Tag Archives: reading

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!

Tea and Comfort with D.E. Stevenson

No doubt I’ve said this before, but lately the world is too much with me. More than ever I crave the escape of fiction, and today I’m recommending one of my very favorite “escape artists” — Dorothy Emily Stevenson.

I wrote about D.E. Stevenson a few years ago when I  recommended Miss Buncle’s Book. Little did I know at the time that I would get to enjoy TWO more books about those characters before moving on to Stevenson’s standalone novels. Since devouring the Buncle trilogy, I’ve happily consumed twelve additional Stevenson novels–some of them more than once–and I think there are 25+ more waiting to be read. It makes me feel quite spoiled for choice. Such luxury!

I’m very fond of my editions from Sourcebooks Landmark, which you can see in the featured image above. Furrowed Middlebrow, an imprint of Dean Street Press, also has released two Stevenson books with an introduction by bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith. Perhaps if I can’t convince you to give Stevenson a try, he will:

[Stevenson’s novels] are in a category of their own: clearly-written straightforward tales that take the reader through a clear plot and reach a recognisable and unambiguous ending. The appeal that they have for the contemporary reader lies in the fact that there is no artifice in these books. They are not about dysfunctional people. They are not about psychopathology. There is no gore or sadism in them. The characters speak in sentences and do not resort to constant confrontational exchanges. In other words, these books are far from modern.

Quite a few D.E. Stevenson books are available at Audible.com, and I can vouch that they are cozy entertainment for long drives. If you’d like to know a little (or a lot) more about Stevenson and her books, you’ll find plenty of information at this lovingly curated website.

To complete my bloggish offering of comfort, how about some tea and a sweet treat? D.E. Stevenson was born in Scotland and lived there her entire life (as far as I can tell), and thus I thought a Scottish treat might be just the thing. What could be more Scottish than shortbread? I searched for recipes online until I found this interesting variation: Jam-filled shortbread cookies. They were so easy to make and quite delicious–I had all the ingredients on hand already, including strawberry and black current jam. The cookie cutters were procured from JoAnn, and for tea I chose a Scottish afternoon blend from Brodies Fine Teas, a Fair Trade option available at Amazon. It makes a very strong cup, perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up, but I wouldn’t steep it for more than 3 minutes.

Listening Valley, a gift from dear friend Glenda, was my most recent read from Stevenson. Not my very favorite of her novels, but a pleasure to read nonetheless. Now that I think of it, it reminded me vaguely of L.M. Montgomery’s stories of Emily Starr — when you learn what “listening valley” means to the heroine, perhaps (like me) you’ll be reminded of “the Flash”?

Let us close with some final thoughts from Alexander McCall Smith:

These are gentle books, very fitting for times of uncertainty and conflict. Some books can be prescribed for anxiety–these are in that category. And it is an honourable and important one.

Yes, indeed!

What are your comfort reads? Do share in the comments!

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!

Tea and a Book and an Art Installation: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I haven’t updated “Tea and a Book” since Christmas! I am determined, however, to mend my ways AND account for April with this post…

During a recent chat with my friend and crit partner Brandi, she recommended Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. (I think we’d been talking about Quakers, early American feminists/abolitionists, and a story I’m revising.) What a fascinating novel!

Quick take: This creative retelling of the life of Sarah Grimké, a notorious abolitionist raised in a slaveholding South Carolina household, includes the perspective of Handful (originally “Hetty”), a young slave gifted to Sarah whom she later “returns” when unable to stomach the idea of owning another human. The novel is beautifully written and thoroughly absorbing but not necessarily an easy read due to the horror and heartbreak that shadow these women’s lives. Yes, this was an Oprah book and perhaps you’ve all read it already, but I still wished to celebrate it.

Goodreads synopsis: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

Two memorable passages:

Sarah: I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it. (130)

Handful: We’d leave, riding on our coffins if we had to. That was the way mauma had lived her whole life. She used to say, you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth. (386)

I happened to be in Brooklyn when I finished the novel, and imagine my surprise when I learned from the author’s note that Kidd was inspired to write this story after seeing Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum:

The Dinner Party is a monumental piece of art, celebrating women’s achievements in Western civilization. Chicago’s banquet table with its succulent place settings honoring 39 female guests of honor rests upon a porcelain tiled floor inscribed with the names of 999 other women who have made important contributions to history. It was while reading those 999 names on the Heritage Panels in the Biographic Gallery that I stumbled upon those of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters from Charleston, South Caroline, the same city in which I then lived. (…) Leaving the museum that day, I wondered if I’d discovered the sisters I wanted to write about. Back home in Charleston, as I began to explore their lies, I became passionately certain.


I already was well acquainted with The Dinner Party because my stepmother experienced it soon after it was first exhibited (1979) and had shared her enthusiasm with me. I won’t lie–as a kid I found the concept rather weird. When I saw it in person this past Saturday, however, I was overwhelmed by its impact. I circled the table at least four times and took my time studying my favorite settings (which you can see at my Instagram).


I even crouched on the floor and searched until I found the inscription for Sarah Grimké, appropriately located near the Sojourner Truth table setting.

Now for tea:

This may be a cheat, but I still think it’s appropriate. After being dazzled by The Dinner Party I really wasn’t that interested in the rest of the museum. Instead I was HUNGRY. So I made my way to the museum restaurant (The Norm) and bellied up to the bar. As soon as I saw their brunch options I knew exactly what to order–the Horchata French Toast.

MY GOLLY. This crunchy french toast with blueberries, mango, strawberries and a spiced maple syrup was absolutely divine. The English Breakfast tea paired perfectly. Every bite/drop was consumed and cherished!

Recipes for Horchata French Toast:
Love and Olive Oil
Rick Bayliss at Men’s Journal
Kate in the Kitchen

Stay tuned for more from my Brooklyn trip!