Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day Three: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Palace

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on my vacation trip last month. The prior posts were:
Prologue: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Day One: The City of Dreaming Spires
Day Two: Eccentric Ramblings

Sunday May 22

Sunday was the day we’d intended to visit Blenheim Palace, a journey that turned out to be filled with delays minor and major. The plan was to rent bicycles and ride to the palace, which is a modest 8 miles or so from Oxford.

Our first setback came when we got up to find rain showers passing overhead. It wasn’t much, but riding in the wet isn’t fun, and we had some time before we expected the bike rental (‘cycle hire’ in English English) establishment to be open, so we hung out at the B&B until it passed.

We only needed one bike, because we had the one our friend Gary had arranged for us to borrow, so we walked up to the Broad, to the cycle rental place outside the tourist information center. There we discovered that it being Sunday, there was no one in sight. We never ascertained whether they weren’t open on Sunday or if they opened later, because we decided to walk to Walton St. Cycles, another cycle shop we’d spotted in Jericho, which we knew had Sunday hours. We arrived in good time, but they weren’t open until 10 AM, so we did have to wait. In the meantime the skies continued to clear.

Finally with wheels, we set out for Blenheim in the small village of Woodstock. JT had brought excellent maps of the cycle route, and it proved to be well marked- partially following surface roads, and partly on dedicated cycle paths:

We were still 2-3 miles short of our goal when the loaner bike got a flat tire.

Now, three miles isn’t a particularly long walk by our standards, but the real issue was time. Walking takes longer than bicycling. And we’d started later than we wanted. After some discussion, we decided that returning to Oxford to get another bicycle or fix the flat would take so long we wouldn’t get to Blenheim in time to see anything. So we continued with JT walking and me riding very slowly. On the plus side, it gave me ample opportunity to enjoy the wildflowers, which were quite delightful.

By the time we reached Blenheim it was time for lunch. Fortunately no self-respecting major tourist attraction in the UK fails to have a café, so we were able to enjoy hearty chicken curry sandwiches and a nice cold drink before proceeding on to view the Palace.

Blenheim Palace was originally a gift of the crown to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, to recognize his military triumph at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. It was intentionally designed to be monumental- well, see for yourself:
Blenheim from the bridge

I think they succeeded.

In addition to being a rare surviving example of English Baroque architecture, Blenheim is also known as the birthplace of the most famous of the Churchill clan, Winston Churchill. They had a modest exhibit on Winston, focused mainly on his years at Blenheim palace (for a much more in depth look at this fascinating character, the Churchill Museum adjacent to the Cabinet War Rooms in London is the place to go).

Only a small section of the main house was open to the public-which still gave us quite a lengthy tour of the extremely handsome public rooms, filled with priceless antiques, china, tapestry and of course magnificent decor. A second section of the house had a multimedia presentation on the history of the house and its owners. When the house was originally conceived, it was to be a gift of the nation—which was fine as long as John Churchill and his wife remained on good terms with the queen. Following a falling out, funding became much more irregular, and the house was not completed until years after Churchill’s death. The up and down finances of the subsequent owners make it quite remarkable that the house has continued to remain in the hands of the same family (the present owner is the 11th Duke). Today, while still a residence, it is the site of a variety of business and tourist activities. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

After the tours, we took a brief stroll down toward the monument-
Marlborough's victory column

And also finally found a site where I could get most of the house in the frame for a photo (that’s the one above). The grounds are famous in and of themselves, landscaped by Capability Brown. He dammed a stream to form the picturesque lake and rearranged the terrain on a scale as vast as the palace itself to sculpt a fitting setting. With gorgeous results, in a slightly-too-cultivated-to-be-true sort of way:
Ornamental lake at Blenheim

We would have liked to explore further, but all the morning’s delays had finally caught up with us. JT went off to see if he could find a better place to leave his defunct wheels than the palace bike park (he couldn’t) and a bus back to Oxford (he could). I hopped on my rental bike and retraced our route of the morning at the best speed I could, so as to get the bike back to the rental shop before they closed. The ride was very enjoyable despite being a little rushed, and not much to my surprise, I was back in Oxford with time to spare. JT’s journey was equally efficient- we had planned to meet back at the bed and breakfast, but in fact found each other at an intersection a couple of blocks away.

