Visiting Oxford, and/or Other Places

a side-walk-footpath of a road in Oxford

I know I should be frantically freaking out at the moment, what with writing up coming to a frenzied conclusion, but by way of taking another “break,” it is high time that I toss up another post, to keep my mind from sputtering to a halt … .

A couple of weekends ago, I managed to get over to the Other Place, as we call it in Cambridge. I went by bus, and stowed by bike in its belly, as it were, for the longish trip (it is much closer to the west of England than Cambridge).

Now, I’d be warned about this particular bus trip.

“It’s rather a long one,” my English friends told me. “And there’s something on the order of 70 roundabouts along the way.” I wasn’t sure why it’d take so long, or why roundabouts in such numbers were such a bad thing. After all, back in the day, there had been a direct train that must have been delightfully convenient, and so how bad could a bus be? And crossing through roundabouts on one’s bike, while thrilling, certainly wasn’t arduous. I had yet again underestimated British understatement.

As Lewis says, the universe rings true whenever you fairly test it, and so I had to experience this journey for myself. It felt more like 70,000 roundabouts, each one plastering me to the window as I attempted to read (speaking of Lewis) Surprised by Joy (and quite a good read it is, if somewhat intense and convicting). ‘Surprised by Roundabouts,’ was more like it. Slightly dizzy, several hours later, however, I eventually hopped off the bus with my bike and found I was in a bustling city full of history, bigger than Cambridge, and even a tad older and majestic, i.e. in Oxford.

My first stop was a pub.

the pub of humility

Not because I had to get my pint or perish, per se, but because I am a nerd, or a geek, or perhaps both. My visit was to be a sort of Protestant pilgrimage (though, actually, perhaps, a merely Christian one) to see and be immersed in all things Lewis for a day. The pub in question being the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and the Baby”), where the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s informal writing group, had once met around lunchtime on Mondays or Tuesdays (they also met in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College on Thursday evenings) for nearly 30 years, from about 1933 through to the start of the 1960s, to read and discuss their various writings projects. Tolkien reflected on their name, as “a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with vague or half-informed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” Other Inklings included such towering twentieth-century literary figures as Charles Williams, Hugo Dyson, Owen Barfield and such “honorary” members (though there were hardly any rules) as Dorothy L. Sayers W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (the latter three more indirectly associated).

For a wannabe’ historian, and under-informed and somewhat under-read Inkling fan (not to mention an American abroad, and thus prone to silly sentimentalizing), to be in the very same “Rabbit Room” that people I had long read and admired and hope to read and admire for a long time to come, was … strangely surreal.

And so I ordered a club sandwich.  Munching away, with an odd mix of pop music playing in the background, I felt a keen sort of pride, as I sipped on my lemonade (hey, it was a hot day, though by “lemonade” they really mean what we might call lemon-lime soda back home). Every few moments, an (American) tourist would stop and take a photo of the mantle, which had a signed note of thanks and health-wishing from the Inklings to the former owners of the pub.

“Is that where …?” and then a “Yes, dear, that’s where they met…” “… that’s SO cool,” would be followed by the click and whir of a digital camera.

My immediate seat-mates were British, a young couple with their in-laws, and I overheard them asking who the fifth most famous-est Inkling could be (rather like the fifth Beetle).

Very smugly, I must confess, and feeling like no mere tourist, I turned and declared, “you must be referring to Hugo Dyson,” to which unsolicited counsel my mess-mates were suitably impressed and thanked me.

They asked me where I was from, clearly coming across as a Man of the World (a very bad sort of man to be). “Cambridge,” I whispered, for even in my pride I knew that I was among rivals, who we had just trounced in the annual rowing regatta between the two universities.

“A spy?!” they whispered back, in a bit of wry teasing.

“Well, in a way,” managed to mutter back. As it turns out, the young fellow (who appeared to be the son-in-law of the older couple) had a very distant ancestor (though not so very distant for them) who had been a printer in eighteenth-century London, one of the sorts of figures I ostensibly study.

could I be? why yes, I am, a cheesy American

Anyway, I finished my lunch and marched outside (after getting the obligatory photograph, and saying a serene ‘fare-thee-well’ to my new British acquaintances), squinting in the sunlight. I came up to my bike, and to my great and utterly enforced humility, found I couldn’t quite find my bike lock’s key.

So there I was, my bicycle securely locked to a post, in Oxford, outside of Lewis’ pub, in the sun. I feared I’d have to leave “Everest” (my bike’s provisional name) behind forever, and then explain to Werner, the generous friend who had given me the bike in the first place, why, exactly, I had had to abandon it.

Saying a quick prayer, in a bit of desperation, I stuck my pen cap in the lock, hoping against hope that it would somehow cause the pins to release and thus free my bike.

“Pop!” and off it came. Now, I wasn’t sure if was more relieved that such a desperate trick actually worked, or if I was grateful that God was merciful to his smuggish servant,  or if my bike lock was about as secure as some pirate refuge in the Caribbean.

As it was, and as usual, I was late.

I had scheduled a tour of the Kilns, Lewis’ home (so named because there was once a working brick kiln nearby) for 2 o’clock. It was about 10 ’til 2 by the time I got my bike lock off, and before I managed to peel away into the Saturday milieu that was Oxford. I pedaled out of town confidently, assured that I knew where I was going.

I didn’t. Not a bit, as it turns out. I got very lost. Nearly two hours later, and after consulting a gardener (a smiling Dave, who said he liked Americans so much that he had married one, and was married still) and a burly bartender for directions, I was still hopelessly turned around, circling a pleasant suburb over and over again. If they could remake Groundhog Day and set it in a single afternoon in England, that would have drawn a similar sense of wondering ennui.

Along my turned-around way, I got shouted at by a gaggle of English school girls. “Don’t go that way!” they ordered, “Get off your bike now!” (I was going down a one-way road).  A bit peeved, and sun-addled, and grumpy, I shouted back, “thank you!” but obeyed As it turned out, moments later, a car passed by. Chagrined, I was even more chagrined to find myself standing over Lewis’ grave moments later, having found even that more or less by accident (thinking by now that my entire day might be a sort of living lesson in humility).

Resolving to give my quest one final try, however, I consulted my second bartender of the day (having by now realized that I had no idea where I was, my maps being hopelessly vague, and having also realized that I had failed to put in a destination address before printing off my original directions): “how do you get to CS Lewis’ house?” I asked, plaintively, having given up all pretense of being anything other than what I was, a lost American, with a tie, beard, and a book bag, all bedraggled.

Lewis’ house was just across the byway.

yep, that's where our man Jack once lived

Ugh. Thoroughly humbled, I finally made it, and had a very pleasant tour of his home and the grounds. Yes, he was a real person, and yes, he really lived there, and yes, I am a dweeb. But that’s OK. I even made it back into town with enough time for evensong at Magdalen, a brief skip down Addison’s Walk (where Tolkien and Dyson helped explain to Lewis, one August night in 1931, how myth and legend supported the Christian story of Christ as a real man in history).

I even managed to squeeze in a quick dash past the Bodleian Library before regaining the bus for the Roundabout Return Rattle, and the trip back to my little Pigeon Hole of a room at Wolfson. Having been nearly run over, turned around until I was sweaty and exasperated, and repeatedly put in my place by Providence, I can safely say (in retrospect), that I had experienced a series of marked inconveniences, I hope, however, now rightly considered, i.e. as an Adventure. It is hard to believe that the end of my beginning in grad school is just a couple of weeks away, and that I am nearly home again.

But I will miss England, and its people, and I pray that such (mis)adventures will have tempered me, in spite of myself, when and whilst looking back on this time away.

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