In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the Kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum-stones on the heads of passing Scholars or hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on; or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. […] That was Lyra’s world and her delight. She was a coarse and greedy little savage, for the most part. But she always had a dim sense that it wasn’t her whole world; that part of her also belonged in the grandeur and ritual of Jordan College. All she did with that knowledge was to give herself airs and lord it over the other urchins. It had never occurred to her to find out more.
Visiting Oxford, a city so similar and yet so different to my beloved alma mater Cambridge, was interesting. It’s a place where nostalgia hangs thick in the air between the warm yellow buildings, palpable to every visitor, conjuring dreams of the past, of study and excellence, of exceptionalism, of privacy and secrets and journeys of discovery.
Personally, I felt torn between half-recognition and the usual curiosity that comes from exploring a new place. I was also rereading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy at the time – books which not only take Oxford as one of their prime locations, but which explore the ideas of multiple universes, each unique but linked, sharing some characteristics and wildly differing in others.
But this Oxford was so disconcertingly different, with patches of poignant familiarity right next to the downright outlandish; why had they painted those yellow lines on the road? What were those little white patches dotting every pavement? What could those red and green lights mean at the corner of every road?
But here were St John’s College gates, which she and Roger had once climbed after dark to plant fireworks in the flower-beds, and that particular worn stone at the corner of Catte Street – there were the initials SP that Simon Parslow had scratched, the very same ones! She’d seen him do it! Someone in this world with the same initials must have stood here idly and done exactly the same.
But let’s start with a few recommendations. Going to a museum is the perfect thing to do in Oxford. Not only are you spoilt for choice here, but being in this city will doubtless inspire you to get educated! We enjoyed a quick visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum before it closed on a Sunday afternoon. Described as ‘exhaustive displays of world culture’ on Google Maps and free to enter, it’s definitely worth your time.
We also enjoyed a longer visit to the Ashmolean Museum, which had huge collections of art and artefacts from a variety of cultures and spanning the centuries. From a beaded cloak worn by Pocahontas’s father to Samurai armour to an Egyptian mummy to a tiny, intricate gold jewel made for Alfred the Great, every gallery contains fascinating artefacts that bring the past alive.
In The Subtle Knife, Lyra visits a museum, and is similarly intrigued by ‘a thousand and one jumbled trophies and relics and objects of magic and tools and weapons, and not only from the Artic, but from every part of this world.’ For my own part, I unexpectedly came across something that seemed to have fallen right out of the trilogy and into the Ashmolean. Tucked away in a small case of children’s toys across ages and continents were a selection of small dolls, rather like the dolls you can make from old-fashioned clothes pegs. The card said they were wearing a variety of academic dress from across Oxford’s colleges and institutions. No more information was forthcoming.
Arranged in a characterful and slightly messy tableau, the dolls seemed exactly like something that the young Lyra, brought up haphazardly by Jordan College professors, might have played with and dropped in a corner. The lack of information about this discreet and intriguing exhibit (I’ve looked, and it doesn’t have a webpage) made it all the more captivating.
After the Ashmolean, we headed to Blackwell’s, a truly fantastic bookshop which can be summed up as ‘Waterstones on the top, dark academia on the bottom’. Okay – the famous basement room is less Hogwarts and more nuclear-bunker-cum-academic-bookshop, with all surfaces covered with a vast array of specialist tomes. If you love learning, this is somewhere you can get lost for a seriously long time.
After our visit to the Ashmolean, I was feeling inspired to learn more about ancient civilisations, so I picked up SPQR by Mary Beard – attracted by a huge stack of the book in a beautiful white and gold cover.
Then, since you’re in Oxford, why not embrace your inner geek at a board game café? We enjoyed Thirsty Meeples, in a corner of Gloucester Green Town Square, where there is a bustling market.
A board game café is a great way to while away the hours. Not only can you browse a huge selection (much like how I gravitate towards the heftiest tomes in the bookshop, I found myself drawn to some huge boxes containing medieval role-playing games complete with models), but the staff are also very happy to recommend you a game. Just say what you’re looking for – fast-paced or methodical, abstract or story-based, teamwork or competitive – and they’ll bring a few games over and explain the rules.
