A short stay in Oxford

We left home in sub-zero temperatures and fog to travel to Oxford. With climate change there have been fewer winter days like this in the last couple of years. I did not get chance to take any photographs before leaving but here is one from a few years ago.

The fog lifted around Birmingham, returned in the Cherwell Valley but had disappeared by the time we reached Oxford and settled into our hotel. We have been to the city numerous times but my most recent trips had been work-related, so I saw little more than a meeting room in the Ashmolean and the route to and from the station. The following morning was bright and sunny, so we walked into town. Blue plates proliferate on the walls of buildings around here and Tolkien’s house is nearby. I was introduced to his work at primary school in the very early 1970s when the miners’ strikes led to widespread power cuts. Our teacher read us The Hobbit by candlelight. Our first destination was the Weston Library which is across the road from the Old Bodleian. Its interior is modern but some of the walls are lined with collections of antiquarian books. We had come to see an exhibition entitled Talking Maps; some of their vast collection. It was varied and eclectic from some of the earliest to very recent examples. There was a map indicating where to buy a drink in Oxford in the 1880s.

This one is of Laxton in East Nottinghamshire which has a portion of the last remaining open field systems. The feudal rural Map of England dates from 1635 and there are three large fields still relatively intact in Laxton which is almost unique in post-enclosure Modern Britain.

Also on display was the earliest known medieval map of Britain produced as a separate sheet rather than in a book and drawn on the hides of a sheep and lamb. More recent maps were wartime examples, some fake to confuse the enemy. Maps of imaginary places included Tolkien’s (which could not be photographed) and RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There were also pictorial maps by Grayson Perry.

There were faith maps of Christian pilgrim routes to Jerusalem, maps to assist Muslims in identifying the direction of Mecca and others related to Hinduism and Buddhism. An interesting display explained that although maps were not always orientated north; they were never orientated towards the west as this was where the sun went down and darkness reigned. Later we walked into the Boddleian courtyard

and then wandered around the city, purchasing an antique map for our own collection from a dealer we have bought from online previously. It was interesting to meet him in person and find out a little more about his work. The Botanic Gardens in Oxford are the oldest in the country

and are situated near Magdalen College and Bridge.

Only three glasshouses were open as a renovation project was underway but the snowdrops were more open than mine are. The Gunnera Manicata had been cut down on the island in the middle of the pond and left folded over the stalks to provide shelter for wildlife. Some shrubs were beginning to flower and some other spring flowers. Fish were swimming around under the ice in one pond.

Just outside the garden is a garden with yew and box hedging. A notice said that this had been a water meadow in 1190 and became a Jewish burial site. In 1231 a new site was established under what is now the college. An ancient footpath connected the site with the medieval Jewish quarter and was known as Deadman’s Walk for 800 years. In 1290 Edward I expelled all the Jews in England and they were not permitted to return for 300 years.

We had a meal in the Three Goat Heads pub. The First English Guild of Cordwainers was founded in Oxford in 1130 and three goat heads appeared on the crest. Cordwainer is derived from Cordoba in Spain where cordovan leather was produced from goatskin and became very popular for making shoes. The original inn was owned by one of the cordwainers and dates from 1621 on another street. In the 1800s it was moved to the present site. Inside are three goat heads and numerous items used in shoemaking.

All too soon we had to return home having sampled only a little of what Oxford has to offer.