Oxford, May 2012
Christina writes: Wayne and I planned a comparatively leisurely programme for our first day in Oxford (9 May), so that we could recover from the stresses of our journey. We had booked our hotels to include full breakfasts, and with a good start to the day, we generally ate lightly at lunch, sometimes only a snack. We always had a good meal in the evening, except when we had our second meal in mid-afternoon, made easier by many English restaurants offering a cheaper two- or three-course meal from midday until 6.00 or 7.00; and in that case, we ate lightly in the evening in our room. On our first morning in Oxford, at the Quod restaurant associated with the Old Bank Hotel, we ordered the full English cooked breakfast (minus the black pudding), but neither of us managed to clean the plate. On most other mornings, we chose breakfast from the buffet: a generous display of cereals, fresh fruit including strawberries, cold meats, cheese, croissants, and Danish pastries.
After breakfast, we crossed the High and walked down Catte Street, past the Radcliffe Camera. Although the day was sunny, the temperature was cool enough that we needed jackets. As usual, many tourists were in evidence around the Radcliffe Camera – including ourselves, of course – as this library building is especially picturesque. Naturally, there were many students on hand as well, or at least their bicycles chained to fences. (We had just read a short article in one of the newspapers given us on the flight to England, which claimed that there were fewer bicycles being used at universities. This certainly wasn’t true at Oxford!) We shortly made our way past the Old Bodleian Library to the Clarendon Building, to renew our Bodleian cards at the Admissions Office. With that task completed, we toured the Bodleian exhibition The Romance of the Middle Ages (see A Shelving Problem) which we very much enjoyed, and visited the library shop, no longer in the area outside the Divinity School but on the far side of the quadrangle. We thought its contents now aimed more at the general tourist, with fewer scholarly books and more souvenirs.
Near the Bodleian is the Old Ashmolean Museum building on Broad Street, where Tolkien had worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, and which is now the Museum of the History of Science. This was our next stop, as Wayne wanted to see the various collections of historic astrolabes, microscopes, surveying instruments, and so forth. When we reached the top floor, a guide spontaneously pointed out to us an exhibit which had belonged to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great 19th-century engineer. I wondered if we had been approached because the guide caught a trace of a Bristol accent in my voice (I was born in Bristol), and Brunel was associated mainly with Bristol; but no, he pointed out the Brunel provenance only because, he said, so many visitors miss it (we hadn’t).
It was now early afternoon, and though neither of us was particularly hungry, we were thirsty after our museum-going and we wanted to rest to rest our feet. We decided to make for Ask, a restaurant in George Street which we had liked on previous visits and where we knew we could get something light at lunchtime. Despite being part of a chain, Ask used to be a rather upscale Italian restaurant, serving mainly pizzas and pastas, an excellent caesar salad, and delicious ice creams, but we found that in the five years since we were last in Oxford, its decor has become less elegant and its menu more generic. Wayne had a pizza margherita (thin-crust cheese pizza)but could eat only part of it, while I had a gelato frutta (vanilla gelato with apricot and raisins in amaretto syrup, with fresh raspberries and roasted flaked almonds). We shared a tall bottle of cool mineral water.
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to bookshops. Alas, Oxford no longer has many shops selling secondhand books as it once did. When I lived in London, I would sometimes spend a whole day in Oxford just looking for used books. I remember Robin Waterfield’s original multi-story antiquarian bookshop in Park End Street, where in the early 1980s I bought The Year’s Work in English Studies for 1923, 1924, and 1925, and Essays and Studies for 1929 (a fine copy in dust-jacket), each volume with a Tolkien contribution and each costing only £15; and nearby, in a building which contained a bookshop among other businesses, I bought a three-volume set of the last printing of the first edition of The Lord of the Rings, in fine condition with fine dust-jackets, for £13.50: this proved of great value when dealing with the textual history of the work, as it provides a terminus for any changes made in the first edition. These shops are gone, as is Waterfield’s later, downsized shop in High Street. Thornton’s, an academic bookshop selling both new and old books and with a special section on the Inklings (it was particularly useful as a source of translations of Tolkien’s works), has gone too, from the premises it occupied for many years in Broad Street; and so has the superb shop Blackwell’s used to have in Broad Street devoted to children’s books (a much reduced coverage is incorporated in the main Blackwell’s shop opposite the Clarendon Building). We also miss the two secondhand bookshops in Cowley Road, across Magdalen Bridge: Artemis and The Bookshop on the Plain. I don’t remember anything I bought at either, but I do remember always finding the latter full of books I already owned.
