When my girls and I planned our little dashing trip to London last fall, I thought with secret longing of how close we would be to Oxford, but I didn’t mention it much because our trip was already very short and surely there was no way we could pack a second location in. But upon arrival, we discovered that most of us had the same Oxford itch, and really, it wasn’t very far by train, and frankly, how could we forgive ourselves if we didn’t venture there?
So one sunny morning we packed ourselves into the very crowded train and began our trek across the English countryside. The train aisles slowly cleared as we passed station after station, dropping off humans, till at last we were all seated and able to enjoy the vista we were passing. Stone cottages huddled in little villages and looking just like “Lark Rise to Candleford”, little puffs of sheep grazing in the green green fields, gentle hills and fences marking the landscape- it looked exactly as you would imagine it should.
When we finally arrived, we unfurled ourselves from the train car and commenced the walk toward the town. We hadn’t gone far when a little trail beside the most perfect canal caught my eye. “Please, please can we just dash down there a sec and see it?” I begged. The others were agreeable, and once we started on the trail we couldn’t seem to turn back. Yellow leaves littered the quiet path, the water flowed soundlessly down the canal, an occasional person passed us on their Saturday morning errands. Best of all, wonder of wonders, there were houseboats. Real, true, actual houseboats. I stopped and stared unabashed. Some of them had wee gardens atop, growing things like beets and greens. There was a feather of smoke coming out of the chimney of one, and when I peered in the window, I saw a tiny wood stove with a copper tea kettle perched atop, merrily making someone’s morning tea. I nearly gave up all my life’s dreams on the spot to stay in Oxford and live in such a houseboat and grow my own crop of lettuces and radishes on the roof. Can you blame me?
We finally managed to tear ourselves from the enchanting, never-ending, winding trail, and crossing a bridge, followed the crooked streets toward the center of town. The staid stone houses were offset by a vivid blue sky and splashes of ivy and moss climbing the walls. We passed pottery shops, antique shops, coffee shops, and the crowds grew thicker as we came to the center of town where the many colleges are clustered. We got ourselves coffee and a little nosh and perched on a bench on the sidewalk to survey the town.
The air smelled like knowledge and green and pushing, and I could practically feel my IQ rising as I soaked in the atmosphere. Some of my literary heroes have not only gone to Oxford but were professors there as well, and you could almost imagine Tolkien or Lewis would round a corner at any time, dressed in a long cloak, and having a heated debate on the purpose of pain or the origin of some mythical creature. Perhaps Davy or Sheldon Vanauken had tea in this shop or that one and perhaps some of the midnight strolls Sheldon writes about which make you ache with joy happened on this very street! So much history packed into one little town.
We found a bookshop and spent long minutes perusing the storeys of stories. The rain started to fall as we lingered in the bookshop and when we finally left, we were compelled to walk the damp lawns of the colleges clutching our umbrellas. But if anything, the rain only intensified the vibrant colors of the gardens set against the old stone chapels and halls. I feel beauty intensely, and it was really almost too much in one place. Too much loveliness; it hurt, but in the best way possible.
Once we were thoroughly chilled with the damp and more than a little hungry, we crowded into a tea shop for the proper tea I’d been dreaming of for years. The shop was decorated in blues and golds with mirrors everywhere making it appear twice its size, and the most delectable treats appearing on our neighbors’ tables. We ordered the whole jolly lot- black teas and little sandwiches and pastries and scones and clotted cream and we ate and ate until all the corners were filled and there were only a few tidbits left from our laden tray.
The scones, you guys. I could nearly weep with joy at the memory. Utterly fluffy and buttery and melt-in-your-mouth, with a generous portion of fresh clotted cream and jam atop… months later I still think of them longingly and a bit sadly as I remember how far out of reach they are. I’ve had a lot of good scones, but none have come close to those before or since. As the final touch, I bit into the strawberry that was perched atop the clotted cream as a garnish, and was jolted with a burst of flavor that tasted more like a warm garden in May than a cold, stone town in November. Utterly delicious.
All too soon the day came to an end, as all perfect days do, and we trudged back toward our train station in the cold rain to catch our ride to London. On the way we had to pop past “The Eagle and Child” and admire just a bit the place where The Inklings used to meet and where so many great ideas were hashed out over pints of ale and chips. We didn’t have time to stop in and sit for a spell, but that just means I have to save it till next time.
Until then, Oxford. It was a pleasure.