November 7, 2007

Oxford and its environs

Writing to a friend after having just returned from a trip to Oxford in 1903, Edith Wharton wrote: “In England I like it all – institutions, traditions, mannerisms, conservatisms, everything but the women’s clothes, & then having to go to church every Sunday.” After having just spent a week in England, I’d have to disagree with Wharton. I like absolutely everything about England – even the women’s clothes and having to go to church.

Although Oxford is a small college town, the University dates back to the late 11th century and there’s a superabundance of local history and architecture . After four days of pounding the pavement all day every day, I only just scratched the surface. I visited quirky little museums like the Museum of Natural History, where dinosaur bones mingle with Gothic tracery, and the famous Ashmolean Museum. The latter houses a collection of curiosities begun in the 17th century by John Tradescant (my hero) and includes a beaded robe that belonged to Powhatan, the father of the Pocahontas.

I strolled through the Botanic Garden, which in early November was still ablaze in color. I took guided tours of some of most famous university buildings: the Bodleian Library and Christ Church College. I ate lunch in the dining room at Balliol College with our host, Claudio, and felt as if I’d stepped into the Great Hall of Hogwart’s Academy for Witchcraft and Wizardry. (Actually, the dining hall at Christ Church College was the inspiration for the Hogwart’s set, but all those colleges look pretty much the same on the inside: rich, rich, rich). One day, Kevin and I even drove a few miles outside the city to visit Blenheim Palace, one of the most famous homes in all England. For three centuries it belonged to the Dukes of Marlborough, and it counts Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sir Winston Churchill among its many famous inhabitants.

Of all the places I’ve been in England, Oxford is the place I can best imagine myself living … happily and for the rest of my life. I never thought of myself as much of an Anglophile, but I guess I am. After just two days in Oxford, I was begging Kevin to let us live there – forever, or at the very least for us to come back for a year when he’s on sabbatical. Unfortunately, the dollar is so weak right now and the pound so strong that for an American to stay there for very long would be financial suicide. While we were there, we rented a car a drove across the South to visit some of his family in Devon, and the gas bill alone nearly broke us: At £1 per liter and 25 liters per tank, a tank set us back $50 U.S.! Still, it was worth it, for in my opinion there is not place on earth prettier than the English countryside. But more on that later.

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