Oxford: Words and music

Last time I posted, I wrote about my lovely afternoon ambling around the historic city of Oxford. That was just the beginning of my mini break in this delightful city and I spent a further two days indulging my passions for literature, history and beautiful architecture.

After the gentle sunshine of Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday emerged as a bit of a damp squib, the day alternating between light drizzle and heavy showers. As it turned out, it didn’t matter as it was a day of mostly indoor pursuits beginning with a tour of the Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian Library is comprised of a number of well-known buildings including the Divinity School, the Radcliffe Camera, the Clarendon Building and the new Weston Library. The library began its life in 1488 when Humfrey, 1st Duke of Gloucester (and younger brother to King Henry V) donated over 280 manuscripts to the University. The existing library in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin (in Radcliffe Square) lacked the space to accommodate Duke Humfrey’s gift so a new library was built above the Divinity School.

Divinity School + Sheldonian

The Divinity School is on the left with Duke Humfrey’s Library on the first floor. The front entrance to the Sheldonian Theatre is on the right.

The library was stripped of its contents in 1550 as England moved away from the Catholic Church under Edward VI (The Reformation) and languished for 48 years before Oxford Fellow and Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (for whom the library is named) offered to fund its refurnishing. In 1602, the library was reopened and continued to prosper as Bodley persuaded wealthy benefactors and subscribers to contribute to its upkeep and extension. Bodley’s negotiation with the Stationers’ Company of London in 1610 also meant that the library was to receive – in perpetuity – one copy of every book published.

Ongoing expansion has been a theme since Bodley’s death in 1613 and the library has grown to include Nicholas Hawksmoor‘s Clarendon Building (1712-1713), the Radcliffe Camera (1860) and the new Weston Library (2014) as well as a further 153 miles of bookshelves in an off-site purpose-built warehouse facility in Swindon (2010).

Our tour guide Matthew led us through a brilliant ninety minutes of historical facts and anecdotes. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in Duke Humfrey’s Library – the oldest part of the library with books that are hundreds of years old – or in the Radcliffe Camera to respect the privacy of students who use these reading rooms (yes they are still in use). While these were two of the highlights, it was a tour of many high points so I took as many photos as I could where I was allowed. It was an absolutely amazing visit and I’d highly recommend it.

Clarendon Bldg + Radcliffe Camera

L: Bodleian Library entrance via the Clarendon Building; R: The Radcliffe Camera

Library entrance+Quadrangle

L to R: Clarendon Building from Broad Street; delicate ironwork over the entrance; one of the old doors in the Old Schools Quadrangle

Divinity School interior

L to R: Inside the Divinity School with its marvellous ceiling; this chair is made entirely from timber taken from The Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world from 1577-1580.; the Convocation House was the original meeting place for the University’s Supreme legislative body and also housed Charles I’s Parliament during the Civil War from 1642-1646.

CWren door

Images of the Christopher Wren door which leads from the Divinity School directly across to the Sheldonian Theatre which was his first architectural commission.

I left the library and wandered across Broad Street to Blackwell’s Bookstore. I’d never heard of Blackwell’s before coming to Oxford but I’d noticed a walking tour sign about The Inklings which took me to some parts of Oxford I was unlikely to have found myself.

Inklings WT

L to R: The Rabbit Room at The Eagle and Child was where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly; C.S. Lewis was a rector at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – the inspiration for his Mr Tumnus and the lamp in the woods exists in the laneway adjacent to the church (ref: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia)

I’d also heard whispers about Blackwell’s Norrington Room in the basement of store. It’s billed as the largest room built for the purpose of selling books. How many books does it hold, you ask? Well apparently it’s around 250,000 give or take a few…

Norrington room

The Norrington Room: It has an official photo point…

I wandered around for twenty minutes and was so overwhelmed that I left without buying a single book.

I headed off to the Turl Street Kitchen nearby and to the sounds of the rain pattering on the street outside, I tucked into a delicious lunch of home-made soup and bread. The wet weather showed no signs of letting up so I decided to return to the Bodleian’s Weston Library and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the Jane Austen exhibition for an hour or so before heading back to the B&B.

Later I headed out for a little night music at Merton College with Richard Goode

Merton College

Waiting for the concert to begin – a recital by renowned pianist Richard Goode in the chapel at Merton College.

The program was fantastic – comprised of Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven to name a few – and I had a great view of both the pianist and the chapel. (The photo on the right above was taken while I was sitting in my seat.) After almost two hours of spectacular music, the audience finally released Goode from its applause and we filed out.

What an awesome day of words and music I had.

And there was still one more day to go. If you’re still interested, feel free to tag along next time…

Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

Done and Dusted…Commuting Gems

This week, about 10 weeks ahead of schedule, I smashed the 50 Book Challenge.

That’s right peeps – I’ve read 50 books this year.

(Actually this morning it stands at 51 but who am I to quibble over such a detail?)

Along the way, I unearthed some real Commuting Gems, writers that will continue to feed my long and literary journey to and from work every day. Douglas Kennedy made the grade early – I have read three of his books this year – closely followed by slightly off-centre crime fiction from Chris Brookmyre (I’ve read two of his). More recently, I discovered the joys of Jonathan Frantzen, Jo Nesbo and Scott Mariani and have already started my next Ben Hope Adventure (Mariani’s protagonist).

I have also travelled far and wide from the comfort of my reading spot(s) – through the post ‘et tu Brutus?’ period of the Roman Empire (Colleen McCullough) and in a black cab across America with the incomparable everyman himself, Stephen Fry. I have immersed myself in the cultural melting pot of a Russian community in China with Kate Furnivall and stood in awe of the great and mighty Vesuvius with Robert Harris.

Let’s not forget the little bit of star-spotting l managed either. I rubbed literary shoulders with Sir Elton, Alistair Campbell, Billy Connelly, Jane Austen and young Queen Victoria!

The stalwarts of my literary days gone by were there too – Lionel Shriver, Michael Connelly and Dick Francis (although after three of the latter, I might say nay – neigh, geddit? – to a Francis horse-racing extravaganza for a while).

I’ve also dropped in on old favourites like Heathcliff & Cathy and Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy. I read about risk and danger, and about a girl who played with fire and then made things worse by kicking the hornet’s nest. 

I’ve even managed both a trip back to old Melbourne town (courtesy of Christos Tsiolkas) and a joyful celebration with fellow expat Bill Bryson, of the fabulous place I now call home.

Who knew that commuting four hours each day could bring such joy!

Not all was smooth sailing (or commuting if you prefer). Three made my ‘Disappointing’ List – number 6 from Margot Berwin, number 15 from David Gibbins and 39 from Dawn French. Not so marvellous. But 3 out of 50 (that’s just 6% says she, whipping out her trusty calculator to double check her mental maths) ain’t bad. And look at all of the things I have experienced and discovered.

So if you’ve been inspired at all by my bookish banging on, or are looking for some great reads to add to your own (e)bookshelf, you can see them all – along with what I thought of them – at The Book Nook which, in the spirit of encouraging readership and literacy, I will continue to update.

Happy reading peeps!