Monday, May 25, 2009

Oxford - City of the dreaming spires

This morning is a little overcast with the weather forecast for 23°C and possible showers. After a nice but over-priced breakfast - £12.95 per person and everything was in bain maries with only fried or poached eggs cooked to order, we first caught up with Gen on Skype where I asked her to post some summer stuff to us. The only light top I have is the one I wore from Sydney!

Then it was in to town to get the CitySightseeing Oxford red bus! It did not take long for us to realise that the city, like many other university towns, exudes a beat that is very contagious. There are people everywhere - students, tourists and locals. Mind you, the fact that it is the Monday of a Bank Holiday weekend and a beautiful sunny day at that probably influences it a little!

Ah, Oxford the city of yellow limestone buildings, learning and - Morse. The first impression this city affords the visitor is a vibrant tremor which ripples throughout the city. Unlike other university cities we have visited the university IS Oxford city, impressed throughout like a perpetual signature. Apart from the hussle and bustle, there is certain element of calmness which made us feel very much at ease. We take one full route of the bus tour, soaking up the information and trivia that is thrown at us at every twist and turn of the bus. The commentary, while taped, is very thorough and a good mix of historic fact and interesting anecdote.

We had arranged to meet Elaine and Helen who we first met on the Isle of Islay in Scotland. They live here and have invited to spend a day with them in this, their home town. Despite the public holiday, the Parking Fairy is on duty and we get a parking space nice and close to the bus stop for the bus. We only have time for a once around before we go off to meet the girls. As we alight, we organise a swap for a two day pass, having decided to spend another night in Oxford. Thankfully the hotel has a vacancy and we can even keep the room we are now in.

We meet Helen and Elaine for a drink at the Eagle and Child pub (known locally as the Bird and Baby pub) - parking right outside! It's where Tolkein, CS Lewis and that crowd used to hang out. Helen came outside - they were a little worried they might not recognise us, until they saw the hat walk past - thank god we went back for it in Shannon! It was great to see the girls again and Helen tells us that it was here that 'The Inklings' - a group of Oxford writers met to test out their writings including The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books.

After our drink Helen offered to take us on an 'insiders' tour of some of the Oxford University sights. As she works for the University, Helen could walk us in to a number of colleges that we could not have otherwise seen. From the pub we walked down Broad Street where we pass by Blackfriars Hall for graduate students - mostly in the area of theology. But our first venture into the world of the academically privileged came at Balliol College. When first you walk through the gate and in to the manicured lawns, beautifully kept gardens and stunning (absolutely stunning) buildings you walk from the hustle and bustle outside into a place of peace. The contrast is amazing. Exeter College has recently undergone a restoration project - and the new stone, while lighter in colour, are just as well made as the older stone. Hertford College while closed to the public was open to us thanks to Helen's pass. And students being students, ignored the 'Please keep off the grass' sign!

The architecture in Oxford is just amazing. The colleges, having successfully turned out model citizens, were often bequeathed funds for the construction of new buildings, meaning that as time has passed, these colleges have grown not only in size, but also in grandeur. And they are truly beautiful. At first, we were horrified to be shown graffiti on the quadrangel walls of these hallowed halls - but they commemorate wins at the Head of the River and are actually done in chalk (although they are still clearly visible from 5 and 6 years ago).

The Bodleian Library is the most amazing space. From its awe-inspiring exterior to the dignified quiet of the Divinity School that commands awe, respect and q-u-i-e-t. There are ceiling rosettes that recognize the contributions of library benefactors. It is just amazing. Students can't gain access into this cathedrals of libraries until they sign (they used to have to recite) the Pledge:
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”

We leave the colleges for a time and walk under the B
ridge of Sighs modelled on the famous Venetian example before we squeeze (ok, a slight exaggeration) down St Helens Passage, winding our way through tiny back lanes to the Turf Tavern for lunch. With such a beautiful day at their disposal, it seems half the local population has found their way to this tavern that would never be found by tourists. This is a special place for Michael as this is the tavern that is the setting for many of the Inspector Morse episodes. Helen had a BLT for lunch while Elaine, Michael and I had salmon and Brie fishcakes. We all washed it down with Appletiser - a sparkling non-alcoholic apple juice and soda drink.

Our appetites well sated, we stroll down passed Trinity College with its impressive wrought gates allowing a glimpse into a very privileged world while at the same time keeping the outside world well and truly at an arms length.

There are lots of students walking and cycling in formal dress with different coloured flowers in their lapels. Helen explains that even though it is only Week 7, student exams are underway. Students all sit their exams in the Examination Schools Building and in full academic dress. Can you imagine that - not only is there the stress of the exams, but they have to get kitted up in the penguin suit! And the flower in their lapel denotes the year of their examination - white for first year exams, pink for the centre years and red for final (usually 3rd) year exams.

