A Secret Message in Oxford

By

Oy, lads and lasses. I’m writing this from the front steps of a little flat in Edinburgh where the Petersons are shacking up for the week. This evening we walked the Royal Mile down from the castle to the sound of a dude playing bagpipes, and it was as awesome as it sounds. Something else awesome? The accents. I can barely understand what the Scots are telling me (especially the cabbie), but I’m happily oblivious. I just answer, “Aye,” and occasionally scream, “FREEDOM!”

Last week my family and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon in Oxford, England, where of course we stopped in at the Eagle and Child, the pub which inspired the Rabbit Room. It feels a bit like a tourist trap nowadays. Not only were there Lord of the Rings quotes on the walls, but I’m pretty sure every accent I heard in the place was American. We’re such suckers for this kind of thing, apparently. But still! That little back room with Lewis and Tolkien pictures on the wall, the fireplace, the copy of the document whereupon the Inklings, after eating a particularly good ham, signed their names and drank to the health of the proprietor of the Eagle and Child, casts an undeniable spell. It’s an irresistible stop for any traveler who loves Narnia or Middle-Earth.

So this guy named Evan Weppler was visiting Oxford about a month before us, and when he learned Team Peterson was planning to visit the original Rabbit Room, he came up with a great idea. I didn’t tell the kids what it was, but I told them something pretty cool was going to happen when we got to the Eagle and Child. We found our table in the Rabbit Room, ordered our food, then I told them, “Watch this.” I looked over the books on the shelves until I found a little white one about the Trinity. I flipped it open and out fell a folded note that said, “To the Peterson family.”

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Evan told us a little about his visit, told us about an early edition Lewis book he found at an Oxfam down the street, and wished us well. It was like getting a secret message from Barliman in the Prancing Pony, and it made our visit that much better. Thanks, Evan, for thinking of us.

When we left, bellies full of fish and chips, we walked to the Bodleian Library, which currently has an exhibit called “Magical Books.” Someone on Facebook recommended it, and I’m glad they did. It included Lewis’s hand drawn map of Narnia, as well as several original Tolkien paintings. They even displayed Tolkien’s handmade pages from the journal Gandalf finds at Balin’s tomb. Remember the part where he reads the dwarven script about the goblins being in Moria? “We cannot get out. The end comes…drums, drums in the deep…they are coming.” Tolkien, in a burst of delightful nerdiness, decided one day to have craft time. The pages are made to look burnt and bloodied, and the script is written in dwarfish—it even has the pen trailing off at the end, when the goblins interrupt the scribe. I love picturing Tolkien the Oxford professor hunkered over a desk, tongue sticking out like a little boy with a coloring book while he made the pages.

Then we drove to Magdalen College, where Lewis taught. While there I saw a Twitter message from a guy named Micah Coston, who lives in Oxford. (You may remember the artist Katie Coston, his wife, who made the very first round of Rabbit Room mugs.) I’ve never met Micah or Katie, but I tweeted back that we were heading to Addison’s Walk, in case he had time to say hello. There’s nothing quite like bumping into someone you know (however tangently) when you’re on the other side of the world. We walked through Magdalen’s campus, one of the most  beautiful places I’ve ever seen, which boasted one of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen (the plaque said it was planted in 1801). We saw the great hall, where Lewis would have eaten meals, and found the windows of his classrooms.

From Surprised by Joy:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.

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Then we passed through the gates to a walking path along a little river. It’s called Addison’s Walk, and it was there that Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walked one night and had a conversation that was crucial to Lewis’s conversion to Christianity.

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From They Stand Together:

September 1931: He [Hugo Dyson] stayed the night with me in College… Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning… We began (in Addison’s Walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth – interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining…. We continued on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot….

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We strolled the path on a beautiful summer day, and when we came around to the entrance again, there sat Micah Coston (a friend of Brannon McAllister, Justin Gerard, Corey Godbey, and some other artsy Greenville folks you may know). He very graciously walked us past Merton College and Christ Church cathedral, an impromptu tour guide with a comforting American accent. We bid farewell to Micah, then drove out to the Kilns for one of the most delightful parts of our visit.

