Monday, March 20, 2017

U.K. Visit: Oxford

University of Oxford

Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Jeanette Winterson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Prince Naruhito from Japan, C S Lewis, T E Lawrence, Stephen Hawking, Gandhi, T S Eliot, and a long list of many more influential people, all share something in common: they studied at the University of Oxford.

I'm an avid reader so following the footsteps of some of my literary heroes during my U.K. travels has been really exciting. Just walking the streets around Oxford, surrounded by old stone buildings and narrow alleys, you have the feeling that you could turn a corner and run into one of the greatest writers, leaders, scientists, human beings of recent history.

I only spent a day in Oxford so this will be a brief description, but the beauty of the architecture in and around the university really impressed me. We started off just walking through the university grounds, which were a mix of gardens and tiny paths that cut past warm stone halls and libraries. 

Beautiful gardens on the Oxford campus
So many bicycles!

One of my favorite series of books is His Dark Materials by the writer Phillip Pullman (another famous Oxonian), some of which is set in a fantastic imagining of Oxford. His descriptions of the main character Lyra's adventures around the city were my first encounter with it, and I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the books when I visited. If there are other fans of His Dark Materials reading this, you'll be excited to know that he's starting a new trilogy with more about Lyra in fictional Oxford - more about that here.

One of the more impressive buildings in the area is the Christ Church Cathedral, which is built on the original location of a nunnery established by St Frideswide (there are multiple spellings of this, all of which look like murder to pronounce correctly). St Frideswide, who was both a princess and an abbess, started the nunnery as far back as the 6th century with help from her father, a Mercian King. 

The nunnery was destroyed in 1002 and replaced with a priory, which was eventually taken over first by a Cardinal and then ten years later by King Henry VIII, who renamed it Christ Church. Nowadays its famous for its choir and tourists can pay to walk through it. The inside of the cathedral is really beautiful.

St Frideswide, saying prayers with her buddies the ducks (photo credit)
Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford (photo credit)

We also visited the university's Museum of Natural History. The first hall you enter is an enormous space mostly full of preserved animals from all over the world and skeletons. There's a collection of busts around the room of famous scientists throughout history, so naturally I got a photo of one of my favorites: Darwin.

Looking very chill, Darwin

The next main hall, called the Pitt Rivers Museum, is equally huge but this one is a dimly lit maze of cabinets stuffed full of treasures. It is absolutely packed full of every kind of cultural artifact you can imagine, everything from pottery to armor to shrunken heads. Just like the museums I visited in London, I couldn't help thinking of how so much of it was stolen during the long periods of British colonialism. In particular, one placard next to the skull of a human child read: "taken from the porch of a family's home" (this is paraphrased, forgive the quotation marks.) Pretty unbelievable.

However you feel about it, it is nonetheless amazing to get lost in the seemingly endless rows of cabinets, never quite knowing what you'll find next.

Pitt Rivers Museum, inside the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

One of the infamous shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum (photo credit, Brett Tully via Flickr)

Outside of the university grounds, the main shopping area of Oxford manages to look nearly as charming as the campus, with a lot of pedestrian friendly streets to wander around and plenty of good pubs, restaurants and cafes. We even passed by Tolkien's favorite pub on our way to dinner (I would've loved to go in, but unfortunately we had other plans.)

The rather nondescript pub frequented by Tolkien

I'll finish up with a quote from the poet Yeats: "I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful."

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