Tag Archives: books

Literary Walks: Dorothy Sayers’ Oxford

If you know me at all, you know I love Oxford. You also might recall that I adore the mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. While in Oxford this summer I was determined to put together my own literary walk to celebrate Sayers’ Gaudy Night and its two main characters, Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey.

I even made a map with the help of Google:


Google says this is a 50 minute walk. If you really want to soak it all in, however, 2-3 hours would give you plenty of time to see everything. If you wish to linger and visit colleges/pubs/bookstores along the way, you might give yourself at least half a day.


The walk begins on Brewer Street, where you’ll find a plaque that commemorates the birth of Dorothy Sayers in this very building. Her father was headmaster at the Christ Church Cathedral Choir School and a chaplain at the cathedral. This will be a brief stop, as you can’t go inside, but it’s a nice quiet street and no one should mind you taking a photograph. (I do it every summer!)

From here go east to St. Aldates and continue north. On your right you will see Christ Church College. In Gaudy Night, Harriet runs into Peter Wimsey’s nephew, Lord Saint-George, who is a student at Christ Church. When Saint-George hurts himself rather badly in a car accident, she must write to inform Peter. And thus the plot thickens… (If you have the time, this college certainly is worth visiting.)

Follow St. Aldates as it turns into Cornmarket, Magdalen, and then St. Giles. Bonus: At the intersection with Pusey Street look left and behold The Eagle & Child, a pub famous for hosting meetings of The Inklings. Sayers was friends with the Inklings, but never an official member, according to the Mythopoeic Society.


Finally you will come to Somerville College, Dorothy Sayers’ alma mater and an inspiration for Shrewsbury College in Gaudy Night. This college ordinarily does not welcome tourists during the summer, but they did allow me to stand in the doorway and take some photos. Perhaps you might be allowed greater access at other times of the year?

Google suggests that you return to the city center via St John Street, which should be less crowded and will take you by the Ashmolean, a museum well worth seeing that also offers a rooftop restaurant and a cozy cafe in the basement. I always get very hungry when touring Oxford!


Balliol College, Lord Peter Wimsey’s alma mater, is just to the east of the Ashmolean, but you must take Magdalen Street to Broad to find its entrance. The fee to tour the college (as of a couple of weeks ago) is three pounds, and it’s well worth it. Do visit the chapel, explore the grounds, and tour the dining hall. Somewhere on the grounds is a portrait of Lord Peter Wimsey that was presented to the college many years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it (even with the porter calling everyone he knew to determine its location). Perhaps you’ll have better luck?

Upon leaving Balliol, turn south at Turl Street and take a left on Brasenose Lane. Straight ahead is Radcliffe Square (the featured image at the top of this post). Radcliffe Square is the center of Oxford, and you could spend quite some time ogling and photographing the gorgeous architecture. Do take a nice gander at the Radcliffe Camera–in Gaudy Night Harriet Vane tries to get some work done here–and also the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. For a moderate fee you can climb up to the church tower and get a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the city. AND if you didn’t stop for lunch at the Ashmolean, I suggest you venture into the Vaults & Garden Cafe. Even if you already ate lunch, you might stop here for afternoon tea! You’ll find delicious, wholesome food in a setting that is comfortable and offers sublime views.


When you’re finished admiring Radcliffe Square take Catte Street north to Holywell and walk east until you reach St. Cross Street. Go north until you see St. Cross Church (pictured above) at your right. This building belongs to Balliol College and is now an archive rather than a church, but you can wander the grounds and enjoy the lovely views. This site is very important in the story of Peter and Harriet. For now, however, I won’t spoil it.

Bonus: Explore nearby Holywell Cemetery, a Romantically overgrown graveyard. Kenneth Grahame (author of Wind in the Willows) and his son are buried here, among others. There’s a wooden bench perfect for enjoying an afternoon snack–might I suggest a sandwich from the Alternative Tuck Shop on Holywell? Grab your sandwich and a drink on the way to St. Cross. OR take your sandwich along for our final stop on the tour…


A punt on the Cherwell! Walk south on St. Cross, continuing as it turns into Longwall Street, and take a left onto High Street. Find the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse (look for the signs) and rent a punt just as Peter and Harriet did in Gaudy Night. (Above you see Steve manning the pole most efficiently with Magdalen Tower in the background.) You can try punting on your own OR hire a “professional” who will do all the work and offer a little tour.

