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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oxford Overnight

On March 7th we met New Hampshire friends Pat and Paul in Oxford for an overnight visit. Our train arrived after an hour’s travel from London at a bit before eleven, to a wet and gray morning. We caught a taxi to our accommodations, the Old Parsonage Hotel on Banbury Road.
Pat and Paul were visiting with their pretty and energetic 25 year old daughter Emma. She is in post graduate studies in anthropology, housed in Keble College, one of the 38 colleges comprising Oxford University. Emma earned a coveted “Rhodes Scholarship” and as been here since last summer.

Shortly after noon, the four of us braved the awful weather and walked the city’s medieval streets. We stopped into the Pitt Rivers Museum, a wonderfully eclectic anthropological and archaeological collection originally constructed by Augustus Pitt Rivers in 1884. His artifacts (over 22,000 items) were the basis of the compilation, arranged “thematically” over three floors. After this visit, we stopped at the Rhodes House; Paul charmed the warden and we were allowed a fast peek into the vestibule and grand foyer; a building for the exclusive use of its namesake scholars.
All our efforts were rewarded with lunch at the Turl Street Kitchen. Afterward we strolled some more, trying to avoid the biggest puddles; then stopped for a look into Merton College and its 13th century Chapel Choir. A bit more walking took us to The Eagle & Child Pub, a 17th century establishment frequented by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who met here as students in the 1930s to discuss their unfinished manuscripts; we had some drinks and pleasant conversation – then back to the hotel.

The quartet reconvened in the hotel’s lobby at five and walked to Magdalen College for their evening song; a lovely boys’ choir. There was one little probationer among the singers, a blond cherub who could hardly stay awake; I must say the music was heavenly. After meeting up with Emma and her boyfriend Phillip, we were all off by taxi to dinner at Trout at Wolvercote. This 17th century public house sits north of Oxford at the edge of the Thames and the Godstow Bridge. The early evening was atmospheric; a spray induced fog hung over the long terrace creating an obscure and ghostly outlook as the swollen river roared by, at what seemed almost eye level.
Another friend of Paul met us there; Nicholas is an Oxford man, retired, the embodiment and full essence of an English gentleman. Our conversation spanned the lighthearted to geopolitical sadness; marvelous stories of international adventures and more. I was most struck by Emma and Phillip's passion for things, their depth of experience and their sense of potential – wonderful young people. After returning to the hotel we had a last nightcap with Pat and Paul; and shuffled off to bed after midnight.  

We awoke Friday morning to a grey day with low cloud threatening more rain.  After breakfast, we walked to the Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street; Nicholas is a trustee there as well as at the British Museum in London. The Ashmolean focuses on art and archaeology and was the world’s first university museum, started in the 1670s. The present building dates to 1841. We had an hour’s stroll around the airy and well lit displays.
We then met up with Emma; she had arranged with a friend to provide all of us with a tour of New College; a rather misleading name since it was founded by the Bishop of Winchester in 1379. Josh was a marvelous tour guide, brimming with tidbits of the institution’s history and folklore. The grounds were breathtaking; its gardens protected by lovingly preserved Norman walls. I can’t imagine how it all must look in the bloom of spring.
After a quick run through Oxford’s covered market we were back to the Old Parsonage for lunch; also meeting up with Phillip. Service was lacking and our meal stretched over two hours, but the saving grace was the still lively conversation. A goodbye to our friends and a short taxi back to the station; we arrived to Paddington at four.  It was a very enjoyable and engaging overnight jaunt.