Saturday, 7 February 2015

Oxford and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Oxford – the “city of dreaming spires.”   

 Home of the world-renowned Oxford University, the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Future Oxford University students?
Home of beautiful architecture every which way you turn.

 Home to some seriously beautiful stonework,

 And sometimes some seriously whimsical stonework.

Once home to literary royalty including the likes of:
-       C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia who taught at Oxford for thirty years;
-       His good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor at Oxford who first shared his story The Hobbit with a literary group called the Inklings that included Lewis and often met at a little pub in Oxford called The Eagle & Child.
-       Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, who in 1862 went for a ride in a rowboat with one of the heads of Oxford University and his three daughters, one of whom was named Alice.  While on the boat ride, Mr. Dodgson told the girls a story of a bored little girl named Alice who went on an adventure.  They loved it and the story later turned into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Oh, and Harry Potter.  No, J.K. Rowlings did not attend Oxford (she did apply in 1982 but sadly was not accepted – sorry Oxford).  But with hallways that look like this, 

you can see why Oxford was chosen as the site of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy for many scenes in the film versions of the books.    

Hermione walking the halls of Hogwarts with her nose stuck in a book.  Oh, wait - that's Ellie.
We are a family of fantasy novel and film buffs.  We could visit Oxford, a mere two hour drive from our house, and walk in the footsteps of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter.  Need I to say more?  I think this gives you a pretty good idea why Oxford was on our list of places to visit in the UK.  

Our journey into Oxford started with a ride on a double-decker bus.  Oxford is a busy city.  Not only does is contain the extensive Oxford University full of thousands of students and staff (Oxford consists of 38 Colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls of religious foundations –not sure exactly what that means), but with the shopping, restaurants and amazing architecture, it is hot tourist destination.  Instead of trying to find a parking spot in the center of town, we parked at a park & ride lot where every ten minutes, you can catch a bus that will drop you off in the center of town.  Leah was ecstatic when she saw that the bus was a double-decker.  We hadn’t been on one yet.  Up to the top deck we went and she jumped into the seat at the very front where there is nothing between you and the street down below but a giant glass window.  Ellie was hesitant and opted for the seat behind Leah. This is exactly how my girls roll.

We exited the bus in the bustling center of the city with beautiful buildings and shops in all directions.  Our first stop was down a narrow cobblestone side street off the main drag to a dilapidated old building where a literary group has set up an amazing maze of storybook rooms over three levels called The Story Museum.  Each room is decorated as a scene from a variety of popular children’s literature.  In one of the rooms, the girls got the opportunity to become their own storybook character, including creating the name for their character.  

Allow me to present Ellie, The Wonderful Witch of the Stars,

And Leah, The Mysterious Fairy of Nutwood.

From the Museum, we headed towards Oxford University and to what is traditionally considered to be the most aristocratic of all the 38 colleges, Christ Church College.  Christ Church has produced 13 British prime ministers and is the home to the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral which serves as the college chapel.  It's also home to this grand staircase where Professor McGonagall met Harry Potter and the rest of the first years as they entered Hogwarts for the first time and it is here that Harry encounters Tom Riddle and a young Albus Dumbledore when he enters the diary in The Chamber of Secrets.
And at the top of this staircase is the Great Hall of course.  Well, actually it is the Christ Church dining hall for students, but it is this dining hall that was the inspiration for the Great Hall in Hogwarts used in the films.  Sadly, we have no photos to share.  Unfortunately for us, the dining hall is currently closed for several months because it's filled with scaffolding.  The ceiling isn’t really enchanted showing the sky above it.  Rather, it’s made out of wood that requires ordinary muggles to perform some conservation work now and again to keep it in its magnificent form.    

