Oxford 2005 Travel Diary

8000 words on a one week trip to Oxford. Are you up to it? At the time we went, the conversion rate was roughly £1=$1.83US.

Thursday 31 March 2005

I borrowed three Oxford books through interlibrary loan recently, and I've been reading them feverishly.

Four or five others of our group of ten are on this flight, but I have no idea how to recognize them. They may well recognize me, as they've had the option to see my website.

I eventually approached a group of people who looked like librarians ... Fortunately I got it right and didn't sound too weird asking if they were librarians headed for Oxford.

I actually slept on the flight. Fairly well, and maybe as much as four hours. My seat-mate (all 300+ pounds of him) was headed for the world championship of poker. He was pretty pleased - free airfare and hotel in London for nine days, no matter how he does in the contest.

Friday 1 April 2005

Dale and Teresa's luggage got lost. They'd flown from Jacksonville to Atlanta - that probably did it. We walked miles of corridors in Gatwick to immigration (I got stamped! - after not getting stamped in Paris on my last trip, this was a big deal), waited on luggage, then caught the National Express bus to Oxford. Then shared cabs to here, Spencer House in Summertown, a suburb.

My roommate Richard Horah, came over on an earlier flight. Being male and relatively fit, we were assigned the room in the eves, the only one without its own internal bathroom (actually, Callie didn't have a bathroom either, but she also didn't have a roommate - the privilege of leadership). We have our own, but it's down the flight of stairs next to everyone else's rooms.

Friday night after we'd put our stuff in our rooms, John Lupold gave us an orientation on Oxford and its public transportation. Most of us went to dinner at Saffron, a restaurant in Summertown a couple blocks from the house. I had "Paneer Shashlick", some naan, and a Strongbow. We all had papadums to start - the unspiced variety with several sauces. My dish was veg and cheese grilled on a skewer, with a sauce I didn't like much and a mediocre salad. The cheese and veg were good, but I wasn't too happy about the £17 price tag.

After dinner I walked into Summertown to look around. I visited the Oddbins and tried an 18 year old Caol Ila (whisky) which I really enjoyed. Then I used my new bus pass to go downtown, which I found teaming with 20 year olds. There are McDonalds, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken on Cornmarket. I didn't come to the UK to eat American fast food. I visited the Oddbins there too before heading back to the house and crashing into bed around 2130.

Saturday 2 April 2005

Breakfast was yogurt and bread stuffs. They had rhubarb yogurt!! Actually it wasn't that great but the raspberry had _lots_ of fruit (Marks and Spencer).

We visited the public library in the morning. It's in the Westlake shopping center, about three blocks from downtown. Hideous 1970s construction, but a good collection. They have quite a few movies, which you have to pay to borrow. Their government mandate says books, magazines, and newspapers have to be free, but pretty much everything else is "available for hire." They have a good selection of CDs - including all three of the Linkin Parks, all of which were on the shelf. In the same room with the CDs was a very large collection of scores, including sets. Scores were free, sets cost - as did CDs. They also had a separate serials room. They had 16 or 20 public access computers, some of which had Internet access. The children's ones were filtered - I think all of them were.

We went through the Covered Market, but didn't really have a chance to look because we were just passing ... It actually looked pretty neat - not totally taken over by tourist interests.

We headed through to the Bodleian gift shop. I spent most of my time photographing the building inside and out. The only part of the inside I saw this time was the Divinity School with its famous fan-vaulted ceiling. It was at that point I realized that the other thing I forgot on this trip (besides an umbrella, which is at least easily replaceable) was my mini-tripod. It's going to make interiors a lot more difficult.

We wandered around Radcliffe Camera, which one of my resources said was in large part based on Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. It makes sense. The Camera isn't as ornate.

We had lunch in the cafe under the Church of St. Mary the Virgin - it was pretty good. They were verging on militantly organic, with an anti-Coca Cola sign posted on the cooler, and none of their products. I had what they called a "Spanish tortilla" (I would have called it a "Spanish Omlette") basically eggs and potato baked in a frying pan with some nice toppings.

After lunch I went into the church and took some pictures. Unfortunately I'm still learning the camera and that was the first church I tried to do, so the pictures may have suffered.

Then up the church tower, which is quite an adventure - up metal, stone, and wood steps, outside, back in, and finally a very long climb up a tight and steep spiral stone staircase. And at the top you have access to 360 degrees around the turret, but there are plenty of people and it's nearly impossible to pass one another. Great pictures and a lot of fun.

