Oxford and a Glimpse of Heaven

Christchurch Meadow, Oxford

‘We should go away,’ said Madam, ‘Oxford. We can go to Oxford.’

‘We could go on the train’ I replied, ‘no driving, no parking issues. We could be there in three hours. Stay in the city centre.’

‘We could drive,’ she said, no luggage to carry, no replacement bus service. ‘

‘I quite like trains…’ I replied.

‘What about the wrong sort of snow?  Leaves on the line?  RMT strikes?  Cows on the line?  Birds in the trees?

I looked on my iPad.

‘No delays reported my sweet,’ I replied.

‘That’s settled then.  We will drive.  How long will it take?’ she asked.

I looked at my iPad again.

‘Hmmm… well..  there’s roadworks on the M40, a contraflow on the M25, there’s been an accident on the A22…’

‘We aren’t going for two days,’ she said, ‘an accident today won’t hold us up!’

‘These things take time to clear,’ I told her.

‘So how long?’ she asked.

A seagull flew past the window.  Low grey clouds were threatening rain.  A car alarm went off in the distance.

‘Well, taking into account the roadworks and contraflow, rush hour traffic on the M25 and finding parking… I think that if we leave at 5am we will be there by dark.’ I said.

She stared at me with suspicious eyes.  I scratched my nose and said ‘looks like rain, my sweet.’

She looked out of the window.  The first raindrops were blowing against the glass.

‘I know!’ she exclaimed, ‘we could go by train!’

I told her that was a great idea.  She always has the best ideas.

We caught the 10am train towards London then on to Oxford.  The weather was sunny with a few fluffy clouds.  The thermometer read 19C.  The train journey uneventful.  I was secretly hoping for a delay as they refund part of your train fare if there is a delay over fifteen minutes, but it was not to be.  The temperature had dropped by the time we reached Oxford and the skies grey.

‘What are you planning on doing in Oxford?’ asked the hotel receptionist.

A good question, I thought.  I looked at Madam.  She looked at me, then at the ground.   She thought for a while and said ‘Shopping!’

‘Museums probably,’ I told the receptionist.

‘There’s a Tolkien exhibit on at the Weston Library,’ he told me. That’s a possibility I thought.  ‘It’s free’, he continued.  That’s a definite, I thought.

We carried the suitcases along the short corridor to the room where Madam went through her lengthy unpacking routine.  She moved chairs around, shuffled the bed sideways, checked the top of the wardrobe for dust, opened and closed all the drawers, dismantled the internal double-glazing (don’t ask), looked under the bed, counted the towels and pillows, carefully read the fire escape instructions (During the night put on your dressing gown and house shoes before evacuating), tested the hair dryer and hung clothes in the wardrobe.  

I stood by the door, foot tapping impatiently.  Finally she was ready and we headed towards the city centre.

We stumbled, mostly by accident, across the new Westgate shopping mall.  Needless to say all the stores were identical to just about every other city mall.  The food court was called Westgate Social maybe in the hope it would become a hang out for the local teenagers.  Four security guards were wandering aimlessly around but no sign of the teenagers, nor many other customers.  

We walked through the rest of the central shopping streets with even more chain stores.  Buses ran through what were otherwise pedestrian streets. It was crowded, dull and soulless and I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of even three nights here.  I thought of a line from Arnold’s poem “Thyrsis”:

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires”

Maybe there wasn’t an Ann Summers, a WH Smiths or an Argos in the city centre in 1875.

We walked past the central post office and I noticed a sign to Christchurch Meadow.  Anything would be better than breathing in diesel fumes. ’This way,’ I said to Madam who was busy taking photographs of a postbox.

Thirty Chinese tourist were blocking the entrance busy taking selfies, their guide waiting patiently at the gate.  We weaved through them, smiling and photo-bombing as we went.  Once into the meadow the change was astonishing.  

