Oxford is warm and sunny and full of tourists and quite lovely. Most of the older university buildings are made from a soft yellow stone that my guidebook calls “Bath stone” and it catches the light very nicely. There are gardens everywhere, of course, since this is England. For some reason, Christ Church College has large lavender plantings, which smell wonderful.
We’re staying in Mansfield College, which was established in 1886 to train non-conformist ministers after the law barring anyone who wasn’t a member of the Church of England from studying at Oxford was changed in 1871. That only took 15 years. Now apparently it’s the college for students who aren’t well off. There’s a resident cat who isn’t particularly friendly but doesn’t bite (at least, he hasn’t bitten me yet).
We eat breakfast in a dining room set up in the college chapel, where the stained-glass windows commemorate various philosophers and saints and, oddly, several Popes.
Most of what one does as a tourist is walk around. The first day here was spent strolling to various landmarks in central Oxford: the Carfax Tower, Christ Church, the Old Bodleian Library, the Botanic Garden (where half of the gardens were closed because a large tree had fallen down–there must’ve been a big storm before we got here. Then Christine’s conference started and I decided to get a little more organized. I bought a book of self-guided walking tours and I’ve been following some of them. I’ve walked through the city’s west end, through Oxford Castle (once a prison, now a luxury hotel and restaurants), and past a memorial to three Protestant martyrs (Bishops Latimer and Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were executed by “Bloody” Mary because they helped Henry VIII divorce her mother, Catherine of Aragon). The memorial was intended to remind people of the excesses of a Catholic monarch at a time when popular sentiment was becoming more sympathetic to Roman Catholics. One forgets how important religion was in the past, perhaps as a marker of identity more than anything else. That history helps to put contemporary events into perspective.
I’ve walked past the Oxford University Press, through a neighbourhood called Jericho, and past Keble College. Made of red, yellow, and blue brick, Keble was considered by many to be an architectural monstrosity when it opened in 1870, and became the target of a university society, membership in which depended on producing a brick chiseled out of its walls. Signs of the past are everywhere here, not surprisingly, given the city’s age, but the Keble College story shows how change has been a constant feature of the city and the university.
Today I walked out of the city, through a meadow where locals have been grazing their animals for more than 1,000 years to a village called Binsey. Outside Binsey, in the churchyard of St. Margaret’s Church, there is a Treacle Well that was the inspiration for the Dormouse’s story at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland. The village and much of the land around was and is owned by Christ Church College as part of its endowment, and the father of Alice Liddell (for whom Christ Church math don Charles Dodgson wrote, as Lewis Carroll, both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) was the Dean of Christ Church. The Treacle Well actually gets its name from a story about Oxford’s patron saint, a Saxon princess named Frideswide, who healed the sick while hiding from the King of Mercia, who wanted to marry her. In old English, according to my book, “treacle” means healing, but of course Carroll took the word literally for comic effect. I took a photograph but it’s not very good. Here’s a better one of a garden I passed in Jericho instead.
I ate fish and chips at an upscale pub in Binsey, then carried on walking along the River Thames, through a village called Wolvercote (where paper for the OUP’s books used to be made, as recently as 1998), and then back into the city along the Oxford Canal. The river has geese and swans; the canal ducks and herons (if this is a heron–it waited until after I took its picture before flying away).
My last walk today took me past Balliol College, Trinity College, the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, All Souls College (the only one that doesn’t admit students), Lincoln College, Brasenose College, Jesus College, and Exeter College. It was the afternoon, so most of them we’re open, but I was too tired after walking some 20 kilometres to go inside any of them. maybe I should’ve summoned the energy. Tomorrow, though, is another day.