London – Part 4: Oxford, Lewis, & Tolkien


Note: sorry for the delay in this – I’ve been busy recovering from my extensive time in London and looking for a job at the same time. Since I am now back from my journeys in the UK, however, the rest of these London-based posts aren’t necessarily going to be in order of when I did them. Also, since it’s been a while since these events happened, these will most likely be much shorter than the others.

downtown Oxford

Ah, Oxford. That bastion of education and elegance. While I was in London, I had the opportunity to visit Oxford three different times. While the first was strictly to interview someone for a story I’m working on, the other two times were fully for me to get my geek on. The second trip was geared towards a trip to visit The Kilns, the home of author C.S. Lewis; the third was to join a walking tour of Oxford that was geared towards Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien-related places.

However, for my visit to The Kilns, it was actually not scheduled until late in the day. So, to get the most out of my time, I went up early and ended up going to Oxford Castle, and taking the Oxford Castle Unlocked tour.

Oxford Castle Unlocked


As with the tour for The Tower of London (which I still need to write up), the tour guide was someone dressed up in character. The Oxford Castle Unlocked website has a list of all the potential guides: mine was Mr. Barker, a prison warden from the later years of the Castle’s use as a prison. Built in 1071, the castle switched purposes over to use as a prison in the 14th century. In use as a prison until 1996, the castle has one and a half to two meter-thick walls in St. George’s Tower. The tour guide let us know the difference between a pillory and stocks, stating that stocks were set up to where you had to stand in.

The most interesting piece of trivia for me, however, was in the lower section where the remains of the chapel stood. The tour guide indicated that the first recorded stories of King Arthur, written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, were written here.

The tour took about an hour, and was a lot of fun. You can see my photos from the tour of Oxford Castle (including a photo of the tour guide) over on my Flickr.

The Kilns

Then nature sanctuary behind The Kilns

By that time, it was close enough to where I just headed over to the Kilns via bus and taxi. I did manage to get there early, and – as I had read was recommended – went to explore the nature sanctuary behind the home that was part of the lands back when Lewis still lived there.

And boy, howdy, am I glad I did. I walked in, and the first view was straight out of Narnia. The area most definitely had an influence on Lewis’s writing, and I could feel the atmosphere of the place.

Then, it was time for the tour of the house itself. I actually got a little teary once I realized I was stepping into Lewis’s home.

Built in 1922, it was bought by Lewis, his brother Warnie, and Janie Moore in 1930. Lewis once stated that the house was “kept up by books and cobwebs”. The house was turned into it’s current use as a study centre in 2007.

The tour started in the Common Room, where often Tolkien would come to discuss things, as well as Lewis’s students. The tour guide mentioned that the brick bench outside was made up from many of the bricks from the original kilns that the house is named for, and that Tolkien often had to sit out there as he was not allowed to smoke in the house once Lewis married Joy Gresham (she apparently didn’t like the brand of tobacco he used).

The dining room had the typewriter that Warner used to type up Lewis’s work (Lewis didn’t use it, preferring handwriting). It was next to the kitchen, where the tour guide mentioned the work that had to be done to restore the house as close to what it was back when Lewis lived there, as the place had been used by college students for boarding. The restorers ended up having to hand chisel through the concrete in the kitchen in order to get to the original flooring.

Then, upstairs – where we got to go to the study. And I got to be in the room where he wrote – and look out at the view he had, and it was marvelous. Following that was Lewis’s bedroom.

The final stop of the tour was the ‘garage’, which was what has been converted into the study centre. This was the primary place (outside of the Eagle & Child, that is) that the Inklings would gather to discuss their stories. On the wall were photos from the filming of Shadowlands – the guide talked about how “Anthony Hopkins plays a very good Anthony Hopkins”. He also told the story of how Lewis got to be known as Jack, a piece of trivia I’ve wondered about for years. (Apparently, he had a pup named Jacksie that had been run over when Lewis was a kid, and so the nickname was kind of a memorial of the dog.)