But I digress. Our bookshop afternoon was confined to three in Broad Street: Waterstone’s, Blackwell’s Art Shop, and Blackwell’s main shop. In En Route to Oxford I mentioned packing an extra bag to allow space for purchases made during our visit. Those who know us well would guess, correctly, that most of those would be books. We knew that we would see more books that we wanted than we could carry with us, and some that were big and heavy: these we noted for future purchase online, to be delivered to our home, while reserving space in our bags for items not available (or easily available) online, and allowing that we were only at the start of our visit, with secondhand bookshops, book fairs, and exhibitions yet to come. In the end, we brought back forty books (admittedly, some quite slim), and ordered more than two dozen mainly through Book Depository – but more on that in future posts. This afternoon in Oxford, we made no purchases, but noted many titles. In the past, I’ve found items of interest in Blackwell’s antiquarian and secondhand departments – I remember, for instance, buying Sir Stanley Unwin’s The Truth About a Publisher (1960), very good in a very good dust-jacket, inscribed by the author ‘To my kinswoman Lady Tweedsmuir’ (Mrs John Buchan) for £6.50, and a copy of The Tolkien Family Album, very good in a very good dust-jacket, inscribed by Priscilla Tolkien to a family friend, for £8.80. But we had no such luck on this occasion.
That evening, we had the early prix fixe meal offered at Quod, both choosing pork pot au feu followed by vanilla ice cream with butterscotch sauce. We then retired to our room, checked the lists of books we had made, and found four items which we either could not get online or which it seemed advantageous to purchase in a shop, because of price or to ensure getting a copy in good condition. These we bought the following day. In Blackwell’s Art Shop were Lucien Pisarro in England: The Eragny Press 1895–1914 and John Piper and the Church, exhibition catalogues chosen by Wayne, and The Art of Simon Palmer (not to be confused with Samuel Palmer), a artist neither of us had heard of before, but whose work impressed us both. (Palmer will be the co-subject of a future post.) Then in the main Blackwell’s shop I bought The Oxford Tutorial, a book on that aspect of Oxford education I found interesting.
Our second day in Oxford was devoted mainly to Tolkien research. In past visits, this was done in Room 132 in the New Bodleian Library on the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road, but as that building is being renovated, Modern Manuscripts have to be consulted in the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library next to the University Museum. We had used the Science Library before, while writing The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, because it had a convenient collection of the very informative Oxford University Gazette. Now we spent a few hours with some papers that weren’t available to us earlier, or of whose existence we’ve recently learned.
The Science Library isn’t far from Pierre Victoire, a French restaurant (as its name suggests), and one of our favourites, in Little Clarendon Street. It serves two- or three-course lunches at very reasonable prices. On this occasion, we both started with chicken liver parfait with mesclun, brioche toast, and a red cabbage relish, followed by duck confit with blackberry and ginger sauce and potato and onion rosti. Wayne chose mousse au chocolat for dessert, and I had rhubarb and apple crumble. I also had a glass of house wine and filtered coffee. It wasn’t long before we realized that we had eaten far too much at lunch (we would be more careful after this), so resolved to pick up no more than a tuna sandwich and a lemon cake from a Pret a Manger in Cornmarket Street to share in our room that evening.
After lunch, we returned to our research, but this was interrupted by a false fire alarm (set off by mistake by workmen) and we had to evacuate for a short while. Even so, we completed our work by late afternoon. Afterward, as we passed the New Bodleian on the way back to our hotel, we noticed that the site is enclosed with a fence advertising some of the treasures of the Bodleian from A to Z, and that representing the letter T is Tolkien and his Hobbit illustration Conversation with Smaug. Alas, the accompanying description dates either the text or the picture, or both – it isn’t clear which – to 1936, though the former was published in 1937 and the latter both painted and first published (in the second Allen & Unwin printing of The Hobbit) in 1937.
