Everybody Needs Some Bodleian to Love

Or, “If I told you you had a nice Bodleian would you hold it against me?” – Nyan

When you visit Oxford, an important stop for any visitor is the Radcliffe Cam and the Bodleian Library.

The Cam is a cylinder with a dome that Nyan LOOOVed to study in. It takes a readers card to enter, so we saw a short view of it on tour, it was beautiful.

Around Oxford we’ve noticed coaster-sized glass tiles laid into the pavement outside shops and streets. In our tour of the Bodleian we learned that the glass tiles in the ground near the Bodleian and Cam are “Light Wells” to give students and librarians extra light in the underground book stores and tunnels.

The rest of the day after our tour Bean stopped at many light wells to see if he could see what’s underneath the pavement.

“I see just some old cans and dirt in this one.”

The Bodleian Library in 2019 is a massive collection of 28 libraries, as well as a warehouse 10 miles outside of Oxford. A copy of anything published on paper in the UK is automatically sent to it. The Bodleian is also a treasure trove of unpublished works: original drafts of books, forgotten (but not lost) scraps of musings by thinkers who helped shape society (for better or worse) with their ideals, ancient maps, documents, and more.

The library originated with the building of the Divinity School in Oxford in 1427 and completed in 1483. During the building of the Divinity school the 1st Duke of Gloucester donated 300 or so manuscripts so the divinity school could also have a library. The donation was early enough in construction that the building could be altered, so they lowered the Divinity School ceiling and built Duke Humpry’s Library above it. In an age that some individual manuscripts were as valuable as a new car today the name “Duke Humphry’s Library” (after the 1st Duke of Gloucester) seems an apt name for the beautiful room.

The Divinity School is full of windows to allow students plenty of light to study in pre-industrial days. The crests on the ceiling honor the families and organizations that donated to the library.

Examinations were oral, not written until the 20th century. They also could last from 3 hours to two days and were in Latin! Oxford is a prestitious university for a reason.

The school also doubled the hospital set in the first Harry Potter movie…

…and the dance practice hall in the fourth movie.

Upstairs, directly above the school, Duke Humphrey’s library is generally quiet, even when tours are passing through. Tour guides hand visitors audio head sets and speak quietly into a microphone, describing the library to prevent disrupting students at work.

In 1550, during the religious reformation of England, the crown had all of the Duke’s manuscripts removed; many were destroyed or sold (for uses not involving reading). The library was empty for some time until Thomas Bodley, an alumni of Oxford, restored the library by collecting manuscripts, purchasing them through the donations of his wealthy spouse, and also asking his friends for donations.

While the Duke’s library keeps its name, the library as a whole is now called The Bodleian Library every since, after Thomas Bodley. During our tour, our guide mentioned that, due to thievery or absent mindedness of the students before the reformation, 12 or so original manuscripts from Duke Humphry’s Library had been inadvertently saved from the burn pile. When Thomas Bodley restored the library, the students or their kin gave the books back to the library.

Despite of the accidental helpfulness of the thieves (or just absent minded scholars, it’s hard to say), books in Duke Humphrey’s library after Bodley’s restoration were chained by the front leather cover to rails near their shelves to prevent stealing. Due to the chains, the books had to be stored backwards and numbered on the page edges. The only way to “check out” a book during the era of chained books was to sit on the bench and read it.

No flame has ever been allowed allowed in the library, even today, for fear of fire; winter hours and cloudy days would mean texts were hard to see, especially for those with books chained far from windows. The rattle of chains couldn’t have improved students’ concentration either. The library was of course very cold as well, until the development of the radiator in the 20th century!

Bodley also established an oath of conduct in Latin for students to say before they could gain access to the library. Those entering today still must speak that same vow in English:

Bodleian readers today must also sign a form and have their picture taken. It took Nyan a bit of effort not to irreverently add “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” when he was at the finish line of obtaining his reader’s card.

To BodleiNyan or not to BodleiNyan

A major reason we’re in Oxford is so Nyan can find and read unique papers by C.S. Lewis at the Bodleian Library (Generally pronounced Bod (as in body)-lee-en (en as in enter) part 2 coming shortly) and pursue, in depth, some of the studies (specifically a paper) that he had had to set aside for a long season.

Speaking of setting aside, let’s set aside the Bodleian for a second. Do you know what a Catch 22 is? In our little family, a Catch 22 is one of our favorite dilemmas. It was coined in one of Nyan’s favorite books, “Catch 22.” The definition sounds complex: “an impossible situation where you are prevented from doing one thing until you have done another thing that you cannot do until you have done the first thing:” (def.Cambrdige Dictionary)

It’s easiser to understand by example:

“I cannot get a job unless I have job experience, but I can’t get any experience until I have a job to get job experience at.”

Getting into the Bodleian Library Special Collection is a little bit of a catch 22 for an independent researcher. If you have a supervising professor’s signature on your application paperwork, filing the form is enough.

Independent researches get in by going through a short interview to prove that access to the Bodleian (Special Collections, in Nyan’s case) is something they actually need. If Nyan’s list of requested documents could all be found elsewhere, in other bookstores or libraries, they would simply tell him to go elsewhere. The question is how could Nyan know the title and content of an unpublished scrap of paper that’s only available at the Bodleian?

In other words, getting into the Bodleian is a bit of a Catch 22 for the independent researcher (or it’s just fun to think of it that way): If you wish to access special collections at the library come armed with a short list of content you’d like to read, but since the papers have never been published you likely won’t know what to request unless you can access special collections…but you can’t access special collections to find what you’re looking for unless you already know what you’re looking for…and on we go.

It’s not a terribly challenging trouble. The Bodleian has the much greater struggle of trying to keep irreplaceable ancient documents both accessible for the pursuit of knowledge and intact. Ensuring that access to the documents is given to only those who really do need access for research is one reasonable method.

The way around the Bodleian Catch 22 for the Independent Researcher is, of course, much research beforehand. Nyan read books referencing some Bodleian documents (The quoted fragments in those books were what clued him in that the Bodleian might be the resource he needed in the first place). Book references come with the challenge of identifying documents for request: an author usually refers to a fragment with a title, while the actual Bodliean fragment is filed under a reference number. For example, the list of C.S. Lewis’ collected papers at the Bodleian looks like this (a series reference numbers) online, but a fragment Nyan wished to look at was called “The Lefay Fragment.

Another route to use is interviewing someone with experience for names of documents, etc. to help you get the foot in the door and begin your research. In other words, no independent researcher can be truly independent; in general, relying on the wisdom of others who’ve traveled a similar before you is key to research success.

Nyan had help he was grateful for: A former professor suggested a short story by Lewis that Nyan would find useful for his paper’s topic. It was a rare manuscript, so Nyan was able to add it to his request list to pass his interview. We also found a wonderfully thorough blogger who listed the series of steps required to gain entry to the Bodleian and also helpfully offered to message Nyan with “C.S. Lewis Papers: A Selective Catalogue” (A list of Lewis’ special collections papers found at the Bodleian) which is helpful because the list can only be otherwise seen in special collections. It was an excellent head start!

In the end of course, Nyan obtained his reader’s card with little trouble and has spent 3 weeks+ immersed in the Bodleian, endlessly going through Lewis papers. Each day he requests another “box of Lewis papers” and in 24 hours it’s waiting for him to soak up, many papers in Lewis’s own hand. It is definitely his cup of tea.

Well that was a bit of a summary, pics and more info. coming, so here’s a sketch of Nyan studying (or drawing?) and Bean snuggling and peaceful (for a likely 30 seconds).

High Tea on High Street

TL;DR: Pots of tea and big cups you can hold with both hands; clotted cream and jam on crumbly warm scones; cakes and a great variety of fruit on crepes that have the satisfying mochi mochi (pleasant chewiness) of an unsullied marshmallow (a squished marshmallow is just plain sticky).

If you’ve ever spent a day playing in the snow with siblings or cousins (or both) as a child, with the wind blowing and snow stinging your cheeks for hours, you might know that feeling of coming inside: The house that you had earlier complained was cold feels a little too warm now, the hot meal on the table is extra delicious, full of flavors you wouldn’t otherwise notice. If there was time after dinner to read or play before bed; the delight in the book or toy was magnified by a full belly and that feeling of pleasant fullness, sleepiness, and all around well being. If it was the holidays your parents would be pleasantly distracted by their own siblings and parents; surrounded by voices you’d even get to stay up late enough to fall into perfect sleep on the couch and get carried to bed.

For me all these memories also include the perpetual smell of strong cups of Folgers coffee being made round the clock (decaf in the evenings) and the happy, heady feeling of comforting warmth in my cheeks, once flushed by wind burn, now flushed with sleepiness.

