Adventures in Russell-land – Part II
The Bodelian Library is a must for anyone who is devoted to the Mary Russell mysteries, and traveling with Merrily, the former head librarian at Brown University, opens doors that might otherwise be barred. She knew the current librarian of the Bodley back in the day, and it only took an email to arrange a private tour. Although Merrily’s friend was out of town she had kindly arranged for one of her staff to show us the beautiful exterior, and the impressive interior of the buildings that make up the old and new libraries. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
Everything in Oxford seems to have been there forever, but new somehow, certainly not dated or simply old. There is a feeling of vitality on the streets – this town, inhabited and driven by its thousands of students and dons, virtually hums with life. Oxford is known as the town of spires and dreams and one can see why, even in the rain. Most of the major buildings are constructed of local stone that has a yellow cast, and it seems to glow even on a rainy day. One can only imagine what it would look like on a sunny day. Seeing it in the rain was impressive enough.
We walked out of our hotel in a drizzly rain, and dodging the somber, pinch-faced students as they hurried off to their exams, we set out for Broad St. to meet our guide for the arranged for tour. Many of the streets in the center of Oxford have been closed off to traffic and made into promenades, which is a good thing for all the walkers and cyclists, but it forces the other streets to carry more car traffic than they might have otherwise, and leads to some pretty severe congestion. As I stated before, walking in Oxford is a far superior way to see the city, and, one must add, to keep one from tearing your hair out trying to negotiate the narrow roads, one way and dead end streets that provide no way to turn around.
A few short blocks and a turn or two, and we were on Broad Street strolling past Balliol (Lord Peter’s college) on our left, and then Trinity College. Frankly you can’t walk more than a block without seeing one famous college or another.
The Bodleian is made up of the Old and the New Buildings and separated by Broad Street, but joined by underground tunnels that pass under the street. Standing in front of the new library looking toward the old you see the Sheldonian, an odd almost u-shaped building with a small cupola topped by a green roof that seems oddly out of place by its diminutive scale next to the imposing buildings around it.
Our guide took us first into the Old Schools quadrangle to view the statue of Duke Humfrey, whose books made up the first library, and prompted the building of Duke Humfrey’s Library above the Divinity School. It is an impressive space in the shape of a T with hand-painted and carved, wooden vaulted ceilings and wooden shelves and reading benches, where once the books were chained to metal rods where they could be taken down and moved along the rod to a space for the reader to sit down and open the book on the reading table. They removed the chains long ago, but keep one to show the visitors. Everything is hushed tones and no photography in Duke Humfrey’s Library, with a stern faced guard on duty, who glowers if you even look like you might try to snap a shot.
Down several flights of stairs, and out the back and we were ushered into the Convocation house, where Charles I held Parliament during the English civil war. It is quite an impressive space. Sir Christopher Wren put a door in on the side facing the Sheldonian so the procession from one building to the other would be less cumbersome.
We were eventually taken down into the lower stacks where millions of books are shelved, and we were shown how they are retrieved and sent to the various reading rooms. It is still a very labor-intensive procedure, using people and a very old continuous chain system, no computerized method at the Bodelian, except for the ordering of the books. Even this is not complete throughout the library as slips ordering books and manuscripts to the Humfrey’s Library are still handwritten and conveyed by pneumatic tubes. At the end of our tour we found we were near the Radcliffe Camera, a quite distinctive building that resembles a domed cathedral. It was built through the bequest of a physician and named in his honor, and now functions as one of the Bodleian’s many reading rooms. Although it was pouring rain by now we couldn’t help but gawk at the Bridge of Sighs, and the quad of the Radcliffe Camera. Getting wet is nothing when surrounded by such impressive buildings.
The only way to really “see” Oxford is to take to the heights, so we paid a small fee to climb up to the cupola on top the Sheldonian where you have a 360 degree view of the city.
We climbed down with sore legs and an appreciation for Oxford that will be with us forever.