Christ Church Meadow Oxford

The meadow is a rare and beautiful open space in the heart of Oxford with spectacular views of Christ Church and Merton colleges, Magdalen tower, and the river.  It is enclosed by the Cherwell and Thames rivers and thus subject to seasonal flooding which probably explains why it has survived since the seventeenth century.  

If you have read any of the previous blogs you may have detected that I am not a big fan of town planners.  You may or may not agree with me on this so I will leave you with the fact that planners had the meadow earmarked as the site of a new road to relieve traffic congestion in the city.  The city council asked the Minister for Local Government to conduct an inquiry into Oxford’s road problems. At the end of it, the inspector, Sir Frederick Armer, concluded that the construction of a road across Christ Church Meadow was “inescapable”.  His main criteria seemed to be to minimise journey times for motorists.

The plan for the bypass was dropped after a public outcry which in turn led to the formation of the Oxford Civic Society.  The landscape architect of this plan was later given a knighthood.

We walked alongside the college student’s Gothic accommodation block and through the meadow.  It was lovely.  Every corner, every turn and path was a photo opportunity. The leaves on the trees were turning brown and starting to fall. Couples and families were strolling along the paths, stopping to look at the flowers and buildings.  My mood and impressions of Oxford improved as we walked through the meadow.  

We went through a narrow iron gate and up a path between Corpus Christi and Merton colleges.  The grey skies had been threatening all day and heavy rain started as we left the meadow.  We sheltered in the doorway of one of the colleges on Aldgate.  ‘Coffee shop or Pub?’ Asked Madam.

‘Whichever we see first,’ I replied, glancing around.

‘There’s a pub right over the road,’ she said.

‘That’s handy,’ I said.

The pub had everything a historic city centre pub could hope for.  A building dating from 1630.  Multiple wood panelled rooms.  Hobgoblin on tap.  Unfortunately the barman was surly and miserable, the prices ambitious, the beer stale.  It was almost empty apart from two vicars sitting at the bar.  There’s probably a joke in there but it escapes me.

We sat for a while hoping the atmosphere might improve but it never did.  I looked on my phone and noticed a pub called “The Four Candles.”

‘We need to go to the Fork Handles, my sweet,’ I told Madam.

She looked at me blankly.

‘Four Candles… Fork Handles.’ 

Another blank look.  I directed her to the Two Ronnies sketch on her phone but I guess you had to be there.

The Four Candles turned out to be Yet Another Wetherspoons.  It was packed with young people, mostly students.  We managed to find the last available table upstairs where we ordered two drinks from our phone and a bowl of chips delivered to our table for £2 less than I had paid for two drinks in the previous pub.  No wonder it had been empty.

Ok, I just remembered one:

A priest, a rabbi and a vicar walk into a bar.

The barman says, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’

A building near to the pub was originally the Oxford’s High School for Boys. Ronnie Barker was a former pupil and later one of the Two Ronnies, hence the name.

Natural History Museum Oxford

We had booked into a hotel near to the station with a ten minute walk into the city.  We were out early, intending to be at the Weston Library as soon as the ticket office opened.  The Tolkien Exhibition was free but had a timed ticket.   

On the way into the city we passed a massive office building which seemed to be built entirely of black glass.  It wasn’t ugly in itself but stuck out against the older buildings like a blot on the landscape.  That wasn’t a simile, it really was a blot on the landscape.  I don’t know the architect or if he ever visited the site, but surely he could have given some sort of token nod to the classical architecture of the surrounding buildings?  

We walked over Hythe Bridge.  The Castle Mill Stream below was chocked with rubbish.  A single traffic cone sat in the middle, partially submerged.  

The Weston Library was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert in the 1930s and opened in 1946 before being extensively refurbished in 2015.   It is built of Bladon stone and blends perfectly with the original 17th Century Bodleian Library opposite.  Somebody needs to drag the architects of some of the modern buildings in Oxford by the ear and show them what can be done.