What I really loved best about snowy play days was the “coming in from the cold.” To enjoy the warmth I needed to be cold, to enjoy the quiet and stillness I needed exhaustion from the wind, and to enjoy rest I needed the exhaustive play. Coming in from the cold felt like Christmas Eve every time, even if it was a Wisconsin May blizzard (Maybe my memory is fuzzy, it seems likelier that on days when it snowed in May I may have just cried.)

I had forgotten those intense feelings until one blustery afternoon on High Street our first week in Oxford. We had walked and explored and the friendly warm sun had disappeared. The clouds seemed to gather in an instant; when the rain started we rushed into the nearest cafe with sore feet and backs that ached from hunching against the buffeting wind. The sudden quiet and stillness as the door shut behind us felt like the weight of a heavy fur mantle had slipped off our shoulders and lay at our feet.

We sat and ordered an Oreo smoothie for Bean (who insists on “experiencing the cold” as much as he can, our Wisconsin-born Texan) a crepe, a pot of tea, and a cream tea.

Cream teas so far have always come with two scones, clotted cream, jam, and a pot of tea. Scones here (so far) are not the hard dry bricks of wheat* coated in icing or sparkling with sugar like in the US, they’re more like biscuits that are sweeter rather than savory. Our favorite scones are slightly crumbly, warm, and mild in flavor with plenty of room for the added tastes of clotted cream and jam.

The crepes were wonderfully mochi mochi, (‘Mochi mochi’ is Japanese onomatopaia for ‘chewy’ or ‘squishy’ without all the unpleasant connotations). I used to think only toddler’s cheeks and actual mochi were the only truly ‘mochi mochi’ things, but the crepes at The High Street Cafe have made the list. Their only drawback being the tea is in bags, not loose.

We devoured half our fare and, slowing down, took out journals and books and wrote and read and nibbled away and suddenly I had echoes of Christmas lights in my eyes and I felt comfortably sleepy, warm, and contented. My cheeks were flushed and warm and I was like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, whisked right into the happiest and safest memories of my childhood. It was that “Christmas Feeling” all over again. Magical.

While we mostly live on spaghetti and porridge, if we’re out late or need fuel for the walk home we now tend to stop at Tea Houses, trying different ones. It’s possible none of these places are as delicious as I think; after all, sore feet and exhaustion make for the best seasoning: a good appetite.

The Grand Cafe in Oxford claims at “The site of the first coffee house in England.”

It is very pretty with gilded mirrors that serve the dual purpose of making the small room seem larger and entertaining younger guests.

We first visited The Grand Cafe because the tarts in the window were beckoning.

It was dinner time for us, so we ordered ‘high tea,’ a sandwich, and a lovely tart. A little of research (very little) shows that High Tea isn’t a specific set of things; so far to us in Oxford it simply means: Tea with scones and sandwiches and maybe some tiny cakes, or whatever else is listed on the menu. (eg: Fancy dessert lunch that costs the same or less as a meal and still come with a drink.). The tea here is loose tea and the small strainers that you put over your cup were a fun first for us.

Across the street from The Grand Cafe is the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, which claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe (since 1654).

The scones tasted more pillsbury pre-made and the tea comes in a bag, but the atmosphere is good in the evening, especially when you’re cold, hungry, and the other shops are closed (The Queen’s Coffee House is open later). They also serve very good baklava.

Bean finished off an entire banana split for supper.

Finally, just yesterday, I visited the Rose Cafe by myself. I was by myself, returning from getting my violin repaired and got caught in the morning rain. I was outright dripping from elbows, bangs, and shoelaces when I entered the shop. It was morning so the shop was empty and quiet.

I had their “Tea Cake,” which was a pot of loose leaf tea and some thick toast with rum soaked raisins in it. I vote this one: Best Sunshine in the afternoon where you can feel cozy as a cat on the windowsill. Better yet, if you’ve been doused in a sudden rain shower and are coming in to dry off and the sun comes out you’ll be doubly warm, happy, and have tea to boot. Happy Kitty indeed.

Bonus: The tea is loose-leaf and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant. I’m sold.

Before I came to Oxford I would have thought Isn’t it expensive to have tea? The answer is: Less expensive than a full lunch, but just as filling, a bit more sugary, and generally less healthy in the best possible and most satisfying way.

