A Day Trip to Oxford

Mike Williams

The following reports a simple day trip to Oxford intended for those who have never visited the city. It represents a guide of sorts; however, I should state at the outset that I am not an expert, by any means. There are many others who could provide a more informed tour of the city. I can only hope the perspective of a novice American tourist might provide some helpful information that even an Oxford native might not think to mention.

I was traveling with my wife and two children. The vacation was focused on London but, of course, a trip to Oxford was a required part of the visit. My general plan for the day trip was to take the train to Oxford, visit the Oxford University Museum, Blackwell's Bookstore, Thornton's Bookstore, Wolvercotte cemetery, the Bird and the Baby, Bodelian Library, Exeter College, Magdalen College, Addison's Walk and the Botanical Gardens. I suspected, and eventually discovered, that this schedule was impossible to accomplish in a single day. However, this is probably the essential list of sites. In retrospect, I would have tried an overnight trip to Oxford, or simply taken the train from London for two days instead of just one. In addition, I have since learned that the Museum of Oxford just opened an exhibit and walking tour on the Inklings. I would have probably taken this tour if it was available at the time I visited.

The first step was to get from our apartment on Russell Square in London to Paddington train station. These points are connected by "the Tube", that is, a subway. The Tube is very convenient and efficient, but the fare structure is a little complicated once you get into the domain of family and group rates. The Tube is a rather small, tight subway by US standards. However, it is much cleaner than subways I have taken in Philadelphia and New York.

Paddington Station reminded me of scenes from WWII movies in which all the soldiers are going off on the train say farewell to friends and family. The station was bustling but ticket lines moved quickly. We discovered the correct train to Oxford, bought tickets and climbed aboard. The train pulled out of the station at precisely the scheduled time of departure. Soon we were outside of the city watching the English countryside pass by the window.

Although I am sure the London area has experienced considerable industrial development, there does not appear to be the same relationship of the suburbs to the city as there is in the US. In virtually every US city, a traveler would still be looking at housing development after leaving any major city. Here were verdant farmlands after a short run of suburban homes; scenery straight out of the Hobbit: rolling hills, neat hedges and pastures.

We arrived in Oxford at approximately ten in the morning. The train station has a nice tourist office. We were given all the maps essential for the tour. Obviously a tourist office in a train station has some limitations but this one was clearly in the top 10%. In particular, they gave some excellent advise on getting to Wolvercotte cemetery, one of the most uncertain points in the visit. They recommended taking a taxi but make sure to get a fare stated before taking the ride. Since the fare is set on a meter, I did not understand why they recommended this. At any rate, since the taxis were all waiting at the curb of the train station, we decided to visit Tolkien's grave at Wolvercotte first then come back to the town for the other sites.

On the way to the cemetery, we actually passed by the Eagle and Child. I was surprised to see it on the main road, St. Giles Street. My impression was that the pub was tucked away somewhere on a side street. Since that was one of my most important stops of the day, I was happy to find it so easily.

As I am sure most readers know, Tolkien is buried in a commercial cemetery in the Oxford suburb of Wolvercotte. After reading the description in Carpenter's Biography of Tolkien I expected to see a rather plain cemetery, similar to the cemeteries like this all over the US. My experience was completely contrary : Wolvercotte is a beautiful cemetery. I was most impressed by the graceful, old trees. Wolvercotte Cemetery is more attractive than many church cemeteries. I think anyone would like to have a family member buried there.

Tolkien's grave is well-marked and there are numerous small signs guiding the visitor to the site. Many of the gravesites are more elaborate than Tolkien's but most in the cemetery are similar to his. I was surprised by the explicit segregation of gravesites by religion. Although this practice is implied by the association of gravesites with churches, it is unlikely that commercial cemeteries in the US would explicitly segregate the grave plots by religion. Perhaps this practice is more common than I am aware.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of my visit to London and Tolkien's gravesite was the observation that Tolkien is buried in such understated circumstances and authors with equivalent or less contribution to culture, such as Lewis Carroll, are buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. This contrast appears significant as a clear statement of Tolkien's ambiguous status as an author (and Catholic) in England. Perhaps it was just the wishes of himself and his family that resulted in the choice of gravesite and I am making too much of it. However, I recall Carpenter making similar points in Tolkien's biography.

We arranged with the taxi driver to pick us up an hour after letting us off. An hour is just enough time. I was surprised that it was so pleasant to walk around the cemetery. There was also a funeral service being conducted while we were there. Give yourself an hour and one-half and you will not regret it. Since Wolvercotte is a short ride out of Oxford, visitors to the cemetery have to make some arrangement for transportation back to the town. It is possible a taxi might run by the cemetery but I expect the wait for one might be too long. The taxi arrived at the appointed time and took us to Blackwell's, an old Oxford bookstore. Blackwell's had a small display of Tolkien's work currently in print. I purchased two t-shirts they still had available from the promotion of the 60th Anniversary Hobbit. Almost immediately next door was Thornton's, a bookstore I looked forward to finally visiting. I often visit Thornton's web site in search of collectibles. On this visit, I essentially bought everything in the store that was even remotely interesting. This included a copy of the Middle English Vocabulary, Bodelian Library posters for the Tolkien Centenary, and a wonderful, illustrated edition of Tree and Leaf in Estonian. ThorntonŐs was smaller than I expected but had a great patina, reflecting years of book browsing.

I was very enthusiastic about eating lunch at the Eagle and the Child (aka Bird and the Baby). Since we had seen the pub on the way to Wolvercotte, it was easy to find. The pub is set within a row of similar buildings on St. Giles Street, a main thoroughfare running through Oxford. As we approached, I noticed a sign above the door clearly stating that children were not allowed into the pub. That was disappointing, and emphasizes the generally poor accommodation for families at many sites we visited in England. I settled for poking my head into the pub and looking around. The pub has great atmosphere. It appears to be a generally popular meeting place that plays down the prominent people who visit there regularly. A similar site in the US would have large Hobbit posters on the wall and would serve special drinks named after main characters in the Lord of the Rings: "Sit down and have a Balrog Flame Thrower".

Following lunch in a nearby restaurant, our wandering about Oxford led next to the University Museum. This a delightful, old museum, with an atmosphere straight out of the 19th Century. Here you will find Dodo birds, fossils, stuffed animals, minerals and numerous other curiosities. The main room of the museum has high vaulted ceilings and natural lighting. It appears to have a cast iron ceiling and reminded me of the Crystal Palace in London or the Centennial Exposition Buildings in Philadelphia. These buildings were the first to allow an architect to inexpensively create large, expansive internal spaces, the precursor to the atriums built into virtually every modern public building. The space transported me to the museum world of the 19th Century. Gone were the theme rooms with the push-button descriptions and movies. I was reminded of my old insect collection: specimens on little pins with small paper labels. Here there were fossils, skeletons, mineral samples and stuffed animals all mixed together, one case after another, and each associated with a small paper label. It also reminded me of visits to the old Smithsonian Museum years ago, before everything was placed in specialized museums. Then one might see The Spirit of St. Louis flying over Dorothy's ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz.

We wandered about the exhibits virtually by ourselves. I was intrigued by the fossils and minerals collected locally. Certainly the most interesting items in the Museum were the remains of the extinct Dodo birds.

Our next stop was the Bodelian Library. The Bodelian keeps a large body of material related to Tolkien and the Inklings. The main library is accessible by guided tours. The Bodelian you get to visit as a walk-in, is the very old building that served as the original library centuries ago. The antechamber of this building serves as the gift shop. This shop has some nice Tolkien items, such as posters featuring Tolkien's artwork, notecards and bookmarks. In particular, posters containing Tolkien's artwork were only produced by the Bodelian for exhibits. All other posters feature artwork by other illustrators. In front of the library we encountered a delightful gentleman who was a volunteer for the library. Apparently, his job is to greet visitors and discuss the history of Oxford and the Bodelian. We were happy to get a number of Oxford questions answered by him.

The next planned stops were Magdalen College, Addison's Walk and the Botanical Gardens. On the way, I discovered another book store on High Street. Inside, I found two copies of the first edition of Smith of Wootton Major. By that time I had lost track of how much I was spending in Oxford; this is easy to do with credit cards and unfamiliar currency. Someone should make a smart credit card that gives the user a running total of the account.

