Touring Oxford and its Cathedral
The Gloucester train schedule was for 4:15 and supposed to last 2 hours. It turns out that I would be changing trains twice to get to #Oxford: at Banbury from the Swindon train to the London Paddington train, only as far as Didcot Parkway, where I’d change for the train to the university town. So for the day I’d been on 5 different trains. While travelling, I’d gotten a reminder of the “free walking tour” that I’d booked for the following morning.
Once in Oxford, the route was clear heading east down Botley Road, to the Hythe Bridge Street which took me over the Castle Mill Stream (a canal) and onto to George Street, all with no turns. However, I walked past the entrance, as it was rather subtle and poorly marked. Doubling back twenty-five feet, I buzzed in and was faced with a steep staircase to get to reception. Once there, I was assigned to room 8, and the young man hefted my bag up another flight of stairs. The room was decent sized, a nice single bed, but I needed to move furniture around to get the bag open.
First things first, I joined both the phone and tablet to the hotel Internet, and began composing my Saturday “I’m alive” email for the folks in Florida. Once I got that out of the way, I started my dinner search, picking up bananas as I tried to find a decent meal in a university town on a Saturday evening. I ventured over towards #ChristChurchCollege, where the local Cathedral Church of Christ is located, finding the high walls of the college and a guarded gate would keep me out. Continuing to search for a restaurant, I finally walked into The Red Lion Inn, as it had an interesting menu and purported to have a dress code.
With an hour wait for a table due to several large (graduation) parties having just placed orders, I found a cocktail table in the bar with enough light to journal. I’m pretty sure I ordered a pint, but have no record of details. The host never delivered the promised menu, so once I finally was seated, somewhat away from a loud “hen party” drinking rosé, it took a bit to peruse and decide. To start, a truffled goat’s cheese on sweet chili, beetroot, diced pear and orange with the house dressing; the lobster and crab fishcakes weren’t available, so I asked for the prawn and crab linguine. The appetizer was so great that it took 15 minutes of savoring to enjoy. Twice they tried to deliver the pasta, and I refused to have it sitting on the table; it had obviously been fired much too early.
The linguine was to contain chorizo, which would provide some spiciness, but they appeared to have missed it, as the dish was bland. Adding ground black pepper, parmesan and chilli (British spelling) oil barely made it palatable. When the waiter appeared and asked if I had enjoyed, the Londoner got an earful and as very apologetic. Of course, there was really nothing he could do, as I’d tried all the options. There was a delicious sounding dessert on the menu, but I hesitated. Besides, the kitchen closed at 10, and they had neglected to advise me of that when they seated me at 9:30.
I returned to the room, only to have the downstairs bar blast disco until midnight. There were no blackout curtains, so I settled in for the night awaiting peace.
Ø June 23 – Oxford (Sunday)
Despite daylight at 5am, I stayed in bed until almost 8. With light pressure, there was good hot water in the shower and the room got a bit stuffy; I opened the window which looked down on the bus depot. After checking my credit card accounts to see when and how much I needed to pay, I disconnected my charging devices and prepared for a bit of wander before the walking tour.
Out the front door and a right, down a slight incline towards the canal I’d crossed coming from the station. After a few pictures, I went back up George Street and hung out just up the street from a derelict church as about a dozen folks gathered. James, our guide for the 2-hour tour, was a History PhD candidate originally from Hartford, CT. We visited the outsides of Balliol, Trinity, All Souls, the Radcliffe Camera and St Mary’s. No handout or map, so my scanty notes leaving me with a lot of guessing.
Our starting point was close to the exposed cobble round in the middle of a macadam roadway marking the spot where three Catholic bishops were burnt at the stake. After a talk at the entry to Balliol College, we walked past Blackwell, a bookstore of note. The next stop was the #BodleianLibrary, which the guide described in detail from experience, and turned us around to view the Bridge of Sighs, joining parts of Hertford College.
Heading south, we next came to the circular Radcliffe Camera, now the reading room for the Bodleian. On to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, known as SMV, the geographic center of the University. Across the street was All Souls College behind crenellated walls and a tall wrought iron gate. Walking Blue Boar Street towards Oriel College, we ended the tour beyond Christ Church College and the Merton Grove.
Heading around the rather high imposing walls of Christ Church, I came to some lovely gardens looking for a vantage point to see the cathedral. The chapel for the College is a consecrated cathedral, but access is restricted to College members, except on admission. That Sunday, access would be granted beginning at 2pm, after services and midday meal at the dining hall. The few pictures I took turned out to be of the exterior of the dining hall, and not the chapel.
Resigned to a nearly 2-hour wait, I returned to the alley we’d walked and stopped at The Bear, the oldest pub in Oxford (1242). Ordering inside at the bar, I paid for a pint of HSB amber and fish and chips to be delivered to a bench seat outside. I then went into the smaller back room, to see the collection of snipped ties that line the wall. The haddock was a good piece of fish, deep fried in a heavy batter, and the large chips were only slightly fried. (I’m an extra crispy guy.) The peas were mashed, but bright green; pretty much standard British F&C.
