Oxford on Thursday (and again today) and we decided to spend it walking through the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and around the Christ Church meadow.

The “healing garden” was founded in 1621, according to the Fodor’s travel guide we are using. It still has exhibits of medicinal plants among its 6,000 species on display, and is the oldest such garden in Britain.

I love looking at flowers, but to me they are slashes of color among green leaves. Even when I learn their names, my recall of them will be gone long before the flowers wilt. But Kathy? She seemed able to identify 5,999 of the species.

A pitcher plant
A pitcher plant

My favs were the pitcher plants, or “insectiverous” species, as Fodor’s calls them. They were in one of the glass greenhouses, the one that was free of bugs.

A flower in one of the greenhouses.
A flower in one of the greenhouses.

We were admittedly poor reporters during our walk through the garden, rarely recording the names of the occasional flowers or plants that Kathy didn’t know. Besides, most of the signs identifying the plants gave the Latin names, and my two years of Latin more than 50 years ago failed me.

A very odd flower
A very odd flower

From the garden, we wandered back (OK, we got lost) to the Turf Tavern, which we had passed through on our walking tour last week. Besides a wide selection of ales and spirits, the pub features good grub and signs to entertain you in the outdoor eating areas. The most photographed  while we were there was the one identifying the Turf as the place where Bill Clinton “did not inhale” while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Another one pointed out that the Turf makes an appearance in Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” yet another book to read.

Kathy orders an
Kathy orders an “Old Gold” with our lunches. It’s a Scottish ale fermented in whiskey barrels.

After lunch it was on to the Christ Church meadows, a lovely walk along the Cherwell River. Boaters were punting on the river, a team was practicing rugby on the opposite bank and cattle were grazing in the meadow — a rural and pastoral atmosphere just a ways off tourist-clotted High Street. Coming from a city that feels increasingly overrun, we are struck daily by the calming, civilizing effect that Oxford’s many green, open spaces give to its bustling byways. (Take note, Seattle City Council.)

We hope to get into Christ Church College during “Open Door Weekend” tomorrow. The college was built in 1546 (back to Fodor’s now), founded by Cardinal Wolsey and has the largest quad in Oxford. Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” taught math there and we visited the Alice Shop across the street to buy a postcard (hope you like it, Beanne).

The walk in the Christ Church meadow along the Cherwell River.
The walk in the Christ Church meadow along the Cherwell River.

Of carnie ginks and geniuses

The St. Giles Fair closed the streets in the central part of Oxford today, and we went expecting medieval knights, an open air market and arts and crafts.

Carnival ride on St. Giles
Carnival ride on St. Giles

Instead, the midways of every county and state fair or village carnival from the United States had been moved in to compete with the spires of Oxford. We walked through but never stopped for cotton candy, a chance to win a stuffed animal or for a ride on one of the puke generators we used to love so well.

We made our way through the noise and crowd to the Vodaphone store to find out what happened to the extra pounds I had loaded onto my phone for calls back to the States. One call and all but 90 pence were gone. Got a different plan that gives us 50 minutes of international calling for a month. Mother Marian, we will not neglect thee (reading too much Shakespeare?).

Then it was on to the Weston Library for the “Marks of Genius” exhibit. In climate-controlled glass cases the library (part of the Bodleian Library) has spread out remarkable examples of remarkable genius. Let’s start with parchment shards of poems written by Sappho about 700 years before Christ. Of the nine volumes of poems she wrote, only one survives intact.

Go look at the Declaration of Independence in Washington, D.C., and think how old that seems for a document to survive. Then think about the Magna Carta, first written in 1215. There’s no trace of an original, but the Weston’s is one of 17 copied by hand on parchment. So it may not be all of 800 years old — give or take a decade or two.

There are ancient texts from China, the Arab world, Edmond Halley (predicted the cyclical return of the comet named after him), the original manuscript of “The Wind in the Willows” and the original book jacket for “The Hobbit,” designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself.  Wonderful colored original prints by Audubon, drawings by William Blake and Copernicus. A travel journal kept by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley (talk about a couple of messed up lives!). Original calligraphy lessons by Queen Elizabeth I. There are original or early volumes of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante, musical scores by Handel and Mendhelssohn, the Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s novels and the “Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope (my favorite Pope quote: “The higher you climb, the more you show your ass” — for this I went to grad school).

