On Saturday, 27 July 2013, we left Oxford.
It was wrenching. I didn’t want to leave Oxford, neither did any of our Company. We had come to love the place. It was home. I know that sounds remarkable as we were only there for a short time, but we’d been reading of the Inklings in OXFORD all summer. Everywhere we went, everything we saw, connected to them and their works. It was like living in a book, like living in a very specific history, not visiting history or appreciating history, but actually being in the history, being in a book. We saw Middle Earth everywhere. We saw Narnia everywhere. We saw Niggle’s tree. We tasted the last wine of Lewis. We walked upon the paths between Hobbiton and Bree. We felt the weight of where we were and what it meant to the Inklings, and now to us, the Re-Inklings of 2013.
Some trips are vacations. One relaxes and rests. Some trips are business. One accomplishes great deeds (if one is lucky and/or works hard). Some trips are magic. This is magic. Just read our blog posts to see what it’s been like for us. I posted in Facebook that everything is amazing and everyone is happy. I wasn’t lying and I’m not wrong. We laughed so much and learned so much and enjoyed so much, it’s almost too much to consider, too much to take in. It’s overwhelming and grand and delicious–like a giant meal we cannot stop picking at… even though we’re pretty full, over full, too full. And I can prove how over-the-top this experience has been/still is:
We have uploaded over 2,500 photos to Facebook. I know that isn’t counting about 200 I didn’t upload and that is not including one of our Company who hasn’t uploaded any pictures yet. ALSO that doesn’t include any pictures of London we may have taken yesterday or are taking today. Two things about this: 1) we saw a lot that we believed was worth chronicling; 2) we’re shutterbugs. And this too: we loved Oxford. We felt connected to our Inklings and to each other as Re-Inklings. To have walked in the footsteps of the men (and women… well, mostly men) is something stunning that few consciously do. We met groups in Oxford who were taking literary tours or who were mildly interested in literature or authors of or from Oxford, but we were IN it. We were part of it–connected in very deep ways through texts our Inklings had written, through reviews we’ve read of their work, through biographies we’ve read, through our research in individual Inklings, through our creating poetry about the “place” of Oxford, through out commitment to Inklings’s walking tours, through our commitment to our learning together.
Magic. I comes not because of some trick of a magician, some illusion, but comes from beyond us, a kind of magic that is well past us that we occasionally glimpse that sometimes colors a moment that we cannot forget ever, a magic that makes us aware of that moment at that very moment–we know it’s magic as it’s happening. Metamagic.
We cried. We were moved by our words of toast for our Inklings. We were moved at the Kilns. We were moved at the graveside of Lewis. We were moved by all of it.
We laughed. We have been so funny–as a Company of travelers will be when much together. We developed phrases that trigger laughter immediately though no one else would understand: “ALL the ___________.” and “IN. YO. FACE.” and “You’re special.” We’ve laughed at it all.
But we had to leave Oxford, no matter what we wanted.
We loaded all our luggage and our six selves into one taxi–who knew it was even possible?–but our cabbie was a master. We could have been in a terrible crash or the cab could have rolled over and none of us would have been hurt–we were protected by bags and bags and bags. Our driver really needs to consider a Guinness record at some point in his life. I was utterly certain we’d have to call for another cab. He said no. No way. Learned to keep my cynical non-packing skills mouth shut.
And thus we sardinely headed away from the metamagic that was Oxford.
Our time in Oxford was truly ended by the time we were packed onto the train to London–again like sardines.
On Saturday, 27 July 2013, we arrived in London.
As we arrived at Paddington Station it was clear we were in another whole world–wall-to-wall people, but our lovely hotel was just two blocks from the station and the beautiful people at Hotel Indigo had arrange for our early check in so we could get in our rooms and refresh a bit before jumping into the wild world of London on a Saturday in summer at the height of tourist season. London is a big city (over 8 million people–compare that to the 150,000 in Oxford!) made even bigger by the throngs of tourists in matching t-shirts or with matching bags–and tour guides with matching placards or umbrellas leading groups around like cattle. We were deeply grateful for our small group–who are all so lovely to travel with.
Here’s a perfect example of how wonderful our group is: we’re in line to enter Westminster Abbey with about 80,000 other travelers (or it felt that way) with long, long lines in the sun mostly.
Then, even when we hit the shade, there was still a ways to go before we got into the Abbey proper. One of our party said, “I’m having a hard time practicing patience.” Another said, “I might be annoyed by this long line soon.” All said with sardonic smiles (or sardine smiles, if you prefer, and if you can picture that!). But no ill humor. We were hot and perilously thirsty and crowded and footsore, but we were kind and generous to each other. We’d thought we’d been very big and cute all week, even good-looking at a few locations, but at the Abbey, we were melty and pale and wee.
And thus–we were rewarded by a marvelous culinary sojourn, by what might have been a horrific and miserable meal but wasn’t at all. If we had been ships, we would have been listing to the scuppers at that moment; we were NOT ship shape. Starving and thirsty (possible suffering from scurvy), we decided to eat at the Abbey cafe. These “location” cafes sometimes are terribly expensive and don’t always have the best food. But I truly believe this, we didn’t utter a cross word to one another when we said we had to eat here or die at sea, and it all turned out beautifully. The food was not unreasonably priced for London and: 1) the chips were the best the girls had had yet–rosemary sea salt chips (fries perfectly done); 2) my tomato/mozzarella salad with pesto was the BEST salad I’d have in a very long time (a
surprising combination of herbs like dill, pesto, lemon, olive oil, crunchy sea salt, tomatoes that tasted just like real tomatoes, and mozzarella that was clearly fresh and so creamy). The only drawback was that Matt and I kept hoping the girls would leave some of the fries, I mean chips, for us to munch on. We watched them closely through the meal (it was so crowded we had to be seated at separate tables) to see if there would be leftover chips. (BTW, they wondered why we stared at them through the whole meal and appeared to be talking about them incessantly–now they know.) Did we get one chip? Not one. We could have asked for a taste. Our company is VERY generous with tastes, but we wanted to give them a break from the professors… Ha. They started to make faces at the us… which we did not understand at the time. We thought: silly Hobbits. But we get it now: if you want a chip, you must ask for a chip, or you will not get a chip–no chips for you. And don’t stare at people. Don’t point fingers. Don’t stick out tongues and make big bug eyes. Folks will misunderstand.
