Tag Archives: England 2010

Oxford

>> The England posts: “The Adventure Begins” (the story of our unplanned night in Denver); “First Class” (the story of our flights to London, written in Hemel Hampstead, England); “Made It!” (brief post that chronologically jumps ahead in our trip to share my arrival at the Eagle & Child, written in Somerton, England); “Last Night in Lyme Regis” (a short post written in Lyme Regis, the day before we journeyed back to London and home); “London 1” (first reflection on the trip written in Canada); “London 2” (you get the idea…); and Warwick Castle“. <<

I’ve already written about our visit to Oxford in brief, but I’m going to talk about it some more. People occasionally ask what my favourite part of the trip was, or which part of England I liked most. My answer is always that it’s difficult to pin down any particular place as my favourite–each stop had something special about it: the crowds and landmarks of London; the everyday life of our English friends and family; the history of Warwick and Bath; the beach/holiday life (and cream tea) of Lyme Regis.  Each of the things we did and saw was very special in its own way.

Yet my answer isn’t entirely true.  Oxford stands above the rest for reasons I can’t clearly express (though I do know that it’s not simply because of The Eagle & Child). I think it had a little to do with timing and weather.

Toni dropped us off in Oxford by about 9:30 in the morning. It was a drizzly day and the streets were quiet. We walked down a couple of streets and looked in a couple of shops and eventually found ourselves in a covered market, and it was nearly deserted. A grocery stand, a fish monger, shoe shops, a tea shop, and whatnot.  Its sights, sounds, and smells we had all to ourselves. It was almost as if we lived in Oxford, and we had left our apartment early in the morning to get to the market before the crowds. I wonder if that didn’t set the tone for the rest of our time in Oxford. We were calmed and quiet, and had no agenda, nowhere to get to. So we sauntered. And it helped, too, that I didn’t spend the day with my face behind a camera.

Oxford & Dixie from St. Mary's steeple

But more than that, the history of Oxford seems so real to me. What do the lords of Warwick mean to me? What connection to I have to the famous people buried at Westminster? But Oxford: these are the streets walked by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, men who have influenced my thought, my faith and my imagination; it is one of the historical centers of learning and study, which has been part of much of my life.  And yet for all this history, the city seemed so sleepy and unassuming. It isn’t a tourist trap–or, at least, what tourist trappings they have are cleverly hidden.

Pigeon on St. Mary's steeple

This fact hadn’t occurred to me until last night, when I was describing Oxford to my friend Darren.  He asked me what kind of indications there were that J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings used to frequent The Eagle and Child. The answer: very few. Once I thought about it, it was quite a startling and delightful realization. Where in other places you would expect there to be an entry fee, a trinkety gift-shop, and then a roped-off table marking the spot where the group met (Darren thought my suggestion of wax figures was too much), but there is none of that. All they have is three items on the wall: a couple of pictures, a small plaque mentioning who met there and what met there, and a framed letter signed by all the Inklings, thanking the proprietor of the establishment for his hospitality. There is nothing else.  They do sell Inklings-related merchandise, but you have to ask the barman. It isn’t advertised anywhere that I noticed. Considering its cultural significance, The Eagle and Child is a rather unassuming place. If you knew nothing of the Inklings’ history there, it would be just another old pub. It was the same with the university buildings: they were just university buildings and, even though classes weren’t in session, they were mostly off-limits. Initially I found it somewhat disappointing that we didn’t have more access, but in retrospect, that’s one of the things that made Oxford special. It just went about its business.

In the Rabbit Room after lunch

I won’t say much about our day. We spent it wandering around looking in shops and at buildings. We spent some time at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first museum to be open to the public, which had many interesting displays (and it was free!). After a late lunch, we decided to do a wide loop around the core of the old city, passing by Magdallen College and King’s College and some of the other landmarks, but we soon realized that was out of the question: it had been and continued raining steadily, and we were without an umbrella. We were soaked within minutes. We took a shortcut back to the downtown area.

Stairs down from the steeple

We stopped for a time in Blackwell Books. It is the most amazing bookshop I have ever been in (here’s a picture of just the basement, which actually extends much farther underground than the rest of the building.)  Sadly, we didn’t have much time and had to find our car rental.

Once we got our car, we briefly considered driving back into the downtown to see the areas we missed, but it’s filled with no-access roads, so we decided not to.  We were both a little disappointed with how the day in Oxford ended: rushed and soaking wet.

However! Dixie had bought a shirt that day without trying it on. Back at Chris and Toni’s place in Somerton, she discovered that the shirt was too small. So we decided that the next morning on our way to Bath we would stop by Oxford again.

