The Chronicles of Oxford Part 4: The Lost Canterbury Tale

I wrote this soon after an excursion to Canterbury, sponsored by Exeter College at Oxford.  This meant an approximate 2 1/2 hour journey to get there.  I guess that kind of factors into what happened…

I went to Canterbury on Saturday with about 45 people from the Exeter college program.  This offered us a chance to visit Canterbury Cathedral in all its vastness, walk the pathways of the Canterbury pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and see many of the other historic landmarks and cultural highlights which make up this ancient city.

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral


Arriving at 11, we had about 6 hours to explore the town.  We were to be back at the bus no later than 5:15 to return to Oxford.

Guess who was late.  By 30 minutes.

I had a wonderful time perusing the ruins of the St. Augustine Abbey, marveling at the structure which had stood there since 598 AD before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.  It is purported to be one of the oldest monastic sites in England.  I have a real interest in Christian monasticism and the types of communities which formed under the Rule of St. Benedict, so this was definitely a treat.

Around 4:45 I decided to wrap up and head back.  Now please let it be known that I have NO sense of direction whatsoever.  It’s only through literature that I know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  This puts me in company, happily, with GK Chesterton, who once famously had a taxi take him to an address which was right across the street from where he was standing.  But since I lack the inherent joy and adventurous spirit of GK Chesterton, my situation was a little less charming.  I panicked.

Reading the map incorrectly, I went to the wrong bus station, which was clear across the other side of town.  Then Vicky arrived.  In my growing panic I collared the first person I saw on the street and asked “WhereamIandhowdoigettothebusimsolatetheyregoingtoleavewithoutmehelp?!?!?!”  This fantastic person walked me all the way back to the station, about a 25 minute walk, taking time out of her day to help a strange half-witted American.  I did not get her email or phone number to call and thank her.  But Vicky- Ph.d student in Statistics living in Canterbury- thank you so much for your heart and kindness in leading me back home.

Needless to say, there were some grumpy people on the bus, but most were gracious and kind and forgave my blunder.  Except for Isabella, for whom I owe dinner and a drink.  (But now that she’s in Spain and I’m in the States, I might be off the hook).

You try to look for blessings in all things.  For me this is a constant struggle as my mind usually veers toward worrying about the edge of the cliff.  Given that I’m the type of person who always likes to be “in the know,” the experience of being lost and having NO CLUE was disconcerting to say the least.  And yet what happened?  There was a person out there willing to help.  Not exactly the end of the world, right?

Funny enough, the lectionary reading for the next day was about the Good Samaritan.  Happy to say I met her.

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The Chronicles of Oxford Part 2: Standing Up

It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town.  Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something.  So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.

If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.

Not right now in Blackwell’s.  I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall.  Here’s what it looks like:

And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:

Notice I’m wearing a suit?  Required.  Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff.  But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.

We stood up.  But why?

As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them.  The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program.  This was a tangible statement of respect for learning.  The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here.   It is worthy of respect.”  For those who are teachers out there:  Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room?  I really liked that moment.  One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal.  They are my literary and educational betters.  But that’s ok.  Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?

My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl.  I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.

Radcliffe Camera

I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU.  In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.

Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century.  There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.

Bust of Tolkien in Exeter Chapel

My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here.  I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS.  I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries.  tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture.    I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner.  One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!”  Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah.  Actually, those are the originals.”

I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”

Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 1: London

Yesterday began a journey which brought me to England to study at Oxford for the English Literature Summer Programme, with a focus on Middle English and Victorian Literature.  This will be an intensive three-week graduate level course with visiting professors from their respective fields.

My wife Erin joins me for the first part of the week, and we decided to take a couple of days in London to get this experience off the ground.  Booking a hotel in London proved to be a challenge, but we landed a sweet stay at The Mad Hatter Hotel for two nights.  The hotel is situated not far from the Thames, and it is a far cry from being the Nanford.

I served myself a large portion of humble pie over packing for this trip, as in, quite literally, overpacking.  I am now convinced that a person’s level of insecurity is directly proportional to the size of their suitcase.  Want to know if a person is not sure of himself?  Have him pack for a small trip, and the answer will soon become clear.  The nagging, sometimes plaguing questions of “Will I need that?’  “Can I do without that?”  “What if something comes up, and I am at a loss?” followed by the statements, “I know I will lose my toothbrush, so I will pack eleven of them.” will slowly but surely render the suitcase not so svelte.

Thus there I was, hauling a well over 50 lb suitcase up and down the stairs of the London Underground.  At one point, trying to board the Westminster connection to Southwark,  managed to jump on board just as the doors were closing.  Feeling the crush of the doors, the futility of the situation dawned on me as I realized my gigantic, heavy suitcase was still on the platform with my forearm and hand still attached to it.  Desertion of  insecurities proved impossible, and I squeezed back out of the Tube’s car, observing before I let go the widened eyes of London’s locals, who, had I been absorbed at that moment by an amoeba, could not have shown less surprise and pity in their countenances.

Onto grander things.

We visited Kew Gardens, the site of Virginia Woolf’s short reflection, and enjoyed a quick doze on the grass after walking around for a while.  The magnificent glass building is actually only one of several greenhouses on the grounds.

Peter Gabriel once equated looking into someone’s eyes like looking “through the doorways of a thousand churches.” The comparison is strong, and gains strength upon remembrance when one actually does step through a church doorway, especially a doorway like St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Erin and I went to observe Evensong, a church service blending the liturgical hours of Vespers and Compline, which utilized the full polyphonic cadences of the gentleman’s choir.  Prior to service, we found we had about an hour and a half to gaze upon the immensity and awe-inspiring architecture, meticulous artwork, mosaics, sculptures, and engravings which make up St. Paul’s.  My neck craned upward trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the structure.  We even climbed up to a walkway at the top of the dome, about three stories up, in which a.) the Lord reminded me I need to exercise more, and b.) I ‘m still afraid of heights.

Now, not too long ago, I would have balked naively at the utility of the cathedral.  “Melt all that gold down, and I’m sure you’d have enough to feed the poor, and please God better in the bargain,” were my uncharitable and self-righteous thoughts.  Now I think I understand.  It is part of our need to get a picture of the glory and majesty and infinity of God in our lives.  No matter how “in tune” one can possibly be the awesomeness of God’s nature, it only takes us so far.  So why not (so said the medieval artists of a much more willing generation), create something to aid us in that vision?  The tininess of an atom’s nucleas is not real until we try to picture a grain of sand in the center of an orange, the orange equaling the size of the earth.  And for that picture we need the tangible realities of sand and oranges.

Artistic and eternal needs dictated a response such as St. Paul’s, with gold, stone, wood, and dye.  Every square inch of the place, from floor to wall to domed ceiling told a story of eternity and our welcome into it.  And such a place is meant to enhance a time of worship.  The acoustics from the choir were perfect for Evensong, and the ethereal Latin canticles gently but insistently pierced the solemnity of the service.

About 7pm we were back at the hotel, very tired.  A quick dinner of Mad Hatter’s pie and a pint of Fuller’s Honeydew wrapped the night.

Today we are planning on visiting the museum of Charles Dickens, a walk to Cecil Court, and dinner and perhaps a show at Piccadilly Circus.