Scaling Oxford’s Dreaming Spires and Dinner at Smithfield

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Today was all about spending an indulgent day in one of my most beloved places in the world with some of my favorite people in London.  I had arranged a tour of what Matthew Arnold had called “the dreaming spires of Oxford” for friends who had never been there. It had been all arranged–for weeks. Raquel and I were going to take the Oxford Tube (read coach) to the university city. Then, I invited my friend Bash and his girl friend Kim to join us. He volunteered to drive us there. My friend Susan who lives in Oxford was going to join us there and together, we intended to have a lovely day.

Only all sorts of things went wrong as Murphy’s Law decrees: Although Raquel and I were ready to roll by 8.00 am after Jonas was dropped off to school, we realized we still had 45 minutes to play with as it takes only about 40 minutes on the Tube to get to Northholt where Bash was  awaiting us with his car. When we got there, we found a terribly repentant Bash (no Kim) informing us that there were major alterations in our plans. Kim had sciatica and was home bound. He had domestic commitments that had cropped up overnight that made it impossible to spend the day with us. However, and get this, he had decided that, in true British tradition, he “wasn’t going to let us down”–and so the trooper was driving us to Oxford as planned, would have a quick coffee with us and would turn right back to return to London. Although we protested, he was having none of it–and off we went, with Bash behind the wheel on to the M40 for the 90 minute ride into the city.

Arrival at Oxford:

The journey was truly pleasant as we caught up on so much. Raquel and Bash–both being outgoing types–hit it off well and before I knew it, were discussed the job market, tried and tested job-hunting techniques on Linked-In, etc. and then we were pulling into Grandpont where my friend Susan lives. We parked Bash’s car in one of the side streets adjoining Marlborough Road to make our way into a very quiet, isolated Delicatessen Cafe on Whitehorse Road where we settled down with hot drinks–coffees, lattes, hot chocolates–and eats–quiches, rocky road, coffee cake–and chatted some more as we awaited Susan’s arrival. She turned up really soon and after one more raucous reunion and some more introductions and much chatting later, Bash bid us goodbye, returned to London and left us to our own devices.

A Walking Tour of Oxford:

It was time to begin our exploration of Oxford for it was already noon and light fades by 4. 30 pm. Being that we were just a few minutes from Foley Bridge, we started our tour at Christ Church College after taking in the lovely vista of the college across the Meadows and spying the balcony from the famous scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in which a drunken friend of Charles and Sebastian threatens to throw himself off to the ground!

Our tour cost 5. 50 pounds (normally 7) because the famous Dining Hall which had provided the model for the Dining Hall in Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s School was closed for renovation. Part of the ceiling had caved in, a few months ago, and the place was under refurbishment. Still, we could see the grand staircase which actually features in the film and where the students are introduced to Prof. Mcgonnagal for the very first time as she stands at the top of the staircase with its lovely fan vaulted ceiling and invites the students inside in the first Harry Potter movie.

We could also visit the Cathedral (the only place in the world where a cathedral sits in the midst of a college) and the vast quadrangles. And we had the added benefit of getting a short tour from one of the bowlder-hatted porters named Mark Hathaway (how many comments does he get about his association with the TV detective James Hathaway–now an Inspector himself–in the Inspector Lewis series set in Oxford, I wonder?). Through the brief walking tour, we discovered the basics: Christ Church College was originally meant to be named Cardinal College after the wealthy and corrupt prelate Cardinal Wolsey who founded it–hence, the symbols of the college are the Cardinal’s Hat with their streaming tassels. When Wolsey fell out of favor with King Henry VIII for not being able to procure his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the ownership and running of the college fell into the hands of the King who renamed it and actually created a set of rooms for himself to live in it.

After the Reformation, Christ Church became significant once again during the Civil War when King Charles I moved his court from London to Royalist Oxford and occupied rooms designed originally for Henry. Needless to say, this did not eventually prevent him from being beheaded. We strolled through the lovely grounds of the college on another especially cold day cursing the weather and commenting on our poor frozen toes.

Once at the Main Quad (short for Quadrangle), the largest of any Oxford College and known as Tom Quad because it is dominated by Tom Tower that is named for the bell, Old Tom, that religiously tolls each hour, and after admiring the lovely Fountain of Mercury in the center and commenting on the unfinished cloisters –evident in the fact that the plinths still surround the quad–we made our way into the adjoining Cathedral. A Cathedral gets its ‘status’ from the Cathedra (Latin for Chair) that is meant for the use of a cardinal who is usually resident there. In this case, Cardinal Wolsey’s original association with Christ Church gave its chapel the distinction of becoming a Cathedral–and you can still see the Cathedra on the altar.