Then to Blackwell's bookstore on Broad Street, their original but much expanded location. There are now several other Blackwell's stores along the street dedicated to particular types of books. I wasn't overly impressed - somewhere along the line I've lost interest in bookstores, even really huge ones.

We climbed on a double decker tour bus right across the street from Blackwell. Most of us went up to the open upper deck. You're supplied with a headset you plug in to the wall to listen to the tour guide (who was a rather goofy (ex?-)student).

After we got off the tour bus yesterday, we piddled along Broad Street in and out of stores, finally heading north on Banbury to the "Old Parsonage," where we had high tea. Happily this was paid for. Most had tea, I had cappuccino. We had scones with clotted cream (sort of a sweeter butter) and four kinds of sandwiches: salmon (never tried it), prawn, ham hock, and red pepper. The scones were immensely popular so I only got my allotted two, but I ate several of the left-over sandwiches. The red pepper and prawns were particularly good.

From there most of the group walked or bussed home, but I headed down to Christ Church meadows. I did rather poorly with the navigation and took about three different turns I shouldn't have, but I got there. Christ Church College is possibly the largest and most impressive of the Colleges. The meadows are gorgeous. I walked down by the Thames and up by the Cherwell with the sun hanging low in the sky and providing beautiful light over the occasional field of daffodils and the swans in the river. The pictures (having now seen them on a computer screen) aren't as good as I might have hoped, but there are a few. I came out the other side of downtown, by the Botanical Gardens and Magdalen ("Maudlin") College. I took pictures of the Magdalen gargoyles.

The next few paragraphs require a bit of back-story. In February I was looking to buy the domain "gilesorr.ca," and I discovered that some domain-hijacking bastard had bought "gilesorr.net" (the domain has since lapsed). I mean, who would do that?? It didn't occur to me that there might actually be someone else in the world who had the same name as me - "Giles" is a very uncommon first name in North America, and "Orr" isn't a common surname. Here's the really bizarre part. Where does this other Giles Orr live? In Oxford. So I emailed him before the trip and asked him if he wanted to have a beer.

From Magdalen College I followed quiet back streets which deposited me right across St. Giles from the Eagle and Child where I was to meet Giles Orr. I went in at 1930 and found Tom and Barbara Frieling and Sharon Self sitting down for dinner. Tom bought me a beer (he was at the bar when I came in) and I sat and chatted with them until 1950 at which time I moved off to make myself a little more obvious.

A guy with a goatee came in almost exactly at 2000, and I raised my hand in a tentative greeting. It was him, and he'd brought his younger brother Matthew. Giles almost immediately went to the bar to order us a round, so my first few minutes were spent talking to Matthew. I think I asked him about his family history. Giles came back with beers for them, whisky for me (I'd decided I needed to switch to something I knew I handled a little better than beer). Giles likes whisky but can't drink it anymore because it messes up his stomach. Matthew has the same problem. I told him about the librarian's tour of Oxford, and he went over the schedule giving his opinions on various restaurants. He thought well of Saffron (the previous night) but warned that Browns (where we were supposed to go tonight) is very expensive, and Fishers - planned for tomorrow night - is excellent but easily £50 a head (he took his wife there for their anniversary). When I wrote a note on the paper, Matthew said "Oh God, he's a lefty!" The other Giles is too. So I inquired about siblings. One younger brother. But Matthew is five years younger to my brother Alex's two. And for the first time in years I told someone my middle name. His is Derek, and there's a very funny story with that: he was supposed to be "Giles Edward" (or possibly Edwin) after a family member, but his father forgot what it was when he went to register his son and just took the first name of the guy behind the desk ... His mother was less than impressed.

They are also an areligious family, and Giles is about as left-leaning as me. We argued heavily about Michael Moore's films, but about the execution not the politics. His family, like mine, has shown very little inclination to trace family history. His grandfather, Alfred Orr, left his grandmother a year after his father was born. His grandmother remarried shortly thereafter and had more children, but it was many years before the children knew they didn't share the same biological father. Alfred Orr was long gone. (What about names? did she not take her second husband's name? What are the kid's last names? I didn't think of this when I was talking to him.) They're of almost entirely Scottish descent.

They wanted to head to another pub. Before we left I got Sharon to take a picture of the three of us. I wish I'd had her take several, although it's not bad.

The first pub we went to after the Bird and Baby was "Far From the Madding Crowd." We traded off buying rounds. We went to a couple others, one of which was "The Three Goats Heads."