We then conducted a quick international logistical discussion via Skype with our friend Gary to determine the best way to get his bike back to him, and arranged to mail the keys to the bike lock to his friends in Oxford so either he or they could retrieve it.

Dinner was an interesting pizza at Fire and Stone, and afterward we walked up the east side of the Cherwell, admiring the scenery and finding St. Clement’s church, glowing in the soft evening light—
St. Clement's Church

—and a family of ducks, out for their own evening constitutional:
Evening on the Cherwell

With the light fading on our last day in Oxford, we reluctantly headed back, with a brief stop at a pub for cider, and er, other bodily needs.

This was our second visit to Oxford, and it remains on the list of cities I’d love to go back to. In a country full of beautiful walks, Oxford still shines.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day Two: Eccentric Ramblings

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on my vacation trip last month. The prior posts were:
Prologue: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Day One: The City of Dreaming Spires

Saturday, May 21:
The morning started with English breakfast; eggs, lovely English bacon, grilled tomato, beans, grilled mushrooms, toast and tea. After breakfast we took another stroll, this time along the canal while waiting for things to open. The day was fair, with plenty of sun and only a few clouds. The walks along the water are one of the most delightful things about Oxford—between the Thames and Cherwell rivers and the canals, they are quite numerous, and everything is wonderfully green. Wild irises and other flowers line the banks, and trees shade the paths.

Some paths border fields or greenspace, while others run behind rows of houses, each with its own tiny patch of garden. Many of these have been filled with colorful flowers and lovingly maintained:
English canal-side garden

and the even ordinary streets are often picturesque and charming.
Early morning streetscape

At ten, the Oxford History of Science Museum opened. It might more properly be called the museum of scientific instruments—they had on display a staggering array of astrolabes, surveying and drawing tools, maps and globes, microscopes and telescopes, orreries and artillery aids. There were instruments for drawing sundials and instruments for navigation. Many of these were donated over the years to the Royal Society. The precision and beauty of these has to be seen to be appreciated—some were brass, stone, wood or ivory; others were made of precious metals, and all crafted with as keen an eye to grace and beauty as to function.

The theme of the special exhibition was 'Eccentricity'. It was designed to allow the museum to put on exhibit some of the odder pieces in their collections. So they chose articles that were either themselves oddities in the museum, or items belonging to eccentric individuals or both. Thus we got to see Chinese typewriters (with thousands of characters), the hat and sword Guglielmo Marconi wore to a coronation, a very early transceiver that was intended for use in a lifeboat, examples of ornamental turnings made by notable gardener and wood-turner Ellen Ann Wilmott, and other odd items.

We went back to the covered market to have lunch, and enjoyed meat pies (one of those ideal quick meals you just don't readily find in the US), and then strolled out back through town toward Christchurch.
Christ Church College

It had not escaped our notice that this was May 21, the day prophesied to be the end of the world by unscrupulous and or deluded religious whackos. We kept a sharp eye out for any signs, but aside from a student we observed laying out a full set of clothes including shoes on the grass and photographing it, with clearly satirical intent, there was no evidence of imminent catastrophe.

The Christchurch meadow is a large park, with paths leading around it in various directions. We took yet another canal path, lined with strollers observing the ducks and scenic punters. (The punters all seemed to be of at least moderate skill, which made them scenic rather than hilarious. Just as well, as I imagine the water is still rather chilly. I didn't check.)
River Cherwell at Christ Church Meadow

The were also several species of ducks, geese and swans, and other wild birds. The path leisurely followed the curve of the canal, then looped back around the pasture, where we saw some of the college's Longhorn cattle, (an antique English breed, not the Texan-style steer).
Cows in Christ Church Meadow

Back outside the tourist information booth, we met our guide for the Inspector Morse tour. For those who haven't encountered him, Inspector Morse was the protagonist of a series of thirteen mystery novels by Colin Dexter, and later adapted into a series of thirty-three films starring John Thaw as Inspector Morse. It also inspired a spinoff series, Inspector Lewis, starring Kevin Whately who played Morse's sidekick Lewis in the original series. Most of the Morse episodes feature wonderful views of Oxford landmarks (though much of the series was actually shot closer to London) but all the Inspector Lewis series is filmed in Oxford.