If you go it alone, expect some bumps along the way:

[Peter] was, in fact, a pretty punter to watch, easy in action and quite remarkably quick. They picked their way at surprising speed down the crowded and torturous stream until, in the narrow reach above the ferry, they were checked by another punt, which was clumsily revolving in mid-stream and cramming a couple of canoes rather dangerously against the bank.

“Before you come on this water,” cried Wimsey, thrusting the offenders off with his heel and staring offensively at the youth in charge (a stringy young man, naked to the waist and shrimp-pink with the sun), “you should learn the rule of the river. Those canoes have the right of way. And if you can’t handle a pole better than that, I recommend you to retire up the back-water and stay there till you know what God gave you feet for.” (Ch. 14)

Eventually Peter and Harriet move on to the less crowded Isis River–you can, too, if you’re punting yourself.

Bonus: If you still have energy after punting I highly recommend visiting Magdalen College and walking in their Deer Park. It’s a beautiful and soothing place. If you haven’t yet eaten–or need to refuel after punting–do visit the Old Kitchen Bar (dating from the 1300s). The riverside terrace is lovely!

And that is the end of my walking tour of Dorothy Sayers’ Oxford! Any questions? Suggestions? What did I leave out?

Stay tuned for a Friday Favorite post featuring Tea in Cedar Falls, Iowa…

Literary Walks: Lyme Regis

Dear reader, I meant to offer a “Tea and a Book” recommendation for June, but there was just too much to do in preparation for travel. I will try again later this month. In the meantime I thought I’d start a new feature on the blog — “Literary Walks.” I love to follow in the footsteps of authors and view the inspirations for their settings and conflicts. Who knows, perhaps I could collect enough material for a guidebook? We’ll see how it goes.

Today’s post is inspired by a setting shared by four of my favorite novels.
(Each image is linked to Goodreads)

Lyme Regis lies on the Dorset/Devon border in the south of England. I’ve borrowed a map provided by The Alexandra Hotel to help orient you to the town. (Just so you know, The Alexandra is a lovely place to stay, with two restaurants and numerous rooms that overlook the sea. They also offer a glorious afternoon tea.)


I suggest starting your walk on Silver Street at the Mariner’s Hotel, which once was known as Morley Cottage. Elizabeth Philpot, an enthusiastic fossil hunter featured in Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, lived here with her sisters. Continue on to Broad Street, the main shopping area, and browse the shops–you’ll find clothing, hiking supplies, jewelry, art, fossils, and more. You also might fortify yourself at one of the many restaurants.


Then walk along the Marine Parade to the stone jetty known as the Cobb and take special notice of “Granny’s Teeth,” the little steps that silly Louisa Musgrove leaps from in Persuasion. While on the Cobb also think of the mysterious Sarah Woodruff, the so-called “French Lieutenant’s Woman,” standing alone and staring out to sea in a way that thoroughly captivates Charles Smithson. Make time to visit the Lyme Regis Museum, formerly the site of Mary Anning‘s shop, to learn about the Jurassic coast as well Lyme’s history and literary connections.

There are at least two fine beaches for fossil hunting, but do keep the tide tables in mind. Monmouth Beach (see at the lower left on the map above) is always a good bet, and you can imagine yourself Mary Anning or Elizabeth Philpott as you search for ammonites and other specimens. This page gives all the details on Lyme’s beaches.


For me, the most intriguing aspect of Lyme Regis is the Undercliff. I will Let John Fowles explain in this passage from The French Lieutenant’s Woman:

There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England […] People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation–and if the weather be bad, desolation–could have seemed so great.

The Undercliff–for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff face–is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this steepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness–its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clematis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle.

I love these images of Sarah in the Undercliff from the 1981 film.

