Once upon a time I went to Oxford, England.
As I walked from the bus toward my lodgings, I wondered, “Where’s the university?”
Answer: all around me.
Oxford University is really a series of 38 colleges within a 17.6 square mile radius. All of them are independently run and offer a variety of subjects to study. Each college is quite exclusive and requires excellent grades and a strong work ethic. About 18,000 hopefuls apply to Oxford every single year and only 3,000 students are accepted.
I walked until I noticed a particularly interesting alleyway. I admired this doorway, but I didn’t understand its significance until the next day. If you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia, you will understand. Look closely:
C.S. Lewis attended and taught at Oxford. My tour guide later told me that he used to visit people that lived in a flat beyond this door. And here’s a lone lamp post just beyond the door.
We’ve entered Narnia, folks.
It was a suitable beginning to my Oxford exploration. Those who know me well understand that I am a great admirer of C.S. Lewis.
Just past and to the right of the lamp post is the entrance to the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, complete with steps climbing up to a bell tower.
There is an enclave there with a style that is not unusual in Anglican and Catholic churches, but it’s usually there for choir stands and a place for the priest to preach his sermon. The enclave here had been turned into a place of prayer. Visitors are able to light a candle and sit on one of the benches along the wall. There are cushions and railings in front of the benches to allow for comfortable, contemplative kneeling. I am not a member of the Anglican faith, and I disagree with many of its teachings, but I did feel a sense of holiness there. I lit a candle and I sat on one of the benches for a half hour or so to meditate and pray. I had the privilege of being the only person in that area of the church.
Just across from St. Mary’s is the famous Radcliffe Camera.
This building was designed to house the Radcliffe Science Library. No one is allowed inside unless they have exclusive permission. It was named after John Radcliffe, who was a member of Parliament in the 1400s that donated quite a bit of money to Oxford upon his death. Yes, the building is that old. The oldest building still standing in Oxford is Saxon Tower, which was built around 1040 A.D. That’s over 700 years before the United States was even founded.
Not far down the same street is the entrance to the famous Divinity School and Bodleian Library. Here my dreams of visiting a dusty Oxford library came to fruition. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed so I cannot show you pictures of that library, but I can at least tell you about it.
The books in the Bodleian are mostly from the 17th century. They can only be touched by those with special permission. They used to be connected to the walls by chains to ensure that they would not leave the library. Nowadays the Bodleian is part of a network of twelve million books, most of which are stored in a warehouse in Swindon. A van travels between Oxford and Swindon every day bringing book requests to those which are so blessed as to have access to what is the second largest network of libraries in England.
For all you Harry Potter fans, both the Divinity School and the Bodleian were used in scenes in Hogwarts, depicting the infirmary and the Hogwarts Library. Christ Church Hall, where I ate breakfast, was used as inspiration for the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Here are pictures of Christ Church Hall, my breakfast (For the foodies), and the Divinity School, respectively.
The Divinity School was a place of theological debate, and for a time it was considered to be the most important place in Oxford. Oxford is historically an extremely religious school. In fact, before 1870, its students and faculty had to be members of the Church of England to attend. That’s why there are churches everywhere. Nowadays, however, it’s become rather secular.
The Weston Library, not far from the Bodleian, had some lovely treasures on display. First of all, there was a Jane Austen exhibit, filled with her old letters, first editions of her books, and various other pieces of memorabilia. For me, this was one of those tender mercies – those moments where you just know God is thinking of you. I love Jane Austen. Again, no pictures were allowed.
But in the next room, I could take pictures of these:
The Magna Carta
A first edition Shakespeare folio
The book in which Handel composed The Messiah, complete with some mistakes he scribbled out as he hurriedly composed an entire symphony in 24 days:
And the original handwritten version of Hindu scripture. This was actually the most expensive item in the room:
I also had the privilege of visiting the Eagle and the Child, a local pub where a group called the Inklings met weekly to discuss their plans.
Here in the Rabbit Room, C.S. Lewis met with J.R.R. Tolkien and others to develop the ideas that led to the creation of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and many of his non-fiction apologist works. Here Tolkien developed themes that led to his mythological creation of Middle Earth. A whole genre was created here. Before this, fantasy was just fairy tales.
I had a delicious mac and cheese.
I visited several sites connected to C.S. Lewis, such as the Eastgate Hotel, where “Jack” (Lewis’s nickname) first met his wife Joy.
Jack married Joy so she could get a green card, but they ended up falling in love. I even found a copy of their marriage certificate in an office which used to be the city hall and is now a Quaker Meeting House:
Here’s a lovely garden where Lewis may have walked. The Quakers take great care of it:
I stopped for a bit to have citrus ginger herbal tea at the Randolph Hotel, where Tolkien and Lewis sometimes entertained their guests. Here’s a picture of what tea at the Randolph really looks like:
Here’s the door and the inside of the University College, where Lewis studied English, Latin, Greek, Philosophy, and History:
And Magdalen College, where Lewis became a fellow:
By the time I reached Magdalene, most of the Oxford sites had closed for the day, and it was close to the time my bus left for home.
Shortly before this trip and shortly thereafter, I was working through some pretty tumultuous emotions. This experience was a kind of refuge from those emotions. It expanded my perspective of the world, but in a very different way than my trip to Scotland the week before. It was like a lighthouse in a storm – enlightening and secure.
Whether I get my happy ever after remains to be seen, but I’m grateful for the joy along the way.