Matthew, at age 32, lives at home with their parents. He kicks his mates's asses on the XBox, and thinks "Flash Gordon" (the 1980s version) is the best movie ever. Of course any of the James Bond or "Die Hard" films will do too. "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" (preferably the older stuff) and "Stargate" all make him very happy too. I admit that the two Giles's may have made a bit of fun of his simple pleasures.

Late in the evening we returned to the Bird and Baby, and ended up sitting at the same table. At 2315 the bartender came bellowing about "time to close in five minutes!" On a Saturday! When I complained, Giles said "Welcome to British licensing laws." There were options, but we called it a night. We were both very disappointed that he was headed out of town the next day, or we would almost certainly have got together again. We both had a great time. He said he was going to Nottingham "to deal with the sheriff." I started to walk home, giggling fitfully - not at that particular joke, but just at how well it had worked out. I caught a bus back after a few blocks.

Happily Richard was still up. We stayed up even later, writing in our respective journals.

Imagine - finding you have a namesake, when you thought your name was too uncommon for that to ever happen. And arranging a meeting. But you don't think "what's this guy like?," you just hope for the best. And it turns out ... better than that. He's cool, he's funny, and you agree on a lot of things.

Couldn't have worked out better. Great day.

Sunday 3 April 2005

Most of the party went to church this morning at Christ Church. I was up late with Giles and had no interest in the service, so I passed. Richard got up around 0730. I ignored his comings and goings, and slept until 1000. I got directions to the Turf Tavern from John, then showered. I took a bus to the Turf, arriving around 1150 and sat at a picnic table outside writing until 1250 when the rest of the crew arrived.

The Turf is down an alley that's about three feet wide just beyond the Bridge of Sighs. If you don't know it's there, you won't find it. Giles says it's very popular and quite good.

The pub itself is low-ceilinged, a little cramped, and decidedly warren-like in its twistings. They've been in operation several hundred years, so I suppose that shouldn't be surprising. We ate outside on the patio because the weather was (again) glorious. I had really excellent bangers and mash, and a not-so-excellent cider (Rosie's).

Richard went to the rail museum in Didcot (one station down the line from here) on the recommendation of Giles, passed on by me. He missed service, lunch, and the following tour.

We met Callie and the tour guide at Blackwell. From there ... we walked by several places which the guide talked about. She had a soft voice and a dry manner so I didn't catch too much of what she was saying - I was always running off to take photos. We went into the spectacular Museum of Natural History - not to tour, but to use the restrooms. Victorian glass and steel. Then we went on to Keble (pronounced "Keeble") College, with its "shocking" (for the time) banded red and white brick work. The chapel and quad were very nice. Our Cotswolds tour guide later in the week, apparently one of the hold-outs still not fond of Keble, referred to it as "the streaky bacon building."

Sharon tells me we went to St. Johns College after Keble, and I know she's right but I don't remember ... But I remember taking pictures.

We ended the tour on Broad Street, at the brick cross on the road where the martyrs were burned.

Most people went for tea and snacks, but I immediately headed out for Christ Church College - because I wanted to see their chapel/cathedral, and their dining hall - which was the dining hall in the Harry Potter movies. I didn't get a lot of time, but I did get a lot of pictures ...

After 1700 or 1730 when the College closed, I headed south to the meadows again, and sat and wrote. After a while I decided I'd rather be inside, and maybe in company. I walked out the west end of the meadows and up St. Aldate to the foot of St. Giles where I caught a bus back to the house. I had declined dinner at Browns, but they never went: Callie decided to order in pizza. We knew there was a Papa Johns in town (based in the South, quite good in M'ville), but they didn't deliver to Woodstock and Moreton. So we ordered from Dominos. It was okay and kind of fun but at least one and a half times as expensive as in the U.S.

Monday 4 April 2005

I got up at 0700 this morning, we left the building at 0900 to catch the bus. We were at the Bodleian at 0930 this morning. We were led on our tour by David Vaisey, the previous head of the Bodleian. He was fabulous. Of course he's intimately familiar with the library and its history, but he's also a great storyteller and very funny. He took us first to the Divinity School, the vacant room with the incredible ceiling. Then he took us through the locked back door to a dark wood panelled room that was for many years the university parliament. He told us a lot of the history of the library. Then he took us to the new librarian's office (he's out of town now) where we dumped our coats and bags. From there I'm a little hazy on the order, but we went through the old Bodleian, outside to the Radcliffe Camera, downstairs and underground to the new Bodleian, through the stacks, and outside back to the old Bodleian. I wish I could tell all his stories, but I have neither the memory nor the time. He showed us most of the library intake for a week (sans serials) and that amounted to a three foot by three foot by one and a half foot heap. Evidently they're putting current books for which they expect no current demand into storage. In an abandoned salt mine. Shrink wrapped on palates, sorted by size. After all, a salt mine is a great environment for books: dark, cool, and very, very dry.