The Secret Tetris Garden

aka: A Short Tour of Our Apartment & Neighborhood

Whenever I’ve seen pictures of European streets lined with unbreaking rows of 2-3 storied houses I’ve wondered, “What is behind those walls?” I’ve imagined gardens with fountains or tiny yards behind each house, each with a gate to square park or pond in the center. The child in me that always dreams of mysterious hedge mazes, full of puzzles, hopes that the neighbors have worked together to create a secret green labyrinth that leads to a sword in a stone at the center.

It turns out that behind those walls of houses are small yards squared off in unique shapes in a perfect square of Tetris-like blocks. When I look over it the music of Tetris (Type A) plays in my head. My mind keeps jumping to the idea that, like the game, it’ll flash and in a moment be gone, ready for a series of new blocks to lay just in place. I suppose, eventually there will be changes made; a slow version of that blinking flash and the puzzle will look suddenly different. For now, I’m charmed by the current edition.

My favorite garden is the one just left of center. The narrow fence path through the vined arch to the picnic table at back is what you’d want if you had a city garden, in my opinion. A Secret Tetris Garden.

Our neighborhood is not the most upscale in Oxford; the buildings require a little TLC and it can get loud on Friday and Saturday nights with groups of revellers on their way home from the pubs (or heading to the next event of the night). The tall houses lining either side of the street leave no other route for sound but to bound and rebound until dissipating into the atmosphere. Our neighbors in back had a karaoke party with their windows open last weekend; when we opened our own windows for some air their robust versions of Dancing Queen and MMMBop could be heard and tickled our hearts a bit. The noise has happened every weekend so far (less on weekdays) and yet it lacks any bass or oomph so it’s easy to overcome. We downloaded a noise machine app. and sleep pretty easily.

Our flat is very pretty and bright and we like it. The first floor neighbor plays merry pieces on the piano (always at polite times). The sounds wafting up the stairs are happy and bouncy, like we are in an episode of Wallace & Gromit with a much more pleasant penguin.

It’s kind of magical to live in a three story building. It’s smaller than our Texas duplex, but well-organized and feels even more spacious.

The ground floor has just enough room for an alcove for coats and shoes, and a flight of stairs.

The first bedroom is at the top of the stairs. Both bedrooms are small, simple, and comfortable for a traveler who just has a suitcase and an instrument or two.

The second bedroom is next to the the restroom. Many showers seem to just have half doors over here, at least on the housing listings we’ve seen.

The third floor is our bright and relatively quiet retreat. It gets a lot of sun throughout the day and is a pleasant place to homeschool. We giggle at the playful scratching sounds of the crows, woodpigeons, and magpies that alight on the roof and hop about during their daily visit before making their next stop at the large, vined, tree in the neighbor’s yard. They nearly always arrive in pairs.

The extra floor conveniently insulates our guitar playing, violin practice, and, most importantly, Bean’s pacing during his imagination time* from the first floor neighbors.

The kitchen feels larger than ours at home. When we first returned with groceries I suffered a jetlag-induced mild panic when I couldn’t find the fridge and we had just returned from the Tesco fiasco with loads of perishable groceries, but it’s there 😉 I’ll give you time to guess.**

Keeping the washing machine in the kitchen is a common practice in the UK, at least for the airbnb flats we have viewed. Our washer experience so far has been unfortunate. The provided towels—both used and unused—smelled musty our second night. Guessing they must have sat in storage too long, I threw them in the wash. The washer failed to agitate; to test it further I set it to spin and was greeted with an explosive rush of sudsy water from underneath the sink. The pipe the washer hose was set in is blocked. The previous tenants had placed a large bucket under the sink and we assume they must have used it while the washer was on. The manager was not notified that the washer was broken until our arrival and has been very communicative about the situation, but we are still waiting on a solution.*** Since it’s taking a while resolve, I’m very very very very (very!) grateful for the musty towels that lead to us knowing this issue much earlier!

*Imagination time: pacing back and forth and imagining epic battles and adventures without the encumbrance of any physical object such as toys or anything with an imagination-intruding tangible form that would disturb the perfection of what exists in his mind’s eye.

**The fridge is in what looks like the bottom left corner cupboard. It is very deep and easily keeps all that we need. It also works, as the heat, water heater, doors, windows, and practically everything else also does. All the little broken things (window shades, the closet, a dresser, a radiator knob, etc.) are minor. I remind myself regularly of these happy things when I feel like griping about the many loads of laundry I’ve done by hand in the tub.

