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

No comments: