Friday, August 2, 2013

Being an Oxonian All Over Again!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The heat in Oxford today was expected to reach record levels. Tony, who is a passionate walker (yes, there really is such a thing in the UK) and who recently walked Coast to Coast—all 200 miles across the UK—suggested a walk up Boar’s Hill before the sun became oppressive. 
            We had breakfast—Sue’s homemade multi-grain bread with elderflower jam (from Fortnum’s—my gift to them), muesli with yoghurt and milk and coffee—and then I was off with Tony. 

              Their home in South Oxford, at Grandpont, has a marvelous location. It is two ticks away from their allotments—plots of land that UK Councils rent out to garden-less folks so that they may grow their own veg--and close to a large park with a swimming pool and tennis courts—unbelieveable! We started off by surveying their allotment—they grow raspberries, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, parsley, corn—you name it. It was fantastic. Sue had recently organized a scarecrow contest and there were several including her female one dressed in a skirt! After she picked a few raspberries, I left with Tony for our walk.

Walking Up Boar’s Hill:
            Almost 30 years ago, the Hall Stewart at Exeter College here in Oxford, who became a good friend of mine, Stan Fuller, had driven us (my friend Firdaus and myself) in his car up Boar’s Hill to show us an old stone church containing a memorial plaque to his grandfather who had been killed during the war in Peshawar (in the North West Frontier Province of British India, now in Northern Pakistan). We never did enter the church as it was closed—but we did have a great view of Oxford’s “dreaming spires” from the vantage point from which Matthew Arnold had perceived them when he supposedly wrote “The Scholar Gypsy”. There is a field there called Matthew Arnold’s Field and I had taken a picture perched on it with hair as long as my knees and a pair of jeans and a wide smile. Well, I was keen to take a picture, 30 years later, at the same spot, so it was great fun to climb up the hill with Tony and try to find my younger self at that spot.
            The walk was fabulous—past the lake and over the railways tracks winding on to London, over a stile and across a field in which horses grazed, over a bridge and across another field until we got to a highway (the A 34 going both to “The North” and “The South”) and on to yet another field where we spied a man taking a census of the butterflies in the area—only in England, kids, only in England!  And about 45 minutes later after the sun had climbed rather high and was pouring its heat upon the earth, we arrived at a spot from where you could get reasonably good views of Oxford’s dreaming spires—or, as Tony cynically put it, its dreaming cranes. For Oxford is undergoing a resurgence and there is a great deal of construction activity going on—cranes can be spotted from a long distance.
            We entered the Chilswell Valley (colloquially named The Happy Valley) and sat down for a while to rest on a bench overlooking the downs. It was delightful and it brought to my mind the novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a couple of years ago.  To reach Matthew Arnold’s field would take a walk of another half hour and we had already walked miles by then and needed to get back. Tony suggested he drive me there later in the evening and we started the trek back to Grandpont which took us another hour.
            By 11. 30 am, hot and tired, I sipped on elderflower water and felt deeply revived. Sue suggested I rest for a bit until lunch when she would walk with me into town so that I could visit the Ashmolean. And that seemed like a sensible plan. An hour later, we were sitting down to Tony’s delicious caponata, a tuna salad with celery and apples, olives and ham and potato salad. It was a very nice summer’s lunch indeed and an hour later, Sue and I headed for the Ashmolean.