If you’d like to know more, here is a more detailed description of one woman’s trek from Lyme Regis to Seaton through the Undercliff. As for us, it took a little over four hours to get to Seaton (including time for photos and a lunch break). Of course, you don’t have to walk the entire thing. I do, however, recommend a particular diversion off the main path that I learned about while reading Penelope Lively’s Whitbread Award-winning A Stitch in Time. In the book, the Lucas family invites Maria Foster and her parents to a “proper beach” that can only be accessed from the Undercliff path. The way proves precarious:

Maria put one foot slowly and carefully in front of the other, steadying herself with a hand on a sapling or jutting rock where possible. Once she skidded on some treacherous shale that slithered under her shoes, so that she sat down hard, bruising herself. It could have been worse. Below and out of sight, hair-raising cries from the other children suggested fatal accidents of one kind or another. […] At last they were all down and there, as promised, was a beach. Though not, at first sight, a beach very much different from any other except that, also as promised, there was no one else in sight.


In 2015 Steve and I found that beach, and Lively did not exaggerate the difficulty of the descent. But it was all worth it when we found what I now call “the secret beach” and enjoyed it all on our own for quite some time. (Yes, that rocky beach is tough to walk on, but the feeling of utter isolation in this magical landscape more than compensated for the strain on our ankles.)

Well, that’s at least a full day of walking for you when you visit Lyme Regis! Other things you might do that aren’t particularly literary–walk to Golden Cap, have a nice bathe in the sea (cold but so refreshing!), rent a kayak, go fishing for mackerel, and much more. Click here for more information.

I’m hoping to offer one more Literary Walk before we return, so please stay tuned!

A Tour of Washington DC Indie Bookstores

I’ve made a resolution since returning from Brooklyn–when joining my husband on business trips I will endeavor to research, patronize, and publicize my favorite independent bookstores. (In case you missed it, you’ll find some wonderful Brooklyn options in this post.) On this trip our hotel was in Georgetown, so I picked bookstores within walking distance.

Perhaps the most famous indie bookstore in the District is Politics & Prose, but it was more than an hour’s walk away, and since I’d been there when we lived in D.C. it seemed appropriate to explore other options.


On Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe is a large, bustling store open from 7:30am to 1:30am, except on Friday and Saturday when it’s open until 3am. (Wow!) It has a hip and energetic vibe that encourages both leisurely, uninterrupted browsing and boisterous socializing in the cafe/bar. I appreciated how much space they devoted to recommended books, and when I saw Ghosted by Rosie Walsh on prominent display–and noted its blurbs–I had to have it.

Kramerbooks has so much to offer, but it isn’t a cozy sort of bookstore. Lucky for me, I found plenty of cozy in the two used bookstores I visited.


Also near Dupont Circle, Second Story Books is open 10-10 daily and offers a wonderfully ordered, inviting, and tranquil environment perfect for browsing. It also has a fascinating history of expansion and consolidation dating back to 1973. At one point they had six stores from Alexandria to Baltimore. These days there are two: the 16,000-square-foot warehouse store in Rockville (oooh!) and the Dupont Circle location, which celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2018. They offer so many interesting services beyond the typical appraisal/consignment options. Learn more here.

After a leisurely stretch of browsing, I came away with a neat edition of Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater and the ginormous Complete Old English Poems, translated by Craig Williamson.

(I really need a running list of obscure titles on my phone so that when I go to stores like this I can search with a purpose instead of wandering in a fog of overwhelmed delight.)


My favorite bookstore of the D.C. visit was this lovely shop in Georgetown. Founded in 1996, The Lantern is run entirely by volunteers and all the proceeds fund scholarships for Bryn Mawr student summer internships. I could have browsed this store all day, and perhaps I will actually spend a day there in the future, armed with that wish list on my phone, eh? I was tempted by so many books on their shelves but managed to walk out of there with just one–Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor. (How could I resist that title?) Of course I am a big fan of A.S. Byatt, and won’t it be interesting to read something written by her estranged sister? Drama!


Here are the lovely new editions to my library.

Stay tuned for a blog post about–you guessed it–TEA in Georgetown!

A tour of Brooklyn Bookstores

In the second post of my “Brooklyn travel trilogy” I’m featuring Brooklyn indie bookstores.


Books are Magic is located in Cobble Hill on the corner of Smith and Butler. It is owned by author Emma Straub and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub. I love this from the website: “Books Are Magic is their third child. Their two sons are very excited about the new addition to the family.” The store is small but cozy, with a staff that is friendly without being obtrusive. I couldn’t resist getting a New York Review Books Classics copy of Daphne du Maurier’s short story collection, Don’t Look Now, along with The Governesses by Anne Serre. So fun to browse the shelves here.