He told us about the Bodley boys who used to push little carts on rails underground between the old Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera. He arranged a reunion during his tenure for those who were still alive. Many were librarians at important schools. (One of the side effects of being a Bodley Boy was a good shot at an Oxford scholarship if you were smart.)

He showed us the fascinating box conveyor system that replaced them. It's still in use but was down for maintenance. He showed us the lower stacks of the new Bodleian, with one of the earliest examples of movable shelving: it's suspended from the (low) ceiling, attached to I-beams, and wheeled along its length. The weight on the ceiling must be immense, but no different than floor-mounted. The physical arrangements were probably worse.

Finally, he showed us some very early printed books - printed in double columns so they could be hand-illuminated, because that's just how it was done. And a gorgeous parchment book, with incredible illuminations. In Latin from the 1400s.

Very early he showed us the old Bodleian reading room, including the shelves where the books used to be chained. They were chained on the front edge, and shelved with the paper (not the spine) facing out. A catalogue consisted only of shelf position: "3rd bay, second shelf, 10th book." It's chained - it wasn't going anywhere. Binding was a personal thing: you'd get unbound pages, and have them bound to match your collection.

No pictures there, and none in the glorious Radcliffe either. Both are functional collections, and Radcliffe was very full of studious undergrads.

We went to the covered market for lunch, and several of us settled into a cheap diner-type place. most had shepherd's pie which they said was good, but it has beef so I had a ham and cheese sandwich. That was all it was: a slice of ham, some cheap cheese, and Wonder Bread-equivalent.

After lunch I went to the east end of the High to visit the pen shop I'd spotted previously. Prices were well beyond my budget, so I headed to All Soul's College where Norma, the feisty older head librarian led us around the college. I'd dashed to the chapel before I joined the group and stared in amazement at the reredos - but I could only see it and photograph it through the gate. Well, Norma unlocked the gate and let us in. It's spectacular, and I took a lot of pictures - in bad light. From there she took us upstairs to the empty medieval library. It's now used as a meeting room and the like. But the interesting thing was the Codrington library, which is incredible. A huge two-tiered room, kind of T-shaped, with a couple big sculptures. A couple more structures were tacked on in the Victorian age, and that's where she took us to talk to us for a while. The room we were in had a four storey spiral stair going up above us. She assured us that the stair wasn't particularly well anchored architecturally speaking. Codrington had a couple scholars in it, so we had to be quiet and I didn't get as many photos as I would have liked.

I think everyone else went back to the house or possibly shopping. I ran for the Botanical Gardens, got there at 1600. The greenhouses were to close at 1630, the gates at 1700. I did the greenhouses first. There were some interesting things in the greenhouses (including small Venus Fly Traps, all of which had been triggered by children) and the gardens were laid out very nicely, but it wasn't overy exciting. I left a bit before 1700. I ended up at Blackwell's where I collapsed into a chair hoping to stay until I needed to leave for Fishers. But Blackwell's closed at 1800. I bought a slim but entertaining book about the Oxford gargoyles for something like £3. I walked slowly down to the roundabout at the end of the High and out Elisabeth(?) Road. I planned to walk over to Cowley Road once I'd located the restaurant, but there were already three people at Fishers at 1810 so I joined them.

Alice was warned they didn't know how to make a margarita, but she ordered one anyway. One sip and she almost spat. I inherited it and rather enjoyed it. I tasted liqueur and it was definitely high alcohol content. I wondered if it might have chocolate liqueur. Eventually we asked and the the mystery was solved: Tequila, Triple Sec, and lemon juice. Weird. I'd already ordered a Guinness, so I drank that too. I bought pretty much the cheapest item on the menu, Kedgeree. Spicy rice, smoked haddock, shrimp, a huge whole prawn, two halves of a boiled egg, and mayonnaise-like sauce. It was pretty good. I'd gone despite Giles's warning that it was extremely expensive because I was assured I could easily get out for under 20 pounds if I wanted to, and I remembered I love fish. Well, more shellfish, but the cheapest shellfish plate was 20 pounds. That's about $36 US now. Sharon had "Ling," which she loved and I thought was okay from my one taste. They served anchovies marinated in lemon juice and olive oil(?) as an appetizer and it was quite good, reversing anything I thought I knew about that fish. We stayed late talking.

Tuesday 5 April 2005

Up around 0815, shower, eat a few of the nuts and raisins I smuggled into the country. I was willing to declare or give them up, but there was no one at all at Customs. That's been breakfast several times.

Leave at 0930 to get to OUP (Oxford University Press) at 1000. There Martin Maw gave us an introduction to OUP by guiding us around their very small museum. Without him it would have been dull and short. With him it was quite fascinating. He explained (among many other things) several common English expressions that came from printing. Each small lead piece with a letter on the end which are assembled (backwards and bottom to top) into words and then sentences is called a "sort." If you didn't have enough of a particular letter, you would be "out of sorts." Since assembly was done backwards (mirror image of the final product), you would have to pay particular attention to letters that were mirror images of each other, thus "mind your p's and q's." Lines of text were assembled in a small wood bar known as a "stick." If you grabbed it and put it in backwards, you "got the wrong end of the stick." Finally, sorts were stored in cases above your workspace, and capital letters were stored above regular letters: "upper case" and "lower case."

He talked a fair bit about the Oxford English Dictionary and the man behind it. And he said OUP would never have signed up for it if they'd had any idea of the true cost or time frame when they'd signed on for it. The leader underestimated the cost by more than an order of magnitude, and the time frame by nearly as much. But it's a fascinating story and led me (combined with Jesse's very enthusiastic recommendation and the relatively low price of 8 pounds) to buy "The Meaning of Everything" about the making of the OED at the OUP bookstore later in the day.

John, Sharon, Tom, Cathy and I went (led by John) to Al Shami, a Lebanese place in the Jericho neighbourhood near OUP. John got several starters, Tom and Sharon got a couple each, and Cathy and I bought main plates. We all shared, and it was all really good (although only John was really happy with his Chicken livers). Grilled chicken, babaganoush, chicken livers, spiced lamb sausage ...

After Al Shami we headed for Merton College with a visit at Oriel College. I don't remember that at all - probably just a ramble around the quad possibly a visit to an uninspiring chapel. We arrived early at Merton, but there were no other colleges close enough to visit before we got back. I poked around the quads and photographed gargoyles as we waited. I think we visited the chapel when our guide picked us up, but the guidebook description isn't sounding familiar (it basically says "old, huge, and heartless"). She then took us to a fairly ordinary and only mildly old working library, several people studying. But from there she took us upstairs to the "Old Library," which is breath-taking. Very hard to describe though ... Almost like the right-angle intersection of two subway tunnels, taller than that, beautifully panelled in rich dark wood. Few windows, cold, stall after stall each with a narrow bench, lined with 400-500 year old books. No photos, so I bought the postcard.

I don't know the name of the woman who led us - she was young, and I had the impression her boss had left town and dropped this in her lap. Once in the old library, we met Martha, special projects cataloguer from the Bodleian. She was at Merton for several months, cataloguing their really old stuff. She worked at the incredibly incongruous computer at the center of the intersection bundled up against the cold.

One of Merton's most famous graduates was Max Beerbohm, and his Oxford-based parody Zuleika Dobson still comes up a lot. The librarian showed us the Beerbohm room, mostly decorated with letters and cartoons.

From Merton we walked to the High Street and I think Richard and Alice and I ended up in the Oxford University Press bookstore. Strange to be surrounded by a good-sized bookstore full of nothing but the publications of what's probably the most prestigious press in the world. I bought The Meaning of Everything. I convinced Richard he needed one too - although he didn't need much convincing and is probably carrying 30 lbs. of books now.

I caught a bus back to Summertown and prowled through Marks and Spencer admiring the incredible selection of high end prepared foods. Moderately expensive. Then I went to Co-op, where I walked around and eventually bought a box each of McVities and Co-op Jaffa Cakes. I think the McVities were 89p and the Co-op 20p cheaper, but the McVities were worth the difference. Then back to the house. We stayed at the house a while and eventually took the Wolvercote bus out to the end of the line. From there we walked the half mile to the Trout pub. On the way we passed a huge open field where a couple kids were playing at a sport none of us had a name for ... They had either enormous U-shaped kites or miniature para-sails, and seemed to be standing on large off-road skateboards. On this arrangement they slid back and forth on the field, and we saw one get airborne for 2 or 3 seconds.

