Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Nun times at Oxford Literary Festival

This week in Oxford we are enjoying the arrival of The Times Oxford Literary Festival. This combined with glorious sunshine is reminding me why I absolutely love this city. More so than ever, it is packed to the rafters with people who have brains this size of solar systems and the University looks simply stunning in the sunshine. Now that I know I will be spending the next three years studying here it makes it even more blissful to be lying on my back in Christ Church Meadow (though I seriously doubt I’ll be doing much of that come September- nose to the grindstone!)  

Christ Church Meadows, my new lay about location of choice

On Wednesday I am going to my unashamed pinnacle of the festival, a tea tasting with the East India Company in Christ Church Hall. I will mostly be pretending I am in Harry Potter (naturally). Saturday sees a morning at the Sheldonain Theatre with the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, followed by what can only be described as the world’s most enormous brunch and getting thoroughly lost in Blackwells Bookshop.

On Saturday just gone I went to a brilliant talk about Sister Wendy Beckett, a consecrated virgin (now there’s a term!) who achieved the highest grade possible in her degree at Oxford and is a renowned Art Historian. She has been doing programmes on the BBC since before I was born and is now the subject of a BBC documentary about her life. Sister Wendy lives in a caravan in the grounds of a religious order called the Carmelites and survives off mostly cold vegetables from their kitchens. You’d think this would leave you with a rather austere and serious character but she has that characteristic lightness that seems to come with remarkable people. Just think of Desmond Tutu’s laugh!

from BBC.co.uk. Sister Wendy Beckett, smiley in the sunshine!

It seems that wherever Sister Wendy goes she is having an impact on people. In the documentary they have given her free reign to talk about what she loves most, our cultural heritage in art and how an understanding of our religious heritage is essential to really understand the great art collections we have. As well as giving glimpses of her brilliance when it comes to interpreting art the programme makers have clearly been captivated by her. One of them said ‘It’s like she has to come down from another spiritual plain to be with us.’

It was fascinating to see how people respond to being in the presence of someone they consider holy and how despite our society being a largely secular one people can still be touched by something, as one of the producers put it, ‘other-wordly’. It’s hard to put your finger on where that kind of character comes from, I suppose day after day of quiet contemplation has something to do with it. Integrity, sincerity and wisdom, certainly. Not easily won traits!

New home (Ripon College Cuddesdon) and New Uni (Oxford), happy days! From www.rcc.ac.uk

At the college I am going to there is going to be an order of nuns living on the site, moving in about the same time I am. I’m not quite sure what they’ll make of me but I’m very much looking forward to meeting them. The nuns being at the college reminds me that this is a two-fold journey I’m embarking on. One of hallowed halls and ancient Universities and one of quietness and peace, searching after the ‘other-wordly’ things. Both are hugely exciting and will surely orbit around my other great love in life, tea. Roll on the tea tasting. Bliss!


  1. It all sounds wonderful, Nicola and you'e going to have a fantastic (if hard-working) time. It's ages since I saw Sister Wendy on TV, but she always impresses me deeply. Have I missed the documentary?

    1. Hi Perpetua,
      No you haven't missed it, they were showing us rough cuts. She was due to be at the event but has had a series of heart attacks and so was unable to make the journey. They said it will likely be the end of the year on BBC4 and will be called Sister Wendy's Gospel Stories. One to look out for.
      P.S Happy travels! :)