I slept as late as I possibly could this morning, but although I tried really hard to keep sleeping until a reasonable hour, I was still out of bed by 6 a.m., before the sun was more than a glow over the row houses behind the hotel that constituted our view. The light grew as we got ready to go, eventually blazing into the room, which is nice, though the bathroom is tiny with a weak toilet and shower due to low water pressure. No air conditioning either; I suppose it’s not usually needed; they just leave the windows open all the time, but I didn’t see any mosquitoes.
The underground to Paddington was crowded due to breakdowns and, well, crowds, but we got to the station with enough time to admire the curved glass ceilings. A nice balding, bespectacled man with shaky hands processed our tickets, and we avoided the station’s Krispy Kreme on the way to the platform, where I was informed in a rather rough fashion to not bother with swiping my ticket and to just walk through the bleedin’ gate damn it GO ok THANK you!
The train to Oxford took us out of the city into lush springtime countryside punctuated occasionally by construction sites. The weather, which had been brilliant, became overcast, but was brilliant again by the time we reached Oxford.
Oxford is, we were told by a free tour guide who fancied himself not only an expert on the city and the university, but a standup comic as well, a collection of 38 completely independent colleges, many of which were monasteries before those were outlawed by Henry VIII. We saw the lamp post, lion head figure, and satyr decorations on a pub that supposedly inspired CS Lewis to write The Lion, the witch and the Wardrobe. We passed ornate gates of and carefully manicured emerald lawn of All Souls College, supposedly the most exclusive of the colleges, where they hunt imaginary waterfowl and give tests on a single word (a major in blogging being the result, I imagine). We got about halfway through that tour before losing them, so we walked around on our own a bit. I saw quite a few places I recognized from movies, and I even spied a village from the train that I’m sure was featured in Band of Brothers. Many of the Harry Potter movies features bits of Oxford scenes, as well as the Golden Compass.
We lunched on chicken sandwiches on rye bread at what was supposedly the site of the first coffee house ever (circa 1650), before purchasing tickets for the actual tour, by real Oxford Experts. Our Real Oxford Expert was an older Italian woman whose husband went to Oxford, and she spent much of the tour trying to convince us the Italy’s educational tradition was older and finer than that of England. She also got angry at Chenbl, who was falling behind to take photos and had the audacity to actually set foot on the dais of one of the colleges’ dining halls. “If you do not behave I will throw you out!” she glared at us, demanding that I keep Chenbl’s antics under control. I wondered briefly if it was part of an act to make us feel like part of the college we were touring, wayward students cowed by the severe headmistress or something, but I suspected she was serious; it was hard to tell as her English wasn’t exactly native-level.
After that tour we headed over to the Christ Church College, where they filmed the Hogwarts entrance hall and on whose dining hall they based the great hall, as it seems to be the largest college in Oxford. Every college is a kind of secret world, each has its fancy dining hall, church, and library; many are not open to visitors. It’s no surprise that the Harry Potter stories are based on such a tradition, but I wonder if the American fraternity system is as well. I actually did an interview for a Rhodes Scholarship when I was in college at Washington & Lee University, but my mention of an interest in filmmaking was ill-received and deemed “trendy”. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had I been more discreet. If I’d studied at Oxford I would have returned to Taiwan much later than I originally did, if I didn’t do something else.
We walked around a few more streets by more colleges, apparently very wealthy students popping in and out of ivy-hidden doors now and then, before going back to Christ Church for the service they hold, just to sit down in the lovely cathedral and listen to the choir and priest singing and chanting. It was very pleasant, and we got to walk again across the lovely green grounds, which by then were glowing in the late afternoon sun.
We wandered through the town a bit more as the sun moved towards the green horizon before we caught a mostly empty train back to London; we were virtually the only passengers. The sun sets so late here that it was still light out at 9:30.
Back in London, we found Platform 9 and three quarters at Kings Cross after Chenbl convinced me to actually ask one of the station staff. I half expected him to say, “Think you’re being funny, do you?” But he didn’t even think it was a silly question.
Tomorrow we’re going to Bath.