June 11, 2011

Oxford Royal Wedding Weekend - 29 April 2011

I wonder anyone does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful.  One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all... like an opera. William Butler Yeats

The day started quite grey. Ironic given that today is the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Doesn't matter who you are, you don't want it to rain on your big day.

Angie and I were up reasonably early as we had decided in early March, just after the wedding plans started coming out, we would get out of town and head for Oxford. We headed for London at 10 am, arrived at Paddington Station (where you can buy your own Paddington Bear) boarded the next train at 1150 and were on our way. With modern technology and Twitter, we were able to keep up with the wedding and find images of what some of the guests had worn.

Not far out of London, you start to see some dramatic changes in landscape. The tall buildings start to shrink, the buildings in general start to become less compacted. Farms and fields start to take over. It seems the primary crop is something with a yellow flower. As I write this, the name escapes me. Maybe canola. Perhaps in pandering to the stereotype, this is the kind of England I love.

Only an hour or so later you cross the Thames and come into Oxford Station. Neither of us was entirely sure which way to walk from the station so Angie asked a bus driver who pointed us in the right direction. A short, five-minute walk, took us into the town and the accommodation for the next couple of nights. A pub called Eurobar. We checked in, were shown up to the rooms, and were just in time to see the kiss replay at Buckingham Palace on the BBC. People might turn their noses up with the talk of the wedding but I find it exciting because it is the first one I am doing to be able to remember. Mary Donaldson doesn't count.

We didn't stay in the room very long, deciding instead to find lunch and start exploring.

The first place we came to Magdalene (Maud-a-lyn) Church. I'm not sure how old it is but its form was not traditional either. It isn't in cruciform, it’s just rectangular.

The headstones didn’t really help shed any light on the age as every single one was damaged at the same level. I doubt that floods would have done it, but i also doubt it is human damage because even the most dedicated vandal wouldn’t be this specific.

We sat outside the churchyard, near the Martyrs Memorial and attempted to eat our sandwiches without being attacked by the damn pigeons.

From where we were sitting we worked out where were compared with the museums and other sites we wanted to see. Our plan for the rest of the day was to wonder around and see what we could find.

The hardest part of navigating Oxford is the lack of signage around the various colleges. We walked into one of the colleges near the memorial and ran into a group of Americans talking loudly into mobile phones, trying to work out where they were.

A little further up the road is “The Eagle and Child”.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet her to talk and drink. The pub isn’t very big. Once in the front door there is a narrow hall with two small rooms on either side. These had the usual antique looking pub paraphernalia and almost straight away you reach the bar. The bar faces into a large room with a fireplace and light fittings that would have once run on gas. We sat to one side of the unlit fireplace and had a pear cider and hot chips. It was amazing to sit in the same room as these two men.

After our pint we continued up along the road. At a fork in the road we came to another church. Again there were many old graves. Two covered in tarp but you could still see that they were subsiding. The church had closed for the day fifteen minutes before we arrived. We around the other side of the church and found more headstones, but these were so old the dates had worn off. The overhanging trees and the slightly dimmed light gave an opportunity for some arty shots.

Walking back towards the street on the other side was a hall where “Big Issue” people can go. Lying on the footpath in the shade was a big, old timer. Part sheep dog, part something else. He looked up at us, gave us a look and laid back down again. He was a gorgeous old fella.

Across the road and a little way along is a Roman Catholic church. We walked in and I was lost for words. The height of the dome, the colours, the carvings, were amazing. The couple of photos I took don’t do it any justice. Of all the artefacts and items in the church, the little box with a tap, marked Holy Water was my favourite.

Next to this church is a hospital that has been closed down. It will probably be turned into posh apartments for the wealthy. I did get a nice picture of the alms box in the wall.

As we were looking at the hospital, it started to spit with rain. We took shelter at a bus stop but decided to keep walking while it wasn’t too bad.

The English are funny when it comes to rain. For one you would think they’d be used to it. What we Aussies call drizzle and is only annoying because it can’t make up its mind as to stop or get heavier, the English call a down pour. It really is adorable.

By the time we reached the short cut up the side of the Lamb (another pub) it had all but stopped.

The walk we wondered down is called Museum Lane and brings out across the road from the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Of course the rain was unsure what it wanted to do with a few heavy drops falling on us. We decided to play it cautious and head back in towards the main street.

When we got back to broad St we found ourselves standing diagonally across from the Sheldonian. A fine name for a building. This is one of Sir Christopher Wren’s first buildings and the first one open to the public (I believe). It is a very grand building with some monumental masonry heads on the gates.

On the roof of one of the buildings a little further up the road stands a statue of a man, created by Antony Gormly. The figure creates a double take when you first notice it and it’s also quite amusing o watch everyone’s reaction as they walk by.

