Originally posted on November 12, 2012
The City of Little Bronze Plaques. Not the catchiest nickname, but it’s fitting. In Oxford, you should actually read all these momentous markers. Hundreds of history’s smartest men have walked these cobblestone mouse-maze streets at some point. You’re in a city that spurned a man on to change his world. You’re in a city of conversions. And chances are the bench you’re resting on in a college courtyard was graced by the buttocks of a legend. An impactful quote you’ve heard a million times may have first been spoken there, friend to friend. And even amongst all of the academia, there’s peace and simplicity to be found here too. W.B. Yeats said, “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all… like an opera.”
Cup | Americano at The Missing Bean
Courtney, my lovely host, knows the way to my heart is coffee. She took me to The Missing Bean on Turl Street, really the only indie cafe in Oxford. It was packed out so we grabbed ours to go and headed to the gardens of Exeter College overlooking the Bodleian Library, the university’s primary (and most exclusive) library. The caffeine came at that perfect moment when you just need to take everything in without moving a limb. The complexity of this multi-college town hit me, and I felt like a very small fish in a super-human pond here… in the best way. Jericho is an area of town that seemed to have a good cafe selection. Try the Albion Beatnik Cafe, or if the name’s changed, look for one that has a wall of old books. It was closed when we passed by but seemed like a gem.
Plate | Tofu chili and salads at Vaults & Garden Cafe
The only notes I kept during my time in Oxford were about Vaults & Garden. It was by far one of the best meals and atmospheres of my trip. An old meeting room of the University Church, the “vaults” now buzz with a diverse crowd of tourists, professors, and families around an old-school lunch line and family-style tables. The menu is one where you just kind of drool as you read, every dish sounding as to-die-for as the last. I wisely chose the Vegetarian Tofu Chili with butternut squash, a bean salad (broccoli, fava beans, and peas), and a mint and greens salad with beet shreds. My finished plate looked like a work of art… I like to think it was. We sat out in the “gardens,” which really are a graveyard, and ate upon the 19th-century grave of Maria, William, and Sarah Hayes. Rest in peace.
*Also, I love that a note on their website boasts “genuine and unpretentious hospitality.”
Table | The Inklings’ table at The Eagle and Child, Lewis Close
My main intention for time spent in Oxford rested on a pilgrimage to C.S. Lewis’s stomping grounds– Magdalene College (pronounced “mawd-lin”), his home, church, and favorites around town. Appropriately, my first night’s dinner was at The Eagle and Child. Ironically, there was a carnival raging right outside, so it wasn’t quite as Lewis would’ve seen it as he made his way there Thursday mornings to meet Tolkien and the rest of The Inklings. Somehow the table under the little bronze plaque (see what I mean) about Lewis and The Inklings was open for us, and we settled in their corner. The next day, I made it out to Headington to visit his home and parish church. It was eerily quiet around the quaint house at the end of Lewis Close, just as Lewis liked it. I peaked into the library window over his desk where his pipe still lay as I stood in the garden he looked out on as he wrote letters and books that would change my life.
Sight | Binsey and bliss
There’s town, then there’s the country. Heading away from city center, just past the train station and over a few bridges, there’s Binsey Lane. Take a right and behold. Courtney and I went on a walk toward the tiny “town” of Binsey, which is comprised of cows, a few crumbly, chic cottages, and The Perch. The Perch was another of Lewis’s favorites. There’s something a bit magical about it with its thatched roof and whimsical garden/yard with giant trees and footpaths. I went on a run to Binsey the next afternoon, ran down the stream, and over to Port Meadow on the edge of Jericho. I kept thinking “Bliss! Bliss! Bliss!” as I ran through the wide-open field with well-trod walking paths and a hot air balloon over head.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis’s autobiography, he writes about the first time he arrived in Oxford with no plans for accommodation and no directional bearings. He headed out of the city instead of toward it, but writes about his first view of the Oxford he came to love. He wrote, “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.”