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all souls college oxford radcliffe square

A week is better, of course. Or a few months. Preferably a whole semester, so you can sink into the city and learn its streets, begin to feel its ancient rhythms in your bones. But if you’re hopping over from London and only have a day, here’s what to do.

Catch an early train from Paddington, or a bus from Victoria Station. The former will deliver you to the Oxford rail station; the latter, to cobblestoned Gloucester Green, where the open market happens on Wednesdays.

Either way, when you arrive, climb down and stretch your legs, and start walking east.

Stop when you hit Cornmarket Street, the bustling, pedestrian-only artery that runs through City Centre. Look up. This is Oxford: modern shops crammed side by side with ancient colleges, plate-glass windows reflecting towers of honey-colored stone.

catte street oxford

Walk up Cornmarket (passing by St Michael at the North Gate, the oldest building in Oxford) and turn right on Broad Street, the aptly named showpiece of City Centre. It’s lined on one side with colleges: St John’s, Balliol, Trinity. (You can tour the latter two if you like – the gardens and quads are stunning.)

sheldonian theatre oxford

Farther down is the Sheldonian Theatre, home to the university’s commencement exercises, its annual Christmas carol service and various other events. It, too, is ancient and lovely, and worth touring.

Across the street is Blackwell’s, home to miles (literally miles) of books.

blackwells bookshop oxford

There are four floors’ worth – you could spend a whole day – but since you’re only here for a little while, pop in and spend half an hour browsing. If you need caffeine by now, visit Caffe Nero on the first floor (the second floor to us Americans).

After Blackwell’s, turn left at the end of the Broad and walk up Parks Road to University Parks. The two-block walk will take you past a slew of other university buildings: Wadham College, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, Keble College with its fantastically colored brickwork.

Turn in at one of the iron gates and wander around the Parks to your heart’s content.

university parks oxford

When you get hungry from all that walking, come back to the entrance of the Parks and turn right out of the north lodge, onto the busy Banbury Road. Two blocks up is a little street called North Parade, which holds On the Hoof, the best sandwich shop in the world.

on the hoof interior oxford

All their sandwiches are delicious, but I recommend the Tom’s Le Club or the Sexy Brazilian. (Both are spicy.) You can perch on a barstool to eat your sandwiches, or take them to go as you keep walking.

Head south, retracing your steps back toward City Centre – down the Banbury Road past the Parks, down Parks Road to the end of the Broad.

That massive building next to the Sheldonian is the Bodleian Library – worth touring but also amazing from the outside. Behind the Bod’s main building stands Radcliffe Square: the cobblestoned, beating heart of Oxford.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

Stand in the Square and look and look, and feel the life of the city pulsing under your feet. This is Oxford: eight hundred years’ worth of knowledge and learning, books and carvings and ancient stone walls.

When you’ve looked your fill here on the ground, cross the Square to the tall church that stands on its south side: the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

university church tower oxford england

Go inside and look around, then pay a few pounds to climb the tower. It offers the best views of Oxford, from a narrow ledge on all four sides. Each view is different, and all four are stunning.

view st marys church oxford west side

Lean on the stone railing and look and look. This is Oxford: dreaming spires, flat-roofed modern buildings, the green handkerchief of South Park unrolling down the hill to the east.

all souls towers oxford england

After you come down from the tower, turn left at the church entrance and walk a little way down the High Street. Past the gates of All Souls and Queen’s Colleges sits Queen’s Lane Coffee House.

Tuck yourself in at a small round table, preferably near a window, and order the best cream tea in Oxford: two round, warm scones with jam and clotted cream, and plenty of hot, strong tea.

queens lane cream tea oxford

Sip your tea and munch your scones while looking out the window. Buses, taxis, students on bikes – all of Oxford passes up and down the busy High Street. Here, in the city’s oldest cafe, you can both watch and be part of it all.

Walk back up the High to where it crosses Cornmarket. If you have time, pop into the Covered Market and wander its maze of stalls, which sell everything from clothing and jewelry to art prints and fresh flowers. Grab a Ben’s Cookie for the train ride back, and pop into Whittard for a tin of tea.

bens cookies oxford covered market

From here, it’s up to you. Wander the tangle of streets in City Centre, or walk down St Aldates Street for a look at Christ Church, one of the largest and most famous colleges. Find an Evensong service to attend, or opt for dinner at a cozy pub. (The Eagle and Child is famous for being the haunt of Tolkien and Lewis, but Oxford has dozens of pubs – take your pick.)

