Saturday, September 17, 2016Oxford
Relaxing on Saturday in Oxford's Museums and Visiting Bicester Village
I am waking up at 6.30 am now and thinking it is still 4.00 am. The days are closing in on us and it is much darker at 6.30 than it used to be. The weekend, I decided, would be devoted to seeing those bits of Oxford I have not yet had the time to see. Saturday was also for taking things easy—no reason to tear out at the crack of dawn. Subsequently, I watched an episode of Inspector Morse in-between having my breakfast (honey yogurt with muesli and decaff coffee) with the telly on and felt generally relaxed. I love lazing on the couch here with a knitted throw to keep me toasty—this is so much like being at home in Southport, Connecticut. I am truly loving it here.
Finally, after a long chat with my Dad in Bombay and some catching up on my blog (all of which took so much time), I went in for a shower and dressed. By the time I left the house it was 11.00 am. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do…but I was also going to let the whim take me where it would.
The Museum of Oxford at the Town Hall:
So, when I got off the bus at St. Aldate’s and saw a poster outside the Town Hall of Oxford advertising the Museum of Oxford, I decided to pop in there. It was the first time I had ever been there. The Town Hall itself is quite magnificent inside—it has a highly ornamental ceiling with very intricate plasterwork. However, visitors are not allowed to go up there except on a guided tour which is offered just twice a month. Instead, I looked at the two galleries that comprise the museum. It shows how the city has grown since 1066 through maps and has a lot of other memorabilia that puts one in mind of the contribution of this city to the world: the Morris Minor, for instance, was made in Oxford, as was Frank Cooper’s Oxford Orange Marmalade which is still being manufactured. I took a really quick look around and walked out about 20 minutes later.
Down Cornmarket Street and into the Church of St. Michael at North Gate:
Cornmarket was already buzzing by the time I got there and it was all I could do to fight crowds to allow me to enter the Church of St. Michael at North Gate. It is almost a thousand years old and despite many visits to Oxford in the past, I had never been in there. This day was devoted to looking at things I had never seen before. Hence, the detour into this church. Visitors pay a fee to climb the tower and get some nice views of Oxford from the top. I did not feel tempted to do so. Instead, I walked briskly towards the Ashmolean Museum and gave myself up the pleasure of perusing its marvelous collection.
Visiting the Ashmolean Museum:
Arriving at the Ashmolean, I was delighted to find a special exhibit on Rembrandt entitled “Sensations”. It is a series of small and very early oil paintings that depict the five human senses. Many artists, apparently, tried their hands at this theme and because Rembrandt was so unknown when he attempted them, they were dispersed and are only now surfacing to be recognized as part of the series. Only last year, one more turned up. It was found somewhere in the US. The last one, Taste is still missing and might be lost forever—who knows? But in the exhibition were Sight (A Peddlar Selling Eye Glasses), Sound (Three Musicians Singing), Smell (Attempts to Recover a Man who has become unconscious with smelling salts) and Touch (A man’s ears being cleaned and probed by a Quack who causes him deep pain). They are really very evocative of these sensations and I actually felt my knees grow weak at the last one.
Following this viewing, I went in search of the two highlights of the museum—The Hunt by Paolo Uccello that focusses on the vanishing point in art (figures getting smaller as they recede into the distance—one episode of Inspector Lewis has reference to this work) and The Forest Fire by Pietro di Cosimo which presents animals and birds running away in terror from a fire in a forest. They are powerful works most remarkable for their wealth of detail.
Next I wandered through a number of galleries with no focused aim. I spent a lot of time with the china (porcelain) collection for this museum has loads of it. I also returned to its biggest highlight—The Alfred Jewel—which is considered the most important archeological find in the UK. It is a lovely little item in gold and rock crystal that probably adorned the end of a pointer that was used to read medieval manuscripts. It was found purely by chance as peat was being dug out and collected. In the Textile section, I was most taken by a gigantic tapestry that represents Southern England with Oxford and its surroundings in the center and London at the bottom. It is also remarkably accurate, given its age. The Ashmolean is also proud of its ownership of Pocahontas’ cloak and of the tin lantern that Guy Fawkes is said to have carried on the night he hatched the Gunpowder Plot—but as I had seen these items before, I did not go looking for them again.