On Friday, 11 May, we began by walking down the Turl towards the Ashmolean Museum. On the way, I was attracted by some women’s oxford-style lace-up shoes in the window of Ducker & Son (shoemakers since 1898). I had been trying in vain for years to find a pair to replace one I had before I moved to America. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a pair in the dark brown I wanted, but I was able to get some brogues in a nice lighter brown. My feet were measured to be sure of the right size – I can’t remember when I last encountered that level of care and service when buying shoes. Later, I saw a notice on the Ducker & Son website that Tolkien was one of their famous customers. After returning briefly to our room so that we wouldn’t have to carry my new shoes throughout the day, we set out again to see the Ashmolean’s new galleries. These are quite impressive, and deserve at least a full day to do them justice. On the lowest floor, we were amused to find Tolkien’s illustration of Smaug on his hoard yet again, this time related to treasure hoards from the heroic age. (‘The treasures stolen from the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain are very similar to objects from the Early Medieval period that were on display in the Museum when Tolkien was writing The Hobbit. Were these the models?’) We had a light lunch in the Ashmolean café, sharing a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich and a packet of cheese and chive crisps (US chips). I also had a cappuccino.
Although we’ve visited Oxford many times, bookshops and research have usually left us little time to just be tourists. On the Thursday afternoon, we filled in some omissions. We began by visiting Magdalen College and strolling about a mile along Addison’s Walk, where Tolkien and Hugo Dyson famously talked with C.S. Lewis and brought him to a belief in God. It was a beautiful day, and we enjoyed the views across the meadows, the spring flowers, the foliage, and the playful birds, including geese having some sort of disagreement. We saw some of the deer of the Magdalen deer park only in the far distance. After this, we walked across the High to the University Botanic Garden, including various climate houses. We were happy to recognize many of the outdoor plants, some of which we have in our own garden, and, of course, we found and photographed Tolkien’s favourite tree, a Pinus nigra or European black pine. This is a magnificent specimen, with interesting bark, and very tall indeed. Wayne unfortunately forgot to look up in advance the location of the bench that figures in the last part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and we didn’t notice one that fits the bill; but later we found that there’s a difference of opinion about this, anyway.
In late afternoon, we returned to our hotel to freshen up before meeting two friends from the Tolkien Society for dinner. Despite all the walking we had already done, we decided to walk up to Summertown (about forty minutes) to the Xi’an Chinese restaurant, well known to us from the many times we stayed at Ryan’s Guest House in the Banbury Road from 1995 to 2004 (now, alas, a dentist’s surgery). We and our friends shared various dishes: shredded duck with pineapple and preserved ginger, sizzling beef in Cantonese sauce, stir-fried mixed vegetables in Szechuan sauce, quick-fried lamb with spring onions, and chicken with green pepper and black bean sauce. We stayed talking for almost three hours, then took a bus back as far as Broad Street and walked the rest of the way.
When we visited the Museum of the History of Science earlier in the week, Wayne noticed that an exhibition would be opening there on 11 May: The Renaissance in Astronomy, marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of Gerard Mercator. So on Saturday the 12th, Wayne spent another half hour in the Museum while I revisited Blackwell’s. Although it was only a small display (still on view through 9 September, and online), Wayne found it well assembled and very informative (among other things, he is working on a catalogue of rare astronomy books for one of the Williams professors).