When the sun is setting behind the hills to the west and the spires are casting long shadows onto the streets, head back to the train or bus station.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

Take a last look around, and make a silent promise you already know you’ll keep: I’ll be back.

For Lawson and Lindsey, who are going to Europe this summer and planning to spend a day in Oxford.

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after the war is over book coverOver a year ago, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness. This fall, I did the same for her wonderful second novel, After the War is Over.

The book follows Oxford graduate Charlotte Brown as she resumes her career after World War I, working at a relief agency in Liverpool.

Struggling to find justice for those she helps, Charlotte begins writing impassioned letters to the local newspaper and lands a columnist gig. Meanwhile, she must face her own complicated feelings about the man she has loved for years.

Jen graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book – and about Oxford, where she and I have both spent time. (The city appears briefly in After the War is Over.) And she’s giving away a signed copy of the book to one lucky reader.

Leave a comment below to enter, and I’ll pick a winner at random later this week.

Can you talk about the genesis of After the War is Over? (Readers of Somewhere in France will recognize Charlotte as a dear friend of Lilly, the main character of that book.)

When I first wrote Somewhere in France, I thought of it as a stand-alone book, but as I worked on later drafts, and the character of Charlotte became clearer, I knew she deserved a book of her own. I included a few details of her backstory, such as her childhood in Somerset and her studies at Oxford, but left myself enough room that I wouldn’t feel too hampered later on when it came time to write her book.

How did you decide what work Charlotte would be doing – i.e. helping the poor and those devastated by the war?

It’s only a small detail in Somewhere in France, but at one point Edward and Lilly talk about Charlotte and what she did after leaving work as Lilly’s governess. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to send her to Liverpool and put her to work for Eleanor Rathbone, an actual Liverpool politician and social activist. I’m so glad I did, for Miss Rathbone is a personal hero of mine for her pioneering work as a feminist and social activist. As well, Charlotte’s devotion to her, and determination to live up to her mentor’s high standards, became one of the central themes of After the War is Over.

Have you been to the places described in the book – Liverpool, the seaside at Blackpool, etc.? (The chapter on Charlotte’s day out in Blackpool with her girlfriends is particularly vivid.)

I have, although admittedly it has been a few years since my most recent visit. I hope I’ve given my readers a sense of Liverpool and what a fascinating city it is. I did my best to inject points of local color so that people who have visited will recognize a few of the landmarks – I have fond memories of visiting the Phil (the ornate pub where Charlotte and John Ellis have dinner) more than twenty years ago, and was happy to discover, while researching its history, that it has scarcely changed in the past hundred years!

Blackpool is an especially interesting place. Of course its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s still a very popular destination in spite of competition from overseas holidays and other British resorts. I wasn’t brave enough to swim in the ocean when I visited – even in the summer the water is pretty cold – but I did walk along the seaside and eat some of their local “Blackpool rock” candy. I wasn’t able to overcome my fear of heights, unlike Charlotte, and so didn’t go to the top of the Tower!

I know you’ve spent some time in Oxford – can you talk a bit about your time there?

I lived in Oxford from 1992-95, when I was working on my doctorate in history. I was a student of Saint Antony’s College, which didn’t actually exist when Charlotte was there – it was founded in the 1950s – but my thesis supervisor was at Merton College, and I walked past Somerville every time I went to the Bodleian Library. In fact, Charlotte’s walk through town, when she leaves a note for Edward at Merton, is the exact same route I would take when I went to see my supervisor. I should add that the porters at Merton are perfectly friendly and helpful, despite my portrayal of their very grumpy forebear in my book!

How did you decide to weave Oxford into this book?

When I set out to write After the War is Over, I desperately wanted to begin the book in Oxford in 1907, when Charlotte and Edward are both students there. My editor convinced me, however, that the narrative had to begin no earlier than 1919, which is the point at which Somewhere in France ends. Of course she was right – she’s always right! – but I got around that stricture by weaving a few flashbacks into the action. Naturally one of them had to be set in Oxford, since I’d already done the research for that portion of the book!

Charlotte faces many struggles, personal and professional, in After the War is Over – what would you say is her central or most important challenge?

I think the central struggle for Charlotte is her need to believe that she is worthy. If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know why – I don’t want to give anything away – so I’ll simply say that she feels compelled to be the best possible person she can be and to spend her life in the pursuit of goodness, and while these are laudable aims, they do have the effect of making her quite miserable and lonely at times. Compounding all of this is the very real poverty, privation and misery that surround her at work, and you can see how her search for happiness is a very difficult one at times.

And finally – any plans for your next book that you can share?

