A day in Oxford

About 15 years ago, in high school, I did a summer program at Magdalen College, Oxford, and, curious about whether or not it had changed, I decided to go back to look at Oxford again.  I arrived in Oxford around 9:30 and went to the Ashmolean Museum, before it got too crowded. The Ashmolean has an incredible collection of art and sculpture from around the world, stretching back thousands of years. After lunch at the Covered Market on High Street, I went to Magdalen College to look about, but I found that it wouldn’t open to visitors until 1:00.

So I went in search of the dorm I stayed in while I was a temporary student here (we lived outside of the college proper); I couldn’t remember the exact site, but I think I found it, down a side street a few blocks away. Then, I went to the Bodleian Library to kill the time, passing the Bridge of Sighs and the Radcliffe Camera.

I didn’t go into the library, but got a good look at the courtyard.

At 1:00, I returned to Magdalen and wandered around the courtyard and grounds for about 45 minutes; visitors aren’t allowed to go up staircases or into the dining room, or any other areas marked as private. Founded in 1458, Magdalen’s alumni include Cardinal Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, and C.S. Lewis, and the college’s architecture is a mixture of styles. Not much about the college has truly changed since the last time I was here. But Magdalen is really one of the most beautiful out of all of Oxford colleges!

Behind the college, runs a stream, next to which is a deer park.

After my tour of Magdalen, I went for a browse in Blackwell’s bookshop, stopping to view the Sheldonian theater next door, and took the train home in the late afternoon.


The day promised to be rainy throughout, but we never experience much more than a sprinkling here and there.

Today I’m working again to make up for lost time, but I have further travel plans coming up in a few days. Until next time–



Aquae Sulis, part II

After then Jane Austen Centre, I walked around Bath for a bit, taking in a bit of the architecture.

I bypassed the crowds outside the Roman Baths and went into the hushed quiet of Bath Abbey, one of the last great medieval Gothic cathedrals; the site has been used as a place of Christian worship for over a thousand years. It’s also the site where the first King of England, Edgar, was crowned, in 973.

From there, I walked along the River Avon, capturing a view of the 18th century Pulteney Bridge (one of the few bridges in the world with shops on both sides–another, of course, being the Rialto in Venice).

pulteney weir

I walked up to the Royal Crescent, a row of terraced houses that was laid out in the late 18th century in the Palladian style and has been home to people such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

royal crescent pano

I had an early dinner at Sally Lunn’s historic eating place. The tearoom is located in one of the oldest buildings in Bath (15th century), and in the 17th century was the home of Huguenot baker Sally Lunn, who pioneered the Bath bun. sally lunn 2

The current menu offers several different toppings on the bun, based on sweet or savory; I noticed that most people around me chose sweet toppings such as cinnamon or strawberry jam. However, I got the Welsh rarebit topping, along with a pot of the Sally Lunn house blend tea. It was just the thing I needed on a rainy late afternoon, and I wanted to lick my plate, it was so good!

welsh rarebit

I had just enough time before my train left to take a short hike up Alexandria Hill, which is just behind the Bath Spa station and offers views of Bath, or so I heard. The step counter of my phone says that the distance I walked was only .72 miles, but it felt much longer, because the path is up a steep, muddy track with many steps along the way, and ends at a park at the top of the hill. However, the climb was worth it, even though Bath wasn’t clearly visible through the rain. It was amazing to look out at the view and realize the distance I’d walked throughout the day (Bath Abbey is in the foreground of the below photo, and the Royal Crescent is somewhere to the left). bath pano


Aquae Sulis

They arrived at Bath. Catherine was all eager delight;–her eyes were here, there, everywhere, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.

–Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Like Catherine, I came to Bath with eagerness. Jane Austen set at least part of two of her book in this city, and I was excited to explore Bath myself. Jane Austen lived here between 1801 and 1806, and her two “Bath novels” (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey) reflect her changing attitudes about the city over time.

The Pump Rooms in 1806 (http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/literland/austen/index.html)
The pump rooms today.

In Jane Austen’s time, people came to Bath to “take the waters,” as the Romans had done before them (“Aquae Sulis” literally means “the waters of Sulis,” or Minerva). One cannot use the Roman Baths today, of course (something about bacteria in the water), but I read that there is a wonderful modern spa in the center of town–Thermae Bath Spa–that apparently contains the only mineral-rich hot spring waters in the UK (the waters are heated to a temperature of about 92-95 degrees Fahrenheit). I’m not normally a spa person, but in the spirit of “do as the Romans (or Georgians) do,” this place seemed like it was worth checking out.

The spa doesn’t take bookings, and it has a “one-out-one in” policy to control the number of people who enter at one time, so when I arrived this morning in Bath via a train from Paddington, the first thing I did was go directly to Thermae Bath Spa, bathing suit in my bag, in attempt to avoid the crowds.

It’s a beautiful building, with a contemporary glass and Georgian limestone facade. One session gets you two hours’ use of the spa’s natural thermal baths, steam baths, and open-air rooftop pool, and it was incredibly relaxing to float around in the pools for a short while and gaze out over the view, which includes Bath Abbey a short distance away. Even through the rain and cold, it was pretty incredible, with steam rising from the water. And the spa was a lot less crowded than I thought it would be.

