Where My Books Have Been: Oxford

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

This past fall, Jordan and I went on our much-belated honeymoon.  We had been dreaming of and planning this trip for three years, and after a lot of patience and a lot of saving, we finally booked tickets to Europe.  We had four weeks to see seven countries and nine cities.  It was a whirlwind (quite literally), a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip, and we came back rich in unique experiences and absolutely filled with memories that we will treasure forever.  

The final stop on our trip was London, and as former English majors and book lovers, we decided to visit Oxford one day.  It is heralded as a mecca for book lovers, and we were excited to spend the day in a city that has so much rich literary history.

Punting, a favorite pastime in Oxford.

The whole experience felt like something out of a 19th century novel.  Compared to London, Oxford feels a lot smaller and more quiet, and it has a lot of charm and even more history.  From royal machinations and public executions to centuries of internationally renowned higher education and some of the most well-known and important works of literature, Oxford is a place where so much has happened, and you can feel it throughout the city.  You turn the corner and stumble upon the pub where J.R.R. Tolkien read the first pages of The Lord of the Rings or the church where C.S. Lewis came up with the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  It was both humbling and awe-inspiring to be surrounded by so much important literary history.

The pub where Tolkien read from The Lord of the Rings. 

According to the legend, C.S. Lewis came out of the church on the right, saw the head of a lion on the building directly across, and then saw the lamp (pictured here).  This was the genesis of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This house is near the garden where Lewis Carroll was sitting when a little girl named Alice came up to him and requested that he tell her a story.  She specified that she wanted it to be about a little girl named Alice.

Oxford boasts such an impressive literary history in great part because of the renowned University of Oxford, which is made up of almost 40 different colleges.  Numerous writers and scholars have come here to work, and it is no surprise that Oxford has a large selection of libraries, including the Bodleian Library.  The Bodleian Library has one of the most extensive collections in the world, and any book published in the United Kingdom has to send a copy to the library.  It currently has more than 11 million printed items.

The Bodleian Library

One of Oxford University's reading rooms.  

In addition, Oxford is home to the Norrington Room at Blackwell's bookshop.  The Norrington Room is the largest single room dedicated to selling books in the world.  I've been to a lot of bookstores in my life, but this one was incomparable. 

Only a fraction of the books for sale in the Norrington Room. 

More than anything, Oxford feels like a college town, and most of the city is made up of the various schools.  The buildings may be a lot older and the setup and curriculum different than that of most United States' universities, but it still feels much the same.  Students are running around with backpacks filled with books, trying to get to class on time.  They sit on stone steps, discussing art, politics, even the latest pop songs to top the charts.  They hang out at the pub, working on class assignments or laughing with friends over beers, chips, and cigarettes.  The city feels alive with youth who are just discovering themselves as adults for the first time, encountering new ideas, asking new questions and forming new opinions, and becoming the people that they will be for the rest of their lives.  

It was incredible to be around this kind of energy and excitement, and it reminded me so much of my time as an undergraduate student, when I was learning so much, not only about the world around me, but also myself.  It definitely made me nostalgic for my college days.  I'm fortunate that college was such a rich, positive, and formative time in my life, and I miss it.     

The students call this the Bridge of Sighs, after the bridge in Venice.  In actuality, it's clearly modeled after the Rialto Bridge, also in Venice. 

Our visit happened to coincide with Oxford's matriculation ceremony, which is when new students are formally accepted as members of the University.  As such, the city was especially busy, with excited new students celebrating their matriculation at the pub with wine and beer.  They were all wearing traditional academic dress, which you can see on the female student on the right in the picture below. 

Some of the colleges are open to visitors, though usually for a fee.  The most popular is Christ Church, not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it was used in the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.  For those of you who are fans, the scene when Harry first meets Draco Malfoy on the steps of Hogwarts was filmed at Christ Church.  The Great Hall in the films was also modeled after Christ Church's own Hall, though these scenes were not shot there because Christ Church could not accommodate the four tables required for Hogwart's four houses. 

On the left, you can see the long line of tourists waiting to get into Christ Church.

While there is so much to see and do in Oxford, the city also has a lot of quiet stretches, particularly along the river.  There are lush green plants and beautiful weeping willows, and these areas are perfect for relaxing with a good book and your journal.  These quiet moments were some of my favorite from our time at Oxford, and I wish that we had had more time to sit and enjoy them. 

Where are your favorite places to read and/or write?  


  1. Beautiful pictures! I've been able to visit Oxford twice, but only for a few hours each time. We ate at the Eagle and Child and spent lots of time at Blackwell's. I hadn't heard that story about Lewis getting the idea for LWW. What a fun bit of trivia! It is a beautiful city, indeed!

    1. Thank you! It sounds like you've had amazing trips to Oxford as well. It's definitely one of my favorite places - I'd love to go back and spend more than a day there. :)

  2. It is amazing how far back the history goes across the pond and how long the traditions have lasted. The accumulations of books and literary legends about literary legends really make Oxford a unique experience for any bibliophile. Your pictures really capture the odd mix of majestic and quaint that encapsulate Oxford. Truly beautiful.

    I also really like learning about the tensions between the students and the locals in Oxford. It reminds me of every college town ever... just a lot older.

    1. Yes, it's crazy how far back Oxford's history stretches! It's so much older than anything in the U.S. And I also enjoyed learning about the tensions between the students and locals. It's such a common tale, and there's so many interesting and funny things that have come out of that tension.

  3. Gorgeous photos! I've never been to Europe and would love to go one day. Thanks to your post; now I know I'll need to plan for more than a day's visit in Oxford.

    1. Thank you! I'd never been to Europe prior to this trip, and I had such an amazing time. There are so many beautiful countries and cities there - I wish I could take a year or two and just explore it all. :) And definitely add Oxford to your itinerary if you can. It's just amazing!

  4. Oh man! Your pictures have me longing for another trip to England. I recently went this past fall, but it was a short trip and I didn't get to see Oxford. I hope to some day. Your pictures are gorgeous and that pub where Tolkien wrote LotR?!?! I would love to see that. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, I would definitely recommend putting Oxford on your to-see list if possible. There's so much rich literary history. And yes, the pub where Tolkien first shared LotR (and where he and writers like C.S. Lewis would regularly hang out) is really cool! It's still used as a pub, and they're supposed to have great food and beer. :)


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