When I took off in late October to join my husband, a law professor on sabbatical in Oxford, I thought I knew what to expect, thanks to all the books and movies that have been set in this ridiculously pretty, medieval town in south central England.
Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” — the 1945 novel that grapples with the allure of aristocracy and privilege — had prepared me for the sight of elegant undergrads romping about, perhaps carrying bottles of Champagne, on the vast green meadows of Christ Church college.
Colin Dexter’s “Inspector Morse” series (both the books and the television show) had warned me about the dangers of tripping over dead bodies
. And that very last bit of the recent film “An Education” prepared me for flocks of students riding bicycles on their way to conquer DNA analysis on the one hand and the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism on the other.
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Oxford has in fact inspired innumerable literary and cinematic works, and it’s easy to see why: The place is a many-layered confection of history, aspiration, ambition, class, elegance, yearning, wealth, trade and all-things-poetic, including poetry-spouting students and bona fide poets (among them, Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden and John Betjeman). But it’s also a working city filled with people who have nothing to do with lofty language — though the vision of the 19th-century poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold is, in fact, ubiquitous: “And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty’s heightening …”
Perhaps the best way to get a handle on the whole megillah is atop the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, with its 14th-century spire, right smack dab in the middle of the action, on High Street at Radcliffe Square. From here you can take it all in: the town’s location in the Thames Valley, the silky silver river itself (also locally called the Isis, especially in regard to rowing), the site of the original “oxen ford” at Folly Bridge, the rail lines, the gardens and meadows, the canals and, of course, the 38 separate colleges, with their quadrangles, porter’s lodges, towers and glowing facades, that together make up the University of Oxford.
To the village
It may not be an obvious place to start, but I began my own meandering exploration of all-things-Oxford in Iffley Village, once a separate entity but now within the city limits. I wanted to get a sense of what Oxford may have been like before it became synonymous with the University of Oxford, and Iffley — with its typically English mix of thatched-roof and half-timbered houses with names like Grist Cottage and the Malt House, centuries-old stone walls, winding lanes, fields, geese and late-Victorian terrace houses — does just that.
If it’s just post-Norman Conquest you’re after, St. Mary the Virgin is in itself worth the field trip to Iffley. Sitting amid an ancient graveyard, the church is very much in use, its pews full on Sunday mornings. With its list of “incumbents” dating all the way back to Oliver of 1170, its original square stone font, its soaring roof held up by locally quarried stone, St. Mary the Virgin is the kind of place that stuns you into reverent silence.
And then there are the glories of Oxford central, the place of walled gardens and walled-off colleges, medieval lanes, ancient churches, glorious vistas, music, museums, libraries and lecture halls. The Botanic Garden alone, the oldest in the country, could absorb an entire day, and even in November intoxicated me with its grasses, dahlias, salvias, English yews and something called “purple bush.”
Riches? Oxford has them, starting with the Ashmolean Museum. This is what I like about it: 1. It’s free. 2. You can leave your stuff in a locker downstairs for 1 pound, but you get your money back when you return the key. 3. The museum is neither small nor large, so you don’t get a museum hangover. 4. The collection.
And what a collection, from the silver and gold dinnerware that Corpus Christi College hid from Cromwell, to contemporary art and the pre-Raphaelites. It’s enough to make you just stand there, blinking, trying to decide where to start.
From the Ashmolean, it’s just a few steps to everything else you may want to see in Oxford, including Blackwell’s, at 51 Broad St., perhaps England’s most famous bookstore, with its gazillions of books (new as well as secondhand). From there, it’s your proverbial hop, skip and jump to the Bodleian Library, which isn’t anything at all like the library at the college I went to. It was in the Bodleian’s original core, completed in 1488, that the first university classroom appeared independent of monastic organization. Here, divinity students were asked questions like: “How many angels live in Heaven?” under the lierne vaulted ceiling adorned with more than 400 sculptured figures.
So what and where is the real Oxford? For me, a more pressing question was: If there are ghosts of Sebastian Flyte and his teddy bear, Aloysius, to be found, where would they be?
And so it was with Sebastian, the charming, rich and frequently drunk protagonist of “Brideshead Revisited,” in mind that, on my last day in Oxford, I romped, as Sebastian might have with his best friend, Charles Ryder, around Christ Church Meadow under a gray December sky. To my right, cows grazed; behind me, bicyclists wove in and out of traffic on busy St. Aldate’s; and on the tantalizing far side of the walls, the college, with its spires, towers, gates and Cathedral, glowed in the pale afternoon light.