Has anyone ever read The Golden Compass? The main character is a ruffian of a little girl named Lyra, who grows up running through the streets of Oxford. As we walked through that city yesterday, I couldn’t help but imagine her leaping between rooftops in those ripped up tomboy clothes… That morning, we took the Tube to Paddington Station, where we caught a train – the one method of public transportation I hadn’t tried yet. I’m a fan of the train, even though I could not keep myself awake on the trip, either going or coming. Busses and trains are apparently like a sleeping drug to me; I sit down, we start moving, and I’m gone. Planes are a different story – I would much rather it be reversed! It was a cool and very windy day… freezing when you caught a breeze whipping around the corner, but almost too hot in the sun.
We went on a guided tour of Oxford’s Bodleian Library when we arrived, and learned of its long history: how it began as 20 books in a tiny room in 1320, how the collection was burned and destroyed in 1550 during the Reformation, the ways it had to expand through the ages due to its eventual status as one of the UK’s five “deposit” libraries. It was an interesting tour, and a beautiful facility. The methods they use to transport the books (conveyor belts in an underground tunnel) reminded me vaguely of the British Library, but on a larger scale. They seem to have kept up with the electronic conversions (online catalogs and book requests, e-journals, etc.) as much as necessary for a university of their size and caliber, but have in many ways retained a very old-fashioned library system.
Apparently in their “secured” floor, they keep four copies of the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, the last message of the Titanic, as well as originals from a whole host of authors like Tolkien, Jane Austen, Keats. Sadly, this was not one of the tours where they showed us all their most precious books! The Bodleian Library now has 9 million items in its collection and is the largest university library in the world. In terms of access, any university student from anywhere in the world is eligible for a Reader’s Card. Members of the public are also permitted to apply for a card, assuming they have a “good” (academic) reason for the request. Women were not permitted into Oxford until 1870, and I got a certain pleasure out of the fact that the current head of the Bodleian, Sarah Thomas, is not only the first woman to hold that position in 400 years, but also an American!
After the library, we were set free into the city to wander and explore. Our first stop was, quite possibly, the most adorable café I have ever entered. It was called the Vaults & Garden Café, just down the road from the library. I may have looked strange, taking pictures of all the details, but I couldn’t help but think that my mom would love this place.
After a delicious (and nutritious!) lunch, we made our way over to Christ Church College. This building is massive, and visitors were only permitted to follow a very narrow route… nevertheless, it was a really impressive and beautiful space. My favorite part was the garden, which was extensive, colorful, and the paths were lined with lavender.
We explored the Chapel, full of immense stained glass windows, and then circled around to see McKenna Hall. This room was used as the Dining Hall in the first two Harry Potter movies. In fact, a number of the locations we saw in Oxford had been used as film locations: the stacks in the Bodleian Library were shot as the “restricted section” in the first movie (couldn’t take a picture of those, however), and the entry hall to the same library has been used as the hospital in most of the movies. Apparently, a great many interiors (hallways, rooms, etc) from Christ Church College were used in conjunction with other old beautiful buildings to create Hogwarts.
To go back a little further with the literary connections of the area, Lewis Carroll used to teach mathematics at Christ Church, and was in fact, very close friends with the Dean of the College at that time, Henry Liddell, and his family. One of his young daughters, Alice Liddell, is said to have been the inspiration for the famed Alice in Wonderland. Across the street is the little sweet shop she used to frequent – called the Old Sheep Shop in the book, due to the fact that Alice thought the shopkeeper’s voice sounded like that of a sheep. Now, that shop sells Alice paraphernalia, but it’s definitely cool to see these connections between real life and the world of literature first hand. One can easily imagine little Alice running out from the Christ Church College gardens and skipping across the street to buy candy.
Another train ride, and we were back in the dorm. I did some laundry and then went out to a couple of pubs with a few girls from my program. We had a lot of fun, and I ended up sitting on the south bank of the Thames late at night, with two friends and a bottle of Parisian wine, looking at the lights reflecting in the water, and wondering at how I got so lucky to be here in this amazing city.