by Becca Naylor
I recently had the opportunity to travel to England and spend a few days in Oxford. To me, the idea of Oxford has always come with the connotation of academia, history, and literature. I was introduced to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien early in life, and I longed to walk the grounds of Magdalen College in the footsteps of Lewis before sitting down for lunch at the Eagle and Child pub (nicknamed the “Bird and Baby”) where the Inklings met for rousing discussions and a pint or two. Although the version of Oxford in my head was a bit romanticized, my visit to the city did not disappoint.
Oxford’s city center was not as large as I expected. Most everything is in walking distance, making things a lot easier (and cheaper) transportation-wise. The added bonus of walking, besides the exercise, was that I got to see many beautiful bridges, footpaths, and flower beds. On one evening walk, I came upon a series of houseboats on the canal, and while I’d seen these on the show Inspector Lewis, I don’t think I expected to see so many of them. I watched as a businessman carrying a briefcase strode down the path, checked his mailbox, and then hopped onto his boat. I briefly pondered getting a houseboat for myself, but then I realized I simply had too many books for boat to stay afloat. Even though Oxford is very much an industrialized city, natural beauty is still everywhere. Some buildings are sleek and modern, but most of the city looks like it is made of stone older than America. Also, there is almost no litter, and people recycle like their lives depend on it.
A must-stop for any lover of literature is Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad St. (It’s also next to my favorite pub, but more on that later). Founded in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the store began in a space of twelve square feet, but now claims to be one of the largest bookstores in the world. In fact, the store boasts the largest single room devoted to book selling. Shopping in Blackwell’s can be a little overwhelming, but they really do have everything. I have never been in any other bookshop that had Marcel Proust readily available without ordering online. There’s also a display of Penguin’s Little Black Classics with prices ranging from 50p to 90p, which make for great gifts or souvenirs.
Another literary-themed stop for Oxford travelers is the Eagle and Child pub. It was here that the Inklings met for lunch and discussed their uncompleted manuscripts. Beginning in the early 1930s, writers such as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Warren Lewis (Lewis’s older brother), Christopher Tolkien (Tolkien’s son), and others gathered in a back room nicknamed the “Rabbit Room.”
The Inklings held more formal meetings at C. S. Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. Beginning in 1925, Lewis taught English at Magdalen as a Tutorial Fellow until 1954. During his time there, he also wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity.
Any fan of the British television shows Inspector Morse and the spinoff, Inspector Lewis, knows that the Oxford setting is integral to the story line (not to mention the fan-servicing). While in the city, I made a point to visit a few filming locations and breathe the same air as Laurence Fox. The White Horse pub (next to Blackwell’s) is featured in many episodes of Inspector Lewis. Lewis and Hathaway often stop by for lunch or for a pint after solving a particularly difficult case. I must say, out of all the pubs I visited, this one was my favorite. It didn’t hurt that the restaurant was located right beside a bookshop.
The Oxford Botanic Gardens not only has a place in Lewis, but it is also a lovely place to go for a walk if you’re a lover of plants (like myself). Situated across from Magdalen College and beside the canal frequented by punters, the gardens felt to me quintessentially British. Speaking of punting, it’s not as easy as it looks. My mother and I were inspired by the serene-looking characters punting down the canal in the background of what seems like every episode of Lewis. We had to try it for ourselves. Unfortunately, we decided that we could handle it without hiring a professional, even though we had no clue what we were doing. It turned out to be a stressful, rather sweaty affair. At one point we did help a schoolboy retrieve a cricket ball, and he said, “Cheers,” and made it all worth it.
Other places I visited in or around Oxford and absolutely loved include the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford Castle, the Covered Market, and Blenheim Palace. These places hold a place in my nerdy heart for their connections to literature, history, and television. Visiting the Bodleian is the dream of every aspiring librarian. The tower of the Oxford Castle offers the best view of the city. The Radcliffe Camera and the Covered Market are both featured in Inspector Lewis (and the market has great food). Blenheim Palace’s rich history and beautiful grounds is worth the trip to Woodstock.
My trip to Oxford lasted only four short days, but it was enough to make me want to pick up everything and move “across the pond.” While my dreams of dual citizenship aren’t feasible right now, I hope one day they will be. Until then, I will continue to scroll through hundreds of photos and read back through journal entries to relive my visit.