Oxford – Life along the River Thames
I had the privilege of spending five months in Oxford in 2014, and then last week, I visited there again again for a week. I simply love Oxford, England. Yes, Britain is part of my DNA and memories of holidays spent there make this a special place, but Oxford is also steeped in history, and because I love children’s literature, it is even more meaningful. Oxford is the birth place of some of the greatest children’s writers of all times. Walk through Oxford and you will learn about the world of Lewis Carroll and of Alice In Wonderland, the world of C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia and the world of J.R.R Tolkien and The Hobbit and the world of Kenneth Graham and The Wind in the Willows, among others.
Also, if you are a fan of J.K. Rawling’s Harry Potter books, you will discover that Oxford is one of the places where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed, including the famous Hogwarts dining hall, modeled after Christ Church Colllege dining hall and scenes from the Hogwart’s library’s restricted books section were filmed at the Oxford’s Bodlein Library.
Then, when I’m weary of old buildings, artifacts and gargoyles and fancy some shopping, I head to the bookshops in Oxford to browse for books, both new and used, at the many bookshops and charity shops all over the city, including Blackwells.
My favorite thing to do in Oxford (besides browsing for books, and following the trail of famous children’s authors, that is) is walking along the river Thames. The river walks in Oxford are expansive. You can spend all day walking along one foot path after another, following the River Thames and the Cherwell river as it winds through town, meadows, woods, fords, parks, crossing locks and bridges, watching the geese, ducks and wild birds, following punters, Oxford rowers, canoes, and houseboats, and stopping along the way for a drink or a bite to eat at the many waterfront pubs, with names like The Perch or The Trout. The mesmerizing Thames river has generated many a great story. I will share a few here with you:
On July 4, 1862, an English mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson went out on the river in a small boat with a few friends. Among them was a little girl named Alice Liddell. Alice was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford. Charles was most comfortable in the presence of children, and Alice and her siblings loved to spend time with him. To entertain her and her sisters as they floated down the river Thames river in Oxford, heading up to Godstow where they had a picnic, Dodgson told them stories, about a girl named Alice and her adventures in a strange land. Alice begged him to write down his stories. He started that very night. Two and a half years later, he presented the story complete with his illustrations to Alice for Christmas. Alice in Wonderland went on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time!
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”
“But it’s no use to go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
In the century and a half since Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the Carroll classic has inspired hundreds of artists around the world who have reimagined it.
Besides, Sir John Tenniel’s amazing illustrations, if you are looking for something completely different and original, I also recommend the illustrations of Lisbeth Zwerger or Helen Oxenbury, both published in 1999.
Alice in Wonderland and it’s sequel Through the Looking Glass has been translated into 65 different languages, and has been adapted for film and theater. So enter with Alice, this strange and wonder-filled world! This is a must read-aloud book!
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham – On this trip, I had the pleasure of learning more about the background to this book at Oxford’s Bodlein library’s exhibit. They had on exhibit the original handwritten manuscript and copies of the letters written to his son, Alistair, that formed the basis of the story of the Wind in the Willows. Tim and I went to a pub after the exhibit and wondered about Kenneth Graham’s life. We looked it up, thanks to free wifi at the pub and discovered that his family moved to Oxford when he was eight and lived there for many years. We also discovered that he and his son were both buried right here in Oxford, a few blocks from the pub. We quickly finished our drinks and set out to visit the Holywell Cemetery and see his epitath which reads: “To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time”
If you have not yet read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, please get a copy from me as soon as possible. This was one of my son’s favorite stories and a great read-aloud. If you visit Oxford, walk along the river, see the weeping willows dipping their branches into the water’s edge and watch the boats go by, and you will not be at a loss to imagine the inspiration behind of the story.
Here is a famous quote from The Wind in the Willows that sums it all up very well:
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
The original novel, published in 1908 (after several rejections) was not illustrated. However, since then, The Wind in the Willows has had numerous illustrated versions by notable illustrators including Paul Bransom (1913), Ernest H. Shepard (1933), Arthur Rackham (1940), Tasha Tudor (1966), Michael Hague (1980), Scott McKowen (2005), and Robert Ingpen (2007). The most popular illustrations are probably by E. H. Shepard (he also illustrated The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne) originally published in 1931. Ernest Shepard met with Kenneth Graham to talk about this characters and he was pleased with the illustrations, although he did not live to see the final version. Above is the timeless illustration of Ratty and Mole, “messing about in boats.”
Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham – If your child is a preschoolers, nothing beats Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. This was a favorite in my family. The story begins: “This is Mr. Gumpy. Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a river.” As he paddles along, a whole array of children and animals join him in the boat. For a while, they all floated happily along, until… (preschool age and beyond)
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson – I simply love this novel (and any of Eva Ibbotson’s books for that matter). Maia, an orphan travels down the Amazon river in search of distant relatives. Things don’t turn out as Miai expected, but Maia is nevertheless caught up in the wonders of the rainforest and the adventure of a lifetime. The Times describes it as “A plot too exciting to put down. Sheer pleasure” (for ages 8-12 and another great read-aloud)
The Moomins and The Great Flood by Tove Jansson – Tove Jansson and the enchanting world of Moomins was a recent discovery for me. Tove Jansson was a Finnish author and illustrator who received the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966 for her outstanding contribution to children’s literature. Her first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, written during WWII in 1945, was hardly noticed although definitely a great read but the next Moomin books, Comet in Moominland (1946) and Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) made her famous. She went on to write six more Moomin books. It’s hard to describe her books – quirky, philosophical, humorous, brimming over with love and playful enjoyment of life and nature. Your child will love them – a swedish counterpart to Winnie The Pooh. I just read Moominsummer Madness – Moominvalley becomes flooded and everyone is afloat – a fun, water and boat filled summer read (ages 8-12)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In this classic novel, a companion to Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, a 12 year old boy, flees his newly adopted family and his drunken, abusive father along with Jim, a runaway slave, seeking freedom. Together they set off on a raft down the Mississippi River on a grand adventure. The ultimate, classic river tale! (ages 10 and )