Oxford

It was a lovely morning, and we saw many more lovely old buildings, and climbed the steeple of St. Mary’s church. We didn’t get to Magdallen College, but we walked around King’s College and through many side-streets. Oxford was busier that morning than it had been the day before–the streets were crowded with shoppers and there were buskers all along the main streets–a golden juggling jester that stood frozen until you put some money in his pot and a very talented opera singer (probably a student) stood out for me. We left Oxford satisfied.

Warwick Castle

The England posts: “First Class” (the story of our flights to London, written in Hemel Hampstead, England); “Made It!” (brief post that chronologically jumps ahead in our trip to share my arrival at the Eagle & Child, written in Somerton, England); “Last Night in Lyme Regis” (a short post written in Lyme Regis, the day before we journeyed back to London and home); “London 1” (first reflection on the trip written in Canada); “London 2” (you get the idea…).

OK, so…Wednesday-Thursday-Friday was Saskatoon-Denver-London, where we were picked up by my aunt and uncle.  Saturday and Sunday, London. On Monday morning, after a full English Breakfast, my aunt and uncle drove us to a point somewhere between Hemel Hampstead and Warwick Castle (or was it Bicester), where we met  Toni and Chris. I say “point somewhere between” because it seemed to me that our meeting place was the parking lot of a pub (Shepton Mallet?) that appeared to be literally the only inhabited location on that stretch of the highway. It may just be that we were distracted with excitement at seeing Chris and Toni again. We exchanged hugs and made introductions and moved our luggage from one vehicle to the other and we were off to Warwick castle.

Warwick Castle is interesting in that it is both a ruin and not a ruin. This is the oldest section of the castle, and it is essentially a ruin:

The oldest part of Warwick castle

On the other hand, other parts of the castle are still in good shape (or have been reconstructed):

Warwick Castle

We spent a part of the morning there and the rest of the afternoon. Warwick Castle is the most castle-y of the palces/castles we visted. Also, Warwick Castle’s presentation differed again from that of Hampton Court and the Tower of London. Hampton Court was more or less a static display of how the room were and the Tower of London is mostly a collection of artifacts. Warwick Castle, however, is more of an interactive experience. We don’t simply walk by the rooms (as we more or less did at Hampton Court), but we walked through them. They had live actors in costume who would interact with tourists (this always makes me a bit uncomfortable), audio commentary, as well as very life-like models (presumably wax). The butler in the back right of this picture, for instance, is not alive:

Room in Warwick Castle

The guy below kept pulling audience members in for his demonstration of various medieval weaponry. At one point he pulled me in. All I did was stand there while he held an arrow up to my chest. Perhaps he was new–his attempt at interactivity seemed impersonal and a little calculated. The best, in this respect, was still to come.

Guy using me as an example at Warwick castle

At one point I walked into a room with a model sitting at a table playing cards with what looked to be another mechanically animated model. It was, in fact, a human being, who startled me by speaking directly to me when I entered the room. The only critique a person might have of the castle presentation is that it isn’t quite sure to what age it belongs. Of course, it has been in use for centuries, but in terms of display and interactivity, in one room you might find elements from a variety of different ages. But I wasn’t really distracted by this–it was fascinating on so many levels.

Sometime late in the morning we headed down to the river, where they had a dramatized jousting show (a couple of barbarians showed up to make things interesting). It was a beautiful day and the hillside overlooking the jousting show was a wonderful setting. The place was very busy, with lots of children about. The jousting show was, I think, directed at the children. It was filled with much bravado, which has never done much to impress me, but the kids loved it. It did interest me historically, however, as I’ve never been quite sure how jousting worked. In fact, I was never sure if it was a game or if it had something to do with combat. I’m actually still not sure, but I do know now that it was at least done for sport.

Later in the afternoon we sat down for a rest near a (the name escapes me) a bird of prey display with a falconer. The climax of the show was this gorgeous (and huge!) sea eagle:

Falconer and Sea Eagle

I should have kept my camera ready, because at one point this giant bird flew directly at me and then just a couple of feet above my head. Alas…

By late in the afternoon we had seen most of the castle and were killing time before they launched a fireball from the trebuchet. We wandered around the castle in the direction of the mill on the river. Along the way we came across an archer taking shots at a target. No one else was around. So we approached and watched for a while and he started to tell us about the history of the bow and arrow and how it changed both battle and society. It was fascinating historically, but he also had an amazing dry wit that captivated us. A small crowd gathered, children among them. He started telling us to cheer (or make dying sounds as if we’d been struck by an arrow) when he hit the target. He’d point at a girl in the audience and say, “When I hit the target, make dying sounds or I shoot this girl.” It sounds cruel when I write it out, but by this time the guy had built up such a rapport with the audience that everyone laughed. It was top-notch and, for me, the highlight of the day.

