wide as England, tall as a spire: Cambridge and Oxford

wide as England, tall as a spire: Cambridge and Oxford

originally published October 31, 2021

As coursework wound to a close, I determined to collect all my end-of-term travels into a single story.

A few weeks have stretched into a few months, and here I find myself with three months and five countries to cover! Make that six countries – I write to you from my quarantine facilities in Tokyo, Japan. (No need to pity me: my organization, JET [Japan Exchange and Teaching] has arranged for us to pay our purgatory dues in commodious and well-stocked hotel rooms near the airport. They delivered breakfast to my door at precisely 7:30am: scrambled eggs, salad, and…chicken nuggets. More anon.)

Appropriately enough, my ventures beyond Oxford began with a trip to her sister city: Cambridge.

The occasion for the trip began with a fleeting mention of a Charlotte Mason school in Cambridge: Heritage School, not far from the university center. The headmistress welcomed me so warmly that I braved the infamous bus ride (four hours of back roads and roundabouts) to visit for the afternoon. She and a teacher regaled me with the history of their school, how they reclaimed the vision of the 19th century teacher and philosopher, flowering from a family school group to the K-12 institution it is today. They shared Books of Centuries, nature studies, and all the quintessential Mason methods that I had never seen in practice before.

Thankfully, the return trip was postponed for a few days, as the incomparably magnanimous Prof James Orr had invited me to break my journey at his exquisite home on the banks of the River Cam.

I had the luxury of a full day to tour the city, including all the parallel sites from my own stomping ground: the university art museum, the castle mound, the church tower overlooking the city. Best of all, the Cambridge chapter of the Scriptorium embraced me like one of their own: a monastic-inspired study group, we met in a church, prayed, and chatted on tea breaks. They plied me with must-see lists; then when it was time to crack open the books, I slipped out to play tourist.

Even though Oxford’s Ashmolean museum is larger, the Fitzwilliam enchanted me with its lavish art deco entrance hall: unashamedly pink and purple marbles, gold splashed everywhere, and splendid globes dangling from the equally ornate ceiling, with twin caryatids on a heroic scale (columns carved like women) overlooking it all. The first exhibit room impressed me almost as much with its collection of armor and weaponry across the ages and the continents. The captions admitted the pieces on display probably performed ceremonial rather than military functions, but that didn’t dampen my interest – most weapons that saw action couldn’t have survived long enough to make it into museums, after all.

My evident delight must have endeared me to a docent, because she tipped me off about the treasure upstairs: medieval manuscripts so delicate that staff must roll back leather covers before you can view them. Along the way I admired a lifesize portrait of twin sisters, and a heartbreaking juxtaposition of the nativity (Mary at Jesus’ birth) with the pieta (embracing him in death). I was loathe to leave when my timeslot was up, but the “great plague”, as Prof. Orr calls it, meant restricted visiting hours.

Evolving restrictions meant I could eat indoors for lunch, but not tour the splendid King’s College Cathedral – an iconic stunner of a building. Visitors couldn’t approach much nearer to the colleges than the famous ‘backs’: a stroll through the park, between the river and the colleges arrayed along it.

I consoled myself with a visit to Great St Mary’s (so named in contrast to the more moderately proportioned Little St Mary’s), where Helen works. For climbing the tower, I ventured to request a discount by virtue of the association – and the hospitable staff waved me up the steps! Whereas Oxford’s church tower featured squeezing past people in both directions, Cambridge employed a closed circuit TV system and loudspeakers to manage traffic flow. Cooling my heels on the roof left me plenty of time to photograph the city.

Not to be outdone, Oxford heralded my return with dinner at the Kilns.

Elizabeth, who resides at the Kilns while writing her DPhil, had invited to dinner the Colet reading group, which discusses the philosophy of education at the Canterbury Institute. Audrey had previously conducted me on a private tour of the woods that inspired The Magician’s Nephew, but this was my first chance to step inside. The students in residence served up a feast, complete with anecdotes about the cat C.S. Lewis retired and the tobacco habits responsible for the yellow wallpaper.

While most of the original furniture was lost before an American organization bought the house, framed photographs in each room verified the meticulous care invested into reconstructing it as a living museum. Little touches charmed me, like the draft of a letter in Lewis’s typewriter, and the room decked out as a Narnian winter for young (and not-so-young) visitors.

In celebration of our incrementally expanding freedoms, the Developing a Christian Mind alumni group organized an in-person get-together. Aiming for an outdoor space large enough to host an indeterminate number of poeple, we landed on a pub north of the city. By the river, through the mud, past fields of sugar snap peas – to grandmother’s house we go!

In a fit of good spirits, Alberto invited a dozen friends to Sunday lunch. We descended en masse on the Giggly Squid, a Thai restaurant with the best name in town. Surrounded on all sides by Roman Catholic men, I settled in for an afternoon of debating Catholic claimants to the English throne over a bottle of red wine.

Lunch at the Giggly Squid, an end-of-term farewell

When I joined the Canterbury Institute as a Middle Reader, they gifted me with invitations to the kind of authentic Oxford events that I have been sorely missing this year. I signed my name without reading the fine print to the end of term Reading Party, figuring an all expenses paid retreat in Lancashire, England couldn’t disappoint. With my dissertation safely submitted the week prior, no deadlines or obligations threatened to conflict. I was free, free to devote myself to whatever the retreat offered.

Then I discovered that “reading party” meant “study party.”

Canterbury meant business. They collected our cell phones before we boarded the bus and forbade wi-fi access in the conference center. Sheepish at my dearth of study materials, I left my laptop at home and committed to a bout of manual creative writing. We were alone with our books, the trails, and each other.

I have rarely felt so refreshed.