The Trout is another old rambling building, but much larger than the Turf. I ordered "lemonade" at the bar and was given a clear sparkling liquid that tasted of lemons. The food was good ... I had an entire chicken breast baked into a pie with peas and "chips" (fries) on the side. Around 2100 we made the hike back to the bus stop.

Wednesday 6 April 2005

Betsy, Alice, Cathy, Sharon, and myself were picked up on the street by Philip and his "Cotswold Roaming" minivan. Debbie, a woman of indeterminate Asian origin from L.A., was already in the van. He took us first to a church in the small town of Bladon near Blenheim, where Winston Churchill is buried. Churchill had a strong association with the Palace (Blenheim Palace was our primary destination for the morning). There were fresh flowers on his grave: his birthday was April first, and he still has living relatives. The weather was miserable, pouring rain. Philip promised us better weather - and amazingly, he delivered.

Blenheim is huge and spectacular, and yet I was disappointed. No pictures inside, that always pisses me off. Cold stone corridors. About four rooms dedicated to Churchill - letters, awards, history. Then a tour of the palace, or wander on your own. Huge rooms, tapestry walls, old furniture, ceilings in plaster and gold leaf. We saw five or six rooms besides the entrance and the Churchill area. The last was the most fun: an enormous, tall library with a huge organ down one end. All the books were locked behind grates. I think the stairs up to the balcony (to get at the upper level of books) was behind the statue at the end opposite the organ. The room also had the first of several gift shops, this one mostly selling books on the Spencers (the family that has owned Blenheim for generations) and Churchill.

The weather cleared up, so a look around outside and at the other gift shops was followed by a stroll into Woodstock, where Philip was to pick us up after lunch. I had wanted to see the Butterfly House on the Palace grounds, but Philip said "you don't have enough time and it's not very good anyway." There was also no time to walk the 2200 acres of grounds. It was pretty, and that disappointed me too.

In Woodstock we ate in Harriet's Tea Room(?), which Philip had recommended. Sharon had arrived ahead of us and highly recommended the Celery and Stilton soup. I had that - it came with bread, and was pretty good. I also had two crumpets with butter and strawberry jam. I love crumpets, and I miss them - they're commonly available in Toronto, but I never see them in the U.S.

Philip returned with another woman, "Daisy." She was from Modesto, California. For the afternoon he took us to five or six stops in the Cotswolds, and I really can't put names or order to them. My new digital camera records audio memos, and with the use of that I may be able to reconstruct the trip. There were a lot of: sheep - pretty views - old stone houses - chapels - narrow roads.

Philip narrated much of the trip over his head microphone. He reminded me a great deal of our driver/tour guide in Charleston years ago: knowledgeable, funny, bitter sarcasm, possibly burnt-out on his job. He told us before Blenheim about the eldest son, who should inherit but had been disowned by an act of Parliament. Apparently a drug addict with several other major offenses to his name as well. The second son will inherit. They didn't mention any of that inside.

Philip dropped us back at Spencer House around 1830. Most of us dined at Qumin (about twenty meters from Fishers on the other side of the street) on Giles's recommendation. Service was slow, but we had an elaborate and wonderful meal. We had papadums with five sauces, like Saffron - but unlike Saffron, all five were good. Saffron's yogurt had tasted like bad cheese, Qumin's was fresh. I had a veggie-cream mix that included a lot of corn - something I'd never seen in Indian cooking before. Almost certainly not authentic, but very good with naan. John agreed it was much better than Saffron. We passed on dessert (I wasn't having any anyway - I was completely stuffed) because it was late and they were slow. The leading "Q" explains my inability to find the restaurant in the phone book, as I assumed it was spelled the same as the spice.

Thursday 7 April 2005

Last full day. Damn.

We were at Rhodes House at 1000. Rhodes House is the center of the Rhodes Scholarships. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, and has a big portrait on the wall of one of the major rooms - on the other side of the door from him was Nelson Mandela. Somehow that seemed odd to me. We were led around by the extremely energetic Helen, the Rhodes House archivist. She talks at a break-neck pace and couldn't stay still. The foyer is plain marble, very sparse. Beyond it there's a lot more wood panelling, a much warmer look. She took us up to the Rhodes reading room, which is very nice. They have only a limited number of books there, the most popular stuff. The rest is stored in their stacks. They used their own in-house classification system (so what else is new?). I didn't ask, but it appeared to be based first on country. Much of their material is political. Two of their largest collections have to do with an Anti-Apartheid group and a Missionary group. Some of the documents and letters from the former date back to the 1600s or possibly further. The missionary letters must be really fantastic for some researchers.

