The old nursery rhyme tells of the fair lady on the white horse, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes making music wherever she goes. A bronze sculpture of her stands at the centre of Banbury village, near the new version of the famous Banbury Cross which the Puritans pulled down in the 1600s. The words to her nursery rhyme surround her, running round the platform on which she and her horse stand:
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fair lady upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
She will have music wherever she goes.
The identity of the lady remains a subject of much speculation. Was it Queen Elizabeth herself? The reference to rings on her fingers and bells on her toes denotes nobility but is itself a vestige from the Plantagenet era, several generations before Elizabeth. And so the speculation continues. But to me she is a traveller, always joyful, surrounded by constant music; and so she is an impossible traveller, because all travellers bring troubles with them as much as they bring music.
My last day in the Netherlands is a beautiful one. My friends and I spend the morning on their balcony, looking out over Groningen’s rooftops, eating pancakes and drinking coffee. But the conversation is not so joyful; somehow our minds turn to our friends who are not going well and to the disappointments of the last few years. Phil and I have been friends for nearly 10 years, and in those years many things have gone unexpectedly. This failure of expectations can, I think, be one of the hardest aspects to the early years of adult life. We enter with so much hope, and, if our hope emerges in tact, it is in a very different form to where it began, and the moment at which our hopes change into something more sustainable can be in itself a frightening process.
What should be a straightforward journey on the train from Groningen to Amsterdam Schipol proves challenging when the train I am on stops at Amersfoort and refuses to take anyone further. What follows is a thirty minute wait, with much confusion on my part, until a hoard of similarly displaced commuters board a train to Amsterdam Central, where we change for a densely packed train to Schipol; I manage to find a seat, but I must sit with my suitcase squeezed in front of me, making my legs go numb, squashed between the suitcase and the seat. As I watch the time disappear before check-in for my flight is over, I pray constantly, aware that I have control over almost nothing in my situation except for how I react to it. If I end up stranded in Amsterdam, I pray, then that will be okay. I can trust in God’s goodness in spite of everything not turning out how I had planned…
Mercifully, I am still able to check in for my flight, with a bit of time to spare, to grab a quick dinner at the terminal. And then, after a few delays at the gate for my flight, we are off. The flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow is an absurdly short one, the kind of distance Australians associate with short domestic flights – Sydney to Canberra perhaps, or Melbourne to Devonport. Unbelievably, several countries and the English Channel are crossed in the little more than an hour it takes from take-off to landing.
And then I am at Heathrow again, met by my friends James and Christie, who take me in their car up to Banbury, Oxfordshire, where I will be staying for the remaining week.
It is difficult to see how beautiful the countryside is in the dark, but on my first morning here I awake to lush green gardens and an overcast sky without rain. The sun comes out at some point during my journey out to Oxford, and though it is not warm I am comfortable without my coat – a perfect day for exploring. And so I set off first into the township of Banbury, where I wander around looking at the many historic buildings which sit so incidentally within the town (the oldest building in Banbury, for instance, a Tudor-era construction, is now a wine shop). I also visit the famous Banbury Cross, a newer version of it built during Victoria’s reign in honour of her daughter’s marriage to the King of Prussia, or the Prince of Prussia, or something along those lines. It is difficult to get a good view of the Cross because it sits in the middle of a rather busy roundabout. But the fair lady is easily visible, off the road and carrying a plaque nearby with information on the Cross and the nursery rhyme. For much of the morning, I have the rhyme playing over in my head, set to a tune of my own making. It makes a pleasant soundtrack to my wanderings.
But by the time I am in Oxford, my mind has become cluttered and unsettled. This has been the norm for most days of my trip, for reasons that I am unsure of: a combination, I suspect, of the change in time zones and the effect this has had on medication I am taking, and the challenges of being in an unfamiliar place where the simple stuff of the day – getting a bus into town; finding s place to eat lunch – becomes complicated. Whatever it is, it troubles me, and disrupts what I expect of my travels.