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." - Ratty talking to Mole, from Kenneth Grahame's classic: "The Wind In The Willows.

The girls were giving us the quintessential Oxford experience so they then took us punting on the Cherwell River from The Cherwell Boathouse. Before we headed out Helen bought us Pims - when quizzed if this was a real English tradition, she laughed and said it is far more local than that - it is quite an Oxford drink! You should have seen the drama it took to get me in to the boat. There was a huge step down from the jetty to the boat, and it was in to something that moved further away from you as you got in, unsteadily. But evetually I was in, as was everyone else and we were off with Helen punting leisurely down the river.

About a mile down the river, Elaine took over and we continued on our merry way. At the turn for home, Michael took over and the girls could not believe what a natural he was. Must say, my man did look good as he stood above us and calmly poled us the whole way back to the docks. At one point we passed another punt where the woman punting was standing on the other end of the boat. I asked Helen if you could punt from either end and she commented (almost derisively) that that was the Cambridge way to punt - ah yes, university rivallry is alive and well!

Ha ha, if getting in was a drama, you should have seen me trying to step up out of that moving boat! But with lots of encouragement and ingenious (if not inelegant) moves, out I got. What a fantastic afternoon on the river with the ducks, oh, and the occasional other boat!

So to finish the day, we went a little way out of the City to a pub restaurant called The Trout Inn. This was another of Morse's favourite hangouts. It is located on the Isis river - part of the headwaters of the Thames River. They too are very busy and the girls tell us that it is busy - especially on weekends. The menu is varied and interesting. Helen and I begin with Mojitos - hers was a Royale (with champagne) and mine was a Raspberry Mojito with raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries - gosh, it went so well with lime! (Kamala and Carol - you gotta try it! That is, if you can get raspberries, he he he!) For starters we all shared Box Baked Camembert with Onion Jam and Breads and Greek Mezze with Taramasalata, Hummus, Tzatziki, Feta and Flat Breads.
Mains were:
Chargrilled Lamb Rump with Chorizo, Onions, Peas and Rosemary Potatoes (Michael and Helen)
Spit Chicken with Roast Garlic and Lemon Thyme Mayonnaise (Maria)
Spit Chicken Mushroom Forestiere (Elaine)
Plum and Apple Crumble (Michael)
Marshmallow Cheesecake with red fruits (Maria and Elaine)
Gosh the food was great, the setting fantastic and the company the best!!
As we said goodbye to Helen and Elaine outside the pub after 10:30 pm we did so in the raucous company of a peacock perched high on one of the chimney pots!

How cool - here we are in Oxford and as I type the blog, Inspector Morse is on TV - and it is set in Oxford! And the episode (The Wench is Dead) is about the boatmen - wow, we did that today!!!! And finally just before midnight, the showers predicted this morning have finally started! What a FANTASTIC day - thanks ever so much Elaine and Helen - and we are holding you to your promise to come and spend some time with us in Oz.

1 comment:

Helen said...

Hello again! So glad that you enjoyed your day with us in Oxford. We had a brilliant time as well, as it's wonderful to see the city with such appreciative guests!

I am particularly impressed that you can remember so many of the details that we told you about. Just a couple of points in the interests of complete accuracy, as I know that you like to get things right:

It was Monday of 5th week, rather than 7th week. University terms are only 8 weeks long, and are just numbered, rather unimaginatively, 1st week, 2nd week etc. The week before term starts is 0th week (pronounced noughth week, which can confuse people as it sounds like "north week"). This tends to be lots of fun with people catching up with their friends again before the real work of term begins.

Don't ever let anyone say that students get off lightly with 8 week terms, as they have to pack a huge amount of work in to each week. Students usually have two tutorials a week, and will have to prepare an essay or other piece of work for each one. 5th week is traditionally a time when people particularly feel the pressure of work, and the holidays seem a long way away: hence the term "fifth week blues".

Anyway, the other point was about the exam flowers. The tradition is to wear a white flower for your first exam of that particular set of exams, so whether it's the first year exams or final year exams. (Most Oxford students don't have to take formal exams in the second year.) Then it's a pink flower for all the other exams, and a red flower for the last one of that set. Lots of companies make a fortune out of selling carnations to students of course, so they can keep up the tradition.

So, if you see someone wearing a red flower, you can't actually tell if they are just finishing their first year exams, or if they've just finished finals. Either way, they will probably be looking very happy, and will be on their way to the pub!

That had better be all for now, but thanks again for such a lovely day in Oxford, and a gorgeous meal at the of it.