Later that morning, we went to the University Museum of Natural History, which I had seen before but Wayne had not, except for the lecture hall in which one of the Tolkien Centenary Conference sessions was held. He was determined that on this visit he would at last see the Museum’s famous dodo. We strolled around the fossils (including huge dinosaurs) and stuffed animals, birds, and fish, and looked upwards at the building’s magnificent neo-Gothic design inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. Wayne bought a book on the Museum’s architecture. We also visited some of the ethnographical collections in the Pitt-Rivers Museum, which is attached to the University Museum and like the Botanic Garden has a Pullman connection: it’s one of the locations of the Oxford featured in The Subtle Knife. Afterward, we walked around the University Parks looking for, and eventually finding, the bench given by the Centenary Conference in 1992 in memory of Tolkien. The bench has naturally weathered, with an accretion of lichen, and the lettering of the plaque is faded though still legible. Its location by the river is very peaceful, interrupted only by joggers and the occasional duck. Although I was present in autumn 1991 when two trees were planted to commemorate Tolkien and mark his centenary, I now could not locate them near the bench as I had once done easily. I had heard that one had died; I wonder if both have gone. We spent some time searching for the trees while trying to recall what they had looked like and imagining what they should look like twenty years later. But we found only some small, nondescript trees, recently planted to judge by their size, in a field of tall grass not well tended.
For lunch, we returned to Ask where I had the same gelato as before, but this time preceded by asparagus with prosciutto, baked with breadcrumbs, cheese, and olive oil. Wayne had a chicken caesar salad. In the afternoon, we visited St Philip’s in Aldgate, a secondhand bookshop where Wayne found Fifty Penguin Years (1985) to add to our collection of books on the publisher Penguin Books. We then queued to visit Christ Church college, having previously only seen the library, where we looked at Tolkien material in the Early English Text Society archives. It was a very long queue, with many international visitors, not a few of them interested in the Christ Church hall which had been used as a location for Hogwarts in ‘Harry Potter’ films.
That evening, we dined at the High Table, the restaurant attached to the Eastgate Hotel in High Street. Tolkien often ate at the Eastgate, but the restaurant would certainly have looked very different in his time and was probably not named the same. We began our meal by sharing an excellent chicken liver and fois gras with spiced date chutney, granary toast, and frisée. To follow, we both had a disappointing assiette of new season lamb (rump, shepherd’s tortelloni, sweetbreads), garlic purée, olive mash, baby carrots, broad beans, and mint. Wayne resisted dessert, but I had a delicious dark and white chocolate sweet with raspberry garnish.
Sunday was our final day in Oxford, though spent partly in London. We caught an early coach from the stop almost opposite our hotel to attend a book fair at the Royal National Hotel in Bloomsbury. I used to visit two book fairs almost every month when I was living in London, and Wayne did so as well when his visits coincided. We have almost no book fairs held near Williamstown, and such as there are, are small compared to those in London and not particularly strong on subjects in which we’re interested. Wayne bought two books at the Royal National fair: the BBC Year Book for 1947, with dust-jacket art by Edward Bawden, and Eric Ravilious 1903–42: A Reassessment of His Life and Work, an exhibition catalogue from the Towner Art Gallery. I found an old Bloomsbury Auctions catalogue which includes three works by Pauline Baynes, all rather poorly reproduced: the cover and frontispiece for the 1949 Blackie edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and a drawing we have not yet been able to identify, possibly an illustration that was not used. We spent two hours at the fair before returning to Oxford to meet several friends from the Tolkien Society, and one from an online discussion group, at the Royal Oak in the Woodstock Road. Since the Royal Oak served food all day, and we had had no lunch, we both ordered beef roast with gravy, roast potatoes, carrots, and peas. I also had an apple and strawberry shortcake crumble with custard, and coffee. Not everyone stayed until 7.00 pm, when the meeting finally broke up and we made our way back to our hotel to pack for our journey to Bristol the next morning.
Images, top to bottom: View from our room at the Old Bank Hotel in High Street, looking down Catte Street (the building at left is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, partly covered by scaffolding while under renovation, and the one at right is part of The Queen’s College); bicycles outside the Radcliffe Camera; part of the A to Z display of Bodleian Library treasures, on the construction fence in front of the New Bodleian along Broad Street; exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum, also incorporating Tolkien’s painting of Smaug; a view down Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College; the Pinus nigra or European black pine in the University Botanic Garden; the Tolkien memorial bench in the University Parks, seen from behind; a sundial at Christ Church, Oxford; punts ready for use on the Cherwell, outside the Botanic Garden (it has no connection with the text of the final paragraph, but was too good a photo to leave out).