Archer at Warwick CastleArcher at Warwick Castle
Archer at Warwick Castle

Afterwards, we walked down to the castle mill on the river. It is still used to generate electricity for parts of the castle.

River behind Warwick castle

Then we went to the trebuchet show. Inexplicably, I did not have my camera ready to capture the shot, but the truth is that, while an interesting display of historical battle tactics, it seemed to be a lot of buildup for little payoff. In my view, they could improve the show by launching a couple more fireballs.

Happily, there is a video of the fireball launching on YouTube (sans the buildup):

After that, we went home to a delicious dinner cooked by Toni and an evening of relaxation and visiting with our old/new friends. It was a great day.

Toni, Chris and I at the entrance to Warwick Castle:

Marc, Chris & Toni entering Warwick Castle

(More pictures in our England 2010 set at Flickr.)

London 1

Our second attempt at flying to London was a success. We alighted at Heathrow Terminal 3, went through customs, gathered our luggage and wandered out into the waiting crowd.  I spotted Uncle Mike and Aunt Shirley immediately and gave them a smile and wave.  They appeared to stare at me blankly. I don’t blame them, as I’m larger and hairier than the last time they saw me.  On the other hand, I thought they looked no different than they did 25 years ago. We got closer and I assume they recognized me before I embraced Aunt Shirley (or perhaps they took my embrace as confirmation). And then we were–the four of us–off to Hampton Court Palace.

Mike and Shirley are not actually my aunt and uncle–at least not in a biological sense.  My mom and Aunt Shirley did their midwifery training together in London and have been friends ever since. They’ve always been “Tante Shirley en Oom Mike” to me.  I’m sure she knitted me several sweaters during my younger years. I think that’s more than enough to earn her the “aunt” title.

Anyway, we were off to Hampton Court Palace, which was built either for or by Henry VIII (I don’t know–you read the Wikipedia article).

Hampton Court Palace

I was immediately struck by the fact that the palace was built of brick, rather than stone as I had expected.  It’s quite a large complex–a mass of red brick walls and chimneys.  According to Bill Bryson’s newest book (not yet published in North America!), At Home: A Brief History of the Private Life, Hampton Court was built at a time when brick was wildly popular.  Not the most elegant look for a palace, but they certainly could have done worse.

There were a number of things that impressed me about the palace.  Perhaps most obviously was the sheer size of the place. It’s technically the house of just one family (the king, his wife and his children), but I’m sure it housed hundreds.  It was all, of course, about showing off their wealth and power.  This resulted in the palace having rooms for both everything and nothing.  At one point we walked from the kings “great” bedroom (I can’t remember the technical term) to his “small” bedroom next door (it wasn’t any smaller), but then one of the guards/guides told us that the king’s actual bedroom was downstairs.  So these two ornate rooms were just for show.  I noted that the queen’s rooms were at the opposite end of the palace from those of Henry’s, which is probably just where the queen wanted to be.  (In fact, I was surprised to learn that the majority of Henry’s wives were not killed by him.)

We had a picnic lunch on a bench in one of the palace gardens.  I thought this was great. On the way to England I had been reading Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain. He makes frequent mention of English people bringing along sandwiches and Thermoses of tea whenever they traveled anywhere. This certainly seemed to be true. On this day, Aunt Shirley had packed fried chicken, buns (rolls), tomatoes, egg salad, sausages and two 1 litre cartons of juice. The following day, when we went back to London with Uncle Mike, they had also packed a picnic lunch, as did Chris and Toni for our day at Warwick Castle. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that North Americans are more likely to buy lunch when they go out for the day.  I noticed that many people in London, including people who were almost certainly not tourists, had backpacks on, probably containing their lunches. Now that I think about it, not one of the sites we visited had a restaurant or lunch counter, which one would expect to see in North American tourist sites.

After an afternoon at Hampton Court, we drove north of London to Mike and Shirley’s house in Hemel Hampstead. For supper she made homemade fish and chips (Hake, I believe it was). It was delicious–much better than what I had in a restaurant in London a day or two later.  We spent the evening drinking tea and visiting.

The next day Mike and Dixie and I took a train down to London.  Mike had purchased tickets for a bus tour of London, which allowed us to get on and off whenever and wherever we wanted to and catch the next bus that came along.  The first place we stopped was St. Paul’s Cathedral.