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The Kilns, where C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie lived, sits a little way out of Oxford, next to an old pond that’s now called the C.S. Lewis Nature Preserve. If you saw the film Shadowlands you may remember Anthony Hopkins strolling around the pond. I drove past it a few years ago but didn’t have time to schedule a tour; the house is now occupied by students, so you’re supposed to call ahead if you want to see it. Well, we got there and walked the nature trail, peeking awkwardly through the hedges at the house. I didn’t know exactly when we’d be in Oxford, so I couldn’t make an appointment. It was 8 p.m., and I was bummed that we had come so far and my kids couldn’t see inside the house. So I called. The woman who answered the phone was very kind and told me they were closed, but we could make an appointment for later in the week. I said, “Well, this is weird, but we’re right outside. Could we at least walk around a bit?” She said, “Meet me at the door by the path and I’ll let you in.” It was such a gift. She let us interrupt her evening and welcomed us in for an abbreviated tour.

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Then we drove a quarter-mile to Trinity Church, where Lewis is buried, and snagged a few seeds from the maple tree beside his grave–we’ll see if they grow in Tennessee. A quick Google search pointed me to three of the houses where Tolkien lived. Alas, we spotted no hobbits. It was getting late, and we had a 3.5 hour drive to our lodging in Wales, so we had to bid farewell to Oxford, “the city of dreaming spires.” Four hours wasn’t nearly enough time. Four weeks would have been more like it. But we saw some amazing things and met some great people, and hopefully planted some seeds of wonder in my children’s hearts. I hope you make it to Oxford someday, and that you have more time than we did.

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When you get to the Eagle and Child, there’s a note waiting for you. Look at the bookshelf to your right, just as you pass under the Rabbit Room sign. There’s a skinny white paperback book on the Trinity with a note inside. It says,

On this day, the 15th of July,  in the Year of Our Lord 2013, Andrew Peterson, Jamie Peterson, Aedan Peterson, Asher Peterson, and Skye Peterson had scrumptious food in the Rabbit Room, the Eagle and Child, Oxford, England, with gratitude to the Inklings, whose friendship and stories have shaped our lives, to the glory of God. Let fellow Rabbit Roomers sign below.

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Safe travels, pilgrim. It’s a dangerous thing to go out your front door. If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where the road might take you.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


40 Comments

  1. Jon Dostert

    Wonderful, Andrew. The quote from Surprised by Joy about Lewis “feeling the unrelenting approach of Him” always gets me. Must have been great to have been in that great hall where it happened.

  2. Peter B

    Not that I’m the first, but I can’t tell you how much I love this whole thing. Way to go, Evan — and everyone else who keeps letting the bright joy of the creator shine through you.

    Now I *really* want to go back to England someday.

  3. Laura Peterson

    Man, I LOVE all of this! High-five for an awesome idea, Evan. Thanks for sharing those great photos, Andrew. I can’t wait to hear more about the trip!

  4. Jade Payne

    I am literally weeping with the beauty of it all, Andrew, Jamie, Aeden, Asher, and sweet Skye. My heart is melting at the joy of story-telling and so grateful for the Inklings and how they have encouraged me to be more me.

    I can’t wait to sign that little paper soon. Blessed to be a part of this community. So blessed.

  5. Shane Werlinger

    So cool. So, so cool. So very jealous and so very happy for you guys. I hope to add my families name to that list sooner rather than later. Ya never know. Thanks for the glimpse into your trip, AP.

  6. Melissa Ortega

    So, so happy for you and your family. Having to choke back tears of happiness just reading about your special moments of fellowship. What a blessing!

    Thank you for sharing it!

  7. Kim F

    What beauty. Fabulous. It brings tears to think of the memories you are building in the hearts and lives of your family.