Returning to Merton Fields, I proceeded to walk the footpath around the playing fields, taking pictures of the impressive Tom Tower with its eight spires. It turned out to be the tower at the corner of the Tom Quadrangle giving access to both the chapel and the dining hall. View of the actual spire of the chapel and the nave roof was blocked by the higher residence hall Meadow Building. My explorations did take me to Merton College, although its chapel was closed for the academic break.
Queuing up to purchase an admission ticket, it included entry into the dining or Great Hall. With the aid of CGI, this hall had appeared in the #HarryPotter movies – only three sets of long tables fill the actual hall. Fellow tourists were seemingly fascinated by the Potter connection, ignoring the Lewis Carroll “Alice” elements. The Hall Staircase ceiling is an impressive array of fan arches, installed per Cardinal Wolsey whose statue adorns a nearby wall. Taking a break from the lemming-like masses, I took a breather out on the steps to the quad. The sunshine was gone, with low gray-white cirrus clouds starting to fill the sky.
Onward into the chapel. The fans of Ms. Rowling and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Dodson were in ascendance, while the more deserving CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien lacked advocates. Wandering in packs, armed with smartphones, cameras were recording these fanatics’ every whim. Needless to say, the lack of respect and reverence, particularly the boys wearing hats, grew to annoy me. Fortunately, I was able to join a guided tour, and the group had some shielding from the idiots. [Maybe my intolerance had been heightened after three weeks of being a tourist among tourists?]
Inside the cathedral, one of the smaller in England, the guide took us around pointing out various gems and features which I dutifully took pictures of. Being on my feet, I didn’t note what much of what I saw was, and my memory is patchy. Now, I suspected I’d need to take out my box full of “stuff” and sort it, so I had better aids. So that task started, I found the four-page flyer for the College and Cathedral. The view down the nave to the chancel runs over a tiled geometrically patterned floor with benches running its length, rather than the perpendicular setting of traditional pews.
Moving to the north transept (I would call them aisles, as there is no alignment with the opposite south transept), the furthest aisle is the Latin Chapel with the reconstructed shrine to the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide. Overlooking the shrine was the watching loft, occupied by monks who would record when pilgrims were cured miraculously. A splendidly colored and gilded reredos of the crucifixion sits at the main altar. The flyer called attention to the vault ceiling over the chancel, an elaborate webbing of arched ribs with stone lanterns.
A fourteenth century window commemorates the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, situated in the south transept. That chapel has a screen separating it from thee side altar, with the canopied cathedra, which looked like the one in Canterbury, but of dark wood. I went in the chapter house, finding it to be a dark room with uncomfortable seating. I kept returning into the cathedral, repeating pictures I’d already taken, usually because the groups had moved out of the frame. Chairs were set up over on the south side for the Evensong service.
I had noticed a set of three painted “stained” glass windows atop clear leaded windows in the north transept. Looking fairly modern, I wondered that they might depict the 1666 Great Fire of London. Asking the guides, they were stumped, and challenged. The answer came back that it was the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They actually thanked me for expanding their repertoire.
They then offered to show me the “Alice Door”, the door that Alice Liddell had used to get from her home into the Dean’s garden (allowing Dodson to espy her.) I recognized almost immediately that that doorway would be the ideal location to get a shot of the exterior of the chapel, however, no one is permitted to walk that garden without the Dean’s approval.
Returning again to the Great Hall, I sought out the “Alice figures” that are hidden in the refectory windows. The dining tables were being set for the evening meal, but just those at the furthest from the entry, as only a few students and their tutors were still evident. Should you visit, the “Wonderland” caricatures are at the base of the corner panels of the green window featuring the royal crown and the bishop’s hat.
By half four, I was done inside. I returned to the gardens alongside the walls of the college, trying for pictures of the cathedral spire, but finally settling for the Great Hall and Tom Tower. Exiting to the street, I crossed it and entered The Old Tom, across from the Tom Tower Gate. There was about an hour before I could reenter to cross the quad to attend services. Ale choices were limited, so I settled for a pint of Guinness. Sipping slowly, as it wasn’t as smooth and creamy as I’d experienced elsewhere, I scribbled away updating my journal. Trying to push an update to Facebook, the Internet access through the mobile was too slow and failed to upload pictures. The pub seemed to be staffed by Thais, and that cuisine was available.
Leaving a bit early, I entered the quad, and crossed to the chapel. Good thing, as the service was filled to overflow. While the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were lovely, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the Anthem. The postlude allowed the organ to show off the acoustics of the space. As the service lasted an hour, a good number of tourists had bailed out at points, so all had seats by the blessing and dismissal. I strolled out nicely mellow.
Sunday at pubs and restaurants, the usual fare is roasts. I’d found that, typically, they would run out about 4pm, and kitchens might close. So I began a search for an open pub with a kitchen still open, and found the King’s Arms up near the Bodleian. Ordering a Bombardier amber to have with my 21-day aged roast sirloin of beef, Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes, honey roasted vegetables, and buttered savory cabbage. Too much food, particularly the potatoes and cabbage, but since it was late in the day, the fact that the beef was well beyond medium and the roasted veggies nearly caramelized was to be expected. With some English mustard, it was a good dinner. After finishing my beer, I headed back to the room.