A Day Trip to Oxford
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.