24 Hrs to Find Lewis in Oxford
I read C.S. Lewis' novel, The Screwtape Letters, my Sophomore year in college. A story about a young demon whose task is to sway a human away from God, his uncle, Screwtape, sends him these letters to provide guidance and critique. It's a clever writing method; Screwtape's hateful comments against God create an initial impression that God and the Christian faith is wrong and disillusioned, but Lewis subtly tells lessons of truth, hidden in the opposite.
I digress already, but my point is I am a big C.S. Lewis fan. I've read the Chronicles of Narnia and I have many of his other works to read.
I have always admired his life of faith and service, so on my return to England I made it a point to visit the city he called home, and received the greatest education from a slightly unexpected place. My Airbnb.
Roughly 20 minutes out of the city center lives the most awesome woman by the name of Louise. I found her home on the site and thought I'd try a different kind of accommodation since I usually stay in hostels on my travels.
She was so kind and flexible, I ran behind on my estimated schedule, having delayed too long at my previous destination (more on that to come). She greeted me in the pitch black of 11 pm with a cup of tea and we fell easily into conversation about travel, living in Oxford and...you guessed it...Lewis.
She knew much about his life and as we connected on the subject of faith she offered to drive me to some of the key places of his life. I was, and still am, grateful to her for taking the time. It was brilliant.
So July 16th, the one full day I had in Oxford, was devoted to discovering Lewis. Not entirely, there were quite a few non-C.S. Lewis activities that I engaged in, but I was excited to steep myself in history, both into Lewis' world and the humble grandeur of Oxford.
9:46 am the kilns & holy trinity headington quarry
C.S. Lewis' legacy is very prevalent throughout the city and from my first impression, alive and well. His home is currently used as student housing and for seminars, his church still has an active congregation, and the places he worked, walked, studied, and prayed are all used by residents and visitors alike.
Louise drove me first to his home, known as the Kilns, which is a beautiful brick cottage with a pitched shingle roof. I loved the growing ivy, the white dormer windows peaking from the roof line, and the clean hedges bordered by saturated flowers. A mixture of structure and chaos that I imagine C.S. Lewis would appreciate. You can visit the house on a guided tour, but as it is still a private home, hours are subject to change. Since our visit was impromptu and not wanting to take up too much of Louise's time, we just admired it from afar.
His church pays a kind homage to him as well, which he attended from the 30's on. A plaque marking the seat he always sat in on Sundays and a beautiful stained glass window depicting key characters from the Narnia Chronicles are often visited. It was beautiful. July 16th was a Sunday so we went as the church service was starting. They were really kind and welcoming as we made our way in for a brief time to see the window.
Also, just a short walk away from the church is a small graveyard where C.S. Lewis is buried. I planned to take a photo but a greater part of me felt like I should still my need to document everything. The memory remains though, taking in the half a dozen notes, gifts, and flowers thoughtfully left on Lewis' grave. It was touching to see such sincere and creative thanks shown.
Another sign of his legacy, alive and well.
10:37 am the rusty bicycle
I highly recommend The Rusty Bicycle for a lot of reasons. An inviting community pub, the ambiance is cozy and nostalgic and the staff are super friendly. They hold various events between its sister restaurants, the Bottle of Sauce and the Rickety Press, which include live music, and unique events like a Cocktail Alchemy class and Retro Film night. Oh and the brunch menu, I got the Eggs Benny with a side of hash browns and earl gray tea, and I was soooo content. From my keen sense of smell, I could tell the other dishes were great as well as they wafted along the banquettes. It is both a gift and a curse. I'm confident on my next trip to Oxford I'll be back.
1:43 pm MAGDALEN College
Founded in 1458, Magdalen College holds a rich history and notoriety in Oxford. It is a beautiful campus with Gothic architecture and pristine grounds plotted with tall willows and wildflowers, I would be so inspired to study here. I was certainly inspired just walking through. Not all of the college is accessible as it's still an active campus, but the areas that usually are include the Hall, Chapel, and Old Kitchen Bar. There are also the gardens, grounds, and parkland, which includes a beautiful walk around the River Cherwell.
It costs £6 pounds for adults and £5 for visitors over 60, children (except under age 7 are given free entry), and students. They offer guided tours, but you are welcome to walk through the grounds on your own. I did, and found it really enjoyable. You can find their hours here.
2:04 pm addison's walk
Back to Lewis.
His journey to finding his faith including many walks on the Magdalen College grounds. Close friends with another one of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkein, both Lewis, Tolkein, and their friend Hugo Dyson, often walked along the River Cherwell to discuss subjects like faith.