    Planning my trip to add my name to the visitors log…

  8. Toni Annette

    I had the unbelievable privilege of boarding with a wonderful couple who lived a little bit beyond Lewis Close down Kiln Lane. I stayed with them for four months while doing a work exchange program and spent quite a few hours wandering around the woods behind The Kilns. I walked past Lewis Close every day on my way to the bus stop and then walked again past The Eagle and Child on the way to Radcliffe Infirmary, where I worked as a temp secretary. It’s been about ten years since I came back from England and, for the most part, have avoided posts like this that remind me of it. Forgive the corndoggedness of this next statement, but I feel like I left a slice of my soul there, and it hurts too much to read about it.

    Reading this post has inspired me to start writing about the months I spent there. Maybe if I do that, I’ll be able to go back into my memories with some sense of peace. Thanks for this.

  9. Loren Warnemuende

    When I read that you picked some maple seeds to see if they’d grow in Tennessee, I felt this delightful shiver. It was like Digory planting the seeds from Narnia in his backyard. I hope tbey grow!

    And the juxtaposition of terms and cultures: “dude playing bagpipes”. Hilarious. Thanks for letting us come along with you as nerdy American tourists.

  10. April Pickle

    It’s 72 degrees and raining where I am and I’m pondering secret notes tucked in books, seeds collected from a precious gravesite, and accents that remind us of home. Like rain poured out in the middle of Texas heat, this post is a blessed gift. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    Also, I recently listened to Episode 1 of the Rabbit Room podcast. Goes perfectly with this post.
    http://www.rabbitroom.com/podcasts/page/11/

  11. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    My sister-in-law was studying in Oxford last summer, so after the last UK AKUS show at Hyde Park I hopped the train at Paddington and went up there. I got the same feeling reading this post that I’d had walking around Oxford. Next time I’m there I’ll be adding my name to the list.

  12. Janna

    It’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one crying as I read this. What a tender bunch of bunnies we are! Thanks for sharing, AP.

  13. Gina

    Ok, so I don’t ever have time to keep up with all the Rabbit Room posts and I often get lost in the Facebook discussions and overwhelmed when I consider the volumes of books I haven’t read and might never get to. But after reading this, I wanted to cry (in a good way!) and I feel so happy for you and your family, Andrew! Thanks for sharing your adventures.

  14. carrie luke

    *contented happy sigh* Thank you AP, for taking us on this journey with you and your precious family. God is so big in how He knits our hearts together with common interests and joys. It is as if you seeing and sharing literally translates…we see too.

    And I am printing out this post to use as an itinerary for when me and my family go one day. 🙂

  15. Hannah

    Now I’m all excited about the future time when I will finally get to explore England. And ya’ll are awesome. Just sayin. =)

  16. Apple Hill Cottage

    Well, I must say, I read this with a smile on my face — from shouting Freedom in Scotland, to the photo of the roses in front of the cottage, to the note in the little white book… No crying here! Just joy for those who came before and pointed the way so gloriously! (tempered with a bit of jealousy….) 🙂

  17. Matthew

    You’re note in the book reminds me of a friend who was the head of the Navigators ministry at Dartmouth. He sat and had his quiet time every day in a little cafe in town, always at the same seat at this little old fashioned table with a drawer in it. Before long, some student friends of his left him a note in the drawer. Before he found the note, it had multiplied (other people had left notes in the drawer wondering who this “Craig” was and why this was “his table”). Over the course of several years there were these secret communications between all kinds of people who sat at the table at the cafe, leaving notes for each other. Eventually, the cafe closed, but the local paper did a story on the notes in the drawer.

    http://www.vnews.com/home/5101386-95/notes-craig-drawer-cafe

  18. Gregg

    Andrew, thank you for sharing this. Made some wet stuff well up in my eyes. After reading this, I know that I want to make this trip with my children someday.

  19. Bailey

    Bummed that I missed the chance to sign your note by four months. But what a happy thought to know that we rabbits will all be united in that heavenly meadow one day soon! 🙂

  20. Chris Whitler

    A couple of fellow rabbits and myself were able to attend the C.S. Lewis foundation conference just last month at the University of San Diego. They are the group that runs the program at the Kilns. It was a great conference and I thought of the Rabbit Room here all week end. Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell was there with a surprise visit from Bob Bennet and the awesome Malcolm Guite (Priest, poet, professor and actual hobbit).

