Our days begin with walking Riley to school, and then we turn and head towards the City Centre and a new adventure. On Wednesday we visited Christ Church College--one of the oldest and most beautiful of all the Oxford colleges, of which there are many. The thing about Oxford is that there's no campus for Oxford University--the city is the campus and scattered throughout its streets are dozens of colleges encompassing whole worlds of wonder behind their exclusive stone walls. You want to talk about feeling left out? It's enough to drive you crazy wandering around the city, peeking through fences and doorways at magnificent chapels and libraries, quads and cloisters at which you gaze longingly but of which you cannot be a part. Thank goodness for visiting hours, when--for the price of a few pounds--the colleges allow you into these mysterious old grounds and buildings for a glimpse of the academic and spiritual life that has been going on here for almost 800 years.
Christ Church College is simply breathtaking. We got to visit the staircase that they used as the entrance to the Great Hall in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Alas, the hall there, which was used as the model for the movie set's version of the Great Hall, was closed for construction. That was more than a bit upsetting! But we did get to take a free tour of the Christ Church Cathedral. Our guide, after finding out our state of origin, kept referring to us as 'The Californians' and calling the US 'your place'. I could barely contain a smile at hearing the whole massive space of the United States of America referred to so inconsequentially as 'your place'. You know, just our little country.
It always amazes me how so much time and effort can be put into planning a trip, and then, inevitably, moments that you never could've planned just come along and sweep you off your feet. I think one of the most important aspects of traveling is making yourself available for a moment like that to arise. When I was planning our trip, I looked into visiting the Cotswolds but wasn't sure how to make it work, so I just let it go. And then a friend of a friend offered to take us for an afternoon in the country and the Cotswolds--so we found ourselves in a wood full of bluebells, straight out of a fairytale, and then driving past fields of the brightest golden rapeseed, and then wandering around the little town of Burford, complete with medieval stone houses and low-ceilinged pubs.
One of the nice things about spending such a long time here is that we've gotten to experience Oxford slowly, discovering new parts and pockets of it in our daily walks. Thursday morning we saw the Divinity School, the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theater, and the Bridge of Sighs. My absolute favorite was the Divinity School, a single, soaring room in which Oxford students used to attend lectures and take oral exams. It is probably the most beautiful room that I've ever been inside of in my entire life. I've been thinking a lot about the way space effects us, and I'm sure that learning and discussing in a room like that would significantly contribute to the quality of the education. I could live in that one room quite happily for the rest of my life.
On Friday morning we had an appointment to peek in at the Duke Humphries Library--no pictures allowed. Then we were free to roam Oxford for hours, and this is really the fun part: just wandering around, walking down whatever street or alley looks interesting, learning the feel of the place from your own two feet, and ducking into pubs or cafes whenever it starts to rain to enjoy a pint or a cup of tea. We saw the door and the lamppost which supposedly inspired Lewis's Narnia, and we spent a happy couple of hours walking around Christ Church meadow, admiring the little goslings and their parents, looking for birds, walking along the river, and picking dandelions--all with a view of Oxford's dreaming spires. My stuffy nose and the terrible exchange rate were perhaps the only two things reminding me that perfection doesn't actually exist on this side of heaven.
We spent that afternoon inside the hallowed walls of Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis lived and taught for many years. What a place. I think for the rest of my life I'll be able to close my eyes and remember the peace and beauty of the grounds and buildings there...the grey chapel filled with organ music, the silent medieval cloisters, the low arched doorways, the hall full of windows and intricately carved wood, the trees and meadows along the River Cherwell. It's a place of beauty at which we got to have just a glimpse, but the overwhelming feeling I walked away with was gladness and thankfulness that such a place exists in the world. You know how you have friends that you think of and you just feel better knowing they're alive in the world? There are places whose very existence gives comfort, and Magdalen College is one of them.
One of my happiest moments was walking home after spending a morning at Oxford's National History Museum, and coming across a group of students playing Quidditch in University Park. AHHHHH!!!! What happiness is mine! We had a long, lovely, muddy walk home along the river, through huge green meadows overflowing with fat dandelions and little yellow wildflowers. When the sun does come out here it is so cheerful and warm and makes you feel utterly buoyant. We saw three huge deer just bounding through a meadow in the broad daylight!
Saturday evening we attended Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral. We sang Be Thou My Vision by candlelight with the sun's evening rays pouring through the stained glass windows in a church that was built in the 1100's. I couldn't stop touching the wood and the stone, soaking up the feeling of being a part of something so much bigger than myself.
Saturday night we did a mini-version of a pub crawl, ending the evening by sharing a pint at The Eagle & Child and toasting to "Lewis, and Tolkien, and the Inklings, and Narnia, and Middle Earth, and all that is good and true and beautiful in the world."