Although on several past occasions, I have visited the Cathedral (once to listen to candlelit Evensong), it made sense to visit it again with my friends and to use the handy pamphlet to discover its treasures, among which are: the gigantic keyhole in one of the wooden doors that inspired Lewis Carol (aka Charles Dodgson who was a professor of Mathematics at Christ Church) to include it in his story of Alice in Wonderland (narrated spontaneously to his little friend Alice Liddel, daughter of the Master of Christ Church whom he knew well and with whom he would sail in summer on the adjoining Cherwell). It was through this key hold that Alice fell in the story! Other aspects worth noticing were the stained glass window featuring Jonah and Nineveh, the windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones (one of the Pre-Raphaelites who studied at neighboring Exeter College), the St. Friteswide widow that features her entire story and includes, of all things, the first ever flushing loo invented by one Thomas Crapper in Oxford–now you know where all words associated with ‘crap’ come from!) Indeed, there is a loo by her death bed in the stained glass window and it makes for a real curiosity in one’s study of it (the window, I mean, not the loo).

We also saw the original 12th century carved stone altar of St. Friteswide who is the patron saint of Oxford and the new very solid altar carved in black balsa wood. At the main altar, we exclaimed at its beauty  before we exited the cathedral to browse in the gift store and pick up souvenirs of our visit. Raquel picked out a Diamond Jubilee porcelain plate with the year 2012 featured on it–she had moved to the UK in 2012. It was a very good buy that I converted into a gift for her. 

Continuing our Walking Tour:

Exiting Christ Church College from the back, we arrived at Oriel Square (an opportunity to see the rather unusual facade of Oriel College) before making our way to The High (as High Street is known in Oxford) to cross into Radcliff Square to arrive at the Radcliff Camera–a rotunda topped by a dome designed by James Gibb (and not Wren as I had mistakenly assumed) and named for John Radcliff whose estate had endowed the creation of a library inside. The University prides itself on the fact that once you request a book, they can haul it up from the bowels of the earth, if need be, in under an hour. Mind you, the University receives, by royal decree, a copy of every book every published in the UK–that means literally millions of books. That they still find the room to accommodate them all simply boggles my mind. And, get this, today, a valiant attempt is being made to scan every single book in the collection and make it digitally available to the public! Soon, you will not need to be a registered student at Oxford to access its printed collection.

The Camera makes a real architectural statement in the Square which also features the Church of St. Mary The Virgin (you can climb to its spire for a fee for extraordinary views of the city) and All Souls College whose twin spires are unmistakeable. We skirted these magnificent buildings, took in the sights of railings lined with bicycles, saw students mill in and out of classes and residential rooms in colleges, all bundled against the freeze, and arrived at Catte Street to show Raquel the famous Bridge of Sighs that joins Hertford and New Colleges in imitation of the one across the canals of Venice. At this point, it was only right to make a detour and walk along the narrowed alley in the city to arrive at the home once occupied by Jane Morris who became the wife of artist William Morris (also one of the Pre-Raphaelites, also at Exeter) who was a humble embroiderer until these artists discovered her and used her as the model for their work). This led us to the well-known Turf Tavern that has been associated with many Oxford luminaries including, and significant for us Americans, Bill Clinton! Inspector Morse was also known to have downed many a pint in these lovely premises with their beer gardens and cozy interiors.

Back on ‘The Broad’ (Broad Street), we popped into the unusual Norrington Room attached to Blackwell’s Bookstore (another Oxford institution) which lies underground in four tiers right below Broad Street–it is the only bookstore in the world that is sunken so deeply. It makes for a wonderful peek into another treasure house of books. This vantage point permitted us to pass through the Clarendon Building to view Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the rather-funnily shaped Sheldonian Theater where graduation ceremonies take place and where, throughout the year, there are musical concerts under its spectacular painted ceiling. We did not pay the entry fee to see it, but moved into the ornate quadrangle of the Bodleian Library with its lovely sculpture of Thomas Bodley who endowed the creation of this store house of knowledge. We stepped into the Divinity School but could not enter unless we paid–it would be interesting to calculate just how much a really thorough visit to Oxford would cost if one indulged in a close look at all its highlights.

