Mia's 'Tolkien pilgrimage'
First of all, I need to mention that the 'Tolkien pilgrimage' wasn't my primary reason for visiting Oxford. What brought me there was the first ever Real Life meeting of the TEUNC (Tolkien Eccentric Unusual Nut Cases) group, of which I am but a humble part. Having "Tolkien" in our name naturally suggested Oxford as the first meeting place (South Africa, although more in accordance with "Eccentric", would have been more difficult to arrange).
Besides, some of TEUNC were already in Oxford and could be used as knowledgeable guides. :) I hereby thank Messieurs Lowde, Axcell, Bladen, and Scott Rohan for their time and patience.
The town in general is, to put it quite euphemically, impressive! I could rant on for ages about how wonderful it looks and is, but the truth is that no photograph or documentary can do it justice and show its true splendour. Unlike most places I visited, where you have a couple of important landmarks to photograph, look around and leave, in Oxford you just don't know where to look. Every street we passed, every college, (book)shop or pub we visited, all were so picturesque and 'photogenic' that I, controlling myself as much as I could ("Remember you'll have to pay for all that developing!"), ended up with 8 rolls of film, about three hundred photos in total. As much as I'd love to show you all, Calisuri would probably kill me :), so here's a randomly chosen few (pray excuse the quality of images: my scanner, although new and expensive, has already started acting strange. duh):
The most obvious places to visit in Oxford that have to do with Tolkien are the colleges he studied and later lectured at, Exeter (http://www.exeter.ox.ac.uk) and Merton (http://www.merton.ox.ac.uk). I noticed (with some relief) upon my return home that Shaun Spain had already written about Exeter, a college I didn't take much notice of, I must admit, so his article will tell you all you want to know. In reverse, colleague Spain couldn't see Merton from the inside, but I did. It might have been closed to visitors when we went to see it too, I don't know, but I heard our 'guide' going "It's a bunch of Tolkien fans from all over the world..." and I suppose the guard couldn't but let us in: "Oh, okay..." :)
It is, as tourist guides say, arguably Oxford's oldest college, being built in 1264. A most impressive complex. I could just imagine the Good Professor there, going to a new lecture or talking to his students, walking along the paved paths composing the epic myths in his head... as a fellow TEUNC put it, "how could you not get inspired to write something as big in a building like this?" Indeed.
"Man does not live on Academia alone..."; not exactly a must-see (partly because people still live there), but a Tolkien fan might like to take a look at the places the Professor lived in during his years in Oxford. Merton Road is one, where he spent the last years of his life, and it was a part of the TEUNC Oxford tour, between the informative sightseeing of the historical town centre and a "Lewis pilgrimage" at the Madeleine college which I did not take part in. Heresy it might be, but I admit to not being a huge Lewis (http://cslewis.drzeus.net/pictures/) fan. Here is Tolkien's abode in the centre of Oxford:
1) (c) Nathalie Kuijpers 2) (c) Benny Geys
A house outside the town, 20 Northmoor Road, proved to be more interesting; it was the house Tolkien lived in with his family before he moved to Merton, and it so happened that the lady currently residing in it recognised our 'guide' from the days he spent there as a neighbour kid, and invited us in. I was so lucky to be in the study where Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit". The house's new owners merged it with the next room, but they knew the Professor personally and told us that in his day the rooms were separated by a "passage" built of numerous bookshelves. "It was where he'd get away from the children", the owner told us, pointing at the sunlit desk where the classic was written. When I asked him what Tolkien was like apart from his academic persona, the answer I got was a cryptic one: "He was an average professor." Is there such a thing? I come from a family of professors, and they're all... never mind. :)
I didn't take any pictures inside the study, it seemed inappropriate; but here's the house and a lovely birch tree growing next to it. I was reminded of a line I read, where Tolkien says he notices trees first, and then people.
1. (c) Nathalie Kuijpers 2. (c) Benny Geys 3. (c) Ranveig Mossige
The said house was a stop on our way to the Barrow-Downs and the famous neolithic monuments of Wiltshire. Although I, unlike Tolkien, notice architecture first, a day in the countryside made me appreciate his sentiments more. What can I say, it's breathtaking! I pride myself on being an imaginative person, but my mental image of the Shire was always more influenced by the Istrian and Dalmatian landscapes I was familiar with than Tolkien's drawings and other pictures based on them. This was my chance to see the landscapes that inspired Tolkien to create first Bilbo's Shire and then the entire world of Middle-Earth.
Incidentally, on our way we passed through a small town with one of the inns bearing the name "The Green Dragon". Here it is, slightly blurry because I took it from a speeding bus:
It was a nice reference to introduce us to what we were going to see: Tolkien's world. Stopping for a while to see the famous Uffington White Horse (http://www.homeusers.prestel.co.uk/hows/personal/hillfigs/uff/uffing.htm), I was actually more interested in the plains on which the horse was drawn than in the 3000 yr old chalk figure itself. The high grass in the wind couldn't but make one think of the Riders of Rohan (it took me some time to realise that the landscapes that Rohan was clearly based on featured a number of large white horses on green downs). I could vividly imagine them, hundreds of warriors on strong horses storming down the steep hills. Very steep, actually, the climbing was fun if a little exhausting.