Our guide turned out to be very interesting- a retired television journalist, who had visited NH in the freezing months covering one of our presidential elections, a tremendous fan of the Morse books, naturally, and an Oxford resident who lives in the same neighborhood as Colin Dexter. He told us that Dexter, while retired from writing, is still active locally, and is currently working to protest library closures in Oxfordshire (the British having some of the same budget difficulties as everyone else). Also that Dexter shared Morse’s fondness for real ale. It was an excellent tour, with many locations from the television episodes and much Morse trivia discussed. We walked back through Queen’s College again, and also Lincoln College:
Lincoln College

and the Oxford Union:
Oxford Union

After the tour, we walked up St. Giles street and circled around through the neighborhoods to the north of the city. We returned through Jericho, and chose an Indian restaurant more or less at random. (Jamal’s, I think), which was excellent, though we underestimated the portion sizes and wound up quite thoroughly stuffed.

The evening being so pleasant, we decided to continue walking, and went south, crossing the Thames, and up Binsey Lane which parallels the river. We went as far as The Perch, another haunt of Inspector Morse in fiction, and a favorite pub in real life of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friends.
The Perch

Then we picked up the Thames path and walked back along the river to our lodgings as the sun finally retired for the day, enjoying the quiet and lovely scenery.
Wild irises along the Thames

Friday, June 10, 2011

Day One: The City of Dreaming Spires

This is the second entry in a series of posts on my vacation trip last month. The first post was:
Prologue: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Friday, May 20

We arrived in Heathrow, and proceeded through customs with fair speed despite moderately long lines, caught the Heathrow Express (which we highly recommend for speed, convenience and ease of handling luggage), and emerged at Paddington. Paddington Station is one of my favorites for the graceful ironwork that ornaments the big windows at the end of the station. The next train to our destination, Oxford, wasn't for half an hour or so, so we took a turn around the station to stretch our legs before coming back in to catch the train.

It was here for the first time (and not the last that day) that we congratulated ourselves for confining our baggage to what we could put in backpacks. We'll have to do laundry on the trip (for preference one of the numerous 'wash and fold' services available in London) but it means that we can walk with baggage in fair comfort. I still use the ancient framed pack my mother bought me at a yard sale as a teenager, and it remains perfectly serviceable despite thirty-odd years of intermittent use.

The day was fair- sunny with puffy white Constable clouds ornamenting the sky, and not a hint of rain in the forecast. I dozed on the train- fortunately JT stayed awake, or this might be the account of how we got back from entirely the wrong place! But we alighted in Oxford at about lunch time and made our way to the tourist information booth, with the intention of booking a tour. By the time we got there and obtained tickets, the tour was imminent so we forewent lunch in favor of getting oriented to the city. The tour was the University and City tour and took us from Broad Street ('The Broad') through the center of town, by the Hall of Ceremony, where students at the University have their Matriculation and graduation ceremonies, and on to Queen's College and to Wadham College.
Looking past the Radcliffe Camera at the dreaming spires.

The best description of the colleges is to look at the photos. The architecture- while varied in detail, has a pleasing uniformity due to the distinctive gold Cotswold limestone used in its construction. The colleges are often organized around a handsome green, the sort of lovely lawn you can only get from centuries of careful cultivation and rolling.

They also often had lovely gardens:
college garden

I found out on the tour something I hadn't realized, which was that the colleges, while all voluntarily associated with the University, are administratively separate, and that joint decision-making is done in a sort of committee arrangement. My mind boggled! Some of my academic friends have told me about the administrative struggles in universities which are all nominally a single hierarchical organization!

Our tour ended at the covered market, a pleasant arrangement of shops, purveyors of various foodstuffs and small restaurants. We marked it down as a location of interest, and proceeded to our lodgings.

We were staying in a very nice bed and breakfast, Becket House, near the train station. We checked in and found that our friend Gary (who spends a lot of time in Oxford, though he wasn't here at the same time as we were), had arranged for a friend to drop off his bicycle for us to use.

We dropped off our packs with some pleasure—we'd been carrying our luggage all day—and went almost immediately back out to find some dinner. We didn't go far, but settled on a gourmet burger place we'd observed earlier.