Their closed stacks take up the whole basement, and a lower basement that was excavated much later than the house (perhaps in the 1950s?). The latter was meant to be two stories tall, but they hit the water table so they had to choose between very low ceilings on two floors or ludicrously tall shelves - they got 10 foot tall shelving. They have a lot of movable ladders and difficult-to-access materials. She didn't want me taking photos - too bad, both because of their weird structure and the beautiful drawings in one of the missionary's notebooks (from the 1970s). My favourite was "a boy with a [totally?] useless pair of pants" with a picture of a boy with pants extending from the crotch down.

I asked about the extent of the room and was told it was partly below the house and partly below the garden.

She then took us to the Vere-Harmsworth Library half a block away. It's association with Rhodes House was unclear to me. New building, five to ten years old I think. Lots of bare (polished) concrete, lots of windows. There are slats outside the windows that are supposed to block direct sun. She said they work well in summer, but not always so well in winter.

A couple people were in favour of lunch at the Turf and I immediately chimed in. That probably tipped the scales, and that's where we went. I very nearly had bangers and mash again, but decided to try something different, so I went for the ham salad baguette (also cheaper). I also had some onion rings and a pint of Strongbow. "Ham salad" turned out to be a couple slices of ham with greens on top - "ham" and "salad." Disappointing. Alice encouraged me to eat half of her sticky toffee(?) with custard to save her putting on the weight. It was very good.

After the Turf I set out to cover all the colleges I'd wanted to see but had missed. I didn't succeed, of course, but I did manage to see several (and forget the tobacco I'd intended to buy for Tim). I decided on St. Catherines first, as it was a bit further out than the others and I thought I might not see it if I left it until later. In hindsight I wouldn't have missed much, but I'd convinced myself I needed to see it. Completed in 1964 to Arne Jacobsen's design, it's extremely angular and stark despite the extensive gardens. You have to come in through the car park, which doesn't put you in the right mood. The porter was very helpful - they have no chapel, but if I went to the old porter's office and called this number, the librarian was usually fine with letting visitors in. So I stomped through the rain and mud and made it to the old porter's lodge, and yes, just walk over and she'd open the door. Two rows of dorms, between them green space and two buildings: the dining hall and the library. How sensible. The library is two stories, most of it open, with thin spiral stairs on either side to access the upper level. They use Dewey, although of the form NNN XXX.NN (numbers letters.numbers) - not something I'd seen before, but hardly surprising in Oxford where everyone seems to have their own classification system. I'd put their collection at 40,000 books, but estimating is hardly my expertise.

I couldn't get into the dining hall, which the guidebooks highly recommend.

My next stop was Mansfield, quite new by Oxford standards - 1890 or so? The porter told me the library was available "by prior appointment only." But the chapel is beautiful, and I really liked the stained glass. Even though it seemed to be given over entirely to pictures of benefactors or famous graduates, it was beautifully done.

From there to Brasenose and its chapel with the bizarre painted plaster fan vaulting over top of a hammer beam ceiling. Weird, but beautiful. Couldn't get past the screen though - it was roped off. The dining hall was elegant and wood panelled, rather like Christ Church but smaller.

On to Exeter. The guide says it is indeed a Victorian tribute to Sainte Chappelle, but while the fine author thinks it's a butchery, I think Sainte Chappelle could easily be improved by the Victorians. I loved it. Again, three sides of stained glass, but more stone holding it up and more of a church inside. The predominant colour in Sainte Chappelle in my memory was red, and this was darker - purple or green. It'll be interesting to see the photos to clear that up.

I thought I should probably head back to Spencer House to prepare for our big farewell dinner, but I desperately wanted to see Worcester College chapel. I flip-flopped on it and then headed for Worcester as fast as I could. But they were closed. Just as well I suppose, or I would have been late.

I took the bus to Summertown and bought the 18 year old Caol Ila at Oddbins. Then I bought a package of Jaffa cakes, then back to the house. I'd worn jeans and a t-shirt for the whole trip, but this was the big dinner out and Callie had asked that we dress nicely. I'd toted Doc Martens, slacks, and a proper shirt across the Atlantic, I was damn well going to use them.

