Postcards from History, Mystery & Magic No. 1:
No matter the weather, Oxford is golden. The stones are a honeyed hue that is truer than every movie, book, and dream will tell you. The smoke and fumes of memories and stories whisper and sigh from the cobblestones here. Look over there, that’s where Lewis Caroll started writing Alice in Wonderland. That building is the dining hall in Harry Potter. And over there, is where Tolkien got his hair cut, and CS Lewis bought his sandwiches (not really, but you get the picture). I am covered in pinch-marks.
We explored the cavernous treasure chest that is the Blackwells Oxford bookstore, and then ducked into the Bodleian Library where I double-clutched my heart as I had my first sucker-punch. There in glass cases: Tolkien’s hand-illustration dust jacket of the Hobbit, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley’s journals.
And, then, the Shelley relics. On the top right, a miniature of Mary Shelley. “The posthumous miniature of Mary was ultimately based upon a death-mask. This, and a miniature of Percy Bysshe Shelley were displayed alongside other precious family relics in the room which Lady Shelley called her ‘sanctum’.
On the lower left, a watch owned by P.B.S. “Attached to the gold chain of the watch are five seals: a bloodstone with the Shelley arms of three shells; an oval onyx with a ‘Judgement of Paris’ (often used by Shelly and Mary for their correspondence); a rectangular amethyst with ‘Mary Shelley’ in reversed gothic letters; a bloodstone engraved with perhaps a winged horn or shell; and an oval cornelian marked ‘LATHAM’.
On the lower right, my favourite thing of all. A nineteenth century bivalve locket. “This locket contains a lock of Mary’s hair from 1816, and of Shelley’s from 1822, the last year of his life. Mary habitually collected locks of hair belonging to family and friends, keeping them in named and dated packets. Inscribed on the outside of the locket is a line (‘Blessed the eyes that saw him alive’) adapted from Petrarch’s Canzoniere, no. 309.”
Later on our wanders, we stumbled across this. It is popularly called Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs after its namesake in Venice. I was thunderstruck. I’ve wanted to see the Bridge of Sighs in Venice for years, and am still yet to. The folklore surrounding the Venetian original says that the view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge name, given by Lord Byron as a translation from the Italian “Ponte dei sospiri” in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. I stood here and sighed. Deeply, with a sense of wonder and gratitude.
I was filled with wonderment and in a daze, but was pretty composed until we walked down St. Mary’s Passage. There we stood at the door said to have inspired Narnia: there is Mr Tumnus, there is Aslan, and out of frame on the right is the lamppost. I got a physical pain in my chest, just above my heart. It didn’t abate for the rest of the day.
My heart snagged on every one of Oxford’s dreaming spires.
We indulged in afternoon tea to rest our hearts and feet at a rooftop tearoom looking over the skyline to the velveteen hills.
Just before we went home, this discovery. Behind an unassuming street front in Oxford sits the Eagle and Child pub. It’s well known for its ale. It’s also where a circle of writers met up every Tuesday morning from 1939-1962 to have a beer and chat about their writing, amongst other things. These men, locally known as the Inklings, nicknamed the pub The Bird and Baby, and sat in this nook at two little tables that face the bar. 50 years later, sitting here in the whispers and memories of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their mates, I was completely overwhelmed. This is the spot where the stories that changed us, in childhood and adulthood, came into being. I swallowed the lump in my throat, channelled my best Pippin and ordered a pint. When it came, I raised my glass for us all. To The Shire, and Narnia. Long may we have their kind of magic in our hearts.
We left Oxford in a fog of literary dreams. It is the city where dreams have bled into ink.
After a short drive into the gorgeous, ornate village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, we got settled into our hotel, told each other some stories, drank some good wine, had some good hugs and said goodbye to our first day. I dunked myself in a hot bath, made a cup of tea and watched the stars come out through my window in the rooftops. I can’t really be blamed for not feeling my feet on the ground.
Tomorrow, our first workshop, and an exploration of the Cotswolds, including stone circles.
Until tomorrow, creative wildflowers.