A KIND OF MAGICK
Imaginations have long been sparked by the charms of Oxfordshire with some of the world’s most beloved tales spun from many of its sights. Mindy Teh is left spellbound by the hallowed grounds of its university, its medieval city and beyond.
Imaginations have long been sparked by the charms of Oxfordshire, with some of the world’s most beloved tales spun from its many sights. Mindy Teh is left spellbound by the hallowed grounds of its university, its medieval city and beyond.
Twilight in Oxfordshire brings the promise of a stroll along the countryside, entering a secret garden from which one can view the sky change as an unseen hand sweeps across this vast expanse with masterstrokes of deep Titian orange, majestic purples and dark midnight blues. Cheeks are flushed from the walk in the cold, arms are wrapped around each other for warmth.
It is a remarkable county incorporating parts of the Cotswolds and Wessex. An enchantment of experiences, perhaps unlike any other in England, with pastoral scenes to admire through which the River Cherwell run in deep emerald hues. Fields of golden barley and wheat swaying in the gentle wind, sheep dotting the green landscape, such bucolic settings have been written about of Oxfordshire by the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Hardy.
Against this backdrop, in Woodstock, Blenheim Palace stands as the birthplace of Winston Churchill and presents a fairy tale setting for movies such as Cinderella, weddings and even a Dior fashion show by its first female designer. The world heritage site is a vast estate that’s currently home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough, its impressive structure designed by Christopher Wren.
Oxford city (The City of Dreaming Spires, as bestowed by the poet Matthew Arnold) and to significant extent its distinguished university, is spellbinding not just for the casual tourist but also to those who have lived or studied here.
Indeed, the affinity for Oxford is very much a cultural one. Drawn from centuries of learning, literature and celebrity (the university’s alumni has an impressive roll call), no doubt contributing to an almost mystical air about the place. This was home, after all, to two of the world’s most beloved fantasy authors. Both had carved out, in such an extensive manner, the ‘true’ English mythology of their dreams. So pervasive have been the universes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that you can now visit a ‘real’ Hobbiton, speak Elven, or experience a Narnia tour in Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and Prague.
Oxford’s reputation for fantasy was sealed from the publication of Jonathan Swift’s epic satire, Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, published seven years after the rebel with(out) a cause was expelled for having written a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, may have also contributed in part to the Oxford’s own mythos. Decades later in 1865, another Oxonian who taught at Christ Church and whose unhealthy fixation on the child of the dean of the college resulted in the writing of Alice in Wonderland, would become a celebrated figure in children’s literature. To this day, Charles Dodgson’s creation has captured the imagination with several modern interpretations including the Alice in Resident Evil.
New generation fantasists include Philip Pullman whose His Dark Materials trilogy details Oxford as an alternate universe. Arguably the most multi-generational and famous literary force in the genre sees JK Rowling (who was rejected by the university upon application) basing many of the settings in the Harry Potter series on real locations in Oxford.
But we could go on. Oxford magick ( magick being a term coined, regrettably, by a Canterbridgian—the infamous Alistair Crowley) is so rich and varied, even its science possesses ambitions of sci-fi proportions. Take Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the former Queen’s College alumni is a fellow of and currently lecturing at Christ Church) and his invention of the World Wide Web, conjured, seemingly, from thin air.
There’s much in Oxford to encourage this notion. A visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum reveals a cavern of what is ostensibly bric-a-brac from around the world, donated in 1884 by the ethnologist and archaeologist General Pitt Rivers. The general’s Indiana Jones-like expeditions saw him amassing a wealth of over 20,000 artifacts (today, that number has mushroomed to more than half a million).
Upon closer inspection, this outwardly haphazard yet fascinating collection of long boats, swords, masks, bowls, traditional costumes, ceremonial and witchcraft paraphernalia, reveals itself as organised chaos. Essentially, it is also an exploration by way of display and inference of how similar cultures and designs are despite geographical distances.
The Pitt-Rivers Museum can be accessed through the Oxford Museum of Natural History, itself an inspiration for the fertile imagination as it was for Charles Dodgson’s. Lewis Carroll (his pen name) made frequent visits to the museum’s most famous exhibit, the head and foot—the most complete remains in the world—of a single dodo. The 1650 painting of a dodo by the Flemish artist Jan
Savery, also displayed at the museum, was likely the source for the one in Alice in Wonderland.
It was here, too, where Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce led a momentous debate on evolution, with Wilberforce questioning Huxley if it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey.
