Most people have the experience of a family member, loved one, or a friend moving away. Even though the new location is described in detail, and even if one has seen many pictures, it’s not until one actually visits that the place becomes real. It is natural to want to see with one’s own eyes and experience for oneself the feel of a place where a loved one now lives to be able to place him there in the mind’s eye after the visit.
Such was the motivation for a summer trip taken by my husband and me. Our goal was simple, to see as many literary places in England that we could in two weeks, focusing on St. John Henry Newman. It was a huge success. St. John Henry no longer seems quite so distant, having looked out his windows and tread his paths. We went to Oxford, Littlemore, and Birmingham in the Newman portion of our adventure, and without planning to, we walked through the Bloomsbury section of London, where he grew up.
Oxford is the place to begin with a Newman pilgrimage. Oxford University is so famous and so storied, that the place itself looms large in the literary imagination. Of course, almost everyone has seen images of the incredible ancient buildings, towering spires, groomed lawns of the college quads in countless films and t.v. shows, so I was a bit surprised when we arrived at our Bed and Breakfast near the City Centre. Oxford is a bustling urban city of over 160,000 residents, and the streets were humming with activity. All around there were cafes, bars, restaurants, music venues, shops, and pubs in a cosmopolitan setting. Double decker buses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians filled the busy streets and sidewalks. After a shift in perspective grasping the reality of modern Oxford, we set out on foot for our first goal, Christ Church Cathedral, to hear Evensong.
Christ Church, founded in 1546, was a priory dedicated to St. Frideswide, patron of the city and the university. There Newman was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825. It was an easy walk to reach there, but a not unexpected rain slowed us a bit, as we dodged and darted our way through throngs of tourists, locals, and students. One can see the beautiful towers and buildings of Oxford easily as a walk proceeds. What is not expected is that the university buildings are set within this city environment. We found Christ Church and joined the soggy queue of people all waiting outside on the sidewalk for word that it was okay to proceed to the church. Once one steps beneath the arched stone entrance through the huge wooden gates into the quad of not only Christ Church but most of the colleges of the University, it’s an immediate step back in time. All the sudden 100s of years disappear, the city noise is muffled, and there before you are stone buildings grander, more majestic, more imposing than any picture could portray. This was our experience with all the places in Oxford, the anachronistic juxtaposition of a hip H&M next-door to gates that take one into the 15th century. We proceeded with the others across the expansive quad with its center fountain, slowed our step to walk into this amazing church, eyes lifting to the soaring heights of the ceiling; there was an almost tangible feel of generations of worship surrounding us. We sat quietly in the ornately carved wood of the choir with the other visitors, and listened to beautiful words of Anglican evensong sung by the clear voices of the choir, while gazing upon the same stained glass windows that Newman looked upon. It was stirring.
The next day we had a lively and thorough guided tour and walk-about given by a friend, seeing and experiencing all things Newman at Oxford. He even threw in a few bonus stops, like Magdalene College of C.S. Lewis fame. Fortunately, the weather had cleared, and despite this being a tourist-heavy time of the summer, and thanks to the saavy of our friend, we had a comprehensive visit. Unlike most American universities, Oxford is not unified by a central campus. Instead, there are individual colleges with their own buildings, usually including a quad, a chapel, dining hall, living quarters, etc. A visitor must enter in through gates into each separate college. In Oxford, these are close together, but set amongst non-university buildings. Within the walls of each college, however, one can imagine the Oxford of Newman’s days. Thanks to the guidance of our friend, we were able to see much. We saw the beautiful Trinity College, where Newman first studied after he finished his primary education at Ealing. Trinity is enclosed by an iron palisade rather than a wall, and the college’s distinctive blue gates provide it with a more open street view. Trinity was one of the locations used for filming of the original series Brideshead Revisited; it has also featured prominently in episodes of Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour.
Flashing his credentials, our intrepid guide took us into Oriel College, where Newman was a Fellow and tutor from 1822 until 1845. It was moving to walk through this quad and enter the heavy doors that led in just beneath the windows of his rooms there where he lived those many years. One could imagine him looking out of those leaded glass panes, composing one of his many famous scripture laden sermons of the Anglican period. Oriel, the 5th college founded at Oxford in 1326, was under the patronage of Blessed Virgin Mary. Oxford’s and Oriel’s tutorial system aided Newman to form his view that as a college tutor, he held a pastoral office. Inside Oriel, we walked into the ornate beauty of the Oriel College chapel, staring upwards at the magnificent and famous timber ribbed barrel vaulted ceiling, with the filtered light of the stained glass windows bright against the light colored walls.
We then took the winding steps up into a small area that has been converted into a memorial space honoring St. John Henry, in the rear of the Oriel College chapel. Here a huge new stained glass window is installed with his image, along with places to sit, kneel, pray or meditate. We prayed there with our friend, Newman’s famous vocation prayer, found on the back of his prayer card. It was one of the highlights of the visit. We went into St. Mary’s Church, the University Church, where Newman became Vicar in March 1828. From the pulpit there he established himself as one of the most compelling preachers in England. He unveiled the riches of the Scriptures to the congregation eager to hear his sermons. Seeing the narrow stairs up to this small pulpit in the middle of that magnificent church transported us back in time, imagining the thin figure of Newman, moving the hearts of the listeners with his words, spoken with a soft voice that despite the volume would have reverberated off those stone walls. In 1833 John Keble preached from the same pulpit the famous Assize Sermon on ‘National Apostasy’, which Newman later considered the beginning of the Oxford Movement proper. Newman later felt compelled to leave St. Mary’s in the wake of the publicity over Tract 90. He resigned in September 1843 and retreated to Littlemore, the next stop on our Newman Pilgrimage.