Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Oxford Rediscovered! Random Rambles in a Favorite City.

June 30, 2009

I awoke way too late today--after 8 am, rushed through a wash and got dressed to join my fellow lodgers at breakfast--which included the very English prunes soaked in cold tea! I said goodbye and thanked Mrs. Longrigg and requested that I be allowed to stash my baggage in her home until the end of the day. Then, I returned to my room, packed up and left for my last day in Oxford. I had intended to spend this day traveling to Kelmscott Manor (home of William Morris) and to the Hidcote Manor Gardens--but both were impossible to get to without expensive taxis, so I decided to stay in Oxford and see the bits and pieces of it that I have never seen before.

Sightseeing in Oxford:
By the end of the day, I was amazed at how much I had never seen before! I started off across the Banbury Road to Woodstock Road where at St. Bernard's Road, I cut across into Jericho and went in search of The Bookbinder's Arms Pub, frequent location in Morse films. This brought me to the Church of St. Barnabas, an Arts and Crafts Church, into which I took a peak and discovered marvelous Pre-Raphaelite style mosaics on the walls. More walking in Jericho (now a rather upscale neighborhood, but once a dodgy area that provided cheap housing to Oxford's working class folks--most of whom now can only afford to live in faraway villages like Witney and Eynsham) took me past small terraced housing painted pleasingly in pale, pastel colors. I nipped into a few enticing shops but found nothing and then arrived at The Freud, a lovely restaurant that was once a church--its Neo-Classical pillars were most impressive. I was also delighted to chance upon the imposing Neo-Classical building of Oxford University Press as my Dad had started his career, many moons ago, as a lowly clerk in the offices of Oxford University Press in Colaba, Bombay.

Christ Church College Picture Gallery:
When I found myself at St. Giles, I nipped into Sainsbury's to buy a meal deal--a roasted chicken baguette with a packet of Prawn Cocktail flavor chips and a bottle of Diet Coke. It is intensely hot and humid now and walking on the streets is no longer the pleasure it was a month ago. Everything seems more oppressive in the heat. I found my way to Christ Church College and the Picture Gallery in one of the quads at the back of the main one as it was my intention to see the small but very lovely art collection that the college has accumulated over the centuries. The emphasis was very much on Italian Renaissance art though there were some fine large canvases by Annibale Caracci and some really good Van Dykes. However, it is a small collection and very easily examined and I was then looking for a way to get along beautiful Merton Street (the only cobbled one in Oxford) to the Oxford Botanic Gardens with the idea of picnicking by the water. My ID card allowed me to get into all these places for free, so it was really a boon.

The Botanical Gardens:
Roses are in bloom at the entrance to the gardens but to get deep into the glass houses and by the riverside, visitors need to pay three pounds. I walked directly to the familiar path along the river, found myself a shady tree and sat there to eat my lunch as the punts floated lazily by, a few row boats and paddle boats also joining them occasionally. On Magdalen Bridge, the red buses passed by and garden-loving visitors stepped by examining another interesting specimen. When I had rested for over an hour, I decided to go and check out the garden and was delighted to see the most abundant herbaceous border along one brick wall. I took many pictures of it and have reached the conclusion that the flowers and plants that I cannot name are the ones most suitable for growing in perennial borders--a lesson to keep in mind if I am trying to create border beds in my own garden.

Magdalen College and Deer Park:
Then, I crossed the High Street and arrived right opposite at the Main gates of Magdalen College which my fellow lodger Marnie had told me I should not miss. She had directed me to the back gardens and the Deer Park and that was where I headed, again past some lovely herbaceous borders--but they were nowhere as colorful as the ones in the Botanic Garden. For the first time, I saw hosta make up the bulk of a perennial border--exactly like mine in Southport, where astilbe, hosta and day lilies make up the bulk of our plantings.