WORD Bookstore is located in Greenpoint at the corner of Franklin and Milton Streets. I knew I would love it when I saw the Audre Lorde quote displayed boldly on their window: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” According to their website their goal is to carry “a lot of paperback fiction (especially classics), cookbooks, board books, and absurdly cute cards and stationery.” They also like bookish events, so if you’re in the area keep an eye on their calendar. I browsed to my heart’s content and left with a copy of Brooklyn resident Ben Dolnick’s The Ghost Notebooks, which I read on the flight home. JUST my sort of thing!


Stories Bookshop + Storytelling Lab, located at 458 Bergen Street and situated “at the nexus of the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Boerum Hill,” is a sweet little store for children’s titles. (You can see their captivating storefront in my featured image at the top of this post–note all the strollers!) They sell board books, YA novels, and everything in between. The storytelling lab, located in the back of the store, hosts afternoon, weekend, and summer programming for kids. Check here for more information on story times and workshops. The MG section was pretty packed when I visited, but as soon as I saw The Wallstonecraft Detective Agency in the MG section I knew what I wanted. How could I resist Ada (Byron) Lovelace and Mary (Godwin) Shelley as young sleuths?


Here is my haul. Isn’t it a handsome collection?

Stay tuned for a final Brooklyn blog post featuring my TEA SHOP adventures!

Friday Flashback: Reading Gaskell’s North & South

This post is a continuation of my Friday Favorites post on North & South (2004) and perhaps will only be interesting to those who are already fans of the mini-series. (Or maybe it will inspire potential new fans? One can hope.) In 2006 I read the novel and had great fun comparing it to the series in two Livejournal posts.

Jan 11, 2006

If you’ve listened to the commentary for N&S, you already have a good idea of what they’ve changed, added, or deleted in order to adapt the novel into a film. The main differences I see so far:

— Mrs. Hale was not happy in Helstone. She’s just generally malcontented. You learn that her sister married for status & money (and hated her husband), but Mrs. Hale married a poor clergyman for love, and has always mildly resented her lowered standard of living. (And Dixon is very sympathetic to this, of course.)

— Mr. Thornton is NOT beating the crap out of people in the sight of young ladies

— There are no union meetings with Higgins rallying the workers. This makes me sad. I found those scenes very moving in the film.

— Bessie isn’t quite as sassy and snarky — more the typical lower class Victorian invalid.

Various interesting passages:

Henry Lennox to Margaret:

Well, I suppose you are all in the depths of business — ladies’ business, I mean. Very different to my business, which is the real true law business. Playing with shawls is very different work to drawing up settlements. (10)

What a self-important prig! Do you think Gaskell’s female contemporary readers would have been equally irked by that? Or would they just have accepted it as “separate sphere” sort of bantering? I have to believe that this is Gaskell telling her readers “Sure, this would be a socially appropriate partner for Margaret BUT TRULY HE’S JUST THE PRACTICE ROUND!”

Margaret’s physical description:

Sometimes people wondered that parents so handsome should have a daughter who was so far from regularly beautiful; not beautiful at all, was occasionally said. Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a “yes” and “no,” and “an’t please you, sir.” But the wide mouth was one soft curve of rich red lips; and the skin, if not white and fair, was of ivory smoothness and delicacy. If the look on her face was, in general, too dignified and reserved for one so young, now, talking to her father, it was bright as the morning, — full of dimples, and glances that spoke of childish gladness, and boundless hope in the future. (17)

And then there’s the scene of Mr. Thornton having tea with the Hales. This passage, in which he contemplates Margaret, seems almost erotic to me:

It appeared to Mr. Thornton that all these graceful cares were habitual to the family; and especially of a piece with Margaret. She stood by the tea-table in a light-colored muslin gown, which had a good deal of pink about it. She looked as if she was not attending to the conversation, but solely busy with the tea-cups, among which her round ivory hands moved with pretty, noiseless, daintiness. She had a bracelet on one taper arm, which would fall down over her round wrist. Mr. Thornton watched the re-placing of this troublesome ornament with far more attention than he listened to her father. It seemed as if it fascinated him to see her push it up impatiently, until it tightened her soft flesh; and then to mark the loosening — the fall. He could almost have exclaimed — “There it goes, again!” There was so little left to be done after he arrived at the preparation of tea, that he was almost sorry the obligation of eating and drinking came so soon to prevent his watching Margaret. She handed him his cup of tea with the proud air of an unwilling slave; but her eye caught the moment when he was ready for another cup; and he almost longed to ask her to do for him what he saw her compelled to do for her father, who took her little finger and thumb in his masculine hand, and made them serve as sugar-tongs. (79)