IMGP1546

We shuffled inside with the crowd and were shocked to find that it would cost us £15 (about $25 Canadian) apiece to get in.  Mike suggested that Westminster Abbey might be nicer and free of charge.  So I snapped a picture of Dixie on the steps of St. Paul’s (“feed the birds”) and we hopped back on the bus.

After St. Paul’s we stopped at the Tower of London.  An invisible man was sitting by our bus stop.

Invisible man

Why can’t North American cities have such interesting street performers?  Or do they?

The Tower of London was interesting, but allow me a moment of critique.  Here’s what Hampton Court Palace had that the Tower of London did not: rooms set up more or less like they might have been at the height of their use.  You go to a bedroom and there will a large four-poster in there along with other bedroom furniture.  The Tower of London is just a series of rooms filled with artifacts–armor and weapons, mostly–which I assume were often unrelated to the rooms they were in. I found these artifacts fascinating as a child (I had been to the Tower with Mike and Shirley some 20 years ago), but not nearly as much so now.  The crown jewels, which are housed and guarded at the Tower, would have been more interesting, but the line-up to see them was enormous and we weren’t about to spend the afternoon in line.

Still, the Tower’s age (900 years) and history alone was enough to impress.  Dixie especially was fascinated. I was most intrigued about the life of the Beefeaters, guards of the crown jewels, who with their families actually live within the walled boundary of the Tower of London.  There were residential areas in the tower cordoned off and marked “private”, where, presumably, they lived.  What is it like to live in a place where every day, year-round, throngs of people walk through what is technically your front yard and peer at your house?

Big Ben and the London Eye in the distance

Next stop: the parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey.  Much to our dismay, Westminster Abbey had a £12 charge for visitors (later that day we would get in free to attend Evensong).  Westminster is undoubtedly a stunning piece of architecture, but I confess I wasn’t sure what to make of it otherwise.  The abbey is lined with tombs and tombstones embedded in the walls and floors.  It has always been said that cathedrals were built to the glory of God, that their size and loftiness was meant to draw the eyes up toward heaven, but I was overwhelmed by the ornate statuary and carvings that are there in such sheer numbers.  Had it been built in the 20th century I imagine they would have had flashing neon signs announcing the various dignitaries buried there.

Entrance to Westminster Abbey

What somewhat bothered me about the chapels and cathedrals and abbeys we visited was that they all had signs at the entrance that said something along the lines of, “This is a place of worship. Let us respect that atmosphere. No photography. Gentlemen, please remove your hats.”  And yet they were herding the tourists through at many British pounds a pop.

Anyway…

That night, after driving past Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Hyde Park, Dixie and I left Mike on the bus and we wandered back to Westminster to attend evensong.  It was already underway when we got there.  This certainly restored some of the atmosphere of worship, but we were positioned in one of the wings off the nave, so we could only hear what was going on, and I was too tired by that point to participate fully.

Later, Dixie questioned me about the service. “When we said the Apostles’ Creed at evensong, were you speaking with an English accent?”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t.”

But I doubted myself. Quite frankly, it took some effort for me not to slide into a faux English accent while there.  I wondered if I could pull off a convincing accent and considered using one when making a purchase in a London shop, but I didn’t have the guts to go through with it.

After evensong we wandered through some of the Westminster shops (because the real London is only about a mile square and many of the tourist sites are in other cities, such as Westminster) in the general direction of our hotel for the night.  We had planned to walk to our hotel, but we eventually realized that it would take an hour or two, so we took the underground the rest of the way.

We checked in, dropped our bags in our room, and went to the hotel restaurant for a snack.  I ordered tea.  Dixie asked for water.

“Still or sparkling?” asked the waiter.

“Uh…still?” said Dixie.

This is where we discovered that they charge for water.  When thinking about this trip to England, I had assumed that beer (and alcohol in general) was cheaper in Europe.  In fact, in England at any rate, beer is more or less the same price as in Canada, but all the other drinks–coffee, pop, juice and even water–are so much more expensive that relatively speaking one may as well buy a pint of beer as a glass of Coke.

And then we went to bed.

(More pictures and some extra details at our Flickr set. Unfortunately, I can’t cover everything. This is probably already too long and nobody is reading this line.)

Evening conversations (England edition)

(I should add, by way of making sense of this conversation, that we are flying first class, where we will enjoy a variety of complimentary things.)

Me: [with some excitement] “I wonder what movies they’ll have on the airplane.”

Dixie: “How many times are you going to ask that? I don’t know the answer to that question.”

Me: “Have I asked it before?”

Dixie: “Several times.”

Me: “Well, I’m excited. Free movies! Free booze! Do you know what this means?!”

Dixie: “Yes. You’ll have to drink $8,500 worth of alcohol each way to get your money’s worth.”