    It was a sweet time and I hope to get to that lovely place and sign that paper someday. Perhaps at the foundations next conference in 2014… http://www.cslewis.org/programs/50thcelebration/oxbridge2014/

  21. Jen

    This is awesome. Reading about your Oxford adventures brought a smile to my face.

    And I kind of love knowing that this secret letter is dated with my 30th birthday. I do believe I’m required to visit now. 😉

  22. Evan Weppler

    Wow. I could say many things right now, but I’ll just say I’m glad for three things.
    1. That the Petersons had an amazing trip (that just keeps going!)
    2. That Andrew only showed a bit of my note (can’t help but think highly of my fellow Rabbits and assume you all have excellent penmanship and grammar…)
    3. That I get to be a little part of history and add to the ever expanding joy of this family.

    Cheers!

  23. Scott Richardson

    I am crying in my coffee this morning reading this … what a delightful experience for you and your family. A pilgrimage to a holy well. Think on it … will people pilgrimage to places we’ve lived and thought and pondered and subsequently changed the world? What will we do in our generation that will stand the test of time?

  24. Matthew Benefiel

    My year or so in England were kinda lonely and full of Air Force Base, but in hind sight I remember only the wonderful things you are posting about and are in the pictures. My heart is breaking to go back now. If you post pictures of Snowdonia I may just break down crying… After two visits there I can honestly say I left a part of me (if you find it kindly leave it there, it’s better off).

  25. Debbie Dowding

    Thanks so much for posting this bit of loveliness for those of us who dream of making that journey. Felt as if I was there as well. And I do give glory to God for how my life has been shaped by their magical words and places as well. Big. Happy. Sigh.

  26. Tom Murphy

    When I think of that grave, those seeds, I can’t help thinking of the seeds that have been planted in our hearts by all of our lives intersecting with one another (past, present, and future)…

    Somewhere I’ve read about the leaves of trees being made ready for the healing of the world…

    Selah…

    Second Thought: In generations to come, Baja Burrito better not have any touristy quotes on the walls 😉

  27. Sarah Rees

    I feel like I was there! Thanks so much for writing this post, for all those of us who must live vicariously through those who make these kinds of pilgrimages.

  28. Gareth Davies

    Andrew,

    Thanks for this. I forget that all of this is on our doorstep (or half an hour down the road).

  29. Goodgame

    So awesome. You’re such a great dad, AP! If we ever make it to England, you know the Goodgames will find that (hopefully well-worn) paper and trace all your steps.

  30. Sir Jonathan Andrews

    An enchanted country is one that makes a person long for places they never knew they wanted to go.

  31. Christopher Newton

    Dear Andrew,

    I realize that this post is out of context but I wasn’t sure where else to contact you so here goes. I am hoping to perform “Magic Hour” from you Counting Stars album at my upcoming wedding. I have been searching for the piano arrangement and sheet music but have failed up till this point. Might you be able to direct me to a place to obtain it? Thank you so much for writing this song and for appreciating Wendell Berry. Thank you also for your aid, whatever it may be! God bless your current adventures.

    Respectfully,

    Christopher Newton

  32. Lisa

    Lovely. If I ever needed more encouragement to get back to England, that note would be it. Thanks for letting us experience a bit of the hallowed ground of Oxford with you!

    Wales next?? I hope you have the time to send us a line. My mum was Welsh and I have had the privilege of going there 4x in my life, but even that many times isn’t enough. Snowdonia is mysterious and awesome and beautiful. And if you’ve never read Duncton Wood with your family, now would be a good time to start. Just sayin’…..

  33. Susan

    My husband and I were in Edinburgh 2 weeks ago and it was delightful – and sunny!

    I hope that you and your family will journey north to the Highlands and perhaps even to the Isle of Skye?

    Thanks for sharing these marvelous travel tales. I must put Oxford and the spots nearby on my list of places to visit.

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