At this point, JT was still wanting to walk, but I was full of food and about to fall asleep on my feet. Back at the hotel, I checked email and attempted to start this trip diary....and the next thing I knew, JT was (with considerable difficulty) shaking me awake so I could actually shut down the computer and go to bed. I did so and and slept like the dead for the next twelve hours.

JT told me later that he'd come in, and said my name quite loudly. Then shaken me. Then rapped his knuckles smartly on my forehead. I remained deeply asleep. Then he tried to at least shift me aside (I was sprawled diagonally across the bed in front of the computer) so he could get in. As I am, let us say, sturdily built, this proved quite difficult. So he was forced to resort to shaking me and talking until it finally penetrated. I expect I will be hearing this story for many years.

Prologue: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Yes, it's that time again, when I relieve my vacation virtually and take all my e-pals along for the ride. If you're not a fan of travelogue, stop back in a few days, when we'll have returned to our usual fiber content.

Thursday, May 19

We had a later flight than usual, leaving around 11 pm, so we tried yet another logistical iteration in our eternal quest to arrive in England with at least some sleep. We got up as early as possible- at 5 am in my case- so as to assure we would sleep on the plane. Additionally, I tried to eat my meals on a UK schedule, as my digestion is often confused and upset by the time change.

I'm happy to say that this method worked brilliantly for me. I was yawning by the time we went through security, and as soon as I settled into my seat on the plane, I wrapped up in a blanket, tucked a pillow under my cheek, and was asleep before we took off. By prearrangement, JT waved off any attempt to give me dinner, and I slept most of the flight. Mind you, it wasn't great sleep, sitting in an airline seat, but it was far better than I'd ever achieved before.

Alas, but JT did not have the same good fortune. He always has trouble sleeping on planes and while he did manage over two hours, he was significantly tireder coming out. It's clear that the method we tried last trip works best for him- to sleep as late as possible the day we fly, and resign himself to not sleeping on the flight. The sleep he gets in the morning is just way more restful for him.

The really unfair part is that I'm the one who can peacefully knit or read for hours and enjoy the opportunity to do nothing else, whereas he's the one who finds travel boring. However, at least we have at last figured out the optimal methods for both of us, and these will no doubt be of great utility on future trips.

Other than our scientific evaluation of optimal sleeping strategies, the flight was completely uneventful, just the way we like it. And when we arrived...but that's tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I've Been Holding Out on You

ribbed lace socks

Late Monday night we flew back from our vacation trip to England. A lovely time was had, cream teas were consumed, miles of footpaths were hiked, many photographs were taken. I'll be posting more about that (lots more!) later this week.

I took yarn for two pairs of socks, which was wildly optimistic when the first pair was lace, but hey, we could have been stranded by an Icelandic volcano! (That would have been terrible, but we would have managed to cope somehow. Possibly by visiting Cornwall.)

These are the ribbed lace socks from Sensational Knitted socks. Which I thought were kind of 'eh', until I saw Toni's yellow pair. At which point I realized they'd be perfect for the merino-tencel I had in the sock yarn stash. And so they are. The yarn is hand-dyed from Minds Eye Yarns in Cambridge, colorway New Jeans.

We arrived home to find that warm weather had finally arrived, my nasturtiums are growing like weeds, the weeds are growing faster, and the lawn was nearly up to our knees. The cats were well-cared for by our friend Sarah, and were largely indifferent to our return. Their reaction can be summed up as, 'Hey, it's about some food? And where did the nice girl with the toys go?' Sarah apparently twitched, whirled and dragged cat toys until her arms about fell off.

So yesterday I fed cats, swept, mowed, cleaned, did laundry, cursed the weeds, restocked groceries, and we started the pool opening. We have a zillion people coming on Saturday and it would be nice if the pool were some other color than brown (note- after liberal application of dangerous chemicals, it's now more like cloudy- a vast improvement). A working pump would be nice too. I haven't decided whether to try taking it apart or just apply money to the problem. In view of the age of the pump, I suspect that replacing it is going to be plan A.

But first I have to go back to work and see how deep the piles are there. If I haven't come back by Saturday, send rescue parties. With yarn. I'll need it.