The actual movie scenes of the Great Hall were filmed at an airplane hanger outside of London where a life sized replica of the Christ Church dining hall was built.  Many scenes were filmed right here at Oxford, but why didn't they just use the Great Hall as well?  Well, during the first Harry Potter movie, they did actually start shooting scenes in the Great Hall right here in Christ Church College.  It wasn't long before they discovered a big problem with this though.  The dining hall at Christ Church really is just that – a dining hall for the student.  Trying to feed students in this beautiful room three times a day while you have a film crew and a couple hundred kids dressed up like wizards running around doesn’t work very well.  And a lot of scenes throughout the Harry Potter books take place in the Great Hall.  So the hall was recreated at an airplane hanger turned movie studio outside of London to shoot the scenes in the Great Hall.  Oh, and stay tuned because we will be visiting said airplane hanger turned movie studio to see the Great Hall and other sets and props from some of my favorite films while we are living here in England.

A fountain inside a courtyard at Christ Church
As much as I geeked out on seeing the sites where Harry Potter was filmed at Oxford (to borrow a term from my dear friend Anna Gough), the highlight of Christ Church for me was the Cathedral and its magificent stained glass windows.  

I’m not sure what is was about these particular stained glass windows that set them apart from the many others I’ve seen, but I wandered from one to the next in absolute awe, mesmerized by their beauty. 

My favorite were these three round stained glass windows.  The top window is depicting a ship of souls carrying St. Frideswide, the patron Saint of Oxford, to heaven.  The two windows below show the Tree of Knowledge (left) and the Tree of Life (left).    
Maybe it was their bright, vivid colors, more colorful than any I can remember seeing.

Maybe it was because the scenes were so clear and easy to decipher.  They weren't cluttered with a multitude of different scenes in one window.  Instead, many of the huge windows contained just one scene from top to bottom.  

The cathedral was also home to beautifully hand carved woodwork, 

and tombs and shrines. 

The tomb of John de Nowers, with his head resting on a cow
Behind the tree is a shrine to St. Frideswide, the patron Saint of Oxford, parts of which date back to the 1200s.

When we entered the Cathedral, the girls were given a scavenger hunt which kept them busy.  The sheet they received had different figures on it and they needed to search the church to find them.  This kept them busy while I gazed at the windows.

After leaving Christ Church, we roamed around the campus a bit.  Below is one of the libraries on campus called Radcliffe Camera.  Interesting name.  Camera means room in Latin.  

From there, we headed to Oxford's Divinity School, a huge room built in 1488 for the teaching of theology.  It's significant for a few reasons.  This room contains 455 carved bosses - protrusions of stone or wood usually found in ceilings.  This is also the earliest room built mainly for teaching at the University, as well as its first examination hall.  

But there's one more unique thing about this room, a rather recent development in the grand scene of things at the University.  This room also served as Hogwarts' hospital wing where Madame Pomfrey cared for Harry and his friends when they were injured.  It was also here that Professor McGonagall gave the students of Hogwarts dance lessons in preparation for the Yule ball in the Goblet of Fire.  

A couple of Hogwarts' students waiting for their dance lesson
After our Harry Potter adventures at Oxford were over, we visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  This Museum is housed in one extremely large beautiful glass roofed room - not like any museum I've seen before.  The objects on display (preserved animals, rocks and minerals, dinosaur bones, etc., all the things you would expect to find in a natural history museum) were lined up in rows and you just wondered up one and down the next.  

It was late afternoon by the time we made it through the Museum and we were hungry after our day exploring Oxford.  

Was that the knight bus?
We headed back towards the main part of town and found The Eagle & Child pub, the frequent haunt of Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis.  

See the chain around Ellie's neck.  At the end of it is a time turner.
We got the only table available at the very back of the small, cozy pub.  It's a popular place.  
Is this where Tolkien sat when he first slid his handwritten copy of The Hobbit across the table to his friends for them to read?  Maybe.

After a burger and fries, a good English beer (cokes for the girls) and a pleasant conversation with the group of college students sitting next to us who turned out to be from Indiana too (apparently Notre Dame has a very small campus in London - who knew!) and it was time to make the bus trip back to our car.  This time, Ellie wanted to sit in the very front of the upper deck too.  

There is more to see in Oxford that our one day visit just didn't allow the time for.  I would also really like to see the inside of the Great Hall.  We'll be back Oxford. 

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