Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Visit to Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, Part 3

Attribution: Soham Banerjee - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

When I think about our visit to Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford, an old song from the 1968 musical Oliver! comes to mind. But instead of 'food, glorious food', I hum 'books, glorious books'. For, Blackwell's is not just any book store, it's a book lover's paradise. Carrie, our beautiful B&B hostess, calls it the most dangerous bookstore in the world. I think she's right. A person could easily disappear down the rabbit hole and be lost forever among the book shelves ... unless, of course, a discerning husband has a firm grip on a coat sleeve to ensure her safe return. 

The shop doesn't appear large from the outside, but step up into one of the two entrances and you'll discover what someone describes as 'an Aladdin's Cave filled to the brim with books on every subject'. The flagship shop, founded in 1879 in Oxford, was originally twelve feet square; now it includes several floors, including the massive underground Norrington Room. Take a virtual tour of the shop and you will have a good idea of what to expect. I spent most of my time on the first floor. Note: if you live on this side of the pond, you might need to upload the UK adobe flash.

A whole day week should be spent in that wonderful shop (there's a lovely cafe if you need refuelling), for there are many nooks and crannies on several floors to while away an hour here, two or three hours there. The too-short time we spent there was pure pleasure, with staff at the ready to show us around. We soaked up the ambience and drank in the smell of books. We paused to read interesting quotes scrolled across walls, and peered at strategically placed photographs of well-known personages who once shopped there -- reminding us that fellow book lovers are always in fine company.

We marvelled to think of the treasury of knowledge housed in this rambling space and gasped to learn a whole room was dedicated to the works of well-loved poets and others more obscure. Just as Westminster Cathedral has its famous Poet's Corner, so does Blackwell's:

Now that you know a little about the shop, you're probably wondering what I bought while I was there. Clutching a growing stack of books, three bagfuls later, my suitcase back at the B&B suddenly weighed a dangerous amount. This shop truly is a book lover's haven; I would have to get a job if I lived in this city.

On that somewhat bewildering first day we arrived in Oxford, Rick and I walked through the streets to orientate ourselves. That's when I first caught sight of a book perched in a shop window that I just knew I had to have. Into the shop we went and headed straight to the display of Oxford Sketchbook. Paging through a sample copy, I knew my first instinct was correct -- I was smitten. Two copies purchased then and there, one for myself and one for a birthday gift. Our first shopping experience in Oxford and it was in Blackwell's; we'd go back for a proper visit a few days later. Since coming home, I ordered two copies more through 

Oxford Sketchbook
Watercolours by Graham Byfield and Text by Roger White

Excerpt from Inside Cover
"Oxford, with its golden skyline of towers, spires, domes and turrets set against lush water meadows and hills, was considered by the poet Keats the finest city in the world. Artist Graham Byfield strolls with his sketchpad through college gateways, quadrangles and gardens, along broad streets and narrow alleyways, into great ceremonial buildings and medieval pubs full of character. On the way, with a few pencil strokes and splashes of watercolour, he captures passing scenes of student and civic life enacted before one of the finest architectural backdrops in the world. ...
Accompanying the paintings and sketches are observations and notes handwritten by the artist, as well as a learned and lively introduction to Oxford, its history and buildings by the noted architectural historian Roger White."

* * * * * 

OXFORD Through the Lens
Douglas Vernimmen
Foreword by Colin Dexter

Oxford Through the Lens is a wonderful collection of Oxford's architectural, historical, and cultural impressions through photography. According to the inside cover, the book also reflects Douglas Vernimmen's feelings about the city. He worked as a scientist at Oxford in the 2000's which allowed him to view the University 'from the inside'. An award-winning photographer, Vernimmen says, "My wish would be to go back in time with my camera: people would undoubtedly look different, but the buildings would probably look much as they do today."

What makes this coffee table book extra special for me is that smack dab in the middle is a two-page spread featuring Holywell Bed and Breakfast. Which simple meant we had to ask Jack to autograph it, as you will see when you peer more closely at the photo. 🐾

* * * * *

Oxford College Gardens
by Tim Richardson and Andrew Lawson

Excerpt from Inside Cover
"The gardens of Oxford's colleges are surprisingly varied in style, age and size, ranging from the 16th-century Mount in the middle of New College to the impressive modernist design which is St Catherine's. ... Founded in 1621, the Oxford University Botanic Garden is the oldest in Britain, and holds one of the most diverse plant collections in the world. ... In this book Tim Richardson's elegant, authoritative analysis combines with Andrew Lawson's glorious photographs to reveal the diversity and discreet charm of Oxford's college gardens."

