March 3, 2012

Scenes from England, Part 1: Oxford

It's freezing. Snow is on the ground, which made for a beautiful airplane landing - the usual checkerboards of greens now interspersed with white fields, bounded by dark green hedgerows and scattered with picturesque houses - but, as I inform Sandra several times, I'm incredulous that Ireland is warmer than Oxford.

I went to visit my good friend (since middle school!) who's studying at Oxford a few weekends ago, and the city completely blew my mind. It's a city of colleges - it seems almost every street you turn down comes up against a white stone wall with a big wooden door where some university begins, hiding surprising amounts of open green space and beautifully intricate buildings in the middle of the dense, crowded city. Of course, part of the reason the city feels so crowded is the walls themselves, and the medieval street layout - lots of little curving alleys paved with stones lacing their ways between the main few roads, with narrow sidewalks and buildings that have stood for centuries looming colorfully above.

Highlights included a visit to New College, which is not actually new at all. It's built like a castle (apparently the students needed the defenses back then!), with thick walls full of arrow slits hiding the big stone buildings that surround graveled courtyards. But if Sandra led me through one archway at the far end of the main courtyard, and suddenly the space was entirely familiar... it was the courtyard of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter movies. I felt like I was walking into one of the films; with the snow on the ground, I expected to see students in house scarves, or perhaps to hear the figures in the plaques on the wall chatting.

A lot of Oxford had that fairy-tale feel (which I suppose suits such an old place, which has served as the setting or inspiration for so many creative works.) We saw the door which supposedly inspired the Chronicles of Narnia book, with an imp wrapped around the light and a lion carved into the door itself. We hunted down the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's college literary society met; with its narrow rooms and low brick ceilings, it was easy to imagine it full of hobbits.

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