I can – happily! Book Three (we’re still trying to decide on a title) is set mainly in Paris in 1924 and early 1925. Its heroine is Lady Helena, Edward’s former fiancée, who has come to France for a year to study art. While she is there she moves on the fringe of the circle we know of now as the Lost Generation – the great writers, poets, musicians, artists and dancers who flocked to Paris after the war – and she becomes friends with many of them. As for a romantic interest? You’ll be happy to know he’s an American, a newspaperman, and (like Helena) a bit of a lost soul. Assuming I manage to turn in my first draft on time, it will be hitting the shelves in early January 2016.

Thanks, Jen!

Leave a comment below (with your email address) to enter the giveaway. I’ll pick a winner later this week.

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brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

I’ve been easing into 2015 with some really lovely books – because I need a good story (or a stack of them) in the wintertime. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve been reading:

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good, Jan Karon
The newest Mitford novel made me laugh and cry – as they all do. Father Tim and his fellow townspeople are as wise, flawed and engaging as ever.

Murder with Ganache, Lucy Burdette
As Key West food writer Hayley Snow prepares for her best friend’s wedding and deals with tense family members, her teenage stepbrother disappears. Another engaging cozy mystery. (I’ve read the series all out of order, but it’s OK.)

First Impressions, Charlie Lovett
“After five years at Oxford, Sophie Collingwood had mastered the art of reading while walking.” This book has so many things I love: bibliophiles, Oxford, Jane Austen, a sweet love story, a literary mystery. (Though the heroine is impossibly naive at times.) So much fun.

The Grand Tour, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
This sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia finds cousins Kate and Cecy traveling around Europe with their new husbands, trying to thwart a magical coup. Witty, romantic and even better than book 1.

My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
I have not read Middlemarch, but I loved this thoughtful literary memoir about it. Mead explores the book’s profound influence on her life while also delving into George Eliot’s life and writing process. (I heard Mead speak at the Boston Book Festival in October; she’s also engaging in person.)

Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Facing romantic troubles and family problems, Bertie Wooster decides to take matters into his own hands – with predictably disastrous results. Jeeves, of course, steps in to save the day. Hilarious and so well written. (My first Jeeves novel.)

I’m linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs Darcy for Quick Lit.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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get your jingle on sign christmas

Dreaming Spies, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell get tangled up in a blackmail case in Japan, involving family honor, national politics and ninjas. (And a brief return to Oxford.) 13th in a series – it’s good, but read the other ones first. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 17).

The Secrets of Midwives, Sally Hepworth
A family saga of three generations of midwives: Neva, her mother Grace and her grandmother Floss. A little soapy, but engaging and heartwarming. Great for fans of Call the Midwife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 10).

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
One of my very favorite Christmas stories – a warm, twinkly tale of five people finding themselves (and each other) in a Scottish village at Christmastime. Full of hope.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
A whimsical Regency-era YA novel, told in letters between cousins (and novice magicians) Kate and Cecelia. Confusing at times (the magic isn’t always well explained), but engaging and fun.

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp, Eva Rice
A lovely, bittersweet novel of music and young love in 1960s London – a companion of sorts to The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, one of my longtime faves. Bought at Foyles in London.

Paw and Order, Spencer Quinn
Chet and Bernie are back on the case – this time in D.C., where Bernie’s love life, national politics and Slim Jims all play a role. Chet, the canine narrator, is as lovable (and easily distracted) as ever.

Honeymoon Hotel, Hester Browne
Type-A wedding planner Rosie McDonald spends her life creating perfect days for brides – but her own love life is sadly lacking. A bit like The Wedding Planner in book form. Predictable, but really fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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NaNoWriMo 2014

 

books about words photo

I’ve said for a long time that I’m not a fiction writer.

I’m a voracious fiction reader – you only have to look at my book list to see that. I love a good novel, and I appreciate the skill and hard work that go into crafting a compelling story. But when I write, it tends to be essays or book reviews (and maybe one of these days, a memoir). I often find myself intimidated by the idea of creating an entire fictional world from scratch.

Enter NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is a wild, gleeful, no-holds-barred burst of creativity – an annual challenge to write a novel, or at least a 50,000-word draft, in a month. It happens every November, with people around the world participating, and it can be tremendous fun. I did it in 2008, when I wrote a novel about an American girl who goes to Oxford. (Art imitating life, anyone?)

I hadn’t planned to do NaNo this year, but seeing the buzz about it online made me decide to jump in, fittingly, at the last minute. And I’m loving it – such a fun chance to break out of my usual writing box and do something totally different.

