Oxford is stone, brown, beige, wide open. Quiet, clean. Bursting with stories. My last short trip exploring before being uprooted from this country.
The Friday that we finally made the two hour drive from Cambridge to Oxford was grey and cold, the kind of day where it might rain any second, yet later feels warm in the sun. It was the first day of clearly fall.
We arrived in the city around noon and parked in a car park just outside of the center and walked in along bits of the river and down empty residential streets. Everything, quiet in this space suspended between tourist season and term time.
First, lunch at the Eagle and the Child, the pub where CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, and the rest of the Inklings Society of writers gathered every week to read their latest work. Even the pub, quiet. A white door in the back that said “Narnia.” I had a pie and a pint of cider, fully leaning into England. From the pub, a visit to the Natural History Museum, briefly, so that we could pop into the Pitt Rivers Museum and look for the “skulls with holes in them” featured in the His Dark Materials (HDM) series. The book series is actually a big part of why I wanted to visit Oxford at all, so much of the itinerary for the day was designed around book sites (there is an official Lyra’s Oxford tour, but it wasn’t operating on the day we were there). We loved both museums, easily could have passed the entire afternoon inside if we didn’t have other places we wanted to see in town.
Finally, we made our way to Oxford center proper; it really struck me just how wide the streets are here, how grand and unapproachable and smooth all the buildings seem. We saw several groups of American tourists, but no Chinese groups, as is more common in Cambridge – just one of many similar, but different details that gave the entire city the vibe of a parallel universe. We walked outside the Bodleian Library (another HDM reference and a general Oxford icon), but didn’t go inside. Also on our DIY HDM tour: walked by Exeter College, where author Philip Pullman was once a student and on which the fictional Jordan College featured in the books is based and wandered through the covered market, where I found (and stopped for a cupcake snack at) the cutest little cake store. Not HDM-related, but also of literary significance, we walked through St. Mary’s Passage, a tiny street said to have inspired C.S. Lewis in the creation of some of the details of The Chronicles of Narnia. All of this felt extra surreal given the general emptiness of the streets in early September. An odd Friday fairytale, us alone in this grand place.
The thing that I wanted to do most of all, more than anything else, in Oxford was to visit the Botanic Garden and sit on the bench described by Pullman at the end of HDM, the bench where Will and Lyra promise to sit, each in their own separate universes, every day on Midsummer’s Day as long as they live. So that is where we walked next, away from the center and out to the edge of town. It was beautiful inside of the garden. Fountains, glass houses, apple trees, carnivorous plants, all within and divided by high stone walls, river running along the edges, punters passing. And there, in the back of the garden, we found the unmarked bench. If it weren’t for the subtle daemon statue behind it (characters from the book), I would not have even been sure it was the right space. With no signage, no one could possibly know what it is unless they specifically come looking for it, giving the place an extra special air of magic, a world-within-a-world. A quiet, private space in the middle of somewhere else. I sat here on the bench, with my book, the book that had contained it all for me up until this very point.
It started to rain, first lightly, then it picked up, forcing us to retreat to the glass houses, where we lost track of time exploring rooms of lily pads and pitcher plants. By the time we exited, the rain had stopped. We walked back into town. The sun had come out, and suddenly, I was hot in my sweater.
We briefly popped into the local bookstore, an Oxford institution in which I also could have spent an entire day, if it weren’t for the fact that it was now after 5:30 pm and time to begin the journey home. And so, we walked along the wide center streets, through the tiny neighborhood streets, back over the river offshoots, back to the outskirts of town, back to the car park.
And then we drove away from Oxford for our own whole universe to the east, Cambridge.
When: September 2019
How long: ½ day
Via: Drove our car from Cambridge, about 2 hours
Did – A DIY-version of this Lyra’s Oxford tour (there weren’t any scheduled the day we visited): Natural History Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Covered Market, the Botanic Garden; also, Blackwell’s bookstore.