Monday, January 5, 2009

Oxford Daze

Oxford is lovely – well mostly. It is a maze of small street and limestone buildings designed to fit entirely on a freshly ironed handkerchief. I spent the entire time wildly disoriented. Without the sun to give a sense of the cardinal points I felt as if I was in some alternative universe that ignores spatial relationships. Anywhere else in the world – if you turn right three times you wind up where you started. Not in Oxford.

We wandered about gawking at things and being amazed by the lack of graffiti – well, recent graffiti anyway. We found some carved into a stone portal that appeared to represent the solar system and dated 1716. I had the impression that a bored Isaac Newton had cooled his heels waiting for an appointment and decided to do some figuring. Mind you, judging from the depth of the scratches he must have spent half a day at it. Ah, the pleasures of a pre-CCTV society.

As usual, almost everything we wanted to see was closed. Shiralee merely had to mention the name of a museum and hoardings would go up and doors would slam shut. This was particularly galling in the case of the Tradescant collection. It is one of, if not the, oldest ‘natural history’ collections in England. A nice gentleman told us it had been broken up and dispersed around the country “So more people could see it”. What a crime! Would they apply the same logic to Buckingham Palace? Or the Queen? Maybe they should.

I can highly recommend the Natural History museum. A beautiful, huge cast iron and stone structure full of dead things – it treats the building as text. The second floor is filled with pillars each made of a different stone – the type and source of which is dutifully noted on the base.

This is a model of the sun showing its size relative to something ... perched in betweem 2 of the pillers made from various british stone...

I started developing a scheme whereby I could kill all the staff and take over the place. Shiralee thought it a good idea, just a tad impractical.

This is the (ex)chemical labratory @ the Natural History Museum. Apparently it was originally built as a reading room for the workers building the museum. Enough to make you love the founders in itself. Sadly it is also the only section that we photographed on the exterior of the building.... (ss)

The NHM is also the home of the last bits of the Oxford Dodo... a burnt foot and beak (famously saved from a spring-cleaning don's fire if I remember correctly) -- which they have used as the basis for a display including a reconstruction of a dodo skeleton, reproductions of various images mostly taken from Alice in Wonderland (with which Oxfordians seem obsessed... or is it simply response to their tourism market?), as well as the aforesaid charred remnants... sadly impossible to photograph (ss)

Disappointed I spent the rest of the time envying the fresh-faced students their good fortune. All those lovely old colleges with their gargoyle encrusted walls surrounding lawns and gardens. Porters’ cottages, tiny little doorways that suggest architecture by hobbits, lead framed windows and tall walls all to keep the unlettered away from the blessed few. No wonder the upper classes have such a bizarre view of the world and their place in it. It is a Hogwarts of higher learning.

That evening we retired to the pub down the road for dinner. It was cosy and warm. We had soup of the day. Soup of the day! It could have been soup of any day as it came straight from the can via the microwave – traditional English fare. Are the English the only culture in the world without a cuisine?

The next morning we awoke at some ungodly hour, still the victims of jetlag, and wandered amongst the playing fields and green spaces. Trees formed soft-edged silhouettes in the mist that rose from the frost as it was touched by an insipid sun dragging itself slightly above the horizon. A few cows gaped at us as though they thought they were the only creatures mad enough to be up at that hour. Which is serious because in England they don’t make jokes about mad cows.

The air was so crisp you could shatter it with a shout. The frost clung grimly to any shaded surface giving the bizarre effect of white shadows.

Early morning in Oxford, ice reflecting trtees
I made us go walking at dawn... exploring semi-rural Oxford behind our hotel, The Falcon. Eventually we found ourselves, after traipsing over railway bridges and down muddy bridle-paths, in a village so stony and thatched and sleepy that it appeared to have been modeled after a Ladybird book from the 50s (ss)
Our challenge for the day was to hire a car so we could tour the local district. This should have been a straight-forward proposition. But with typical charming British eccentricity the car hire firm did not have a real address – just a house name. We set off, inevitably in the wrong direction, and after trudging about for an hour located it. This required wandering across a marshy wasteland where any minute one expected to stumble across Inspector Morse uncovering a corpse. Luckily, we were spared that experience and only stumbled across geese and squirrels being geese-like and squirrel-like. I’ll let you sort out which did which.

We managed to get the car back to the hotel by ignoring the rules of the road and through sheer blind luck. Getting out of Oxford was another matter entirely. The good burghers of Oxford decided to build a ring-road to alleviate traffic in the town. This I can agree with. Unfortunately, they took the idea literally and the ring-road appears to be a closed circle. I now understand why friendships developed in such places are so strong. Getting out of there can put the best of friendships under strain. I am proud to say that our relationship withstood the test. Although, after getting stuck on the same stretch of the M4 (5 or 6, whatever) twice, we did consider never speaking to each other again.

No comments:

Post a Comment