Tolkien tickets in hand, we walked across the road and wandered around the outside and courtyards of the Bodleian Library.  And what a beautiful building it is.  “SILENCE” signs were placed in every entrance as this is still a working library.  An American man was reading aloud the paragraph on Oxford from a guidebook entitled “England” to his wife.  Tourists were taking selfies in front of the Latin inscriptions on the doors. We walked out of the courtyard and around the Radcliffe Camera, built to house the Radcliffe Science Library.   A lone gardener was pushing a lawn mower over the grass.  Bicycles were chained to the railings.  I would have liked to explore further but it was time to head back to the Weston.

Our tickets to the Tolkien exhibition gave us timed entry between 10:00am and 10:30am and we were in the queue five minutes early.  

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth includes over 200 items from Bodleian’s and Marquette University’s J.R.R. Tolkien archive, as well as from a number of private collections.  The manuscripts, pictures, maps and letters have been gathered from around the world, and many were reunited in Oxford for the first time since the death of Tolkien more than 40 years ago. Tolkien spent most of his adult life in Oxford, first as a student of classics and later as professor of English language and literature.

And what a fine exhibition it was.  Madam had read The Hobbit some years before but had never read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and only seen bits of the films, but she was equally impressed.  I walked round the entire exhibit twice examining everything on display.

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

They had some of Tolkien’s personal effects: his desk; chair; briefcase; wartime identity card and pipe.  More interesting were his hand drawn and coloured maps of Middle Earth along with handwritten pages from his manuscripts.  He would write first in pencil, the go over the document in ink adding and correcting, before typing the finished manuscript.  Just think what he could have achieved with a word processor. 

There was a second exhibition in the Weston library: Sappho to Suffrage – Women who dared, which celebrated the achievements of women through the ages and the history of the Suffrage movement in Oxford.   It marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act and includes fragments of Sappho’s poetry written on papyrus, Ada Lovelace’s 19th century notes on mathematics and the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.   We were the only visitors.

We crossed the road from the Weston, heading towards the city centre.  As soon as we got to the other side I saw the narrow entrance to Blackwell’s bookshop.  ‘We should look in there,’ I told Madam who was marching smartly towards a souvenir shop.  

‘I need Christmas ornaments,’ she replied, but I was already opening the door.

A few weeks ago when we were on a guided tour of Wells cathedral a couple of weeks ago, the guide told us that the beauty of the inside of the cathedral was supposed to represent a glimpse of heaven.  She was wrong.  Blackwell’s basement was a glimpse of heaven.  They may not have every academic book in publication but it must be close.  I’m not sure how a narrow shop could have such a vast basement.  It was like the Tardis.  It was magic.  ’Just leave me here, my sweet,’ I told her, ‘come and fetch me when it’s time to catch our train home.’

But it was not to be.  We had a full schedule today and souvenirs to buy.

Our first stop was just over the road from Blackwell’s.  The Museum of the History of Science houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building.  It was the original site of the Ashmolean Museum when it opened in 1683.  It covers almost all aspects of the history of science and includes astrolabes, sundials, quadrants, microscopes, telescopes and cameras, together with apparatus associated with chemistry, natural philosophy and medicine.

Items, some 20,000 of them, were crammed into display cabinets over the three floors.  Madam wasn’t interested so my time was limited. She went outside to make a phone call while I quickly explored a few of the cases.  In 1931 Einstein gave a lecture in German on relativity and somebody with great foresight saved one of the blackboards where he calculated the size and age of the universe.  The blackboard, safely preserved behind glass, is mounted on the wall of the basement.  He proved that the universe is very big and very old if you are interested.  Unless you are a creationist, then it’s only a few thousand years old, the earth is at the centre and probably flat.

‘I like Oxford,’ I thought.  ‘Would you like to live here?’ I asked Madam.

‘No, it isn’t near the sea,’ was her immediate reply.