More treasures appear at the Ashmolean Museum of art and architecture—a Sumerian king list, Paolo di Dono’s A Hunt In The Forest, an Egyptian mummy, even a dish with a composite head of penises from the Renaissance period— prove great fodder for discussion.
For the most part, however, the real magick lies outside the museums and the hallowed halls of the colleges. Take a languid stroll around the city and the university without a tour. Trust your instincts, go by unbeaten paths. Some of them will lead you to grotesques like the many gargoyles guarding the city, fascinating inscriptions and carvings, even possible inspirations for Mr. Tumnus, the faun in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, the Narnia Door featuring a possible spark for Aslan, even the singular lamp post that saw Lucy Pevensie embark on her remarkable journey through Narnia.
The warmer seasons of the year make it your chance to have a champagne picnic by Christ Church Meadow, making daisy chains, feeding the ducks while discussing
Graham Greene and the complexities of Oxford’s most famous band, Radiohead. There is also the chance to go punting by the scenic river Cherwell downstream to University Parks, another popular picnic destination. The Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum has a 400 year old history (it is the oldest botanic garden in Britain) of glasshouses and gardens filled with flora and fauna from around the globe.
If the weather is too cold or gloomy, take refuge inside the Trinity College Chapel—or wait for a performance by the acclaimed Trinity College Chapel Choir. More basic instincts can be fed, quite literally, at the Eagle & Child on St. Giles St. The public house, fondly known as The Bird & Baby (Fowl & Foetus, for some!), is famous for being the
spot where The Inklings formally met every Thursday to discuss their writing.
The Inklings, of course, were made up of none other than Tolkien and Lewis themselves together with Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson. Largely a social gathering, some important milestones were reached at The Eagle & Child including the handing out of proofs of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe by Lewis for open critique from his colleagues.
What could be more inspired than a manor in Oxfordshire promising French refinement? Back in the countryside, a cosy suite awaits at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons ( www.belmond.com). A bottle of port and a fire crackling with anticipation is a welcome boon from a crisp evening exploring hill and vale.
The manor, a 27-acre estate that encompasses lush gardens and orchards, are created by acclaimed Chef Raymond Blanc OBE, possesses thirty-two individually appointed rooms, each unique from the other. In some, open fireplaces are featured whereas others have romantic courtyards, private terraces, marble bathrooms with standing baths and intimate walled gardens.
The main attraction of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons would be its restaurant, awarded two Michelin stars in 1984 when it first opened, with the remarkable reputation of keeping them every year since. That it is truly one of the best restaurants in Britain is no small feat.
A lavender-scented footpath leads gourmands and enchanted lovers alike up to what has been described as a “twist of imaginative genius”. Prepare for sumptuous culinary delights designed by Raymond Blanc and executive head chef Gary Jones. Seasonal lunch and dinner menus incorporate locally sourced organic produce with a great selection coming from the manor’s garden and extend up to seven courses.
Spécialités du Moment creations allow one to substitute dishes in the main menu. Seasonal dishes include a Scottish langoustine brimming with fresh seaside flavours accompanied by Jerusalem artichoke and autumn truffle. A melt-in-the-mouth foie gras spiced with gingerbread and served with clementine curd and buckler sorrel. For mains, a tender veal fillet roast revealing a robust pink when cut, and featured with sweetbread, chanterelles, watercress and hazelnuts. Duck is married with garden quince, cabbage, bacon and wild mushrooms. Each presentation is carefully curated and paired with the right wines from a 2000-strong selection housed in the manor by an expert sommelier. Desserts see the deft hand of Chef Pâtissier Benoit Blin over a range of sweet pleasures such as the milk chocolate and Earl Grey tea crumble with banana and passionfruit sorbet.
By now, twilight has turned to dusk by dinner’s end. Lounging in the comfort of the suite watching the flames dance by the open fire, a glass of brandy in hand with Yusuff Lateef playing love songs in the background, the mood turns mellow. The witching hour is at hand and for some, Oxfordshire’s magick has only just begun.
08 Could this gargoyle have inspired the faun in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe?
04 Christ Church College Great Hall was one of the inspirations for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts dining hall. 05 Oxford Canal near Banbury with narrowboats. 06 The Museum of Natural History in Oxford 07 The Bridge of Sighs.
02 Display at the Pitt Rivers Museum. 03 Aerial view of Blenheim Palace.
01 Christ Church Meadow.
09 Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons 10 Ingredients for the Michelin starred creations at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons are sourced locally. 11 Guests can attend a gourmet cooking school at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.