Category Archives: England

Discovering stained glass

Another gloriously sunny day to visit the colleges.  On the way to Christchurch we went in search of University College and its chapel. Although it was closed to visitors, the disappointed old ladies must have moved his heart, because the nice porter let us in anyway.

I had read Jane Brocket’s How to Look at Stained Glass before our trip and made notes on places she mentions, this being one. The 17th century windows include a very fleshy Adam and Eve, Jacob dreaming of the ladder to heaven “while the dreamscape action of angels ascending and descending whirs around him with angels on a grand staircase like an early Astaire/Rogers musical,” says Jane;and this fierce whale threatening Jonah. Very well worth the stop.

Christchurch begins with these gorgeous borders, asters and grasses and sedums and more. Once inside the college, the staircase ceiling is lovely, the dining hall impressive with Alice references in the windows as pointed out by a porter (look closely to see Alice and other characters hiding at the bottom of each window).And here is Alison with Carroll himself! Though I had been here ten years ago, I didn’t remember seeing the cathedral, our  next stop.  We were on the lookout for Burne-Jones’s windows, which did not disappoint. Here is St. Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford, hiding in the pigsty from the rapacious King Algar, here is St. Cecilia being beheaded, here are swirling clusters of grapes above the heads of the saints. After the tour we visited The Picture Gallery, which I found pleasant but underwhelming.

We rested up a bit and ventured out again for the Bodleian tour, which you must book in advance and is highly regulated as to what you can see (and no pictures!). We learned more about Duke Humfrey’s library – the money ran out partway through, which you can see if you look closely at the stonework and notice where the decorations stop, but it’s a beautiful space much seen in film (see yesterday’s entry). Then we walked up and up the stairs to the library itself. No flames allowed and no electric light or heat till the 21st century, so hours were limited. Until a few years ago, scholars placed their book requests through a pneumatic tube system, which meant you waited about three hours before your books arrived at your desk. The system is online now, so much faster. Shelves and shelves of ancient books, some rows turned spines in because of the way the chains were attached, with one chain still extant to show visitors.  And notice the ceiling!Another HP filming site, of course. A short tour but very interesting.

From here we went across to the new Weston Library building, renovated at great expense several years ago, now featuring a vast open expanse with views of the stacks on the floor above (reminiscent of the Library of Virginia building).  Then another visit to Blackwell’s, which is even more wonderful than you can imagine. I came away with Clare Tomalin’s bio of Dickens (the biography project) and a Mick Herron set in Oxford. Yum!

Tonight we had dinner at a Thai place on the High Street, which was a delicious change from the pub food we’ve had so far. Vegetables! And so to bed.

 

Walking and looking

I was looking forward to the Ashmolean, which had been closed for renovations on my last visit ten years ago. But first, a quick detour to Rewley House, where I had studied Darwin with Emma Townshend for a week in 2009 at an Oxford Continuing Education course.

The Ashmolean originated with Mr. Ashmole and his collection, augmented by those of the Tradescant family (thanks for the flowers). Alison and I visited the Italian galleries together so that we could see the Uccello nighttime painting, then parted ways for an hour to indulge our own special interests. Highlights  for me included the robes T E. Lawrence wore in Arabia; the Powhatan Mantle, made as a ceremonial piece by Algonquian Indians in the Chesapeake Bay in the 16th century and possibly presented by Powhatan to Captain Newport for King James I; and the Islamic galleries with gorgeous tiles.We also made a quick visit to the Alfred Jewel, which I know from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, and whose purpose is still a bit of a mystery.

Lunch was at the Lamb & Flag instead of the Eagle and Child (too touristy), and we had a half pint (me) and prawn sandwiches (both of us). Restored, we walked along the Lamb and Flag passage to Parks Road and the Natural History Museum. We made our way directly to the dodo, which is well placed toward the entrance, and wandered along the galleries, appreciating the scale and space of the secular  cathedral.Then we walked through to the Pitt Rivers Museum, the archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford in England, and the equal of the Mercer Museum in Doylestown when it comes to collecting lots of things and putting them on display.  Imagine  that each one of these cabinets contains a zillion objects,  each  linked  by  its use.Capes made from seal intestines; barkcloth on the bolt  from  Captain  Cook’s  voyages;meticulously hand-written tags;
a German Noah’s ark;
and zillions of other items, all arranged by use rather than by origin. Fascinating and overwhelming. We did particularly enjoy the items from Cook’s voyages, which are to be found, in a very Pitt-Rivers way, by taking the elevator up to the Lower Level.

Walking back to our hotel, we passed by Wadham College and took a few pictures of the beautifully green lawn and the quad. After a restorative lie-down, we met our guide at Trinity for an Oxford Walking Tour. We were the only participants, which we liked though I think our guide was disappointed. It turns out that he is the same guide I had ten years ago! After a look at the Sheldonian, he took us down the street to New College, where we saw the dining hall,

the gorgeous gardens (need to return for a closer look), and the mysterious 16th century Mound,which is just for fun as far as I can tell,then went into the Chapel. He pointed out the sculpture of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein, the beautiful carved stone reredos,

and the holm oak in the cloister (in which Draco Malfoy was turned into a ferret!).

On to the Bodleian, which we will see more of tomorrow. The statue of Duke Humphrey has quite a story attached, of which I remember mainly that he did not want to get married, so Shakespeare wrote some sonnets to persuade him (it didn’t work). We left Simon soon after, a knowledgeable guide though he name-dropped mercilessly and kept wiping his mustache in an off-putting way.

By now we were knackered, so we made our way back home (fortunately only five minutes walk) and crawled up the steep stairs to our lair overlooking the New College bell tower. A good day, even if it wore us out!

England again!

This year’s trip was a mix of the familiar – Oxford (which I visited ten years ago) and the Cotswolds (we both visited here with Alison’s mother and aunt in the early ’90s) – and the new –  Ely, just outside Cambridge, featuring the fens and the Norfolk Broads.

After arriving in Oxford by bus from Heathrow, we dropped our bags at the Bath Place Hotel, Bath Place Hotelthen walked back down Broad Street to Blackwell’s, as much of a rabbit warren as ever and with so many books we both wanted to buy (only two for me, I was very proud of my restraint).  Lunch at the Turl Street Kitchen hit the spot, two orange-yolked eggs over English muffins, then back to the Bath to check in and take a two-hour jet-lag nap.

The hotel is a 17th century muddle of little buildings with our room on the top floor above steep, twisty stairs.  Bath Place stairsIt has an interesting history, with Dorothy Sayers among the famous residents.  Bath PlaceOur room is tiny but charming, with a view of New College from the window.  New College towerThe bathroom was quintessentially British:  a tub with a shower spray, which meant you either knelt in the tub to wash your hair (hard on the knees), stood up and sprayed your hair and all the surroundings, or knelt on the floor and leaned into the tub.  None was entirely satisfactory (shades of our Paris apartment!), but for three days we could manage.

Awakening restored and refreshed, we walked down Turl Street to the Oxford Wine Shop, a lovely place, then to a few high-end shops selling historic maps and prints and beautiful old jewels. On the way back, we came to the Radcliffe Camera in the late afternoon sunshine. Radcliffe CameraDinner tonight was literally around the corner at the renowned Turf Tavern, where we had steak and ale pies and french fries that made us both very happy. We admired the hanging baskets of flowers and the late sun on the New College bell tower. Turf tavernAnd so to bed.