It is Monday morning and we begin our day early. We are taking a train from Paddington Station up to Oxford. The countryside between is made of green velvet stitched with brick. Poppies, daisies and yellow broom bloom alongside the tracks. We bumble a bit with directions and nearly miss our connection at Didcot, but sort ourselves out just as the train to Oxford arrives.
I have booked a tour of Oxford Castle. Not much is left of the original castle besides the Norman motte and St. George's Tower which is now believed to predate the Conquest of 1066. I cannot quite absorb the fact that I am standing in the shadows of Saxon England with my digital camera in my hands. So much of this trip has already been veined with juxtaposition.
|St. George's Tower|
|The flag of St. George, dragon slayer and patron saint of England|
I have been practicing for weeks to climb the 100 stairs to the top of St. George's Tower, up and down our own 13 stairs at home until I can do a hundred at one go without my legs feeling wobbly. Our guide, a lively young man who is posing as a medieval executioner and is an accomplished storyteller, delights and horrifies us with the history of the castle and tower. I am so thrilled to be here, trailing my hand along the smooth, ancient stone of the inner wall as I ascend the dim circular stairway; at the same time, I am relieved to be living in the 21st century. Can one be a romantic and realist at the same time?
There are bicycles everywhere, even more than in London. The train station is crowded with them, lined up, waiting for someone to claim them. Some are decorated, others wear seat covers or shower caps depending on the inventiveness of the owners. I suppose the idea is to keep the seat dry in wet weather. Where are all the people who belong to these bikes?
After lunch we take a walking tour of the University. Oxford is a beautiful city with an interesting history and I regret that we do not have more time to explore it. It is exam week for the students who have recently voted to keep the 900 year-old tradition of wearing a proscribed formal dress, complete with cap and gown, to their final exams. I can't see that ever happening in the United States, but I like it. On this island whose history has often been influenced by its class system, there is a sense of elegant egalitarianism or class without class in the present tradition.
In our small tour group there are three amiable ladies from Warwickshire. We talk about blackbirds and how much we could all use a cup of tea after our two hour walk. They ask what part of America I am from. I tell them this visit is a dream come true for me. Given more time, I think we could become friends.
When the tour is over, we wander the streets taking pictures, hoping to capture with our cameras some sense of what we are feeling. I have seen Magna Carta and one of Shakespeare's first folios at the Bodliean Library. I have stood on the spot where Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burned for their faith. I have paused beneath the sign of the Eagle and Child and peeked into the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met with the Inklings. I have listened to the stories of Queen Maud's midnight escape in the dead of winter from the siege of Oxford Castle; of the ghost of a seven-year-old girl who haunts the chapel Crypt beneath the bailey; of Rowland Jenkes, a saucy, foulmouthed bookseller who stood trial for scandalous words against Queen Bess and cursed the court, many of whom fell ill and died horribly thereafter. I am feeling crammed to the ears with history and myth.
It is a lovely feeling.