Interesting that they included early printing — handbills, posters, etc. — as examples of genius. But then this is a library, after all, that collects printed material — 13 million volumes to date. So why not? It’s been the medium of genius — and much else — for almost 600 years.

What stuck with me the most might have been a letter written by Isaiah Berlin about the visit of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to Oxford to receive an honorary award. Shostakovich, in and out of favor by Stalin, arrived with two Soviet “diplomats” who accompanied him everywhere, making dinner and cocktails difficult and more seriously leaving evident signs of strains on the composer’s face. The effect of this repression on genius made a vast impression on Berlin, whose letter conveyed the feeling to me. That’s genius.

Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.
Kathy at the St. Giles Fair.

Touring Oxford, relishing Shakespeare

Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.
Keep off the grass in the quad at Jesus College.

By Kathy

Day 3 of our adventure in England was packed with discoveries, revelations and inspiration. We walked a mile from our flat to the center of town to join a tour highlighting important sites, including one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges.

Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.
Katie, the guide on our walking tour, gave us good sense of what Oxford is all about.

Our personable guide, Katie, introduced us to the centuries-old university and how it works: each college independent yet allied; nearly all quite small (just 22,000 students in the entire system), housed primarily in decorous stone buildings surrounded by well-worn walls (yet open to the public at certain times). The schools, with their manicured courtyards, ornate edifices and streams of students, dominate the look and feel of the central city.

We visited Jesus College, co-founded by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century for the people of Wales. Students live, study and play together on the campus, where they meet with their professors once a week for “tutorials” in which they review projects assigned throughout the eight-week terms.

The dining hall at Jesus College.
The dining hall at Jesus College.

Students go off the grounds to auxiliary campuses around the city for lectures, research and more. The “collegiate” feel of the place came across most vividly in the dining hall with its soaring leaded-glass windows, carved oak panels and enormous communal table. I expected to see Harry Potter at any moment.

Speaking of which, we had a chance to walk through the old Divinity School now surrounded by the incredible Bodleian Library (which houses more than 13 million volumes and counting). The school, made entirely of carved stone, is a wonder of architecture and beauty. A ballroom scene in one of the HP movies was filmed here.

The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.
The carved pillars fan out across the ceiling to support the terrific weight of stone.

We celebrated all that we’d seen by stuffing ourselves at the cozy White Horse pub (one of the city’s oldest); fish & chips and a pint of Guinness for me, “toad in the hole” for John. The pub appears in the Inspector Morse TV series, which we hope to find time to watch (our apartment has the complete set of DVDs).

Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.
Kathy lifts a pint at the White Horse pub.

After a rest back at the flat, we returned to the central city and the newest part of the Bodleian (the Weston Library) for what may have been the most extraordinary “college lecture” I’d ever heard. John has already written about Professor Wells (emeritus, Univ. of Birmingham), but I thought I’d share a few impressions, too. We are still discussing all that he said, looking up film clips of Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth, finding Sonnet 29 to read again, and so on. Such is the “imprinting” power of a fine teacher/writer.

As an editor most of my working life, I trafficked in the power of words. Wells spoke with passion and insight about Shakespeare’s skill and why he still matters more than four centuries later.

Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.
Stanley Wells. a master of his subject and of the lecture.

Quoting from memory Hamlet, Lear and more, he made us feel the lyricism of the words, moving from complex syntaxes to simple declaratives, soft and loud, thoughtful and emotional; sometimes simply silent. More than the meaning, we felt the majesty.

Beyond the skill at crafting words, Wells explained, Shakespeare possessed the ability to convey a set of values that live across the ages: the importance of intelligence and wit, of moral courage and plain kindness; an appreciation of individual idiosyncracies (“what a piece of work is man”) and of the transformative power of imagination.

Certainly, Professor Wells possesses transformative powers of his own. Ah, to have been his student!

The terms -- after the Latin word terminus -- surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.
The terms — after the Latin word terminus — surround the Sheldonian Theater, which hosts many events including Oxford graduations.