There is also, I realise later, a degree of disappointment that comes with being in Oxford. You see, there is probably not a place in the world I have more built-up expectation around than Oxford. When I was an early teenager, my ambition was to study at Oxford – History, Literature; the major varied. But I knew that it was Oxford where I wanted to go. The ambition itself became more “realistic” (read: it fizzled), but came to be replaced with another association: my love of C.S. Lewis and, more recently, Tolkien. A few years ago I read Sheldon Vanauken’s memoir, A Severe Mercy, and was absorbed in his love of the place and his intense associations with the development of his own Christian faith, as well as his friendship with Lewis. Around that time I had a dream that I found myself in Oxford, at night. I was walking a quiet street in fog, surrounded by lamps and old English buildings. I think there was a pub nearby. I remember feeling quite intense joy at being in Oxford, and woke up longing to go.
Oxford itself is only partially like my dream. The buildings are the same but the streetscape is denser, busier, than I had expected. What I had notices in Banbury I see even more intensively here – Saxon and Norman buildings are surrounded by modern commerce. The oldest church tower in Oxford is in the city centre and has a cafe beneath it. A Tudor building is the home of a Pret a Manger outlet. The colleges are buzzing – with new students and tourists. The students are impeccably dressed and beautifully spoken. They swear fashionably and talk about Chekhov as I pass them along the Thames.
Reaching a quiet spot where there are some boats sitting beneath a bridge – just the sort of boats you see in pictures of people punting at Oxford – I stop to take some photographs. Walking back up to the footpath I see a man standing at the garbage bins – is he taking the rubbish out or looking though it? – who starts a conversation about photography. What level am I up to, he asks? Are there levels, I wonder? Not very high, I say. Just for fun. Can he teach me something about photography, he asks? Yes, I say. There is a wartime photographer called Ken McClelland, he says. Look him up when you get home. Alright, I say. And another one, he says. An Oxford photographer called Henry Taunt. Look him up. You won’t regret it. Okay, I say. Do you promise me you will do that? I ask. Yes, I say. As I walk off again down the path, I hear him say, You probably think I’m crazy. Perhaps, but what does it mean to be crazy? My mind is hardly settled as I walk along the Thames.
It takes me a long time to realise what is happening to me. I am struggling with the reality of being in Oxford, a place I have longed to see and am now seeing, only finding it to be not entirely what I had expected. It is, in truth, a very busy city with multitudes of wealthy, privileged students who have been born to a life I may never have. C.S. Lewis is not here; I cannot enter Magdalen College (it is closed for the day) and I am shocked at how hard it is to buy his books here, save for a few copies of Narnia and, wedged incidentally amongst the literary criticism in Blackwells, a couple of his critical works. I find a copy of An Experiment in Criticism and go on my way.
I meet James and Christie at the Eagle and Child, the popular haunt where the Inklings famously met. It is a pleasant pub and the food is nice, but I am uncomfortable, I must admit, at two beloved writers being turned into marketing exercises. I feel that somehow my journey to Oxford is different to everyone else’s. In truth it is not. This place belongs no more to me than it does to anyone else; in fact, it belongs to me less.
Over dinner, we talk about Oxford – our mutual likes and dislikes of the place. Cambridge, they tell me, is more beautiful, more like we think Oxford should be. Perhaps Lewis felt the same thing, in the end, finishing his career at Cambridge. Perhaps I should go there. But in the end I would bring the same false expectations to that place too. The secret to travel, I suspect, is to take each place on their own terms. Expectations may need to be shattered in order for this to happen, but false expectations cannot last long anyway.
Coming home, we plan my movements for the remainder of the week. Tomorrow I will go on a drive through the Cotswolds and revisit Magdalen College to see if it is open this time. I will need this time to go with fewer expectations, or at least a readiness to have my expectations challenged. That, however, may be easier said than done.