Iolanthe, Mabreterese and Jonick’s Excellent Adventure
Saturday 7th May 2007
The Quest to Find Tolkien’s Oxford
Iolanthe the Muddled
Mabreterese the Brave
Jonick the Extremely Patient
and their trusty steed, Corsa the blue
Three friends there were of days of old:
when bright sun shone with gleaming gold
And hearts were high and feet were ready
and trusty Corsa, true and steady
did rev his engine at jonick’s tread,
with maps in hand and plans all read
did sally forth with eager faces….
Ok…. this is way too difficult....
One day soon after the Tolkien Conference
, mabreterese and I had the mad idea of seeing everything in Oxford associated with Tolkien in one day. After a lengthy hatching we settled on Easter as a great time to go for it. So armed with a spiffing Plan ‘A’ devised by mabreterese, lots of useful bits of paper, an inaccurate map of Tolkien’s Oxford haunts that I downloaded from a website, a complete ignorance about Tolkien’s favourite tree (see Botanic Gardens and the Great Tree Quest
below) and with jonick our new MeJ member as our trusty driver, we headed off for Oxford on Saturday morning. It was a gloriously balmy spring day, perfect weather for tramping the Tolkien Trail with cameras and maps. After a long drive talking about the books and admiring ‘fluffy’ trees (mabreterese’s great word for trees that are mainly naked but have a bit of budding going on) we arrived at the first stop of Plan A, Wolvercote Cemetery.
Wolvercote Cemetery or ‘The Eagles are Coming’
Tolkien and Edith’s grave
Much to our relief Tolkien and Edith’s grave was signposted as I couldn’t remember exactly where it was from my last visit. Jonick loped off ahead and managed to pass it several times but I could spot it from afar it with it’s impressive rosemary bush now in full flower. Someone had left a fresh bunch of flowers in a jar and a spray of pink carnations lay beside them. Bees buzzed happily over the rosemary. The weatherworn toy lamb and battered felt eagle were still resting on the shrub by the headstone (remember them, Merry?), there were new rings hanging on the rose trees and, right on the edge of the grave, someone had left a nice shiny pair of sunglasses. If I remember rightly there are no sunglasses in LotR (not even in the glare of Mount Doom).
To properly mark the occasion I whipped out my copy of poems from LotR and read the Eagles Song
from the end of The Return of the King. I thought the words would be very fitting so close to Easter and the return of the true King.
It was very beautiful and peaceful and we spent quite a time there before heading back to the car and one of Oxford’s many park-and-ride carparks.
Tolkien and Edith’s grave showing the rosemary and heather in full bloom
20 and 22 Northmoor Road or Huan the Hound
20 Northmoor (R) and 22 Northmoor (L)
After depositing our car at the park-and-ride we took the bus into the centre of Oxford, hopping off half way to find Northmoor Road. 22 Northmoor Road is where the Tolkiens lived from 1925 to 1930 before moving next door to the roomier number 20, where they lived until 1947.
Now, there is something very shady about lurking around suburban streets staring at people’s houses. We tried to perfect a kind of nonchalance, approaching from the opposite side of the road with the air of casual passers by who just happen to have cameras and a habit of lingering, but it’s jolly difficult to carry off. Number 20 has a Blue Plaque proclaiming the Tolkien residency whereas number 22 has a loud dog trained to smell the over-excited scent of Lord of the Rings
fans and bark madly at them. Number 22 is the prettier house, a bit lower and snugger with a well grown garden of bushes and tall trees protecting it. Number 20 doesn’t seem to mind you looking at it so much and anyway, its fence has fallen down.
Number 20 Northmoor Road
Here is my photo of the blue plaque at number 20. You can’t read the dates because I was lurking nonchalantly behind a tree.
But mabreterese has a photo of the gate and actual number of number 22 which she bravely stood and took while I nonchalantly retreated up the road.
The Eagle and Child or Ecstasy in the Rabbit Room
The next part of Plan A was to hop on a bus into the centre of Oxford and have lunch at the Eagle and Child, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings often had their beer and smoked their pipes beside a cosy fire. The Eagle and Child is pretty much opposite jonick’s old college, St. Johns, and he admitted that in all his undergraduate years he had never drunk there
. This almost disqualified him from the Tolkien Quest completely but we took pity on him and allowed him to order our lunch.
