Monday, July 26, 2010

Oxford shots

Some more Oxford pictures. More can be seen in the Oxford set on my flickr.
One of many faces lining a section of Broad Street in Oxford.

Another death's head in a church

I liked this building

Another tree along the Thames path

Only a chemist would be this happy. 
J.'s students will be subjected to this picture when they learn about Boyle's Law

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The United Kingdom as a whole is roughly the size of Oregon. This is one of the things I had a hard time getting used to: how very close everything is. The entire trip between Lacock and Oxford, including waiting*, took about an hour or so. It was no big deal for us to hop on the bus and make several train connections to get to Oxford.

We arrived at Oxford in a chaos of tourists. School groups and tour groups jammed the heart of the city. Trying to move through the crowds sometimes felt like slogging through molasses. 

 There were lots of Oxford students out and about, most in academic dress of some kind or other. Some students were wearing short robes with strange flaps of fabric dangling off the shoulders. According to wikipedia, these are "streamers adorned with folds," and are worn by undergraduates.  Academic dress or not, they still looked funny, as if the undergraduates had sprouted extra arms.

The wildlife of Oxford
There were also schoolchildren in their uniforms. While we were waiting to cross at an intersection, we saw a schoolgirl walk by with artfully ripped tights. The group of schoolgirls next us started whispering furiously about her audacity.

We got our first proper tea at The Grand Cafe, site of the first coffeehouse in England.  The art deco interior was dazzling, due to an abundance of gold leaf and enormous floor to ceiling windows.

I got a kick out of the counterweight for the door, a teapot.  
The cafe was lit by lamps held aloft by arms sprouting from the walls.  They were eeriely similar to the arms in Jean Cocteau's 1946 movie La Belle et la Bete.  I kept expecting an arm to move, or the Beast himself to emerge from a hidden door, or out of one of those outlandishly huge mirrors.  My kind of place!

Tea itself was scrumptious.  A pot of steaming black tea, an overflowing sugar bowl (the British love their sugar), rich cream, and duchess cake, an intriguing mix of fudge, dried fruit, and nuts.  I truly settled into England after this tea.

In front of the Bodleian Library, Oxford
Of course, we took a tour of the Bodleian Library. Our group waited for the guide inside the Divinity School, the oldest university building, built between 1427-1483.

Harry Potter was here
While building stone doesn't quite have the air of nature, I felt as if we were in a light-dappled glade. Such is the effect of light and airy Gothic architecture, and the skill of stonemasons from over 500 years ago. The columns were trees leaning over us, spreading a lattice-work of branches overhead in the form of lierne vaulting.

I wish I could have a painted ceiling like this
We visited Duke Humphrey's medieval library.  Books were not allowed to leave the room, not even for the king.  He had a screened in alcove where he could read books in private without commoners gawking at him.  There were also chained books, an early security measure in a time when books were extremely valuable.

After the Bodleian Library, we went to the TIC** and asked for directions to Tolkien's house.  At first, we were greeted with a blank stare by the first employee we asked.  After consultation with the entire staff, another employee came to the rescue and gave us directions***.

J.R.R. Tolkien's house in Oxford
Tolkien's house is located in a very lovely suburb of Oxford, full of rambling old houses with arched windows, beautiful stonework, and windows full of happy plants.  The house itself wasn't one of the nicer houses, but, nonetheless, it is notable for containing the drawing room where Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

After this satisfying stroll away from the crowd of tourists, during which we noted that Tolkien had most likely walked the same route countless times, we headed to the Eagle & Child pub, where the Inklings used to meet and discuss their current literary endeavors.

Rabbit Room at the Eagle & Child pub in Oxford
The usual place for their meetings was in the Rabbit Room, but people were sitting there when we arrived, so we ended up sitting in the enclosed conservatory in the back.  The bartenders recommended the nachos (I thought this was funny for some reason - nachos in England?), and we had some of the best beer of our trip there.  J. went to the bathroom and told me he went into a room where Tolkien has been, but where I can never go.

This tree looks like it is about to eat me
We walked along the Thames path and marveled at the many specimens of giant trees along the way.

Various rowing clubs were practicing on the Thames.  Once they got going, they really flew down the river.

We ate at Chequers pub for dinner.  I got to try a "ploughman's lunch," which usually consists of cheese, bread, fruit, salad, chutney, and a petite meatpie.  The cider I got here was the best cider I've ever had, Aspall Draught Suffolk Cyder, produced by Aspall Cyder.  Not cloyingly sweet, it had a pleasing floral note with a satisfying finish that put one in mind of the barnyard--an interesting mix of sweet hay and musky animal scents.  My description probably makes it sound unappealing, but you'll know where I'm coming from once you have a sip of this exquisite cider.

We returned to Damson Cottage pleasantly exhausted.  A chorus of baa's sang down the moon that night as we startled sheep lining the path between Lacock and Reybridge.

*See first footnote of post "And so it begins"
**"Tourist Information Center"-invaluable sources of information while traveling in the United Kingdom 
***If you're curious, the address is 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

Thursday, July 22, 2010

St. Cyriac's Church

St. Cyriac's Church-08
We were going to Oxford for the day, but missed the bus to Chippenham by five minutes (it can be hard to walk briskly so soon after a full English breakfast*).  With an hour to spare until the next bus, we wandered to St. Cyriac's Church on the outskirts of Lacock.

St. Cyriac's Church-17
We walked around the church, admiring the windows,

St. Cyriac's Church-03
The church is known for its collection of "grotesques"
the gargoyles,

St. Cyriac's Church-07
and the cemetery. We wondered whose grave this was, stuck in the ivy-strewn corner of the cemetery.