Having spent some more time inspecting the gardens, I headed up to the Dining Hall of Magdalen College. It is always a pleasure for me to look upon the faces of first-time visitors to these spaces and see the expressions of wonder and delight as their eyes take in the hammered ceiling beams, the many oil portraits on the walls and the long dark wooden tables at which students normally eat their meals. Then, I made my way downstairs and asked for directions to the Chapel--very similar in design to New College Chapel that I had seen a few days ago on the Harry Potter Tour.

Visiting the Famous Libraries:
My next stop were the libraries and when I passed by the Radcliff Camera which today serves only as the Reading Room for English and Theology, I entered it with my ID card and surveyed the Rotunda and the reading room downstairs. Should future research ever bring me again to Oxford, this is where I will do some of my reading, I decided! I recall, many years ago, this building served as the call room for materials that we students wished to borrow--now with the database going online, students no longer need to look at card catalogues to get books out! How things change!

Then, onward I went to the Bodleian Library as I was keen to get upstairs to see the famous Duke Humphrey's Library which was used as a location for one of the Harry Potter films and which is strictly out of bounds unless one has an Oxford ID card. Indeed, it is a gorgeous room, the ceiling richly painted with the crests and family coat of arms of the many eminent contributors to the university and each reader sitting in superbly decorated 'bays' to do their quiet private reading. I saw so many of them browsing through original manuscripts written in the handwriting of the folks they were researching. This library is only open to senior scholars and researchers--not to Oxford's undergraduates.

Next, I walked across The Broad (through The Clarendon Building) to get to Park Street where the Indian Institute Library is located in the New Bodleian Library. It was in this library that I had done most of my reading on the works of Kamala Markandaya while pursuing doctoral research. It has all been heavily wired now and security fobs and keys are needed to get anywhere inside...but I went through the steps that got me inside where only two students were reading quietly. Again, were I doing a project that would require me to examine South Asian material, this is probably where I would be seated. It doesn’t have the same reverent atmosphere of Duke Humphrey's Library but it does have some very lovely view of Oxford's dreaming spires that jut out into the sky from every surrounding building.

The Turf Tavern:
Across The Broad again, I asked for directions to the Turf Tavern, another common location in Morse films and one of Oxford's oldest pubs. It is really strange that I do not know where a single hidden pub in Oxford can be found--as drinking was obviously never one of my priorities while I was there. Indeed, the Turf Tavern is very well hidden in a narrow passageway where Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and Pre-Raphaelite Muse often featuring as a model in some of the Group's best-known paintings, once lived. The Tavern itself is a little medieval gem, built in the 1300s and serving traditional real ales--unfortunately though these are really good, they are never served cold...and on a day like this, I was craving a long cold drink! After taking a few pictures in a watering hole that was supposedly Bill Clinton's favorite during his Oxford years, I left and walked along The Broad to Turl Street and finally entered Exeter College, which is always rich in wonderful memories for me.

Finally, at Exeter College:
As it happened, it was Open Day in Oxford's Colleges and all the quadrangles were open to prospective students coming in to check out the premises with their parents. Hence, the 'campus' was especially lovely with red geraniums lining the steps leading up to the Dining Hall which was open for perusal. After 22 years, I had the chance to return to the spot where I had eaten so many memorable English meals and puddings--and a really awful rhubarb pie, which was completely lacking in sugar! Of course, I took pictures everywhere and admired once again the artwork on the walls, the glorious medieval wooden ceiling and screen and the dark wooden tables at which we had sat! Lovely memories indeed and I was delighted to relive them all.

Then, I entered the chapel, newly refurbished and cleaned and looking spanking new--several of the statures of saints that encircle the chapel on the outside have had to be fixed--at an expenditure of a million plus pounds (according to the very efficient student guide Tim who escorted me around for a private tour). Inside, the mosaics surrounding the altar have been polished and are glinting brilliantly. Organ practice was on while I was there and I stayed for a few minutes to take in the ambiance in the midst of several other visitors.

Then it was off to the Margary Quadrangle where my room was located and I went off to the second floor to see if my room was open by any chance--which it was not, sadly! However, I did peak into the bathrooms and saw that they have been modernized. There are now modern showers there, which in years gone by were non-existent. Right above this set of rooms, one of which I once occupied, is a new sculpture of a nude man by Antony Gormley--this looks down upon the Broad from the corner of Exeter College that intersects Turl Street.

Overall, it was a deeply nostalgic experience for me to return to Exeter and I badly missed my dear friends who had made my time there so memorable. We have been talking for years about an Oxford Reunion but somehow it hasn’t happened and though three of us have arrived in Oxford at different times, we have never managed to do it together as a group!

Then, I went in search of the Saskatchewan Lecture Room where I will be giving my lecture on July 22. It is an underground basement room , which, unfortunately, was not open, but I did see its location. My next stop was the Fellows Garden at the back and the Library (not open to visitors) and the steps leading to the ramparts of the college that overlook Radcliff Square. I was amazed because I don't believe this was ever there when I was at Exeter! Or if it was, I had never climbed those stairs for those lovely vantage views of the Radcliff Camera and Oxford's other best-known buildings including the Church of St. Mary the Virgin .

At the White Horse Pub:
Well, I truly enjoyed my hour of touring Exeter and learning new things about the college. Once I got out and on to Turl Street again, I decided I badly needed something to drink and what better place than The White Horse Pub right next door to Blackwell's where in honor of Morse and Lewis, I thought I would get myself a swift half of traditional ale. Well, who should I find when I got in there but Marnie, my fellow-lodger from New Zealand! She was waiting to have her very early dinner served to her and as she went through her roast lamb with Yorkshire pudding and vegetables (which she told me was the best to be found in Oxford!), I sipped a very refreshing ale but I do wish it had been colder!

The Holywell Music Rooms:
Well, then after I had spent an hour with her, there were still a few things I needed to see before I took the bus back to London: Holywell Music Rooms, supposedly one of the most picturesque buildings in Oxford (it turned out to be a rather plain white building) with a lovely round music room inside which acts as the setting for the music competition in the first episode of Lewis, the series that is a spin off from Inspector Morse. There were a few people inside but though the place was technically closed, they did allow me to potter around and take it all in. Its interior reminded me very much of the stark colonial Episcopalian churches we see all over New England.

Rhodes House:
Then down Parks Road, I walked in search of Rhodes House, the great institution that arose out of the contribution of Cecil Rhodes who made his fortune in diamond mining in Africa. He set up the famous Rhodes Scholarships that are offered to scholars all over the world. This building was also closed but the Porter who saw me prowling around volunteered to let me in for a few minutes. This gave me to access to the Central Rotunda which is quite beautiful architecturally and to the dining room used for conferences today. The administrative offices of the Rhodes establishment are also housed in this building, which provides a central post for the scholars to meet and get to know each other. The gardens were also lovely and very conducive to quiet contemplation.

The Chapel of Keble College:
One more thing required to be seen: The Chapel of Keble College, which Marnie had told me not to miss. So, a few minutes later, I walked into the magnificent Victorian quadrangle of Keble, a space that is absolutely stunning. It has a rather unusual sunken lawn and again because it was Open Day, there were loads of people filling it and visiting its various corners. I walked into the Chapel and enjoyed its very austere atmosphere. Yes, it is not medieval Gothic in design but full of Victorian excess--mosaics of scenes from the Bible marching around the higher walls--similar to the Arts and Crafts Church of St. Barnabas in Jericho.

Back Home to London:
Well, it had truly been a day of superb sightseeing in Oxford for me and as you can imagine, I was ready to drop once I made my way back to Norham Road to pick up my baggage. I walked with it to Banbury Road from where I caught a bus to the City Center--the driver realized that I wished to get to Gloucester Green and took me right by the bus terminus! Once in The Oxford Tube, I relaxed, took off my shoes (my feet were aching) and ate my dinner--the rest of my baguettes, cookies and an apple. I got off at Notting Hill Gate and took the Circle Line back home to Farringdon where I reached at exactly 10 pm.

I spent the last few minutes of the day downloading my pictures and getting set up with wireless internet once again and then I went to bed after what had been an exhausting but deeply fulfilling week in one of my favorite cities in the world.

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