Imagine our delight when some people left as soon as we came in without even finishing their drinks and we found a free table in the Rabbit Room where The Inklings ACTUALLY SAT. No more sitting around the corner and basking in its reflected light, like at the Tolkien Conference, or annoying other drinkers by leaning over them to look at the photos, like the guided tour. We were there. The nook was ours. Or half ours as others had the table nearest the fire. Imagine our delight when they too left (perhaps the heat of our joy was too much for them) and we moved to THE corner by the fire and sat under Tolkien’s photo and the plaque declaring that the Inklings had been there. Now we were sitting where the Inklings had sat. We glowed through the whole lunch. We thought what a shame it was we didn’t have Merry’s number so we could ring her and yell ‘Guess where we are!!!!’. We lingered over our pie, egg and chips and veggie sausages with mash reluctant to leave. We got menus to take home with us from a kindly bar staff who understood that it’s best to humour nutters.
Inklings corner in the Rabbit Room, Eagle and Child.
Eventually we managed to prise ourselves out of the nook and into…
St. Aloysius is just up the road from the Eagle and Child and was Tolkien’s main place of worship for much of his time in Oxford. Mabreterese has a photo of the sober exterior, I hope, as I forgot to take one. Very impressive and highly decorated inside it has a kind of quiet gravitas. Quiet preparations were being made for Easter Sunday while we trudged nonchalantly up and down trying not to look like over-excited Tolkien fans who had just arrived from the Eagle and Child.
Exeter College and My Room
Our next stop was going to be Exeter College where Tolkien was an undergraduate and, hugely more important, where Merry and I stayed for the Oxford Tolkien Conference.
But….. Exeter College was closed and I couldn’t show mabreterese and jonick the wonderful Chapel with the William Morris tapestries, Tolkien’s bust, the lovely Quadrangle and, hugely more importantly, the window of my room. We contented ourselves with standing outside in Turl street where I pointed out that one of the windows above us was the window of (rather less importantly) Tolkien’s
room. It was one of the ones near the bay window, either above it, or to the left of it, or the right of it. Or maybe it was
it. Anyway, here is a nice photo of a bicycle:
This isn’t Tolkien’s bicycle but I bet he had one very like it.
99 Holywell Street or The Red Door
The next stop of Plan A (now Plan B) was 99 Holywell Street which was the second Merton owned house the Tolkien’s lived in from 1950 to 1953 after downsizing from Northmoor Road. I was very confident that we would find it as I knew it had a red door (see the Tolkien Conference photos). As we walked further and further down the road I felt a faint panic set in as there wasn’t a single red door in sight. This is because the current owners, with absolutely no thought at all whatsoever for any poor Tolkien fan that might have remembered a red door, have painted it blue. Here is 99 Holywell with its nice new blue door:
99 Holywell with its new blue door.
So if you ever visit Holywell Street you are now looking for a blue door, or you could spoil all the fun and look at the actual house numbers.
3 Manor Road or the Wrong House
The Wrong House
After sussing out the new paintwork at Holywell we headed off to nearby Manor Road (still Plan B). Thanks to Wolvercote we were now very into cemeteries and passed a very beautiful one on the right which we all agreed was a very fine cemetery as cemeteries go having lots of primroses and a bit of a hillside view (a perk for non residents). 3 Manor Road is the first Merton owned house which Tolkien and Edith lived in from 1947-1950 and where Tolkien typed up LotR. Unfortunately we stood long and reverentially in front of number 5 Manor Road. This was absolutely nothing to do with the owners painting the door the wrong colour. On the bus going back to the park-and-ride mabreterese consulted her notes (sensibly taken from the Letters) and said ‘Hey, I’ve got down here that Tolkien lived at 3
Manor Road’. But my stupid ‘Tolkien’s Oxford’ map clearly
has 5 Manor Road printed on it. Heigh ho. So the photo above is of numbers 5 and 4 Manor Road and number 3 (which is identical) is somewhere off the picture to the right. Well, all I can say is that if Tolkien didn’t live at number 5 he jolly well should
The Botanic Gardensor The Great Tree Quest
After 3, 4 and 5 Manor Road we headed for the Botanic Gardens to try and find Tolkien’s favourite tree. This was my mad idea and, rather uselessly, I hadn’t much idea what tree it was, but I was pretty sure it would be big. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I could see the words ‘Pinus Nigra’ (Black Pine) and a photo of it beside a wall. The Botanic Gardens are walled all round and every tree looks as though it’s beside one depending on the angle from which you approach it.