We traveled via the big red/blue bus around London (how we got to Westminster Abbey). The sun was blazing for a good portion of the trip–and I got even more tan–who goes to England to get a golden tan? Me. Finally the weather cooperated with a light rain on and off for some of the afternoon. Finally. We had been really getting heated.
After the Abbey, we took a boat trip up the Thames to see the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. It was all just magnificent. We took another couple of bus rides through town until we headed back to Sussex Gardens, the neighborhood where we are staying. But before I launch into our marvelous meal, here is a list of all we saw as we traveled around London on our first day in town (we only had time to really tour the Abbey):
- Hyde Park (beautiful, enormous park right by our neighborhood)
- The Marble Arch (many folks had been hanged over the centuries)
- Baker Street (where a certain and very famous fictional detective resides)
- Marylebone Church (where Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were married)
- Madam Tussaud’s
- Regent’s Park
- The BBC studios
- All Souls
- Oxford Circus
- Hamley’s Toy Store
- Piccadilly Circus
- Green Park
- Carnaby Street
- Regent Street
- Trafalgar Square (insanely crowded–but it was great to see Nelson’s Column again–so so so columny)
- National Gallery
- Admiralty Arch
- Horse Guards
- No. 10 Downing Street
- Big Ben
- Houses of Parliament
- Buckingham Palace
- St. James Park
- Wellington Arch
- London Eye
- Lambeth Palace
- Wibbly wobbly bridge (look it up AND see it in HP and the Half Blood Prince)
- The Tate Modern
- Replica of the Golden Hind
- Replica of The Globe
- HMS Wellington docked on the Thames
- Blackfriars Bridge
- Royal National Theatre
- The Shard
- City Hall
- Tower Bridge
- Tower of London
- The Monument (to the great fire of 1666)
- St. Paul’s Cathedral
- Cleopatra’s Needle (the other one in NYC, the honors freshman comp travelers saw this spring on our trip there)
- Belgrave Square (dozens of embassies are located in this neighborhood)
- Victoria Station
- MI6 and MI5
And that’s really all I can think of–there was more–historic and important buildings, pubs, warehouses, businesses, and more–too much more. By the time we started to walk home from the Hyde Park bus drop off, we were starving again. Can you believe it? As Caitlyn pointed out: Hobbits eat a lot all day.
I chose the Sussex Gardens location for a couple of reasons: 1) Dickens wrote part of Our Mutual Friend at one of the local pubs here: The Victoria Pub; 2) there are several great Indian restaurants nearby; 3) The Dickens Tavern (great fish and chips); 4) The Hotel Indigo is clean and lovely and relatively a good deal with a great breakfast and free sodas and water in every room; 5) many shops nearby with souvenir goodies but lots of good produce and cheese and several places with pastries and great coffee; but mostly for 6) The Villa Rosa Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel. I’d raved about this Italian place since May: “I hope we can eat there. I loved it when I was in London last.” and “They had the best spaghetti Bolognese I’ve ever had outside Italy.” and “I love this place, the people are wonderful and the food is utterly exquisite.” and “Please, please, please can we eat there?” “I loved it so much I ate there two nights in a row–totally against my usual rules in traveling.” and on and on and on I went.
I’d built this up like nothing else and then it hit me: what if we eat there and it sucks? Oh no. My street cred could go right down the drain.
So. We’d been sunburnt a bit, running for about 12 hours straight, and finally were close to getting a final meal for the day, and Jessica really wanted Italian food. No one else really had a preference, so off to the Villa Rosa we headed. I couldn’t actually remember the name–though I knew it had something to do with “rose.” A kind shopkeeper pointed us in the right direction.
Everyone LOVED what they ordered: Cat, spaghetti with pesto; Caitlyn, Alfredo with mushrooms; Kelhi, salmon with tortellini; Jessica, penne carbonara; Matt and I both ordered the spaghetti Bolognese (the pressure was really on for it to be great). Turns out everything I remembered about this gem was true, in fact, perfect. Of course, we all tasted everyone’s everything. All good. But my favorite was Caitlyn’s reaction to the spaghetti Bolognese: “OH MY GOD.” She started back from the fork and opened her eyes wide, “OH MY GOD.” She expected it would be good, she said, but not OMG good. We ate every bite of everything: prosciutto and melon, all our meals, and dessert. I am at peace.
I can’t say I was in love with moving from Oxford to London, and the train ride was hot and generally unpleasant (though the immediate company was, as always, super fine), the day was good, and as usual, felt like three or four days in one:
- Oxford morning–day one.
- Travel–day two.
- London by bus and the Abbey–day three.
- Perfect dinner–day four.
But we said yes to the adventure and found that being open to the joy the universe might throw in our way turned out to be the right move. Again.
~Elizabeth D. Woodworth