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.