Later, Rich asked if I had ‘felt’ God there, which gave me pause. I didn’t feel God in the same reverence I felt when I was at Stonehenge or at the church at Windsor, but I did feel a sense of … serenity and connection and beauty – especially in the nature sanctuary – that was more ‘naturalistic’ and a sense of peace. I definitely enjoyed the place and the serenity, but would not want to live there.

If I ever get a chance to go back to London, this is most definitely on my list of things I want to do again. You can see the photos from the sanctuary and tour on THIS set on my Flickr.

Walking Tour of Oxford

The following Monday, I headed back to Oxford to take this walking tour of Oxford, centered on the lives of both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Now, I admit – I’m much more of a fan of Lewis than I am Tolkien. I’ve re-read The Chronicles of Narnia so many times I’ve lost track, have read Walter Hooper’s Past Watchful Dragons, and even attempted the Perelandra trilogy. Meanwhile, when I was 12, I read The Hobbit and then tried reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but got so lost with all the characters and places that I gave up in the middle of The Two Towers. (Ever since the movies came out, however, I’ve been contemplating trying to re-read them now that I’m “older but wiser”.)

I got to the meeting location (the Visitor’s Centre) a little early, and saw someone audio recording someone else about Tolkien (ended up being our guide). The woman also wanted to interview me: it was about Tolkien, why he’s still popular, and the movies and the merchandizing of the books. The interviewer was obviously looking for someone to scorn the movies and the merchandise (guess the fact that we own Gandalf’s sword as well as the Lich King’s sword, and want to eventually add Sting to the mix may not have been something to talk about), but I didn’t. I talked about the fact that, IMHO, the movies (for both LotR and The Hobbit) are popular for a couple of reasons.

For one, there is a clear sense of good and bad in the stories – and people are looking for that in some of their entertainment to escape the realization that those lines are not so easily defined in real life. For two, the movies are popular because Jackson was smart in making them: we are in a technological rebirth in movies, and CGI has made suspension of belief so much easier. However, Jackson realized that CGI is just one (of many) tools to use to tell the story. He also knew the best rule when adapting a book for a film: you can do certain things better in a movie, and certain things better in a book, and great adaptations stay true to the messages of the book while still doing what works best in its medium.

So, for me, who’s a big fan of the LotR and Hobbit movies (and the latter not just because Martin Freeman is in them), I believe the movies are actually a good gateway drug. I’m sure there are a lot of people who watched the movies, and – liking them – went on to read the books.

Then, the tour happened. Our guide was much more focused on Tolkien, and by the end of it, it was obvious she was not a fan of Lewis. (She lost any respect I had for her when she said his name was “Charles” Staples Lewis.) So, it was a little underwhelming. But, got to see where The Eagle and Child was (where the Inklings also hung out), and the outside of Magdalen College (where Lewis was a fellow) was. And I did find out that Tolkien apparently wrote a eulogy for Lewis on his death.

After the tour, I joined up with a couple from Oklahoma in search of Christ Church. We didn’t find it, but we did go through Magdalen College. They then followed me over to The Eagle and Child, where I had a pint of cider that was awesome (Aspall Cyder, you and I have a date once I get a job!), and where I found out that John Cleese apparently did an audiobook narration of The Screwtape Letters, which is now on my list of things I am buying once I have money again. You can see my photos from the walking tour on THIS set on my Flickr.

In the end, Oxford was an intriguing place. It definitely felt like a college town, but a college town from the movies as opposed to real life. It had a sense of timelessness, a sense of the past, and even somewhat a sense of the inherent class structure – but in a romantic kind of way.

Back when I was still in high school and looking at colleges, I had briefly toyed with Oxford but ended up not pursuing it as I knew it was out of my price range. Looking back now, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been ready for such a place at a time in my life. I was very naive in high school, and only in the past 10 or 15 years have gotten to a place where I felt comfortable with myself and my place in the world – and even that falters once in a while. I wasn’t ready then, but I was ready now, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it.

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