I pointed out that neither was central Texas but she never replied.

Our next stop was the Ashmolean, my favourite museum.  It is believed to be the first modern museum opened in 1683 to house the collection of its founder Elias Ashmole (1617-1692).  It has an eclectic mix. Archaeological collections ranging from prehistoric Europe, through ancient Egypt and classical Greece to the Roman period.  It has a coin collection ranging from ancient Greek through to modern British coins.  An art collection covering ceramics, textiles, sculpture and paintings.  It had a number of impressionist paintings from Camille Pissarro, mostly from his Pointillism period.

‘I can feel the shade!’ said Madam as she stood in front of Pissarro’s painting of Eragny Church.  

It’s odd how you can see a photograph of any classic painting and not feel particularly moved.  See then real thing and it’s almost as if you can walk into the painting and be there, right in the middle of the scene.  Feel the heat and breeze, smell the trees.  Sit under a shady branch. That takes some talent.  We spent a long time in the picture gallery.  If there was anybody else there, we didn’t see them.

There was a display of Roman tombstone carving down on the ground floor, which was more interesting than it sounds.  To save both space and a lot of hammering the Romans would abbreviate well know terms.  For example, “HMDMAE” stood for “May wicked wrongdoing be far away from this tombstone.”  I stood for a while trying to work out the acronym.  H can’t be “May”, E certainly isn’t “tombstone”.  After a while I realised it would have been in Latin.  Some days my brain just doesn’t fire on all cylinders. After a bit more thought, I realised that the Latin “Sit ut impius procul ab his quae facit hanc conterebat.” (I think that’s right) doesn’t make anymore sense as an acronym.

I do have a really good joke for you though:

JCELJMSXHUE

NJKNCLERT!

They have a few tablet fragments on display with Linear B script.  This a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest form of Greek. It script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries.  Tablets were discovered in the late 19th century but the meanings remained a mystery until they were decoded in 1952 by self-taught linguist Michael Ventris.  He became fascinated by the scripts and pursued the decipherment as a personal vocation for many years. The tablets turned out be be just a list of goods and chattels.  There is an older script Linear A which has never been decoded.  After spending years working out what was, in effect, a shopping list he may have lost heart.  Unfortunately he was killed in a road accident in 1956 so we will never know.

“We need to go to the Pitt Rivers Museum!’ said Madam.

I looked up from the Linear B tablet where I had been trying to match a tiny squiggle to “Buy cabbages” and replied ‘What’s that my sweet?’

‘I don’t know but we need to go!  It’s a museum!’ she said.

‘What sort of museum?’ I asked, perhaps a little intemperately.

‘No idea, but my friend went there!’

‘Did she say it was good?’ I asked.

‘No, she never said, but I want to go!’

Well, okay then.  Off to the Pitt Rivers it is.

We followed Madam’s watch to the entrance of the museum.  That may sound a little odd but she has one of these new watches that will give you walking directions, the weather forecast and read your messages.  I think it will also tell you the time but she hasn’t found that button yet.

We walked through the doors into what turned out to be a natural history museum which pleased me greatly.  When I have time in London I like to go to the London Natural History Museum but am so often disappointed.  I’m not sure if it is because it is always crowded and noisy or that it seems to be turning more to entertainment than to education.  The Oxford version was everything a museum should be.  Small enough that you could see everything and comprehensive enough to cover the more interesting areas of natural history.  They have whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling, Mary Anning’s fossilised Ichthyosaur discovered on the Jurassic coast, display cases of insects, a Trilobyte wall, dinosaur bones and eggs, skeletons of modern and extinct animals, rocks and minerals and even the remains (including a few bits of soft tissue) of a dodo.  I wandered happily around the different sections and was testing the sharpness (very) of a crocodile tooth when Madam found me and said ‘This isn’t the Pitt Rivers Museum!  It’s next door!’

