Impossible loyalties

Oxford is my second home. I’m not much of one for cities, and there’s no doubt that’s what Oxford is, but especially now the authorities have banned private motor traffic in the town center, it feels more like a really crowded village than a large manufacturing city.
So Thursday was an Oxford day, with a personal tour for visiting Californians conducted by my stepson, the bursar of St Michaels in the Northgate.
In a 1990 paper, Michael Popkin wrote:
About the year 900, the Saxon inhabitants of Oxford built an earth rampart round their settlement to protect it from marauding Danes. One stone building that survives from the period is the tower of the church which stood at the north entrance to the ramparts, the present St Michael at the North Gate. In 1986 the tower was restored and opened to the public as a tourist attraction where the church treasury, the clock and the bells may be seen and from whose roof there is a fine view of the city.

One of the jobs my relative oversees is the annual beating of the bounds, at which a crowd bearing willow sticks solemnly marches the parish bounds and whacks various walls (in an alleyway behind a pub, through the lingerie section in Marks and Spencer’s) to delcare the boundaries. Also in St Michaels can be seen the font at which William Shakespeare stood for the baptism of the godson who might have been his son.   

St Michael’s also served as a debtor’s gaol (or jail, for the Yanks among us) and one can see in the church’s little museum the beer-mug sized container the prisoners lowered down on a string for donations, since debtors were not fed by the city. Among St Michael’s more famous prisoners were the Oxford Martyrs, Protestants Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, burned by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary (the site of their execution is marked by an X in the Broad Street, outside the city walls and in front of Baliol college.)
From the tower, the rooftops of Oxford jumble away from underfoot, leads and tiles in all the shapes one can imagine. There is a line in Sayers’ Gaudy Night, which is set here (and which we’ll be reading next month on the book club,) in which Harriet Vane looks down from a nearby rooftop at the pale head of the man she loves, walking away in the streets below her.

Oxford: home of lost causes and impossible loyalties, whose spires dream in the mist, a city of light under whose streets lie the darkest sides of history.

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  1. Laidee Marjorie on September 6, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Beautiful! Coincidentally, Masterpiece Mystery on PSB has been showing new episodes of the Inspector Lewis series (the follow-up to Inspector Morse) and it has been wonderful to see all of the Oxford locations that they use. Last night’s show included some beautiful shots of boats on the river. What a lovely “village” it is. I still hope to make it there in person some day.


  2. Pat Floyd on September 7, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Thank you so much for this fascinating account and the excellent link. I see that your step=son has an OBE.

  3. J. M. Strother on September 7, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    I love Oxford. Wish I could get back there. We did our honeymoon in ’83 in Britain and started it off in Oxford. It was lovely.

  4. KariW on September 7, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    I followed the link LRK posted to learn about St Michaels in the Northgate. Amazingly, if you go to the tab marked “Our People,” you find that their Assistant Priest is the “Revd Clive HOLMES”


  5. Terri on September 8, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    So happy that you are having a good time in UK, BUT am bummed that you are there and I am here in Soquel (from Wahington DC) 🙂

  6. Meredith T on September 8, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Hmmm. Is that the scene with the quote “All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” ?

    And after that book I was definitely madly in love with PDBW AND Oxford and have been sort of following them around ever since. Boy, do I miss Oxford. Marjorie: next summer? let’s discuss! 🙂 Meredith

  7. Merrily on September 11, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Just wanted to add that I was in Oxford the first time before they closed the city center to traffic, and in those days, you most definitely had the feeling of “being in a big industrial city.” Alice, perhaps THAT’S why you never saw the part I told you about! How remarkable to learn that Laurie’s stepson is at St. Michael’s; Alice and I walked by it and observed that it was possible to climb to the top, but having just made a similar climb at the Sheldonian, we wimped out!

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