Yes, this book is laden with charm and beauty -- every page filled with stunning photos of Oxford's college gardens. We had the opportunity to enjoy some of these gardens in person, including the Botanic Garden. Because the colleges were between terms while we were there, visitors could gain entrance, and walk at leisure through the grounds and some of the college buildings. The wisteria was just coming into blossom at Magdalen College, and there were plantings of tulips and other spring perennials everywhere.

The book really is 'sightseeing in an armchair' -- I'd say almost as good as being there, well, not quite, but you know... if you can't get there in person, the book is a lovely substitute. A beautiful memento of our beautiful holiday.

 * * * * *

As for something lighter in subject matter and weight, here are other books I bought:

Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively. As I stood in front of the shop's biographical memoir section, one of my go-to spots these days, this title intrigued me. An ammonite fossil and a 12th century sherd of a leaping fish are two of the six treasured possessions which Ms Lively uses as prompts to write her fragments of memories. At eighty, she looks over her life and 'reports back what she finds ... what it is like to be old as well as on how memory shapes us'. 

Two Josephine Tey detective mysteries: The Man in the Queue and A Shilling for Candles. Shortly before we went to Oxford, I found a new to me mid-twentieth century British mystery writer at the library. I so enjoyed reading The Singing Sands (you can read about it here) I went in search for more. When I saw the nice selection of her books at Blackwell's, I hemmed and hawed about whether to get the complete set of six in the series, and to heck with the luggage weight fees at the airport, or just choose a couple. You can see, I opted for the couple. Perhaps I was remembering those heavy coffee table books already packed in my suitcase. 
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey. The author has been a part of Oxford University since the 1950's, now an Emeritus Professor. He shares his stories about the books that 'formed the backbone of his life'. I am always interested to see how other people write memoir, and I'm especially eager to see how Prof. Carey uses books as a central theme. I look forward to getting into it soon.  

Yours, Jack: The Inspirational Letters of C.S. Lewis. Who can come to Oxford and not buy something by one of its great writers. It was because of C.S. Lewis and his influence on my life through his writings that I longed for years to visit. Although I have read and already own many of his books, I just knew there had to be something of his that would make a lovely memento of my Oxford visit.

Brought the book home to our room and began reading it that evening. I soon realized I'd made the right choice for more than one reason: the snoopy person in me enjoys reading over the shoulders of others to see how they live their lives. I enjoy his candour, humour, and wisdom from the two other letter collections I have of his; I was sure I'd love this one too.

Another reason, which I'm finding completely satisfying, is that in his letters Lewis often references various spots while he lived in Oxford, and for the first time ever, I am reading something that feels familiar, I recognize it. I can say, Oh, I was there, I saw that. Now I have a clearer picture in my mind to what he is referring. It makes this reader feel closer to the author.

*The other two collections I have are: Letters to an American Lady, 1971, and Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, 1964.

Well, there it is... a glimpse into my visit to Blackwell's. Hope it was worth the long wait. One last thing to share is a quote, not from anything I bought that day, but from one of my all-time favourite English books, Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh:
"Oxford—now submerged and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in—Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days—such as that day—when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour." Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, describing Oxford of 1923

Wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places
on this beautiful weekend,


April Simple Woman's Daybook (hints of Oxford)
Oxford First Glimpses, Part 1

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Here In Oxford, Part 2

JACK: Why are you two just standing there, talking? Can't you see I want to play tag?

I look around with a happy sigh as I stand in the middle of my host's pretty garden. Hidden behind tall brick walls, Carrie and I step into a lovely bit of 'heaven' where spring blooms in every corner. A sanctuary in the middle of town, it seems a place where quiet, peaceful activity can unfold: I imagine a bit of gardening, feeding the hens who would lay next day's breakfast eggs, perhaps reading a good book with tea, or just having a sit down in a ray of sunshine. For the time being, Jack quietly sniffs out his favourite spots, waiting for a timely moment to interrupt his chatting companions so he could get on with what he considered the real reason why we all came out here -- to play 'catch me if you can' tag.

A huge leafless tree looms overhead. Carrie calls it the 'Lewis' tree, as it's the one C.S. Lewis would have seen from that upstairs window in the white house when he arrived in Oxford for the first time in 1916.

