I remember when Megan first found pictures of Christ Church Meadow in Oxford, with exclamations of, “We have to go there!” I think I wove those images into my expectations of Oxford as a whole, which I imagined as a fairytale paradise of academia and antiquity, especially knowing the ghosts of several of my very favorite writers would, for me, be wandering every street.
I was still recovering from the deep disappointment of missing our tour of The Kilns, so I initially stepped off the train a little out of sorts, but I could quickly tell that this day was going to redeem itself. Even considering my dreamy ideal picture of Oxford, the reality surpassed my crazy expectations. I don’t know how anyone could wander the streets of the City of Dreaming Spires and not fall in love, at least a little bit.
My major moment of serendipity in planning this trip was discovering that a guided C.S. Lewis / J.R.R. Tolkien walking tour — which is only offered six or so times per year — was happening on the precise day that we had decided to visit Oxford. What a treat!
Before the walking tour, we made our way down St. Aldate’s to Broad Walk and the entrance to Christ Church Meadow, searching for a spot to eat lunch. We meandered down Poplar Walk until we found an area less crowded with lunching tourists, and made for a spot with some obliging tree trunks to serve as seats. I remember Austin saying, “You literally cannot get any greener than this!” — and he was absolutely right. Sunlight dappled through the leaves of trees, making the meadow look even more brilliantly green than it would on a grey day. Megan flopped down on the grass under a weeping willow tree and took a video, which sums up why I simply don’t have the words to describe this idyllic place.
After enjoying our picnic in Christ Church Meadow, we made our way back to the starting point of our walking tour; our tour guide arrived shortly and introduced himself as Alistair. I still cannot believe how absolutely perfect he was — an Oxford don himself, tall and wiry, old enough to have thinning grey hair and hearing aids but still with an abundance of enthusiasm for his city. He wore a suit jacket over slacks and a blue polo shirt, and glasses that hung from a chain around his neck.
For the next 2 hours, we followed Alistair all over Oxford, our little tour group trailing behind his brisk walk like so many ducklings. Sometimes walking tour guides think they’re the cat’s meow when really they’re unbearably dull, but Alistair was a wealth of information and a quick wit, and we loved him. His affection for Tolkien and Lewis and the rest of the Inklings became evident, and I was enthralled listening to someone with such vast knowledge, who had obviously studied my literary idols in great depth. I wanted to listen well and think deeply and ask intelligent questions, but mostly I could only manage a silly grin of sheer delight and try to drink it all in.
We milled through the busy streets of Oxford, inside beautiful Exeter College (Tolkien’s college), and paused outside the Eagle & Child pub, favorite haunt of the Inklings, a group of writers (notable members included Lewis, Tolkien, and also Charles Williams) who would meet weekly to read and discuss their work. I spotted the “bird & baby” (a nickname coined by the Inklings) sign from a distance and started squealing to Megan, “I see it! I see it!!!”
I cannot even describe the giddy delight I felt standing in the famous Rabbit Room, where Lewis and Tolkien and the rest would meet. I could have sat in that room for hours and just observed every detail. We later went back after the tour and ate at Eagle & Child, which thrilled me almost more than I could bear.
One final highlight before we headed back to London was to see a wonderful exhibition at the Weston Library, formerly the New Bodleian Library, where we got to see, among other breathtaking displays, Tolkien’s original dustjacket design for The Hobbit, complete with his handwritten notes to the publisher in the margins. I must have grinned for 5 full minutes after we came out of the exhibition room.
In short, Oxford was pure magic. Our brief day evaporated all too quickly, and I wanted to stay for a week instead of a day, but thanks to the walking tour, we hit an impressive number of highlights for one day. I still dream of the change to live and study in Oxford one day — a chance I would absolutely jump at!
Have you visited Oxford? What sites did you enjoy?!