I’m drafting a murder mystery set in Oxford – both a fun new challenge, an homage to the detective novelists I adore (especially Dorothy Sayers), and a chance to spend (more) time daydreaming about my favorite city.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

So far I’m at 13,000-plus words and going strong. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Friday. And, if you’re noveling, happy NaNo!

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radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, the entire city of Oxford is my favorite place – the place I want to get back to, all the time. But certain corners of it are particularly dear to me, and during my week in Oxford, I was able to visit several of them.

north parade avenue oxford

North Parade Avenue (above) is just a step from the house where I was staying. It contains a couple of pubs, a creperie, a small convenience store (run by two friendly Middle Eastern men), and On the Hoof – my favorite sandwich shop in the world.

 

on the hoof interior oxford

Debbie, the owner, has run the shop for 17 years, and she remembers hundreds of students who have passed through. The shop’s cheery camaraderie and its sandwiches (my favorites include the Sexy Brazilian, Tom’s Le Club and a bacon-and-egg baguette), are equally wonderful.

A couple of blocks away, University Parks offers walking trails, velvety green lawns (for playing cricket or football or tossing a Frisbee), a few ducks, and many beautiful trees.

university parks oxford

On my last morning in Oxford, I took a long walk in the Parks with Laura and her family, plus Jacque and baby Matilda. We strolled through the dappled sunshine and talked of “cabbages and kings.” It was delightful.

jacque laura ja uni parks

The center of Oxford is full of beautiful colleges, but Radcliffe Square is the heart of it all.

katie radcliffe camera oxford

Surrounded on all four sides by university buildings, this cobblestoned square is full of enchantment.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

I made it a point to pass through as often as possible.

cobblestones oxford silver flats

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin stands on the south side of Radcliffe Square, tall and proud. I’ve climbed its tower many times, but I always love to climb it again and take in the four views of the city, spread at my feet.

view st marys church oxford west side

Laura was my companion that day – it was her first climb.

laura st mary's tower oxford

I can’t visit Oxford without a browse in Blackwell’s, so Jacque and I popped in one afternoon.

blackwells bookshop oxford

I came away with three books: a delightful YA mystery, a grown-up mystery set in Cambridge, and a Tolkien Christmas book that I’m saving for December. I also found this gem:

oxford calling postcard phone box

It’s a wooden postcard and it is just perfect. I had to bring it home with me.

Down Queen’s Lane, just down from Radcliffe Square, sits Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which serves a delectable cream tea.

queens lane cream tea oxford

I came here on a Sunday afternoon for some tea and solitude, sitting at my favorite table in the front window, with its view down the High Street. I sipped tea and scribbled in my journal, and savored every last bite of my scones with jam and clotted cream.

For my last meal in Oxford (for now), we girls (Jacque, Laura and their daughters) headed to the Jericho Cafe. They serve yummy soups, sandwiches and heartier dishes, though eight-year-old Molly was content with a basket of French fries.

jericho cafe sign oxford

After lunch, Laura had to go teach a class, but Jacque and I took the girls to another favorite spot: G&D’s.

katie ice cream g&d's oxford

I couldn’t leave without a scoop of ice cream from this Oxford institution (I’d already had a bagel sandwich, earlier in the week). My Dime Bar Crunch was delectable. (Molly, who got the same flavor, agreed.)

girls ice cream g&d's

“When are you going to go back again?” a friend asked, soon after I got home. My answer?

bridge of sighs twilight oxford

“As soon as possible.”

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Oxford: long walks

Oxford is a walking city, its ancient narrow streets full of unexpected turns and quiet corners, the gates of the colleges offering a tempting peek into their vine-hung secret gardens.

lincoln college oxford quad vines

The honey-colored stone gives the whole city a quiet glow, and the “dreaming spires” of Matthew Arnold’s poem still dream.

catte street oxford

high street magdalen tower oxford

Both by necessity and by choice, I’ve spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Oxford. You could set me down in almost any intersection, and I’d know exactly where I was and how to get home. And after many rambles through the gardens of various colleges, I know every one of the dreaming spires by name.

lincoln college tower oxford

I spent hours walking the streets of Oxford on this visit – with my housemates, with Jacque, with Laura, with Megan, and alone. I stopped often to snap photos, poke into bookshops or other shops, or simply look around.

oxford wall blue sky

My feet were tired by the end of the week, but my heart was full. There’s nothing like a good long walk for pleasure and perspective, and I loved every one of my strolls down (and views of) these familiar streets.

dreaming spires oxford england

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