Saturday, June 18, 2022

Day 10 – Oxford

Our group was very excited to visit Oxford, city of dreaming spires, and we were pleased that Dr. Davies, USM’s Head of British Studies, was joining us again. He led us to Marble Arch where we could catch the Oxford coach because it has a stop much closer to the center of town than the train. When we arrived, there was time to walk around before our first appointment.
Vaulted ceiling at the Bodleian
I had a book for Ann Dowker so walked down to St. Hilda’s and left it with the porter who called me madam. We met up at 11:00 at the corner of High and Catte Streets and walked the few blocks to the Bodleian.

The Bodleian Library is the main research library for all the individual colleges that form the University of Oxford (see website). Established in 1602, it is the second-largest library in Britain after the British Library and holds over 12 million items. It is open every day of the week but, except for tours, is only available to those affiliated with Oxford or those who have obtained permission to use it for research. The collection is non-circulating. The library complex includes four historic buildings and a more recent building called the Weston Library that contains offices and 11 floors of stacks (the Westons are apparently generous Canadians).
The Radcliffe Camera is now
part of the Bodleian Library
The tour begins in what was the 15th-century Divinity School, the university's first classroom, and which was also used for oral examinations for many years. The Gothic architecture style includes a fan-vaulted ceiling, decorated with Edward IV’s crown in the center of the ceiling and the initials of many of its benefactors elsewhere. The two most mentioned are Duke Humfrey and Thomas Bodley. Duke Humfrey was a scholar who donated 281 manuscripts from his personal library in the 15th century; a room was built to house them above the Divinity School, which is still called Duke Humfrey’s Library. The entire second story now functions as a reading room and because the Oxford undergraduates are still taking exams we had to be very quiet as we visited. Both the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey's Library appear in the Harry Potter movies. During the Reformation, many of the manuscripts were burned and the library ransacked. The library was rescued and restored by Sir Thomas Bodley, a retired diplomat, at the turn of the 16th century; wings were added at each end. Bodley persuaded Oxford dons (professors) to assist with early collection development. The institution became known as the Bodleian Library around 1602. Someone suggested Bodley should ask that a copy of all books printed in England be given to the Bodleian and that tradition continues: hence the need for 11 stories of stacks. Nearly every library we have visited has expressed an acute need for more space.
William Cecil
It was a pity our guide Rosarie was condescending and dismissive. Desiree asked a question about Tolkien and Lewis and she said to Google it. But later she told us she had known Priscilla Tolkien quite well and that she had died fairly recently. It would have been nice if she had told us more than that she was an indomitable old lady. We felt a librarian would have been more attuned to our interests and willing to answer our questions.  One amusing (or not) thing: Oliver Cromwell is listed on one wall as a benefactor.  This seems unlikely after his soldiers vandalized the place but the Bodleian appears to own his Greek and Slavonic manuscripts he had collection. After leaving the Bod, the group split up. As we could not agree on a place for lunch so I gave up and got a chicken pesto panini and sat outside with Jess and Alesha. Soon it was time to head to our afternoon visit.
Inside the Library
Christ Church College is considered the most beautiful of the Oxford Colleges (see website). It is most familiar to Americans as one of the settings for Brideshead Revisited and to my younger classmates as inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall. It was also Charles I’s headquarters when the Royalists made their headquarters at Oxford during the Civil War. On my previous visit with my friend Ellen, we had attended Evensong at the chapel but this time, although the porter was very suspicious of us and kept saying we weren’t on his list, the head librarian, Gabriel Sewell, came down to get us and walked us through the courtyard, past the famous fountain, and up to the library. The current library was built in the 18th century and is comprised of two large rectangular floors. The lower level functions as a reading room/study area where students are allowed until 1 am while the rare books are on the upper level and are monitored by a guard. There is a separate law library and archives we did not visit. Two things were surprising: Ms. Sewell said the students much prefer print to electronic books and she also said she has a generous budget. What a contrast to the V&A which has budget constraints that seem to be well known to all in the field.
Ms. Sewell had brought out several treasures for us to see. There was a 13th-century Psalter and a 15th-century first edition of Euclid which I think belonged to everyone’s favorite astronomer and mathematician John Dee. The most amazing of these was a Book of Common Prayer which contained handwritten notes by Charles I and Archbishop Laud in 1636 on how to make certain language acceptable in Scotland (that was unsuccessful with the Presbyterians). I was curious about her educational background: she studied history at Oxford and got her library degree at the University College of London, and had worked at the University of St. Andrew’s and Durham Cathedral before she took up this job during the pandemic.
From the Library
She told me her office once belonged to Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll, who was Sub-Librarian of Christ Church College! When she mentioned that she was originally from the Cambridge area, I asked if she was familiar with Hemingford Grey. To my surprise, she told me that she knows Diana Boston, Lucy’s daughter-in-law who now lives in the Manor, fairly well because Diana was her sister Frances’s English teacher. She told me Diana came to their father’s funeral and she even described visiting the Manor as a child and having Lucy Boston tell her to close her eyes, then put Tolly’s mouse into her hand. I told her I was hoping to visit while in England she said I would enjoy it and to give Diana her regards.
The Great Hall
Before we left Christ Church College, Dr. Davies got directions to the Great Hall although the College was officially closed to visitors today. A staffer saw us and seemed initially disapproving, but she relented enough to allow us to look through a gate, although did not let us go in.  Afterward, we got ice cream at George & Danver opposite Christ Church in St Aldate’s – my flavor was St. John’s Caramel Crunch. Then we stopped to buy souvenirs and visit Blackwell’s before taking the bus back to London.
Miles walked: 4.6
Books bought: 1, but I returned it on Friday
Looking out from the entryway to the courtyard!  Basically, where the photo of me was taken.


Cath said...

Busy weekend here so just catching up with your posts. Sounds like there're a few snooty staff members in the Oxford colleges and libraries. It's 'years' since we were at the Bodleian, our youngest was 16 (she's now 45) and had just done her GCSEs. Her older sister didn't want to come away with us so the three of us hired a house in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds and went to Oxford, Blenheim Palace and enjoyed the Cotswold villages.

LyzzyBee said...

What a shame you came across snooty types and gatekeepers.

When I was a student myself, my then-boyfriend's close friendship group had all got in to Oxford. We used to go and stay with one of them, at Christ Church - he had a room as big as our whole house, with a cunning arrangement to hide a washbasin and a piano in the room (he's now Something at Sotheby's!). It was terrifying to go for a meal in a borrowed short gown and have to admit one was at Birmingham!