Yes, here's yours truly smiling to herself as she pictures the grand scenes taking place in a similar scenery. :)
2. (c) Ranveig Mossige
Interesting tidbit - one of the villages nearby bears the name of "Buckland". Unfortunately I didn't take a picture of the roadsign pointing to Buckland because I was standing beneath it when everyone else snapped their cameras, but the others did. :) The village itself is a typical 'postcard-like' place I would love to live in, with medieval chapels and Tudor-style cottages.
The surroundings are typical Shire, and were particularly romantic bathed in sunset light. Let the pictures speak for themselves:
(c) Nathalie Kuijpers
Our final stop for the day were the somewhat spooky (the evening was drawing already) Barrow-Downs (http://www.wiltshire-web.co.uk/history/barrows.htm). How clever of our 'guide' to time our arrival at dusk, so that we could get more of the atmosphere. It would have been perfect if we had had some of that English fog as well, but the unusually sunny and warm weather was against us. Adding to the general feel of the place was an old gallows tree. Most of the group gathered round it while I went ahead, along one of the largest burial mounds of Wilthshire, until it got too muddy to go on. The site is so large one doesn't even realise it's man-made (me, later: "So where was that longbarrow?" "You were walking on it." "Oh."). Among the photographs I took I found one of the road on top of the barrow which brought the words "The Road goes ever on" to my mind, so I included it:
Wiltshire is best known for its megaliths, especially the best-preserved "cromlech", Stonehenge. The second most famous, and most complete henge is Avebury (http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~aburnham/eng/aveb.htm), a stone circle (several, actually) so large an entire village is built amidst the stones. The ancient circular sanctuary is led to by two "avenues", pairs of megaliths outlining the path to the henge, reminiscent of Dunharrow. I'm still in awe of the people who erected the stones, they are huge! No less amazing is the ditch surrounding the circle which, if not seen from the air, looks like a slope: the site can be seen and understood in its entirety only from above.
A little sleepy and a lot tired from the day's trekking, we needed to refresh, and what better place to do that in than the pubs. :) One of the best-known Oxford pubs, owing its fame largely to the Inklings, is the "Eagle and Child", better known to the natives as the "Bird and Baby". This is the place where Tolkien, Lewis and Williamson met and discussed, read parts of their books, this is where most of Tolkien's mythology came into shape. The actual room upstairs where the meetings took place is no longer available to the public, but the reminders of the Inklings aren't lacking: many photographs of Tolkien and co. adorn the pub's walls. I was unable to photograph them because of the crowd; still, a friend was kind enough to send me her pictures of the building and the pub sign. (Tehanu asked me if the Professor was inspired by the sign picture to create the scene of the Hobbits being carried by Eagles. Good question, I'll try to ask people who know more than I do. :))
both: (c) Nathalie Kuijpers
Those In The Know (read: avid pub-goers and Tolkien fans) told me the "Bird and Baby" was no longer what it used to be; the most Tolkienish pub in today's Oxford is, I was told, the "Rose and Crown". I was soon convinced when we occupied our candle-lit room and the owner lady brought us a Mighty Dish of Mushrooms (tm). Talk about the Maggots' farm! I heartily recommend the "Rose and Crown" to whoever wants to, eh, taste :) some of the real Tolkien's world feel.
Our last stop on the Tolkien tour was the Wolvercote cemetery where the Professor and his beloved wife are buried. A touching image: he saw their love as that of Beren and Luthien, and that is the only thing the inscription on the gravestone says:
both: (c) Nathalie Kuijpers
The Tolkien biography by Humphrey Carpenter gives one detailed instructions on how to find the grave, but it is no longer necessary. From the large sign on the map at the entrance to the pointers "J. R. R. Tolkien, writer" at every crossing, one gets a strange feeling that the graveyard is mostly visited because of the Professor.
Back at the hotel, I followed my habit of taking a sample of every brochure I could find :), and among them I found one about an Inklings exhibition at the Bodleian library. Alas, I picked it up too late, for the exhibition was already over. Still, I scanned the brochure for informations' sake. The Bodleian, where most of Tolkien's manuscripts and drawings are kept, is another stunning sight. My poor photo doesn't show anything of its grandeur:
Noticing that the exhibition was sponsored by the Blackwell's Bookshop (another name for Heaven! I could camp there, live there...), I remembered I should also mention the Thornton's Bookshop, where one can often 'dig out' early editions of the Inklings' and other rare and valuable books, a really splendid place, not far from the library. I bought a few postcards and posters of earlier (80's) Tolkien exhibitons with his drawings on them, but these were too large to scan, and anyway, I haven't yet seen a Tolkien or Tolkien-inspired picture which can't be found on one of the Internet archives.
My overall impression of the place was WOW! (Actually, it was a vivid Croatian expression unsuitable for translation, but still...) I thought Oxford itself was amazing but when I saw the shires surrounding it, I was Gamgee-like properly impressed. I'd suggest to anyone who can and hasn't already to go see it. I was unable, in a mere week I had, to see Birmingham and its surroundings, but again, the first part of Mr. Spain's article covers that period and there wouldn't be much I could add. :)
In any case, if you want to understand Tolkien and his creations better, go there. This was the best week of my life (the crazy presence of TEUNC helped a lot), and I'm sure Oxford couldn't make less of an impression on anyone.