I fell in love with Magdalen College as a teenager visiting England. It seemed a coded language that the pronunciation was Maud-lin. I loved animals, and here was “the college with the deer.” What a surprise to step off the bike-congested Oxford streets into rural countryside. Like a secret garden, thick walls keep the dull roar of traffic at bay. Deer graze in the meadow and quiet paths meander through the woods. Canals are ideal for romantic boating.
After watching Brideshead Revisted on PBS, I dreamed of going to Oxford University. Instead I did a junior semester abroad at King’s College, London. My lucky cousin, Peter Nohrnberg, did a Marshall Scholarship at Magdalen. He enjoyed reading poetry in such a bucolic setting. He told tales of towing a bottle of champagne by a string while punting to keep it cool.
I retuned to Magdalen for my friends’ wedding. Stewart Wood and my husband had bonded over being two Oxford Brits at Harvard and falling in love with women raised in Manhattan. Stewart took a position teaching politics at Magdalen so the lovely, candle-lit chapel was the obvious place for the small ceremony.
After the service, we walked enchanted through the quad of cloisters and dined in hall. The dark paneled, high-vaulted space felt from a different era and it was. The college was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester.
Magdalen sees less of Stewart now as he is on leave advising the Prime Minister. Stewart is Gordan Brown's senior policy advisor on foreign policy, Northern Ireland, culture, media and sport. He's also my advisor on Magdalen.
Henry and I met Stewart for a pint at the 14th century Turf Tavern hidden behind The Bridge of Sighs. Check out the visual directions for a laugh or if you have any desire of ever finding it. Contrast that to neon-signed American bars. The Turf was mentioned in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I feel part of a literary tradition, living in Oxford as a writer.
Stewart told us of a centuries old tradition of shooting a deer for a feast when a Magdalen fellow passed away. The custom has recently changed so that they now order venison from the butcher. People these days don't like to know their dinner. I'm looking forward to more tales and a dinner at high table.
My husband revealed yet another personal tie to Magdalen if a sad one. Two of his grandfather’s cousins had attended the college and died serving in WWI. The Cattley brothers’ names were engraved in stone with other young Magdalen men lost to The Great War. The plaque is near the entrance to the chapel. It was so moving to see Henry’s ancestors and to feel a personal part of history.
When Henry and I had walked around the gardens, blooming in early fall splendor, the leaves were just starting to turn. It had felt too early in my year at Oxford to have chosen a setting for NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE), and I may still create a fictional hybrid college for my novel.
On the other hand, Oxford has so much beauty and history that I don’t think I could improve upon it. The deer park would appeal to my native Maine character. One Magdalen alum was King Edward VIII, who fell in love with the divorced American Wallis Simpson and abidacted the throne to marry her. How perfect a setting for another Anglo-American romance.
I peeked into the Old Kitchen Bar, and I could see my characters gathered round a table with pints of amber bitter or golden lager. I’m guessing back in the 1980’s the students would have been served more than hot drinks.
Henry has stories of dons pouring sherry for morning tutorial. He seemed to have spent a lot of time down the boozer with his mates playing darts. Oxford University Guidlines now state that undergraduates should not be served alcohol before lunch!
I long to see inside a tutorial room and student lodgings to gather more details. Like character acting, I’m character writing. I will especially enjoy trawling more old pubs! They have such funny names. Now that’s another blog....