When I had spent more than an hour at the Ashmolean, I decided to get out and do something else. But then, as I was going on a whim, I saw a bus (S1) at Magdalen Road with a sign saying that it was going to Bicester (pronounced Bister)—so I boarded it and off I went.
Inspecting Bicester Village Outlet Center:
Imagine…when I left my home this morning, I had absolutely no intention of going to see designer outlets. And yet, there I was! It took about half an hour to get to Bicester on the bus that was filled with young Asian kids with extra deep pockets. As I had never been to an outlet center in the UK, it was a good experience. I wondered how they would differ from the ones we are accustomed to in the US. Well, I was about to find out…
There were all the usual British suspects lined up in a row—Burberry (it actually had a line waiting outside to get in), Smythson, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith…but also names from the rest of the world’s galaxy of stars: Prada, Kate Spade, Saint Laurent, you name it…I, of course, had no intentions of buying anything, but it was fun to look. What was not fun were the price tags. I had massive sticker shock. Outlets in the US offer far lower prices. There is simply no comparison.
An hour later, I was on the bus again, returning to Oxford. I had some more museums to see before they closed for the day…
Visiting the Parks’ Museums--Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum:
The northern part of Oxford is renowned for three things: gorgeous Victorian Gothic mansions (in one of which I had stayed a few years ago as a lodger), the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum. For old times’ sake, I got off the bus at Bevington Road, just past St. Antony’s College, where I cut across to Norham Gardens to see my former home. I have such happy memories of this place that was run by a Mrs. Longrigg with whom I am still in touch after all these years. I intend to meet her again before I leave, but for the moment, all I did was take a picture of the sunroom above the garage in which I had once stayed.
Then, I walked to the University Park and noticed that the trees have leaves whose foliage is rapidly changing color—I now see rusts and yellows. The temperature is also distinctly autumnal now and I was grateful for my jacket. At the end of the Park near Keble College, there was an emergency situation. It seems that a young woman on a bicycle suddenly had an epileptic fit and fell to the ground, much to the consternation of her young male companion. He laid her on the ground as some passers-by called for the ambulance. I waited for a while until she seemed more stable and had stopped thrashing and dribbling. The ambulance had not yet arrived when I walked away as I found the entire situation deeply disturbing and there was not much I could do to help.
By the time I got to the Natural History Museum, just a few meters away, I realized I had not eaten anything since breakfast—so I went straight to the café and ate a vegetable samosa and a latte. They were both delicious—but maybe I was just starving by then (about 4.00 pm)! Across the Museum I went and descended the stairs to see the Shrunken Heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum (which is one of the plots of an Inspector Lewis episode) and the antiquated knife—which Colin Dexter had woven into one of his Inspector Morse plots. You can see that with not much time left, I made sure I asked specifically for these items and was delighted when I found them. The Pitt Rivers Museum is so fascinating to me that I would love to return to it to spend some more time inside. But at 4.30 pm, they shooed us all out.
Heading to the St. Cross Building:
Part of my plan for today was traversing parts of Oxford on foot that I had not done for a very long time. Walking along South Parks Road, I turned into St. Cross Road where I had once attended lectures in the English Faculty Building. Alas, they are renovating it and it was out of bounds to visitors. I took a picture of the steps and the facade and then continued along the road to arrive at Holywell Road from where I walked to Queens Road to Marks and Spencer to pick up some groceries. Armed with my milk, canned tongue, bread and cream, I arrived at the Porter’s Lodge of Christ Church College ready to attend Evensong at 6.00 pm.
Evensong at Christ Church College:
And so there I was at 6.05 pm when Evensong began (Oxford follows some peculiar tradition which dictates that it begin everything 5 minutes after Greenwich Mean Time—don’t even ask!). This time, the entire choir was in attendance including the little choristers. I realize increasingly how multi-cultural and multi-racial the UK has become when I see black and brown faces among the choir—one never ever saw this sort of mixture thirty years ago! It certainly bodes well for diversity.
The service was lovely, the setting spiritual, the attendees deeply involved. But by 7.00 pm, when it ended, I was tired and kept thinking of going home to a nice hot meal and some relaxing telly—for that’s my favorite way to unwind.
On the bus, I arrived home, 15 minutes later, served myself some of the Lamb Jalfrezi that I had cooked two days ago and ate it with toasted bread with brownies and ice-cream for dessert. I felt like a million dollars at the end of a most enlightening day.
Until tomorrow, cheerio…