Thirsty Meeples also had a great menu of teas, milkshakes and hot chocolates, as well as snack bowls of sweets, nuts and popcorn. All suitably indulgent!
Equally indulgent was a Sunday walk – of quite a few miles, it’s fair to say – from our Airbnb, up through New Marston Meadows to The Victoria Arms pub. Looking at a map, Oxford has a geography confusing to the newcomer, with the long, thin central band of town separated from suburban outliers by thick strips of green around the river and canals. At times on our walk through the meadows it felt as though we were out in the countryside, not straddling two districts of a city. The flat, greyish-green landscape bordering the tame, reedy river was highly reminiscent of Cambridge’s meadows that similarly interject into the city.
Once at the pub, a truly scrumptious Sunday roast was enjoyed by all over a period of several hours. Piping hot cauliflower cheese and huge fluffy Yorkshire puddings were a particular highlight.
If you just want to soak up the atmosphere of Oxford’s central streets lined with limestone colleges, I recommend hanging around until the early evening. The area clears of tourists like magic, and suddenly you feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you gaze uninterrupted down winding cobbled streets and up at the ‘dreaming spires’. It’s easier to spot the students too – something else that made me feel painfully nostalgic for my days at Cambridge. A student hurrying home from the library with a tote bag filled with books over her shoulder, or pulling up to the college gates on her bike, safety lights flashing in the cold autumn dusk, locking it up with numb fingers… or in a group, gowns billowing, pouring out of the college gates on their way to a formal dinner, each holding a cheap bottle of wine…
As we passed one college – Hertford – we spotted a small noticeboard saying that evensong would take place in half an hour, and that the public were welcome to attend. Having enjoyed many an evensong on a Sunday’s early evening in Cambridge – often when essay ennui loomed and I heard the chapel bell ringing across the road and sought its respite – I spontaneously took up the offer and headed with my mum through the quad to the college chapel, where we were welcomed warmly by the chaplain.
If you want to get a flavour for the true, old Oxford, this is something I can’t recommend highly enough. The chapel, with its vaulted ceiling, dripping candles and booming organ, was deeply atmospheric and peaceful – and the choir sang so beautifully. We left feeling refreshed – particularly since we proceeded, after heavy encouragement from the chaplain, from the chapel to an upstairs college room where drinks were served.
That evening, I felt a strong sense of could-have-been, pining for my lost days as a student at a similar but altogether different university. There is something bittersweet about seeing students living the life that you lived such a short time ago – hurrying unseeing through imposing buildings with essay-induced tunnel vision, cycling over cobblestones side-by-side with a friend talking loudly about next term’s rowing, heading straight from chapel to formal hall to the college bar, black gown concealing a dress worn many times before – a life that can never be yours in the same way again, but is in such a recent past that you can almost reach out and grab it. It was yours, and then only a short time after you’d got used to it, it was passed on to someone else.
‘The same but not the same’ was the best way to describe how Oxford seemed to me – rather like how Lyra feels when encountering Will’s Oxford.
He wasn’t prepared for Lyra’s wide-eyed helplessness. He couldn’t know how much of her childhood had been spent running about streets almost identical with these, and how proud she’d been of belonging to Jordan College, whose scholars were the cleverest, whose coffers were the richest, whose beauty the most splendid of all; and now it simply wasn’t there, and she wasn’t Lyra of Jordan anymore; she was a lost little girl in a strange world, belonging nowhere.
And finally, if you want to escape the city, Stowe is a 40-minute drive away. The famous public school is set in a vast parkland that is open to the public by way of the National Trust. You could get lost for hours wandering small, undulating hills that conceal wooded hollows, vistas over the lake and even a hidden Japanese garden.
The landscape is dotted with follies and statues of all shapes and sizes, meaning that every bend in the path reveals a new corner to explore. All the same, the place felt empty in a way that was both peaceful and eerie, and when we stumbled onto a high-spec, rubber-surfaced athletics track nestled in the woods, or glimpsed a boarding house through the trees, there was a sense we were trespassing. It was another place that seemed to at once welcome and reject. Or perhaps that was just because it was nearly time to head home.
quotations from northern lights and the subtle knife by philip pullman
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