Last week, we went to Oxford - The City of Dreaming Spires - for the first time. Sam was doing some work experience at the research labs there, where my sister works, so rather than do a four hour round trip every day, we decided to take the girls for a day out – and so very glad we did.
We had heard rumours that there is a certain, perhaps rather second rate, university there, which apparently has been running for almost as long as that great centre of learning - Cambridge. (Just in case you were wondering, Rupert and my father are both Cambridge men, and no, of course there is no competition between the Universities at all! Especially not around Boat Race time!)
Turns out the the rumours are true. One is not encouraged to park in Oxford itself, unless one wants to pay lots of money for the privilege, so we parked outside and got a bus in from the outskirts. It was a double decker, so we had a beautiful view and were able to watch the city transform from a snarl of roadworks and grumpy, morning traffic, hooting its way past Subways and Sainsbury's and charity shops, to the tranquillity of ancient city streets and parks, lined with such buildings as:
Balliol College, which dates back to 1263 and educated some of my favourite authors – Graham Greene, Nevil Shute, Hillaire Belloc – as well as some other great names – Richard Dawkins, Peter Snow etc
Then there is Brasenose College – William Golding and Michael Palin (though, interestingly enough, the latter does not appear on their list of “famous alumni”)
And: Oriel College, Trinity College, Jesus College, Blackfriars, Nuffield College, Wycliffe Hall – yes, even the names are redolent with history and mystery, calling to mind the shuffling feet of cowled monks, Knights in tarnished and bloody armour, rich Merchants and Noblemen in kid shoes, trailing cloaks encrusted with pearls and gold embroidery, young scholars in top hats, getting up to High Jinks, climbing over walls or up the guttering to their rooms in the middle of the night.
Each college seems to have its own style, Regency, Medieval, Baroque, Georgian, Modern but what I loved most about the buildings was the ornamentation – you see a pattern of heraldic shields, carved from stone, lining the walls, but then, looking closer, you see that some are held by men – each with a different face. Were these old professors? Old students? Old sponsors of the colleges? Some are so worn and crumbling the features are hard to discern, whereas, on some, the features are so clearly defined you feel you would recognise the person if you met them on the street. On one of the colleges, there are a series of large heads sculpted in Grecian style – Gods and nymphs and then, an undeniably African face. Who was this person, who, in a time, when black people were few and far between and not necessarily well respected in England, was important enough to have their face carved onto a college wall?
Walk down a tiny side street and you could easily miss the fawns, curled 'neath a door frame, pointy beards and hoofs, devilish faces screwed up in mischief – and then you remember that of course, this was where Cs. Lewis lived and taught. Were these what inspired Mr Tumnus? Of course you can probably find all the answers to these questions if you paid for a guided tour, but for one thing, we are on a very strict “food and heating” only budget at the moment and, for another, it was lovely just to wander – down winding alleyways between high stone walls, leading to more spires, past gated gardens and graveyards, past blue plaques to show which famous scientists and writers had lived behind these walls.
And then there is the Pitt Rivers museum – which one reaches by walking through the Natural History museum – a wonder in itself but am running out of time. The Pitt Rivers is basically a great basement, into which all the Victorian explorers emptied their trunks, so that there are cases of instruments from the Andes, Africa, China and India; wooden masks from Somalia, feathered headdresses from Papua New Guinea, furred boots and embroidered coats from Greenland; papyrus rolls from Egypt, canoes from the Amazon, skins from Native American tribes. If it hadn't been for the fact that Rupert had a bad back, Lydia and I were sick and Juliette was exhausted, we could have spent the whole day in there – and hopefully will, one day.
Oxford, it turns out, in spite of not being a patch on Cambridge, of course, is a beautiful city and we saw it in all its Spring Splendour, pink and white apple and hawthorn blossom tumbling over ancient stone walls, clumps of golden daffodils littering the parks, gardens bursting with hyacinth and tulips, the ghost flames of the magnolias, all against a clear blue sky. We ended the day, by walking through the park by Corpus Christi College, past Christ Church Meadow – a huge flood plain of tussocky grass by the River Thames, where geese and swans glide, where lovers lie and children fight and squeal. (At least in the Easter holidays.)
Can't wait to go back, but there is so much more to see as well...