Continuing our meander around the streets we came to Ship Street. I have the notion in my head that it was part of a port and that Broad St itself was once part of the Thames. I’ve been reading about the Thames in Peter Ackroyds book so I may have this confused with something else. The reason I mention Ship street is because of the lovely, somewhat tilted, potentially Tudor building on the corner. The building and its throng of pigeons.

Further up Ship Street is a vintage shop called the Unicorn. I didn’t go in, owing to its small and cramped size but Angie had a quick look and saw some things she quite liked.

I need to back trace for a moment. I’ve completely missed out part of our walk on Broad Street. Across from the Sheldonian but a little further up the street is Trinity College. We were craning our necks trying to see in when the guy at the gate struck up a conversation. Asked where we were from and did we want to go in. We nodded we’d like to and with that said he designated us as students and we were allowed in for £1 each. I quite liked the duck sleeping next to the water spewing gargoyle. Walking out from one doorway you find yourself in a quad. As we entered a group of girls was hanging out one window, while a group of boys hung out of theirs opposite.  I wasn’t quite sure what their discussion was on but I think it was about what they should do at the end of their exams.

Decorating the doors of the quad looked to be the colours of the houses for rowing. The path then leads out onto a lush green lawn and back around to the main entrance. As we made our way out to the main gate a young guy, with his parents looking to be unpacking into his rooms.  I can only imagine what it would be like to study at Oxford.

Returning now to Ship Street.

Reaching the end of the street we turned right I think and found ourselves coming towards the Radcliffe Camera. Apparently nicknamed “Radder” in the 1930s. It was closed by the time we arrived so we walked down one side towards the church of St Mary the Virgin, where again we had just missed out, time wise, on going in.

The church is the site of the trial of the martyrs – the monument I mentioned earlier. It dates back to 1086 and Anglo-Saxon times. Amy Robsart is buried in the church. She was the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley. Amy died in suspicious circumstances – she was found at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck. Many believe she was pushed and it caused quite a scandal.

As we wandered down the same side again we passed a lamp post in the middle of the walkway. We each passed on either side and as we did, Angie noticed a carving on the doors to one of the houses. It looked a little like a woodland creature within a tree. On either side of the doorway were two carved fawns. Cheeky, smiling lintels. Both of us laughed and made comment about how it was like Narnia and the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. Right as we were turning away from the door a couple were walking towards us. I quickly took a photo of them as they looked like the painting “American Gothic”. The whole five minutes in this spot seemed almost surreal.

Turning around we wandered up the opposite side of the “Radder” and wound our way back towards Broad Street. As we did, we came across a scene which, would be instantly familiar to any fan of Inspector Morse – ‘the Sigh’ – linking two buildings of the college together. It was a popular spot for photos as we were coming through.

By now it was almost 19.00hrs and we decided we would go on the ghost tour we had seen advertised. It is a sad irony that by this point in the year, the sun does not dip his head till after 20.00hrs, so the idea of a ghost tour doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t matter. We found a bench to wait on and watched a group of cyclists in wet suits, kit themselves out with glow sticks and ride away.

Just before 19.30hrs we saw a group progressing down the road being led by a man in a dress coat and top hat. This was to be our guide, Bill Spectre.

Bill started the tour near a cross in the road in Broad St. As we stood there, listening to his story of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, the martyrs, I could feel my left arm getting warm – the arm closest to the cross. I was just about to mention it to Angie when the significance of the cross was revealed. The cross marks the site, just outside the city walls of the time, where the three men were burnt at the stake. So much for not being a ghost tour in receding sunlight. I don’t think the rest of the tour is much worth recording as Bill proved to a bit of a ham – that and I’ve viewed enough Jonathan Creek to be sceptical of tricks, as well as trying to work them out. it was priceless though, near the end of the tour, to watch four grown men, running up the street, beating coconut husks together, imitating horses, Monty Python-esque. The tour finished about 21.00hrs.

We started our walk back to the pub where we were staying at and found a nice pizza place for dinner. Fed and watered we fell into beds, watched some tv and fell asleep. I think, quite easily, we did about 8 or 9 kilometres today.

I find I forgot one very important part. I refer to the door, lintels and lamppost I mentioned earlier. Turns out our excitement about it being Narnia was correct as C.S Lewis did indeed find his inspiration in this little corner of Oxford. It really is easy to see why – the whole place screams of history, old gods, magic and a world I truly wish I could have experienced, even though I know it would not be entirely the wonder my imagination holds it to be.


  1. Wow you really did see a lot of Oxford! Clearly there's a lot of stuff I missed when I went, this means I have to go back, yes? :p

  2. This is a lovely little journey through Oxford -- certainly one of my favourite towns anywhere!

    I also enjoyed your comments about the English and the rain. I'm from Vancouver, where it *really really* rains, and I think in England it usually just sort of *feels* rainy. In most areas there is generally not much actual rainfall.