You might be surprised - or not - to learn I felt a certain thrill in actually seeing this spot with my own eyes, and to gaze up at the same tree, not to mention the window of the room where he once looked out. The man, known to his friends as Jack, became a favourite author of mine ever since I discovered his writings in my late teens/early twenties, at which time I devoured everything I could find of his, including the Narnia stories.

Aside: Do you ever think we humans are a funny lot, going on 'tours' to catch glimpses of where our favourite well-known persons once studied, lived, wrote their famous books or songs... or whatever else? Have you ever wondered why we want to do that? Is it our way of connecting with history and the people who left footprints in the sands of time for us to notice? What do you feel about it? And, another thing, have you ever wondered what they might think of it all, if they knew, since many of them were probably just minding their own business living out their lives, just as we are doing today?

Whatever it is, somehow our veneration of them adds something meaningful to our own lives.

In the midst of it all, happy was I to find an excerpt from his book Surprised by Joy, wherein Lewis actually tells of the time he first arrived in Oxford, dropped off at the corner just off Holywell Street (see centre pic two photos up), a few feet from where I am now standing, just over 100 years later. For you other romantics, here it is:
"My first taste of Oxford was comical enough. I had made no arrangements about quarters and, having no more luggage than I could carry in my hand, I sallied out of the railway station on foot to find either a lodging-house or a cheap hotel; all agog for “dreaming spires” and “last enchantments.” My first disappointment at what I saw could be dealt with. Towns always show their worst face to the railway. But as I walked on and on I became more bewildered. Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose.
Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. I had come out of the station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into what was even then the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life. I merely walked back to the station, somewhat footsore, took a hansom, and asked to be driven to “some place where I can get rooms for a week, please.”
The method, which I should now think hazardous, was a complete success, and I was soon at tea in comfortable surroundings. The house is still there, the first on the right as you turn into Mansfield Road out of Holywell. I shared the sitting room with another candidate, a man from Cardiff College, which he pronounced to be architecturally superior to anything in Oxford. His learning terrified me, but he was an agreeable man. I have never seen him since.”

And, now for breakfast. I promised to show you the fine, fine breakfasts we enjoyed. Let me tell you, they were a delicious affair each morning, and they made us feel happy and energized for a new day of exploring. Carrie's sign on the wall said it all:

Money can't buy happiness
but it can buy chickens,
and chickens make eggs and
breakfast makes you happy."

Soft jingle bells on the door announce our arrival into the cozy breakfast room -- bells on the right, two photos up -- where we found the buffet set with inviting bowls of fresh berries, organic yogurt (so creamy), and granola mixed with dried fruit and nuts. We tucked into the berries and yogurt while our hot breakfast selection for that morning was being prepared for us.

All the while, through the window, we could watch people walking or riding by on their bicycles. We did not worry when they stopped to take pictures in front of the B&B... or even peer into the window, adjusting their hair or clothes in the reflection. Although a common occurrence, Carrie and Stuart assured us they tested it out -- guests inside could peer out into the street, but nothing inside was visible from the outside. So we calmly ate on...

Boiled Eggs and Toast
with homemade strawberry jam

Rick ordered boiled eggs and toast our first morning... and they arrived nestled under those darling hen 'tea cozies'. For sure, we needed a photo of them. As for me, I had the yummy bacon sandwich. If anyone recalls me reading Lucy Dillon novels, as noted in a distant post, one story involved a rescue dog shelter. When volunteers came to walk the dogs, they were later rewarded with homemade bacon sandwiches which the owner of the shelter made herself. I thought, yum, so when I saw it listed on the menu, I knew what I wanted.

Other mornings, I had the sumptuous Blueberry Pancakes with maple syrup, and Carrie's delicious version of the Egg McMuffin. It was all wonderful with cups of tea or coffee and fresh orange juice.

L - Bacon Sandwich
C- American-style Blueberry Pancakes with Maple Syrup
R - Egg McMuffin

Appetites satisfied, we gathered guide maps, cameras, and headed out in comfy shoes and warmish jackets. Still early morning, the streets were quiet, and there was a sense of wonder as we strolled. To think we were walking on paved or cobbled streets, seeing in person the colleges and buildings that have been standing here in these very spots for hundreds of years.


The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (centre above). We could only view this impressive circular building from the outside. It is a working library, and so only students and scholars are admitted. I took this photo from the tower (left) when we climbed up. Designed by James Gibbs and built in 1737 to 1749, the Radcliffe Camera forms part of the Bodleian Library complex and houses mainly English, History, and Theology books. Oh, to be a fly on those walls for a reverent peek inside.