Further enquiries determined that Pitt Rivers closed at 4:30pm.  It was 4:25pm.

‘We have to come back tomorrow!’ She told me.

After dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, we returned to our hotel room to find a note telling us off for messing with the internal double-glazing. I passed it to Madam.

Bodleian Library Oxford

I was spreading a thin layer of marmalade on a piece of toast at breakfast when the waitress came up to our table and said ‘We need your room. We have to fix the double-glazing.  No hurry, but he’s standing there with his hands in his pockets,’ she said.

‘He likes standing with his hands in his pockets, no rush, finish your toast,’ she added by way of conciliation as she snatched my plate away.

It was 8:30 and we were out of the hotel by 8:40 and heading towards the centre.  It was a chilly morning and I zipped up my coat for the first time since the spring.  The pavements were crowded with commuters wearing backpacks or carrying briefcases, the roads chocked with cars, lorries and buses.

The museums didn’t open until 10:00 so we stopped off at an outdoor street market that was already open.  The market specialised in antiques and curios.  There was a second hand clothes stall with several signs saying “Vintage Clothes.”  It looked to have the same clothes as a charity shop but with higher prices.  The row at the end of the market had food stalls which Madam examined closely although none were open for business yet.  

A nearby barbers advertised “Cheap Haircuts” for £15.  Personally, I would have to go and lie down in a darkened room at even the thought of paying that much for a haircut.  I never pay more than £6 OAP rate.  I’m still hoping to find somewhere that will give me a trim for less than £5.  The worst case is that I get a bad haircut and have to wear my flat cap in public for a couple of weeks.    If it was really bad I have a hat that covers my ears.

We passed a war memorial on the way to the Pitt Rivers.  There were three stone plaques, the first inscription said that it was dedicated to the dead of the 1914-1918 war.  The second, underneath and with a slightly newer carving, was dedicate to those who died in 1939-1945.  The third was left blank, ready for the next inscription.  I couldn’t decide if this showed great foresight or extreme pessimism.

After the briefest fondle of some fossilised dinosaur eggs and a look at some early hominid skulls in the natural history museum, we walked in through the door of the Pitt Rivers museum to be met by a cacophony of sound.  Small children were running around and screaming.  It was gloomy and crowded with dark wood display cases.  I wasn’t impressed but headed to the displays with the least number of loose children, intending to have a quick look round and go back to Blackwell’s.

How wrong I was.  After a couple of cases I became completely absorbed.  I even managed to filter out most of the noise from the screaming children.  They had an amazing selection of objects from around the world, all labeled and organised.  They had model ships, masks, a whole cabinet of betel chewing equipment (who knew it needed equipment), opium pipes, snuff taking equipment and an enormous totem pole.  They had every type of musical instrument including trumpets, flutes, lutes, lamellaphones, zithers, lyres and pluriarchs.  I had never heard of many, let alone seen them.  Every case was densely crammed.  They had a case dedicated to the treatment of dead enemies with shrunken heads and decorated skulls.  The first floor had a selection of primitive surgical instruments should you be in need of a spot of blood letting or having a hole drilled in your skull.

‘It’s leaky!’ exclaimed Madam.

I wasn’t sure if one of the exhibits was shedding moisture or if Madam had a personal problem.  We were looking at a bunch of stone axes and it seemed unlikely that they were the problem.

‘Leaky my sweet?’  I asked in the hope of eliciting further information, ‘do you need medical attention?’

‘LEAKEY, not leaky.  You know, Louis Leakey.  The Kenyan paleoanthropologist.’

I didn’t know.  I wasn’t even sure I knew what a paleoanthropologist was.  Madam explained the Leakey’s work was important in demonstrating that humans evolved in Africa, particularly through discoveries made at Olduvai Gorge with his wife, palaeontologist Mary Leakey. Madam was even tempted at one time to become a paleoanthropologist because of his work.  You learn something new every day, including that your wife is jolly clever.

 

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