On 4 July 1862 Charles Dodson, an Oxford don, took Alice Liddell and her two sisters on a boating picnic up the River Thames from Folly Bridge in Oxford. To amuse the children he told them a story about a liittle girl, sitting bored by a riverbank, who finds herself tumbling down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland.
Last Saturday Oxford celebrated the first telling of Alice’s adventures in wonderland. It was wet, in fact it has been mostly wet since our arrival in Oxford, so we decided to abandon any ideas of cycling and join in the celebrations – well some of them.
Charles Dodson had studied at Christ Church College, where Alice’s father was dean, and it was hosting several events. In an attempt to attend them, Keith and I plunged down the rabbit hole and had our own topsy turvy adventure. Our first dilemma was getting into Christ Church. The instructions said “entry at Tom Gate under Tom Tower” but this was not marked on the map and Christ Church College is not small. On one attempt to access the College, we were met by a formidable woman who blocked our entry and pointed back the way we had come and said go right, then right until you come to Tom Lane and you will find the man in a top hat. He will let you in.
Around we turned and trudged back right around to the other side of the college where we had already been – but had not seen any man in a top hat. We did find him and he pointed in the direction we were to go.
Our next instructions to locate the library, was “access via the spiral staircase” – fine if we could find it. Finally, we discovered the doorway to enter and before us stood a giant spiral staircase – so up we went. The exhibition of Alice memorabilia was somewhat underwhelming, but fascinating.
Keith started to read about Alice’s family. He looked at me and said “you never told me that Alice’s father was Henry Liddell!” Rather puzzled, I responded “Henry Liddell was Alice’s father”. “Henry Liddell is the author of the famous Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon!” For a moment, our worlds collided – “I have that lexicon at home!” “Well, I have Alice in Wonderland at home” I responded. “But Henry Liddell is famous!” “I think more people know about Alice than about Henry” was my response.
Henry Liddell spent most of his life working on this lexicon – the first edition was published in 1843 and at his death in 1897, the eighth edition was published. He was also incredibly creative and used to doodle during meetings. His friends regretted that he had devoted so much of his life to the drudgery of lexicography. John Ruskin, a former pupil of Liddell’s in 1866 expressed sorrow in a letter to him that “you kept dictionary making instead of drawing trees at Madeira in colour.”
On reflection, staying in Oxford is a bit like plunging down that rabbit hole, as all is not quite as it seems. We went looking for a tea room for a cup of tea during a rain storm and found a Taiwanese tea room that sold bubble tea with black pearls. I was right there at the mad hatter’s tea party.
I have been trying to find a proper map of Oxford that shows a little more of the town than just the centre, showing walks around meadows and along the river banks. After three attempts, I have given up and am relying on google maps. This is the interaction I had at one shop:
“Do you have any maps of Oxford that show where I can walk around the meadows and along the rivers?”
“If you go to the tourist shop, you can book into a walking tour of Oxford.”
“Yes, I have seen those advertised. What I am looking for is a map that shows more of the city than this map” – I showed her my only map.
By this time, she looked like she really did not know what to do with me. “Perhaps you could go on the Oxford bus trip that takes you right around Oxford? – you can go to that bus stop over there.”
Later, I realised I had used the wrong words. If I had asked about the Thames footpath, she would have understood. But even finding the Thames footpath is not easy. You will not find signposts – you just need to know it is there. We were told that Port Meadow was a lovely place to walk – but you need to find it first – without any signs!
Our apartment has no maps or information of any kind to help a newcomer to Oxford – you are just meant to know.
Back to Alice. There is a wonderful museum here in Oxford that I stumbled upon while looking for something else called the Story Museum. It had an amazing display of original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland including Helen Oxenbury and Anthony Browne. I was in heaven here – so many different interpretations of Alice’s teaparty – each unique and wonderful.
Blackwell’s bookshop celebrated Alice’s day with much style. Keith had asked me if he could buy a new novel. We had planned to do all our reading on our ipads – to reduce our weight for travelling – and not travel with paper novels. He confessed “it just doesn’t feel right reading my ipad in bed”. He had finished reading Olive Kitteridge and wanted to find a new book. I need no excuses to visit a book shop, so off we went. It was packed with families avoiding the rain. Children were sitting listening to different authors read Alice, having their faces painted, being entertained with balloon sculptures and live music – chaotic, noisy and fun! Keith headed for the history section – was not sure if he would find a novel there, while I headed for the children’s book section. At this point, our worlds are far apart.