It was time to return to The Broad to spy the sculpture by Anthony Gormley on the building at the corner of Turl Street and directly above the set of rooms I had once occupied in the Margary Quadrangle of Exeter College which we next entered. There I took my friends to the exceedingly beautiful chapel where the beautiful stained glass windows and the Byzantine mosaics combine to create a really lovely space filled with Pre-Raphaelite treasures–there is a majestic tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones featuring the Adoration of the Magi which I truly love.

Out in the Margary Quadrangle, I showed them my room which still brings back such lovely memories for me and then we were going past the Junior Common Room to get to Exeter Library and the Fellows Garden to climb upon the terrace that overlooks Radcliff Square and that provides some of the most beautiful views of the square. It was there that Raquel taught me how to use the Panoramic feature of my I-Phone to enable me to get these incredible 180 degree shots of the Gothic architecture that I so adore! She has changed my photographic life forever!

It was time to get some sustenance–and Susan led us to the Rooftop of the Covered Market–it is a place that has newly opened for drinks and snacks and offers views and heights similar to those of the spire of St. Mary’s Church. It takes a ‘local’ to help one make such discoveries and we were glad to have Susan as our guide! We made a quick round of the actual Covered Market itself, then climbed several floors up, stopped midway to order our hot drinks (it was too cold a day to sip anything else) and up we went to kiss those dreaming spires that were all around us as we turned and made 360 degree pirouettes. How marvelous it all was! Back downstairs, we sat for a long time and nursed our drinks and caught up on all sorts of news–it was good to chat at length with Susan in whose home I had once spent a few days while staying in Oxford.

Then, it was time to move on. It was almost 4 pm by then and light would soon fade. Susan needed to get on home to do some work and I swung Raquel into St. Giles, first to see the very spot at which the Bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor and then to admire the medieval cross raised at The Martyrs Memorial. Across the street we went, to walk by the Randolf Hotel and the Ashmolean Museum, for which, alas, we had no time, and then we swung on to the Jericho area of city as I was keen to arrive at the Oxford Canal where I had never been before–but which is the site of so many murders in the Oxford mystery series that I watch. Off Combe Sttreet, we squeezed through the gates and arrived at the exact spot that I wanted to see. We took pictures of it and then retraced our steps to the Woodstock Road–but not before finding a framed needlepoint treasure in a thrift store! 

Walking south on Woodstock Road, we arrived at the Eagle and Child Pub, popularized by The Inklings, the Exeter College pals that had comprised JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their friends. We entered the quaint pub, took in its unique ambiance with its little wooden cubby holes, black boards announcing food specials and then used the loo. There was time only to nip into Waterstones so that Raquel could buy some books and then off we went to the Gloucester Green bus stop to find the coach to take us back to London.And thus ended a most amazing day!

Back in London for Dinner at Snithfield Market:

The coach journey in the pitch darkness was not a lot of fun as there wasn’t much we could see outside. But we did catch up, Raquel and I, as we chatted about this and that and accessed our email through the free wifi. Hoping off at Baker Street, we hurried into the Tube to take the Metropolitan Line to Farringdon as I was taking Raquel and her husband Chris out for dinner. She had made reservations at Smith’s, a well-known steak house right opposite the grand Victorian lines of the famed Smithfield Meat Market–and it was there, on the third floor, overlooking the lovely new spires of The City , including the Shard, and Wren’s magnificent dome of St. Paul’s, that we ate a fabulous steak dinner with chips and a glass of Merlot. It was quite magnificently done–medium rare for all of us–and absolutely butter soft and succulent. For dessert, we picked at a Clementine Cheesecake–not the best of things in the world but different. How marvelous it was to have extended time with Chris who has been off to work each  morning leaving us little time for interaction and to find out about his work in finance and investments.

But by 10.00 pm, we made our way back to the Tube, past Denmark House in which I had once stayed on Cowcross Lane with its spacious, art-filled loft–a thought that seems like a dream to me today as I look back on my year in London.

We reached home just past 10. 30 pm and fell right into bed, really pleased at what had been a most satisfying day.

Until tomorrow, cheerio!

One thought on “Scaling Oxford’s Dreaming Spires and Dinner at Smithfield

  1. What a spiffing day as the Brits would say!
    Gleaming spires, bookstores, reunions, a splendid steak.what more can one desire in one day?

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