Callie had planned the dinner at Le Petit Blanc months ago. I paid for it, but through my trip fee and I probably enjoyed it more for that. I probably wouldn't have gone if I had to pay myself. We had a fixed menu, with three or four choices for each of appetizer, main, and dessert. I got pate de foie gras for the starter. It was good, but I think I actually like other "less classy" pates more. Still, very enjoyable. Then I had the herb pancakes with veggies inside and ham and cheese outside. I'm sure it had an elegant name. Either way it was delicious. I was glad I hadn't ordered the prawns - they got five prawns arrayed around a small amount of stir-friend veggies. I trade Alice some pancake for a prawn, and it was an excellent prawn. Finally I had bourbon vanilla creme brulee for dessert. It was quite good, but Alice had the best choice, a long strip of chocolate mousse cake. She was insistent I act as her conscience, so I kept lopping hunks of her cake off and heaping them on my plate for later until she was satisfied. We all got a laugh at this. Excellent meal.

Back at the house Richard tried one of my Jaffa cakes and became an instant convert. He and Alice had been headed up to Co-op anyway, now he returned with four packs of Jaffa cakes. I set up one of the house computers to transfer all my images to giles.gcsu.edu, then packed and wrote. I went to bed around 2315. The transfer was successful - it probably ended around 0300. I'd been backing up my CF card to that computer, so I wiped the backup.

Friday 8 April 2005

We got in a couple taxis at 0845. Seven of us, the rest were leaving on other flights. Betsy and Sharon had to catch their cab at 0445 ...

Remind me to fly into Heathrow the next time I go to Oxford. Gatwick is on the far side of London from Oxford, we're still on the bus and passed Heathrow ages ago. Ah - here we are. Nearly.

We caught the 0915 bus to Gatwick, where we arrived around 1115. My second time through there, and the airport has left a good impression. Not just because it has "World of Whisky," but because it's fairly efficient. Different woman, much younger, at World of Whisky - very nearly as knowledgeable as the one I met last time. I sampled Jura's Superstition and once again thought well of it. But then I tried Laphroiag's new and rather experimental "Quarter Cask," and Superstition lost out again. Honestly, I can't tell the difference between the peat and the oak, but this may teach me: it's in quarter-sized casks as they did it years (centuries?) ago, and the flavour is even stronger than regular Laphroiag - but many of my less liked elements in the whisky are less evident - I think I'll really enjoy it. I think she said 10 years in regular casks and 2 in quarter. Across the way at the regular duty free I tried a new Scapa 14 (after having a bit of a water rinse - the Laphroiag hangs around forever). Very rich, sweet. She called it "a good all-rounder," but the peat and smoke were too subtle for me to find. As non-Islays go, it was pretty good - but not enough to tote across the Atlantic.

About to board the plane. I had offered Tim tobacco by email because I found a tobacconist on High Street, but on my big rush to see colleges on the last day I forgot to get back there. I was pretty disappointed. I looked at Gatwick, but while they had loose tobacco, the person there was unhelpful and at 22 pounds a box I wasn't buying randomly. No Three Nuns.

In a last attempt to find Fry's orange chocolate bars, I went to the WH Smith (which seemed to have more candy than books). No Fry's (I asked). But I bought more Jaffa cakes, and some Wine Gums (which were much softer than the Canadian ones).

I took a break from writing the last couple hours to watch the movie "Finding Neverland." In some ways blatantly ridiculous, great performances from Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet made it enjoyable and touching. After the movie I visited Alice and we chatted for a few minutes. Richard is on the other aisle (hard to get to) and was sleeping at the time so I didn't bother. Barbara was in the restroom line but I visited Tom. He had bought a 375 ml bottle of Glenfarclas 10 YO at the duty frees, and was just finishing it off ... He and Barbara both. It's funny how foreign a way of drinking that is to me: I drink one shot (maybe two) on an evening, alternate bottles, and the bottles last an average of ten months.

Interesting - in searching The Oxford Guide to Oxford I found a picture of an incredible reredos which turns out not to be at All Souls, the one we saw, but at New College chapel. Never got there.

If I went back ... I didn't go to any of the Museums. The Ashmolean, Pitt-Rivers, and Natural History are all famous, and I wish I'd had the chance. So many colleges, libraries, and chapels I missed. And more walks - in Christ Church meadows, in the others.

Callie did a great job arranging tours, and John earned his title of "House Daddy ..." He kept our hours and was around when we needed him.

Alice bought Last Bus to Woodstock, the first of Colin Dexter's 19 "Inspector Morse" books. She's now hooked. Almost every pub in town claims that Inspector Morse drank there. Apparently they're probably telling the truth - I hear that over the course of writing and filming, he drank bitters at nearly every pub in the city.

I'm off to read The Meaning of Everything.

by giles