St. Cyriac's Church-29
The rector came out while we were wandering the churchyard and told us we were welcome to enter and have a look.

St. Cyriac's Church-14
This stone lady watched over the foyer.

St. Cyriac's Church-49
The heavy doors opened after some coaxing.  We crossed the threshold into the silence of light and air, and our breath was taken away.  The walls were thick with the reverence of centuries of worship.

St. Cyriac's Church-54
Not a relic of the past, St. Cyriac's is still a church. Sunday School tools were left out in the sanctuary.

St. Cyriac's Church-37
These were the first of many death memorials we would see during our time in England. Scattered on the walls to our right were plaques commemorating church members who are most likely buried somewhere in the church floor.

St. Cyriac's Church-34
Note the skull, or death's head.  Nothing like our modern day gravestones!
Here is a typical memorial.

St. Cyriac's Church-46
Look closer and you'll see Sharington emblem: a scorpion
Up front, in the oldest part of the church, is the Sharington tomb, built in memory of Sir William Sharington, owner of Lacock Abbey, who died in 1553.

St. Cyriac's Church-47
The ceiling above the tomb, with remnants of the original paint.

St. Cyriac's Church-48
Our hour nearly up, we took one more long, fierce look about the church before leaving to catch the bus to Oxford.  Of all the churches we visited, this is the one where I felt most at home.

*We requested a full English breakfast little knowing what we were in for.  Out hostess cooked us scrambled eggs, baked beans, link sausage, bacon, black pudding, grilled tomatoes, and fried mushrooms.  And if that wasn't enough, there was also toast with jam and marmalade (which I did not care for), cereal, and yogurt.
Of course, there was tea.  There is always tea in England.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ridiculously charming

More pictures from Lacock.  You can see the complete set on my flickr.

Lovely tree


Most of the houses had flowers and ivy madly crawling about.


"Licensed in pursuance of act of Parliament for public music and dancing or other public entertainment of the like kind"

"Antique furniture and resident ghost"

Alert Janeites will appreciate knowing that the exterior of the Red Lion stands in for the Meryton Inn, site of the dance where Mr. Darcy sees Elizabeth Bennett for the first time in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice. 

Cat in the cemetery

Other wildlife of Lacock, schoolchildren

Tithe barn dating from the 14th century.  This is where tithes in the form of crops and livestock were stored until the church made use of them.

But, of course, a blue door.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And so it begins

Plane to Switzerland
Jon was soon to wearily acknowledge his wife's propensity for picture-taking, especially self-portraits documenting places they've been, even airplanes and trains

After the long haul over the ocean (during which I am certain I saw lights along the Icelandic coast) and the flurry of Heathrow Airport, we arrived at Paddington Station in London. Pigeons fluttered about underfoot.  Grand Victorian architecture soared overhead.

Paddington Station architecture
This picture makes me wonder how often I show up in other people's pictures, a random person caught mid-step for perpetuity

People spoke with British accents. Normally - because that's how they really talk. I couldn't get over it. English is their native language too, and yet they pronounce things differently. What a concept for my parochial brain to grasp.

After this stunning introduction to the country, we caught the train to Chippenham and from there, the bus to Lacock, located in the southwest part of England in the county of Wiltshire. While waiting* for the bus, we got to be amateur anthropologists and covertly study the natives.  Our conclusions?  Teenagers are the same everywhere, regardless of accent or nationality.  What a revelation.  We did not indulge in amateur anthropology anymore after this discovery.

We arrived in Lacock, then shouldered our duffel bags for the walk** to Reybridge.  We had packed as light as we could, but our bags were still heavy (35-40 pounds), especially if you're packing for three weeks. Right when my shoulders began to protest vigorously, we made it to Damson Cottage.

Damson Cottage's blue door triggered my fascination with blue doors specifically, and painted doors in general.

Our hostess informed us of the public access footpath to Lacock.  It passed between several really old houses,

 through several sheepfields, 


over several stiles, and up a shady lane bordered by lovely stone fences.  I was happy, especially at the thought of walking through sheep.

The sheep weren't as thrilled.

I couldn't get enough of green doors, either

Lacock was a delight to explore.  

These buildings are older than America.  

It hasn't changed much over the past 250 years, due to careful management by the National Trust, which purchased nearly the entire village in 1944. 

The George Inn was a public house while Chaucer was alive.
We had our first dinner in England at The George Inn, which dates back to 1361.  When we first arrived, we sat at a table and waited.  And waited some more, looking over at the bartender, who was chatting with a fellow at the bar, occasionally glancing over at us.  We waited some more before we realized he wasn't coming over.  We finally asked for a menu at the bar, at which time we discovered that You Always Order At The Bar Before Taking A Table.

The George was very atmospheric.

Full of nooks and crannies.

Mismatched furniture and oriental rugs were crammed into every available space.  Light came in through windows still fitted with their original glass, imperfections and all. 

We had a hearty meal of steak and ale pies, "veg" (vegetables for us), and warm beer.  After relaxing for a bit, we walked back through the sheepfields at dusk to Damson Cottage.  It was the fitting end to a very long day.

*This was to be a preview of our travel for the duration of the trip: waiting.  We're so used to hopping in the car and going, that the notion of waiting is a somewhat foreign concept.  J. and I had to spend time throughout our trip examining bus and train schedules to make sure that we caught all of our connections in a timely fashion.  Initially, this was overwhelming, but it soon became curiously enjoyable.  Schedules and maps fascinate me.  I like perusing departure times and following lines on a map, imagining all the various permutations of possible travel.  This is probably why I was the primary trip planner.

**We walked.  A lot.