Revisiting the Ashmolean Museum:
            The Ashmolean Museum is one of the great museums of the world and, being in Oxford, very much a teaching museum. I had last been there four years ago when it was being refurbished—its treasures were then grouped into two galleries so that seeing its highlights was a piece of cake.  
            This time round, I had a chance to peruse the new galleries—all glass and chrome—as well its older sections (which are really after my own heart). Yes, we did see the highlights: the Alfred Jewel is its biggest treasure: the head of a pointer used to read medieval manuscripts, it is made of gold and enamel and has a beast’s head’s worked into it. Incredible craftsmanship for that epoch. What is interesting is that it was found by a worker digging for peat! I also saw the cloak decorated with wampum (small shells used as currency) that belonged to Pocahontas, the wooden doors (carved in India) that belonged to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and the two famous paintings for which the collection is know: The Hunt by Paolo Uccelo and The Forest Fire by Pietro de Cosimo (both of which I have seen several times before). What I saw for the first time is the Lantern belonging to Guy Fawkes—he is supposed to have held it in his hand when he was exposed and arrested for the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in the late 1600s. I was also fascinated by the Marshall Collection of Porcelain that was bequeathed to the museum and is intact and arranged (according to the terms of the bequest) in exactly the same way as they were when Marshall owned them. The entire Italian Renaissance collection is wonderful and I spent a great deal of time there but then Sue had to leave and I wanted to see the new shop and the new extension (the South Asian section is enormous).  
A Walking Tour of my Favorite Parts of Oxford:
            Then began my tour of the places I most closely associate with my graduate student life at Oxford. I exited the Ashmolean and because I am a dedicated fan of the Inspector Morse series, crossed the street and entered the Randolf Hotel (location of many of the episodes). So famous did the Randolf become internationally, that it now has a Morse Bar named for the super sleuth, which, of course, I entered and dallied in. The Randolf was where our friends Peter and Susan Geib had treated my friend Firdaus and me to Afternoon Tea, many many moons ago (while the Inspector Morse series was actually in its infancy in the UK and the first episodes were being shot there) and seeing people having Afternoon Tea through the street-side windows brought back many happy memories for me.
            I crossed St. Giles and The Broad and entered the Covered Market (also scene of Morse episodes and the more recent series called Lewis) and poked around a bit in a vintage shop before exiting and getting to Exeter College. It was open to visitors and I entered its quad where I always feel a sense of homecoming. Pots of geraniums decorated the steps leading to the Dining Hall (which was shut) but the chapel was open, so in I went to feast my eyes on the mosaics, the wonderfully, newly-refurbished interior features including the tapestry of The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones (an alumni) and the choir loft (location of the memorable last scene in “The Daughters of Cain” in the Morse series). I have recently become aware that Exeter College chapel was modeled after Sainte Chapelle in Paris, France—which explains the small pieces of stained glass on the windows (royaume) and the spindly spire reaching into the sky.
            I walked out to the Margary Quadrangle which, believe it or not, was under renovation! In 1987 when I was at Oxford, it was under renovation too!! I spied my room behind the cranes and other construction paraphenelia but did not venture to them. Instead I walked underground to the Saskatchewan Room where I had lectured during the International Graduate Summer School on the invitation of the university’s organizers. That too, brought back happy memories for me.
            I did not linger long in Exeter because, as I had realized earlier, part of the romance of that era in my life, derived from the wonderful company of the friends I had made then (and who have remained friends of mine—Firdaus, Annalisa, Josephine). Exeter always makes me miss them and want to be with them, so I left pretty soon and made a left at Brasenose Lane to arrive at Radcliffe Square where, lo and behold, I found the Radcliff Camera under renovation! I walked around to the quadrangle of the Bodleian Library past loads of American tour groups and saw the famous pendant ceiling of the Divinity School which I love behind the sculpture of Sir Thomas Bodley. I hurried then along the High Street to get to Magdalen College to meet my friends Alexander and Jessica for tea.

Tea by the Thames at Magdalen Bridge:
            One of the perks of having a friend who is a Fellow at Magdalen College is that one gets invited to afternoon tea to a café on the banks of the Thames where you can watch punters and swans sail past on the river as well as red buses on the bridge. It was idyllic and meeting my friend Alex and his girlfriend Jessica there was a truly memorable experience. We settled down to chat and to sip our tea and remember the past years when I had punted down the Thames with my class mates. Alex and Jessica were great company and I enjoyed discussing their current academic projects with them and the research in which they are currently engaged as Art Historians. After a long chat when they had to return to work, I pottered around the vast grounds of Magdalen College to take in its Deer Park and its wonderful perennial gardens, its chapel and its dining hall and its beautiful quadrangle filled with white hydrangeas.