Margaret’s perception of Thornton:

Now, in Mr. Thornton’s face the straight brows fell low over the clear deep-set earnest eyes, which, without being unpleasantly sharp, seemed intent enough to penetrate into the very heart and core of what he was looking at. The lines in the face were few but firm, as if they were carved in marble, and lay principally about the lips, which were slightly compressed over a set of teeth so faultless and beautiful as to give the effect of sudden sunlight when the rare bright smile, coming in an instant and shining out of the eyes, changed the whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare everything, to the keen honest enjoyment of the moment, which is seldom shown so fearlessly and instantaneously except by children. Margaret liked this smile; it was the first thing she had admired in this new friend of her father’s . . . (80)

Now, the first bit agrees quite nicely with the film version, but I don’t think Richard Armitage ever smiles so much that all his teeth show. And I’m rather glad of that. It’s much more powerful when he lets slip those rare wee smiles.

Jan 18, 2006

Over the weekend I told a friend that the most illuminating thing about the novel was the opportunity to get into Thornton’s head. In the film he’s quite enigmatic in his brooding, glaring silences. I suppose we see his vulnerability in the scenes with his mother, but as with Pride and Prejudice (book AND film versions) we usually don’t comprehend the pain suffered by the hero during his difficult moments with the heroine. But in Gaskell’s novel, we get both viewpoints during the scenes that involve Margaret and Thornton interacting with each other — AND we get their private assessments of the interaction later on. What delights!

As he waits to propose to Margaret:

Mr Thornton stood by one of the windows, with his back to the door, apparently absorbed in watching something in the street. But, in truth, he was afraid of himself. His heart beat thick at the thought of her coming. He could not forget the touch of her arms around his neck, impatiently felt as it had been at the time; but now the recollection of her clinging defense of him, seemed to thrill him through and through, — to melt away every resolution, all power of self-control, as if it were wax before a fire. He dreaded lest he should go forwards to meet her, with his arms held out in mute entreaty that she would come and nestle there, as she had done, all unheeded, the day before, but never unheeded again. His heart throbbed loud and quick. (193)

Oh! It kills me when he imagines holding out his arms to her in “mute entreaty” and thinks of her “nestling” there. Such tenderness. And doubly touching because we know what’s about to happen!

After the proposal:

When Mr. Thornton had left the house that morning he was almost blinded by his baffled passion. . . He had positive bodily pain, — a violent headache, and a throbbing intermittent pulse. He could not bear the noise, the garish light, the continued rumble and movement in the street. He called himself a fool for suffering so; and yet could not, at the moment, recollect the cause of his suffering, and whether it was adequate to the consequences it had produced. It would have been a relief to him, if he could have sat down and cried on a door-step by a little child, who was raging and storming, through his passionate tears, at some injury he had received. He said to himself, that he hated Margaret, but a wild, sharp sensation of love cleft his dull, thundering feeling like lightning, even as he shaped the words expressive of hatred. His greatest comfort was in hugging his torment; and in feeling, as he had indeed said to her , that though she might despise him, contemn him, treat him with her proud sovereign indifference, he did not change one whit. She could not make him change. He loved her, and would love her; and defy her, and this miserable bodily pain. (207)

Why do I love to read about Thornton’s torture and angst? There are many similar passages after this, particularly after he sees Margaret with Frederick at the train station. Oh, how he does work himself into a mental frenzy over that! I won’t quote it here — you simply MUST read the book!

I’ll conclude with this funny little moment — I think we can all relate to Thornton here:

They found Margaret with a letter open before her, eagerly discussing its contents with her father. On the entrance of the gentlemen, it was immediately put aside; but Mr. Thornton’s eager senses caught some few words of Mr. Hale’s to Mr. Bell.

“A letter from Henry Lennox. It makes Margaret very hopeful.”

Mr. Bell nodded. Margaret was as red as a rose when Mr. Thornton looked at her. He had the greatest mind in the world to get up and go out of the room that very instant, and never set foot in the house again. (332)