***Two weeks later and, while the manager has been fairly communicative and has even visited to make a list, no repairs have been done. I am still doing laundry in the tub, chanting platitudes of gratitude (see above) in prayer to change my heart stubbornly bent on griping. Nothing is of disuse to God, so I’m trusting He can make worth-while this seemingly banal use of my time…even to the loss of my guitar callouses from the long exposure to soap water 😢 (gloves do help). It only mildly interferes with experiencing Oxford and sabbatical goals (writing and intensive instrument rehearsal). It is, in the end, merely an inconvenience. It is the largest inconvenience we’ve had, in other words, we’ve had no true troubles. Thank God.

Oxford Arrival & Tesco Fiasco

Hi friends,
Thanks all for your support and encouragement!  I can’t seem to come up with anything but humdrum and perfunctory statements, but a promise is a promise and humdrum and perfunctory words are still infinitely better than nothing at all.  My writing and grammar are also terribly rusty; I’d apologize, but since you are a friend I know I can count on your forgiving good nature.  (You’re advice is also welcome!). With a lot of love.
-Laurie –

We left noon, Thursday February 21st.  Dear and generous friends drove us up to the Dallas Fort-Worth airport. The drive was comfortable and the company was pleasant; it was the best way to start a trip.

The sunset as we waited for our flight was gorgeous.


We boarded the flight from DFW to Heathrow at 8pm central.  Since it was 2am in London we attempted sleep right away.  Dinner was served 90 minutes or so into the flight.  The meal smelled good, but in order to adjust to a new time zone we avoid eating out of sync with the new time zone, so no 3:30 am lasagna for us.  We did our best to rest our eyes and waited for the in-flight breakfast that was served at about 9am London  (3am US) time.

For a family the 9 hour flight in coach was not too long. The three of us squeezed together, sweet and snuggly with each other, in a way that would have been terribly awkward with a stranger.  It helped that Bean is still a relatively small human.  He curled up like a kitten, under a pile of coats and blankets, attempting to rest and radiating heat, as little-boys do, on the cold plane.

Our arrival was 11am in Heathrow (5am central).


We walked all the way from the airport to the Heathrow central bus station. (It felt like a mile of stumbling with luggage, but probably wasn’t) and had a bite at a Cafe Nero while we waited for the every-half-hour bus from London to Oxford.  Buses are apparently the way to travel in England.  Our driver was kind and professional.


There was some traffic and lots to see out the window, but it was also a sleepy blur and that’s the best I can do for now.  Little Bean finally slept as well.

Two hours later the bus dropped us off in Oxford.  The walk to our flat with luggage over the bumpy, narrow sidewalk seemed even longer when we exited the bus.  Bean ran his luggage over some nasty dog poo and finally, in that 21st hour of travel (27 hours awake), stopped on the sidewalk and cried for a minute.  I am so thankful that England from the US is a short trip and much easier than travel to so many other places.

We found our airbnb flat just after 3:00 pm. It looked new, bright and very clean, yay!  Further exploration showed it to have many small broken (mostly unimportant) items.  Nyan messaged the manager who responded quickly (Double yay! …and sigh of relief). We went to eat at the first, close restaurant we could find: Taberu.

On the way back to the flat we stopped at Tesco (a grocery chain).  Trying to find familiar items in a new grocery store on a chaotic and crowded Friday night is hard; doing it after being up for 30+ hours is a special challenge.  The store was frantically busy.  Jet-lagged Bean confusedly meandered in the path of everyone and anyone; frequently disappearing to the point of causing us minor mild panic and then reappearing so suddenly that I would stumble over him.  Nyan tiredly picked his basket up and a jar of Balsamic vinegar fell and broke; the pungent smell permeated the toilet paper aisle.

We escaped with a little dignity, a decent stock of food, some toiletries, and my favorite, McVities Digestives with Milk Chocolate:  Crunchy biscuits (cookies) with a melty, coating of chocolate and just enough fiber content to give you a “healthy excuse” for eating more than one. 😋 I bought them regularly our years in Japan.  These 10 days I’ve eaten nearly enough to make up for the past 10 years 😬😇  (World Market & Amazon US sell them…for an extortionist price that may be worth it!).

While I’ll eventually get to all the days in between our arrival and today, for now, here’s the dear view of our bright apartment, little boy, McVities, tea, trees, and all.  It took us quite a while, but we are settled in 💕


Eating and Reading are two pleasures that combine admirably – C.S. Lewis