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Roger Barbee: Seeing Oxford through Lili's eyes


By Roger Barbee

If you stand on Boar's Hill and look north toward Oxford, England, you easily will understand Matthew Arnold's words because the medieval city is full of spires that gleam in the sunlight, and you will appreciate his description of Oxford -- "city of dreaming spire." It is here that Mary Ann and I have taken our oldest granddaughter.

Lili is 14, a reader of Tolkien and an aspiring artist. Having spent 12 summers working in Oxford, I have some knowledge of it and count several friends who live or work there. What place could be better for Lili to visit? Yet, with a limited number of days, so much history packed into a small space, and London and Liverpool close by, how do we choose what to show her?

Lili has asked to visit some sites. We will have a Ploughman's Lunch at the Eagle and Child pub where Tolkien met with the Inklings, a group of close friends and writers. As she eats her lunch of cheese, salad, bread, sauce, and apple, she will be where one of her favorite authors sat while discussing literature, world affairs, and art. A fan of Harry Potter, she certainly will go to Christ Church College and see the dining hall where scenes from the movie were filmed. She wants to tour the Bodleian Library and while there will enjoy the Tolkien exhibit.

In the center of Oxford sits the Covered Market, which dates from the 1770s. Since Lili is an American teen, she will want to shop and this is one place to go. She will be tempted to buy clothes, books, cheeses of every order, sandwiches, mince or bean pies, toys, games, and much more, all the while surrounded by the smells and sounds of an open-air market. However, I will caution her about purchasing any books here for that pleasure needs to be satisfied in the used book department of Blackwell's Book Shop. There is the place to satisfy that hunger.

We will reside at Pembroke College with the most beautiful gardens in all of Oxford, and she will meet Richard, the man responsible for their beauty. We have scheduled visits to other colleges, too. One is Corpus Christi, where the Kings James Bible was translated for the good of the common man. The college also has a beautiful garden which overlooks Christ Meadow where the land slopes to the Thames River. While in the garden I will show her a white rose that was planted in memory of a friend, Clare McCulloch, who I worked with and learned from for many summers. Sitting in the garden, I will tell Lili of him.

We will study Queen's College from the opposite side of High Street so that she will better appreciate the view that our artist friend Bill Bird had as he drew it. That watercolor hangs in our den and others of his decorate our home.

Pitt Rivers, a wealthy Victorian gentleman, collected items from all around the world and classified them according to how they were utilized. She will tour his museum which is packed with items galore. There is a section for boats, complete with an outrigger canoe; all types of clothes, from bark skirts to elaborate gowns made entirely of bird feathers; weapons for war, from war clubs to guns; and more. My favorite item is in the toy section, and it is one piece of carved ivory in the shape of an open-sided box with a single ball inside it.

On a Sunday afternoon, we will stroll along the Thames to the village of Binsey to enjoy the family barbecue at The Perch, an ancient pub. On our walk I will explain to her how the cutting of some poplars here caused the Jesuit poet Hopkins to compose Binsey Poplars, his lament for their cutting. After lunch, we will walk through the village to St. Margaret's, a small church from the 10th century.

Like all towns or cities, Oxford is made from more than buildings. Lili will meet some of its people. She will hear the history of Corpus Christi from Colin Holmes. Victoria Staveley will show her the Ashmolean Museum and share a High Tea. Brian Harvey, the retired head porter of Pembroke, will tell her much of that college's history. Paul Sinclair will give her a tour of St. John's College while sharing her interest of the Beatles. But most of all, she will spend time with Druin Burch and his family. He will fill in every gap of information for her with anecdotes and interesting facts all the while explaining everything Oxonian from the reason for Addison's Walk to why High Street is curved.

And, in a way, her grandmother and I will see it all through Lili's eyes.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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