After only an hour of using the spa, I took a shower, dressed, and headed out into the town; everything is very near everything else, and it’s easy to get around. I found a shop selling Cornish pasties, and bought a cheese and onion pasty to munch on as I meandered up to the Jane Austen Centre, a museum which celebrates the life and times of the famous author. The staff at the center all dress as certain characters from her books; Georgiana Darcy was my tour guide, and Colonel Brandon was working the till at the gift shop when I came in. Most of the rest of the tour is a fun, interactive self-guided tour, and there are interactive quizzes, among which is a “Which Jane Austen heroine are you?” (FYI, I’m Anne Elliot from Persuasion). I even learned a few things about Jane Austen and her books I hadn’t known before!

jane austen 1

I even got to dress up in semi-Regency clothing!

jane austen 2

I’ll write about the rest of my day in Bath later!


Blue plaques

One can hardly spend much time in London before one starts noticing the preponderance of blue plaques. The blue plaque scheme is run by English Heritage. The plaques represent people from the past who are well known or deserve recognition, and “link the people of the past with the places of the present.” The scheme has been going on since the 1860s.

Apparently, there are now over 900 plaques all over London (someone has actually taken the time to create a map of where all of them are located). Not all of them are blue, and not all of them represent British people; there is a “blue” (actually, lead) plaque outside Benjamin Franklin’s last remaining home, in Craven Street near Trafalgar Square. The plaques are a strong reminder of the ways in which the past and present often overlap.


Few Eggs and No Oranges: Vere Hodgson’s Diary

pic12_london_skyline-1One of the reasons I decided to live in the Notting Hill area was a book called Few Eggs and No Oranges: Vere Hodgson’s Diary, which was reprinted by Persephone a number of years ago. During WWII, Vere worked for a Notting Hill charity and documented her experiences throughout the war. She began keeping her diary on June 25, 1940, as the Blitz began, and she wrote about everything, from what was going on in the world down to the doings of her neighbor’s cat. I recently re-read this book and was struck anew by how much this book is a testament to how ordinary people can do on with their lives, even as extraordinary things go on around them. One of my favorite passages is as follows:

[Sunday 11th May 1941] Just heard the terrible news that Westminster Hall was hit last night. Also the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. They saved the roof to a large extent. In the Abbey it was the Lantern. At first they thought Big Ben had crashed! One cannot comment on such things. I feel we must have sinned greatly as a nation to have such sacrifices demanded of us. Indeed future generations will say we have not taken care of what was handed down to us. We should have been more careful to defend it. We must pay the price now; but it is terrible to think of the wasted years, when, sunk in enjoyment, we did not realize that the days we looked on as precious were numbered.

The Notting Hill and London that Vere Hodgson knew is much different today, but in many ways, her sentiments–of resilience and not giving up in the face of difficulties–ring true today. I feel that, given recent events, we are teetering on that precipice now.


The library of Holland House, Holland Park, just after the Blitz

In Roman Britain

GuildhallToday I went to the Guildhall and Guildhall Art Gallery. The Guildhall is a medieval great hall that has been used as a town hall since the 15th century for various functions.

The Art Gallery has a large collection of Victorian paintings, as well as the remnants of an ancient Roman amphitheater in the basement. In ancient Roman times, the amphitheater was the largest of its kind in Britain (with seating for about 7000 spectators), although it was modestly sized compared with other Roman theaters. And similar to other amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire, it was used for gladiator fights and the execution of criminals. Originally built in wood in 70 AD, it was later rebuilt with stone and tile. The part that remains now is the eastern gate, but archeologists have easily been able to imagine what the amphitheater looked like 2000 years ago. The museum has attempted to re-create what it must have been like to be there in person; images of gladiators are projected on the walls, and there’s a soundtrack of the noises of spectators. Down the center of the room is a glass case over the excavated remains of the plumbing system that was used. It’s an amazing experience, and what’s more, I was the only person there!

I then walked up to the Museum of London, which is packed full of hundreds of thousands of artifacts from thousands of years of London’s history, from prehistoric times to the present. You could easily spend hours and hours there, exploring everything–it’s remarkable how many objects they have on display, from Roman coins to medieval shoes. What’s especially impressive is that they’ve managed to recreate some aspects of every day life, including entire rooms of a Roman villa; below is an example of a Roman triclinium (dining room). The furniture is reproduced, but the tiles on the floor are genuine, as are some of the artifacts on the tables.

Roman Room

Furthermore, the museum has even managed to recreate an entire Victorian village!

The museum snuggles up against the old Roman walls, the remains of which still exist in various places:

Roman Wall


Meeting Yoda

I have been battling a small cold for the past few days! Undeterred, yesterday, I had lunch of a sandwich and lemonade in the Cafe in the Crypt of  St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. You can still see vestiges of the old 18th century crypt in the form of headstones if you look down at the floor. Most of the print has rubbed away over time, but every now and then, you can read a bit (the headstone below belongs to a man who belonged to Scotland Yard, died 1844).

One of the things I think I will never get used to is that at self-service restaurants and cafes in Britain (and other places), you don’t actually have to clear your own table. Lunch was followed by a short trip to the National Gallery, outside of which I spotted this guy…


… and of course I got to see some of my favorite works, such as the Wilton Diptych and Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait.

Until next time.