There is a small fee for entering the Botanic Gardens and they give you a leaflet with features horticultural highlights. The Pinus Nigra (planted 1800) is one of them but there was no mention of Tolkien. I think they have this weird idea that people visiting a Botanic Garden are actually there to look at the plants. Anyway, we found the Pinus Nigra rather quickly – there is no denying it’s a very
impressive tree with an enormous twisted, curvy trunk, wonderful bark and a definite looming presence. But was it Tolkien’s Tree?
The Pinus Nigra
We decided to have our photos taken next to it anyway. I came up with the brilliant idea that we should have our photos taken in front of every tree in the Botanic Gardens, thereby ensuring that no matter which tree Tolkien liked most, we’d hit a bull’s-eye, but this received rather luke-warm support. Jonick was asked by two passers by if he would take a photo of them
by the tree. I nodded at them and said, hopefully, ‘because it’s Tolkien’s tree?’ but they looked completely blank. I think they were just doing it because we’d done it. We wandered about a bit considering other trees – I think the Botanic Gardens must be wonderful when all the plants are in flower but they are a bit bare in April – and couldn’t resist two ancient and gnarled trees either side of the Pinus Nigra which looked like venerable Ents:
The trunk of the one above is almost horizontal and I hope you can see an Ent with an enormous outstretched arm. You have to believe that Tolkien enjoyed these ancient stumps as much as the Pinus Nigra.
Doing a bit of research afterwards I discovered that we did have the right tree (phew) and here is Tolkien standing by it in the last photo ever taken of him:
Tolkien by the Pinus Nigra
We could have stayed longer in the gardens, admired the rockery and sat for a bit but we wanted to see Merton College which was supposedly closing at 4pm.
21 Merton Street or My Feet Ache
21 Merton Street
After Edith died, Tolkien moved from Bournemouth back to Oxford and was offered Merton accommodation here at 21 Merton St. There isn’t much to say about 21 Merton Street except that we were pretty tired at this point and driven by the need to get to Merton College before it shut. Either that or collapse with a cream tea.
Merton College or Serious Temptation in Blackwells
Well….. Merton College was shut. So we went for a cream tea.
Merton with notices saying it’s shut
After tea we took ourselves off to Blackwell’s book shop (Plan C), where, after a bit of wandering and sending jonick off to the History section, mabreterese and I plucked up the courage to ask where the Tolkien books were, thereby declaring ourselves openly to be Middle-earth geeks. It’s such a relief when you finally come out. Mabreterese found the pull of nicely bound Tolkienalia too irresistible to ignore (lucky she
wasn’t carrying the One Ring to Mordor) but I was strong and didn’t buy anything. Ok…ok...well, I admit it, I bought a whole suitcase of books at the Tolkien Conference and I still haven’t read most of them…..
76 Sandfield Road or The End of our Fellowship
Well the time had come to leave Oxford. But we’ll go back. We have to storm Merton and Exeter (if only I’d kept my gate swipe card…), visit the Bodleian Gift Shop (also shut), look reverentially at 3 Manor Road instead of 5 Manor Road and visit the neglected 50 John Street (because I now know what Tolkien did there). But before leaving completely, we had one last visit to make. On the road out we made a detour to Sandfield Road in Headington where the Tolkiens lived for 15 years, from 1953 until 1968.
76 Sandfield Road
This was our one final chance to nonchalantly amble past some poor unsuspecting person’s private home in a convincing manner and by now we were old hands at it. We had ‘come out’ as Middle-earthers and everything was possible. We gazed respectfully from across the road. We noted the rather fine stone plaque above the front door that said he’d lived there. We stared in astonishment at the two chubby and weathered garden gnomes that were minding their own business in the front garden. And then we headed for home.
Tolkien may no longer be at Sandfield Road, but the gnomes live on….
….. and we all know what Tolkien would have made of them