Dinner al fresco with Bruce, Francis and Sylvia Corrie (not pictured), some of my favorite people.
This one is a cheat.
And I’m glad of it.
My blog. It was always supposed to be about the summer of 2017 and my journey with Cornelia and Emily. As the days of that enchanted summer passed, I fell more and more behind with my blog posts, promising myself that I would do them once my travels were over.
It’s taken me almost a year to finish what I started, telling the tale of my enchanted summer, but as my “follow-up trip” a year later comes to an end, I’m finally in sight of the last post from that journey, just as I’m nearing completion of the book as well.
My first book. It feels a bit crazy to be typing those words. Rather a shock to the system.
In theory, this post is supposed to be about a couple of trips I made to the city of dreaming spires last summer. But as I write this, I find myself reflecting on the two happy weeks I spent in Oxford this time around, which deserve more than just a mention in a postscript.
When I travel to England, I visit London. I visit Cambridge and Brighton and wherever my journey leads me. But when I travel to Oxford, I am not visiting. I am returning home.
My first trip to Oxford was an overnight stay with Bruce and Sylvia, the parents of a former boyfriend of mine – Alistair – who is still a close friend. In the book, I write about arriving in town and walking familiar streets, passing old haunts and ghosts from the two years I lived in Oxford in my twenties. I spent that afternoon catching up with Sylvia and Bruce, with Alistair’s brother Francis joining us for dinner al fresco that evening. The next morning I would meet up with Francis’ wife, Susie, for coffee and a chat before heading back to London. Reflecting on that trip in the book, I write about feeling the ease and affection of family, as if it had been just a week or two since we’d last seen each other, and not the fourteen years that had actually passed since my last visit. And how it meant so much that they still called me, “Girlie”, the nickname Alistair had given me almost thirty years ago.
The other visit came during the last few days before I sailed for the States, when I popped down to have lunch with Francis and Penelope Warner. It was through them – or, rather, their study abroad program – that I came to England that first time around. I explain in the book what an opportunity – what a gift – these two wonderful people had given me, along with their friendship. I also recall three distinct memories of that day.
The first was, when I knocked on their front door, it struck me that the last time I had stood in front of number 27, I had been a young woman. Where had the time gone?
The second was when I learned that the Warners’ daughter, Miranda, was in the UK, visiting from New Zealand, but that I had missed her by just a day or two – that she had been in Oxford, but was now up in Scotland seeing her brother, Benedict, and his girlfriend. I have known Miranda since she was four years old, and though I refuse to accept that she could possibly be older than, say, sixteen, I had been very much hoping to see her. Well, it would just have to wait for another time, possibly in another part of the world.
But my most vivid memory of that visit was, upon seeing me for the first time in twenty years, Francis Warner’s first words to me were, “Welcome home.” It was one of the best moments of my summer.
I knew from those two brief sojourns to a city I had, indeed, once called home, that I needed to really be in Oxford for a time. So for this summer follow-up trip, I AirBnB-ed myself a charming basement flat on the Woodstock Road near Summertown in North Oxford. Here I was right in the thick of my old stomping grounds, and I would spend two weeks reconnecting with both people and a place I love.
And Oxford delivered. So many happy moments.
There was the evening when Francis’ band was playing in the neighboring village of Kidlington, where I got to be with half the family as we listened to Francis and his son Johnny rocking the night. Sylvia and Bruce introduced me to their myriad friends who had come to enjoy the music. I caught up with Debbie and her husband, James, both of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I showed off a few of my newly-learned dance moves from those lessons I’d had in Florida in the spring, as I grooved to Jonny and the Jive Tones. And I chatted with Johnny, along with Rebecca (Bex) and Alexandra (Zana), members of the next generation in the Corrie clan, who had all been small children the last time I’d been around.
And then there was the afternoon I went to the Warners for tea, where Penelope had outdone herself, serving homemade scones and three kinds of cake to me and the other guests to the party, Lucy Warner Stopford and her husband, John. Being the same age, Lucy and I had become friends during my study abroad year, but we’d lost touch once I went back to the States. A quarter of a century and a lot of living later, Lucy and I didn’t miss a beat as we filled each other in on our lives. It was especially wonderful to discover that Lucy is still very much Lucy – always the brightest light in the room. Over tea, she asked me to sit for her painting class. Lucy is an award-winning artist, as both a painter and a sculptor, and I considered it a great honor and privilege to be invited to sit for her and her fellow artists.
I spent one wonderful morning “touring” around town with Bruce, starting with tea in Blackwell’s Bookshop, then on to visiting important places in the colleges which make up Oxford University. There was a quick hello with James’ and Debbie’s son, Tim, as he was studying for his exams, then a visit to the astounding Museum of Natural History where Bruce had worked in his youth, before we headed up for lunch at home with Sylvia.
On another day, Susie and I managed to get squeeze in some time for a good chat over beverages at the coffee house on South Parade. Her beautiful, ethereal spirit made me wish I lived in Oxford full-time, so that we could have “girlfriend natters” on a regular basis. That evening, I would find myself a block over at the Dew Drop Inn, having a pint with her husband Francis, and – poor Francis – a girlfriend natter with him as well (that dry cider is stronger than you think).
I even had the good fortune of being in town at the same time as Tom Fremantle, who had returned to Oxford a few months prior, after living for a few years in China. Think Indiana Jones, only with an English accent. Tom is a fearless adventurer and brilliant writer, and it is his books which had first inspired me to take my journey with the girls. Over drinks one evening at the Rose and Crown, Tom was able to not only give me some good advice about my book, but his words would also end up pointing me in the right direction for my next project.
There was also an unexpected turn in Oxford – my discovery of Forro, a lively, rather up-close-and-personal Brazilian dance. While Oxford seems like an odd place to learn Brazilian street dancing, I figured “Why not?”, and went along to the Monday night classes and social dancing at St. Giles Church. I have warm affection for that lovely little 12th century church, partly because I was once kissed amongst the headstones in the churchyard by a gorgeous Australian (she writes with fatuous modesty). Later in London, I would continue with Forro, even giving it a go when I visited Birmingham.
And wouldn’t you know, happening upon that poster and giving the dance a try would lead me into my next book project? It’s a wondrous thing, how the pieces sometimes line up.
Those two weeks in Oxford were also filled with the delicious minutiae of everyday living – shopping errands to the drugstore and grocery store, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors, walking into town on the same pavement I’d traversed all those years ago. All of the little everyday, unexciting things that let a person know they are home. It is those moments which penetrate the most, and last the longest.
If you have managed to read all the way to here, I can only thank you for your patience, and for indulging me as I prattled on with my highly-personal reminiscences. Not only is this post a cheat, but I suspect it’s of interest only to me. But I’m okay with that. I’m giving myself this one.
Still, at least I can leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve ever read, which have resonated with me for almost thirty years.
“Home can be more places than one. The pity is having to choose.” – C.W. Gusewelle
Above, Middle: Sitting for Lucy’s portrait class, with varying results — from generously young-looking, to Mary Tudor-ish, to still a work in progress. I dig them all.
Top Row: Cows in the foreground, dreaming spires in the background of Christ Church Meadow; a game-changing poster; the St. Giles Churchyard.
Bottom Row: The old Dew Drop Inn has been glammed up; the reassuring blue door of number 27; Tuesday night Forro dancing in London.