There appears to be two methods of visiting colleges. The first involves paying an admission fee which enables one to visit the central part of the college, such as the chapel and general living areas. The other method, one that requires no fee, involves simply walking the outer college grounds. We paid the fee and wandered around Magdalen college. On the far side of the college, we found the main entrance to Addison's Walk.

I believe Addison's Walk was the highlight of the entire visit. I recalled from Tolkien's biography the famous walk that Tolkien, Lewis and Dyson took along that tree-lined path during which Tolkien and Dyson argued with Lewis concerning the validity of Christianity. In short, their unique approach was to argue that the Bible was composed of myths that are real. This appealed to Lewis' appreciation of myth and reduces the demand on the scriptures to be provable in fact. Even if the facts of the Bible are unfounded, or even false, the mythical elements are still present and represent the primary instructive or enlightening role of the stories. Although my presentation of these arguments is inadequate, those presented by Tolkien and Dyson were convincing and contributed to Lewis' conversion to Christianity.

Addison's Walk consists of a path around large fields of wildflowers. The path is bordered by gnarled trees and active, bubbling streams. It is more picturesque than anything I imagined. My expectation derived from reading Tolkien's biography was that Addison's Walk was lined with a colonnade of trees. The actual walk is more like a small nature park. The trees are distributed in natural fashion along the path; many are so mature that they have taken their own course. Some have fallen over but still maintain viability. They also form a canopy over the path. I expected to see Gildor and the other elves walking along, passing just out of view across the field, or a song in Elvish, heard faintly in the evening.

We walked the circle of Addison's Walk and anticipated visiting the Botanical Gardens across the street. Unfortunately the Botanical Gardens was closed by this time. In retrospect, I would have visited the Botanical Gardens first. Addison's Walk is apparently open at all times and we could have visited it in the late afternoon or evening. Instead, we made our way along the large green next to Merton College and the other University buildings. There was a cricket match under way on one these greens. There could have been no better pastoral scene to end our walking tour. As late afternoon turned to evening, we wandered through town to the train station, and then took the train to London.

The major thing I learned from visiting the town is that it really takes two days to see everything. It is possible to start each day from London. The train ride is relatively short as commuting rides go. Probably the most convenient strategy would be to simply spend the night in Oxford and return to London the next day. I also learned that Oxford is smaller than I expected. All the descriptions of Oxford I read suggest it is larger than it is. Aside from Wolvercotte cemetery, everything else is within walking distance.

Although Oxford is a convivial town, it is not set-up for tourists. I expect any significant number of tourists places a significant burden on every public service, from the roadways to the toilets. This must also detract from the primary functions of the University. It must be difficult to get to the library when the road is full of tourists. As I commented before, England could be made more comfortable to travel with children. It is better than most countries in Europe but they all fall short in the number and convenience of bathrooms, overly restrict pubs and restaurants to adults only, and generally do not design their exhibits and tourist sites with children in mind.

All these being said, the visit was an overall success. Addison's Walk and the University Museum are sites that children can enjoy. I expect the Botanical Gardens is also a pleasant visit. As far as I can tell, Oxford is largely the same as when Tolkien lived there. My impression from reading Tolkien's biography and other sources was that Oxford and the surrounding countryside was in a kind of industrial decline. Wasn't the last part of the Lord of the Rings supposed to be an allegory for this decline? The only evidence of this was jammed traffic on High Street at rush hour. There have been some obvious accommodation to traffic, increased population and modern shopping but the place has not fallen to suburban sprawl by any means. I can only hope that the people and groups who monitor Oxford's development figure some way to deal with its growth and popularity, and that they do not become so conservative that they restrict visits to this remarkable place.








  A very high quality, beautiful sword. This would make a great decorative gift for the shield maiden in your life, or someone who just loves equestrian design.


  Now that the movies have largely run their merchandising course, this may be the best time to purchase high quality jewelry at discounted prices. Use these as gifts for years to come.


  It appears that any game that could possibly have a Lord of the Rings theme has been produced. These include Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Backgammon and Dominoes.



  Figures from the movies include a large action figure series. There are separate figure sets and color schemes for each movie. The highest quality figures were made by Sideshow WETA. Although these are expensive, they sell out quickly and will likely keep their values.

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