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin (left above) sits just opposite the Radcliffe Camera building. That soaring 13th century tower caught our attention; for a small fee, we could climb to the top of the spire and enjoy a bird's eye view of Oxford’s famous ‘dreaming spires’.

So, climb we did -- 127 steps. Those nice wooden stairs you see in the photo were just near the bottom; as we got inside the tower--the very narrow tower--we found ourselves treading carefully on extremely narrow stone steps. Round and round the stairwell went. Up, up, up. Thinking to myself, good thing we aren't experiencing any claustrophobic feelings in this moment.

I longed to stop for a photo but people were pressing in behind, so I kept climbing ... until we reached the top, where after I caught my breath, we stepped out onto a very skinny walkway (they certainly didn't build with tourists in mind all those centuries earlier--wink). It was not wide enough for adults to pass each other, not even a tiny toddler, although one tried to wiggle past my legs, to his mother's deep chagrin.

The view, the view. A spectacular sea of stone and brick, all put together with such architectural beauty and design. I understand Headington stone, a limestone from the Headington Quarry area near Oxford, was traditionally used for a number of the older Oxford University college buildings.

Oh, look, there they are -- the famous spires and towers standing like sentinels against the Oxford skies. And, here we are in person, looking at it all. What is it about this place that captures the imaginations of people everywhere? Poets, writers, artists, historians, architects, scholars, readers, teachers, nobodies, somebodies, young, old -- we've all been bitten. I am smitten.

"And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening."
from Matthew Arnold's Poem, Thyrsis

Although I tried, my photos could never do this spectacular view due justice. I can see why professional photographers and artists would want to see the skyline with all those spires and towers at various times of day -- in early morning light or evening sunset, maybe even in a hazy fog. Like in this painting we found in a gallery one morning, which we purchased:

"Oxford through mist from the Thames at Port Meadow"
Acrylic on board by David E.S. Langford

We had the privilege to meet another local artist, Joshua Hughes, an Oxford fellow and a man of many talents. He had a display of some of his work in The Radcliffe Camera square one morning, and it didn't take us long to know which water colours we wanted to bring home as keepsakes of our time in Oxford. You can find Josh's website here.

Joshua Hughes

Joshua Hughes

What fun to go on one of Stuart's walking tours. "Oxford Walking Tours has been operating from the blue gates of Trinity College on Broad St for more than 30 years." And, Stuart has been a part of that tradition for as many years, being an Oxford man himself. He pointed out to our group the well-known buildings and shared so many interesting bits of history about the City and University of Oxford.

If you wonder why the colleges are all cloistered behind walls that don't permit the public, that tradition goes back a long way. It started in the early days of the university. The local townsfolk were not happy campers when privileged students came to study in their neck of the woods. Altercations between them happened often; students were even murdered. So walls and gates that were locked at night were built to help protect the students. Nowadays it's not about murder, but the tradition of walls and gates remain -- let the students and scholars get on with their work in the sheltered environment of their own colleges.

When the colleges are on term break, visitors are permitted to visit the various college grounds and buildings. Snoopy people like us rejoice. Stuart took us through New College's cloisters, gardens, the impressive dining hall with those long wooden tables (made famous by films such as Harry Potter, Brideshead Revisted, and others), the beautiful chapel (no pics allowed there).

While we were walking through the beautiful gardens of New College (above), the birds were serenading us so sweetly, I tried to capture the sound on video. It was windy so it rattles too.

“All gardening is landscape painting.”
~ Alexander Pope

“The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.”
~ Hanna Rion

“Gardens are the result of a collaboration between art and nature.”
~ Penelope Hobhouse

Last, but certainly not least, above is the 'Bridge of Sighs'. Completed in 1914, this bridge connects two parts of Hertford College (once the college of Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh). It is similar to the Venice Bridge of Sighs, but not actually modelled on it. We walked under it on New College Lane during our walking tour. Lots of people milling around, posing for photos. If you peer closely, we're not in the crowd; somehow in the excitement we forgot to be tourists and take a photo of us in that favoured spot. Haha

I shall stop here ... for surely you need a break and your teacup is now sipped dry. I'll begin the next post right away, and, for all you book lovers, I'll be absolutely sure to include Blackwells book store and the lovely books I found there, as well as notes about the very stirring Easter performance of Mozart's Requiem we heard in the Sheldonian Theatre and how it stood out as one of those 'complete' spiritual moments.

I hope you've enjoyed my joy ride in a dreamy Oxford bubble!
I'd love to hear from you.

Wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places,