Ancient Cities: Oxford, England.

We all have special places that mean the world to us.

Mansfield College Library, Oxford

Oxford is my spiritual home and the place I return to again and again. I went to University there, studying Theology at Mansfield College 1994-1997. My father lives near there so I still visit it regularly and I have my heart set on living there again one day. Ever since I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, it has been my Jerusalem.

It also features in STONE OF FIRE (previously Pentecost) as the home of my heroine, psychologist Morgan Sierra and one of the satellite bases for ARKANE, which is underneath the Museum of Natural History. In this video, I show you round some of my personal Oxford and also some places that feature in STONE OF FIRE (previously Pentecost).

The video features:

  • The Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera, which contains the Theology reading room so I spent a lot of time there. The doors are featured.
  • I take you down New College Lane by the replica Bridge of Sighs, down the passage to the Turf Tavern and round the back of Bath Place where Morgan’s office is – scene of the first fire-fight in the book.
  • Mansfield College where I studied and lived for 2 years of my degree. The Chapel has a window with Sir William Penn, Quaker and one of my ancestors
  • Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum, the latter containing some awesome shrunken heads
  • My old house in the graveyard of St Thomas’, perhaps an influence on my writing but certainly a very cool place to live!

Here’s an excerpt from Pentecost where Morgan is led through the Pitt Rivers Museum at night.

The overall sense was of a museum crowded and alive in some way. The gods of such different cultures stuffed into tiny rooms, separated only by the glass of the cabinets. Morgan could almost imagine them stepping down from their cases in the dark of night, to wage war upon each other. The many handed Nataraja from India, skulls dripping from her neck and blue skin gleaming, wielded a sword at the head of a tribal god from Benin as Incan priest icons menaced the Native American totems.

A flash of torchlight illuminated a case of giant wooden birds of paradise, their spiraling feathers like huge tongues. They crouched next to crocodiles and the jet black head of a bull, horns sharply tipped and glistening. Here was the agonized face of a Christian martyr, neck twisted towards his God, desperate for release next to a case of ceremonial knives for stripping the flesh from sacrificial animals.  There a macabre toy cabinet, full of stuffed creatures with beady eyes that seemed to follow them past. The ghosts of dead children hung in their wake, puppets on tall sticks with limbs like dead trees, broken and dangling. As they walked through the main hallway a huge Native American totem pole loomed over them, a squatting amphibian over the eyes of a huddled figure.

Morgan felt the power of these objects in the semi-darkness. What was mere curiosity in the day had turned to mystic awe in the dark. She loved to come here to wonder at the collections, but this was experiencing the museum in a different visceral way. She followed close to the man in front as he led her to the back of the main exhibition hall and then down some stairs into the crypt. What did it all have to do with the stone her father had given her?

Do you like the scenes in Oxford? Should thrillers contain real places?

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  1. says

    Great video and Yes to your question. It is hard not to love Oxford for setting. People love retracing the steps of true and fictional characters. I know I did this for several books while in Oxford. On a different note, it is definitely time for me to go get your novel Pentecost. I’ve been reading your CreativePenn blog for a long time, but only realized just now that you, my wife and me all matriculated at Oxford in the same year, (and me in theology). Small world. Regardless, of your persuasion, I suspect you might also enjoy her 2011 memoir, titled ‘Surprised by Oxford,’ about her spiritual journey while she was there. It is another example of how place matters. Carolyn has received reviews and letters from many people who are apparently only mildly interested in the spiritual dimension, but who get the book just for the descriptions of Oxford. Can I assume that “Prophecy” will be making another stopover in the city of spires? :)

    • Joanna says

      Thanks for the comment Kent & also thanks for your support of the fiction as well as the blog. Small world indeed that we both have degrees in Theology – perhaps we were in the same lectures! I’ll definitely check out Carolyn’s memoir – I do love Oxford! It pops up in Prophecy but there will be more in the 3rd book – either called Exodus or Pharaoh, I can’t decide at the moment! I was at the new Ashmolean Egyptian galleries the other week & Morgan will be back at the Pitt Rivers base before heading to Egypt.