Here's an interesting excerpt from one of his journals on his experience:
"We began on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books." (source)
It is named Addison's walk after Joseph Addison who was a fellow of the college. It is a picturesque path that runs along the river, where you can see gondolas slowly sail by (available to rent at the College). In Fellows' Garden there is a beautiful tree sculpture known as 'Y' created by artist Mark Wallinger. In celebration of the 550th anniversary of Magdalen College, its stainless steel facade stands boldly, yet seamlessly behind the hanging trees. I loved seeing people sitting in the grass areas writing and drawing. It was incredibly tranquil.
There are several places to sit and relax along the way including a small pond with lily pads and even a tree trunk carved into a seat. Mind your head on the bent tree at the entrance though :)
It is a very peaceful place to walk and when you visit be sure to find the plaque with Lewis' poem, What the Bird Said Early in the Year.
2:30 pm university of oxford botanic Garden
I am a complete sucker for plants, flowers, and foliage. If I were to choose a non-design related field it would likely be botany, which would probably lead me into landscape design...so the design love runs too deep to escape. The Botanic Garden was beautiful and both a relaxing and informative experience. It is broken up into two sections, the Walled garden and the Lower garden with a lovely fountain upon entering.
I appreciated learning of the different species of plants; some medicinal and some more ornamental. The garden is over 400 years old and there are tours offered to learn the specifics of the plant life as well as the garden's evolution. Standard adult ticket runs £5.
Oh and before I moved on to my next destination, I stopped into the rose garden right outside of the botanic garden entrance. The plot of land was actually an 800 year old Jewish cemetery, rediscovered by historian Pam Manix. It was a beautifully laid maze of shrubs and square pockets of roses, made even more fascinating by the history that lies beneath it.
2:55 pm the grand cafe
My decadent food break. There is something about scones, little triangle sandwiches, and tea that just makes me smile, I don't know why. Is it the decadence? The adhered decorum? I know my manners could use some work, but the spread set before you is so delicate you can't help but slow down each bite (I tend to inhale my food). It makes for a regal experience.
The Grand Cafe is the first coffee house in England, established in 1650. The interior was really cool, a sort of Neoclassic meets Art Deco with gold, crystal, and blue accents. I read Persuasion and enjoyed the hum of conversation around me. I chose their high tea, which includes egg mayo and smoked salmon sandwiches, two scones, clotted cream, jam, petit fours, and your choice of tea or coffee. I chose tea...lavender. YES. You can view their menu here.
The high tea is about £18 pounds and is enough for two people. Sometimes at more formal restaurants I feel a little self conscious requesting a table just for me, but they were super friendly and gave no pause.
5:10 pm Scriptum
I am in love with any shop that sells stationary. Journals, books, knick-knacks, patterned paper, colored pencils, it all stirs my creative spirit. I indulged in a beautifully bound book highlighting top episodes of the old Star Trek series. I loved how it sat on the same shelf among the classics like Sense and Sensibility and Homer the Odyssey. I bought it for my Uncle Fenton who, along with my Mom, grew up watching the show and passed on the trekkie love to me too. I love it so much I just might have to buy a second copy.
Scriptum is a tight and cozy space with two levels, packed to the brim with so much interesting bric-a-brac, you are sure to leave with at least one unregrettable purchase. I admit I left with four.
7:23 pm The Eagle and Child Pub
Last stop of the Lewis-Oxford exploration. I had read of the Eagle and Child pub in a travel blog a few months prior to my trip so I was excited to step into the kick-it-spot of the Inklings. A literary group that included Tolkien and other writers, this was their watering hole, nicknamed 'the bird and the baby'. It's located near Oxford University and St. Johns College and has an intimate atmosphere. Upon entering, there are small square alcoves on both sides that fit 4 or 5 people. From there it's a long narrow stretch back until you reach a more brightly lit room with larger table seating and various art along the walls. Quotes from the aforementioned authors and their works were everywhere, and as I drank my half pint of ale, I soaked in the abundant literary reverie.
Another highlight of this pub experience: chatting with some cool actors. You can read a little more about that in The Solo Journey.
Oxford is a beautiful city. I've said this for just about every place I've been to and every post I've written, but it rings no less true here. 24 hours is not enough time. It was a wonderful introduction though and I left elated. C.S. Lewis' legacy lives on in a way that is more tangible than looking at a statue or old remains. Of course there is beauty in that too, but I admired how his life is not just left in the past, it is fervently present in a very natural way. Should you choose to look for it, you'll find it in so many places.
You'll find a lot of amazing things in Oxford. No doubt about it.