Stonyhurst College, site of the Canterbury Reading Party

Twice we varied the life of the mind with long “walks” (the catch-all English term for everything from a stroll to scaling a mountain) in the countryside. One route claims fame as the “Tolkien trail” – a haunt of his in his younger days, apparently. We scampered from highways to sheep fields, talking of Norse mythology, Brazilian Portuguese, and lay vocations. Our fearless leader Brian scouted ahead, warning us to beware of the murderous giant hogweed: one of England’s few indigenous dangers; contact with your bare skin can scar you for life!

An intrepid band trekked as far as Whalley Abbey, medieval ruins now reclaimed with a garden of herbs and roses. No ruins I viewed since quite matched the charm of this one, with its mazelike array of unburdened arches. We wandered among them, snapped photographs on pocket cameras, and peeked in the active (modern) chapel at the priest’s invitation. They are scheming at a new kind of fellowship, an ecumenical reimagining of the brotherhood that haunts these halls.

On our last night, Will hosted a poetry recital competition: any poem, at least 14 lines long, performed from memory. I thrilled at the chance to brush the dust off my longtime favorite, “The Queen’s Crowning” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I memorized this poem (almost 200 lines long!) as a sophomore at Hillsdale College and have since performed it at the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia and with the Peace Corps in Mpumulanga. It wooed this crowd easily, as many love the poet but have never encountered this lyrical fairy tale of his – it’s rarely included in his published works.

The long bus ride home drained us of energy, so I was more than ready to stagger to bed – but instead I whipped myself into formal wear and raced down the road to Blackfriars PPH (permanent private hall, akin to a college). Lola, the leader of the literary criticism reading group at Canterbury, had bestowed on me a ticket for a black tie dinner. A typical year might proffered near weekly occasions for such glamorous affairs, but (for reasons you can guess) this was to be my first. I expected another the following week, but Keble College reneged in the wake of mounting concern over case numbers. All the more reason to thank Lola for her generosity!

Our hosts did not stint: champagne in the garden, chartered buses to the venue, three courses and complimentary wine, with British toasts to cap it off. A charming teacher-to-be fenced with me for the honor of our trans-Atlantic rivalry (‘We like to think of the U.S. as a wayward child.’ ‘A child who outgrew his parent!’) Once the sun retired, I might have managed my exhaustion better if I had thought to don a winter coat – June proved powerless to warm the English night.

Another Oxford experience eked out in my last weeks as a student: touring colleges! Closed for most of the year to non-members, Magdalen College and a few others began readmitting visitors. Audrey piloted my visit: We flashed our student IDs for free entrance and detoured through Addison’s Walk, another favorite haunt of C.S. Lewis.

Even my own college allowed greater access in the final weeks: Keble’s library at last resumed the 24 hour access that had in part persuaded me to apply there. The striking Arts and Crafts style chairs, facing understated stained glass, entranced me with its suggestions of monastic study. The medieval era lingers in the city – in subtle stylistics, but also in unmistakable monuments, like the castle mound.

My friend Alex introduced me to another Oxford treasure: The Perch, a whimsical restaurant nestled in the curve of the river. It appropriately serves excellent seafood, including what he swears are the best fish and chips. I settled for the fish of the day: a luxurious stew, with cornbread to sop up the sauce.

Alex hails from Spain; he was gracious enough to both entertain my conversation as I scraped the rust off my conjugations, and educate me in the national politics and partisanships. It still surprises me how varied the linguistic landscape is in what I always considered the heart of the Spanish language. Someday I hope to visit and experience it for myself!

Canterbury continued to make up for a year of disappointments by packing the entire graduate experience into the last term. We rounded off Trinity with a talk by the director, Dr Dominic Burbidge, on “Political Virtue and the Nature of Power”. After wrangling over definitions and discourses, the Institute retired from academic exertions to a three course dinner at No. 1 Ship Street. In between plates of octopus and braised lamb, our table cross-examined each other on questions of faith and theology: How had the legacy of monasteries influenced the Church in Europe? and would I ever consider becoming Roman Catholic? Soteriology, I told my tablemate, a lawyer from Chile. We agreed on the permanence of marriage and baptism but parted at salvation.

Spilling out into the evening, we paraded north to surprise the Canterbury program manager Brian with a birthday serenade. He and his housemates promptly pulled out chairs and mixed cocktails for us by candlelight, outside in the garden where it was now legal to congregate in force. Potato chips and Italian dessert wine – we celebrated in style.

On a final Sunday at Oxford Presbyterian Evangelical Church, we also gathered in the garden, where the children caper before the services. Our pastor Andy blessed me along with the other departing students, invoking the Lord’s care and protection on our journeys to come.

For weeks I had been purging my possessions, trying to reduce my luggage back down to the backpack and shoulder bag that accompanied me to the isles. I managed – but only by setting aside boxes of items to recover on a later leg of the journey. Audrey, practical and loving as ever, opted to arrange for a taxi to collect us, rather than lugging the results down the sidewalk by hand and foot. I would spend my last two nights in Oxford at her place, before embracing a month of nomadic existence.

I must thank Bárbara for transforming my last day at Oxford into an occasion to remember. She unlocked Exeter College for me, answering in miniature my longstanding wish to see San Chapelle: the college chapel is based on the same design! In the garden, she spoiled me with an impromptu photo shoot from the best vantage point on the Radcliffe Camera (my favorite of Oxford’s many iconic buildings). I repaid her as well as I could with a tour of Keble.

That afternoon I dashed back south to meet Madalena from Canterbury for tea at the Opus Dei house – up north again. Criscrossing the city filled me with nostalgia for the incomparable architecture, the scene of so many encounters and so much learning, soon to shift from daily life to treasured memories. The next morning I caught a bus to London…

…then the adventures began!

Read part one: London and the Isle of Wight

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