Yet Another Walking Tour:
            I crossed the High to get to the Botanical Garden but, alas, they had closed for the day. It was time then to take on another one of my favorite walking tours of Oxford. And here is how it goes: I crossed the High once again and entered narrow Queens Lane (just to the right of Queens College). All the way down I went past St. Edmund Hall and New College to emerge at Hertford Lane in front of the Bridge of Sighs. The Sheldonian Theater was right in front to me and I managed to do something I had never done in all the years and all the times I have been to Oxford:  I managed to get the guard at the gate to let me peek inside Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece to see the interior. And there is was: the tiered stands (scene of another one of the Inspector Morse episodes that featured the great Sir John Gielgud playing the Chancellor of Oxford University). I observed the great ceiling frescoes (done by Richard Streeter, I was informed) and the spectacular organ. And this is why I have never been inside—entrance in restricted to those involved in Graduation ceremonies that take place in the Sheldonian and to classical music concerts which I have never managed to attend. So it was an achievement indeed to be able to see the inside of it--and I was thrilled.
            Across the street, I entered the famous bookstore named Blackwells—a massive and well-established Oxford enterprise. I was headed for one particular part of the store—the underground Norrington Room which occurs in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest single-room bookstore. It is so large that it goes down in graduated tiers way below Trinity College which lies next door. Indeed it was a fun place to browse in especially after I spied a book written by the Director of NYU in London, Gary Slapper, prominently displayed on its shelves.
            I also discovered from a book at Blackwell’s entitled Oxford, Then and Now, that the view of the dreaming spires could best be taken from the village of Elsfield and instead of going up to Matthew Arnold’s Field, I thought I would ask Sue and Tony if they could go on to Elsfield instead.
            Across the street I went and on to the end of The Broad towards Balliol College from where I walked back to Tony and Sue’s place. I was really tired but it was 7.00 pm and I had told them I would be back to take them for dinner—so without much ado, off we went.      

Dinner at The Victoria Arms on the Thames:
            Yes, we did make a detour to Elsfield because Sue and Tony thought it was right on our way—and no, we did not get to see much of the dreaming spires—just a rather hazy picture appeared but I was quite content with it.
            Were I twenty years younger, it would have been great fun to punt from Oxford on the Thames to the “Vicky Arms” as this famous pub on the banks of the Thames is known locally. As it was, Tony kindly drove us there. It is the scene of many an episode in Inspector Morse—in fact, it is the one in which he grows philosophical about the waning of life with the receding sun in the last episode The Remorseful Day. So I was doubly delighted that we were at this venue to celebrate my stay with a Thank-you dinner for my hosts Sue and Tony who had gone out of their way to make my stay in Oxford both comfortable and memorable. I was so moved by the setting and the lovely drinks (I had a Pimms—because how can you leave Oxford in summer without a Pimms, right?) and the great food. The punters were a-plenty as they rowed in and left, drinks were downed with merriment in a place crowded with jolly patrons. We had the perfect picnic table, right by the water’s edge where ducks swam past as the sun slowly disappeared over the horizon. I chose to eat a cod loin with Parma ham, Tony had the beef and ale pot pie and Sue chose the Fish and Chips and for dessert, we all had ice-cream—salted caramel and chocolate and honeycomb. Yummiiieee! Meanwhile, we discovered that the Vicky Arms is rich in Oxonian history—It appears in the Domesday Book and Charles II is supposed to have supped there while plotting the political Restoration.
            Because all great things must come to an end, we had to eventually tear ourselves away from that bucolic scene and return to reality—but what a meal and what a splendid evening it had been. I know I will not forget it in a long long time.
            It was about 11.00 pm  when we returned home, quite sated indeed, and although Sue and Tony sat up with mugs of tea, I excused myself and fell immediately in bed.
            Until tomorrow, Cheerio!

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