I may have mentioned that I would be spending two weeks in England this summer...here's the report.
Well, where to start? London, I guess, where I landed after an uneventful flight and proceeded to steal another woman’s luggage! In my defense, it looked EXACTLY like my new big tapestry bag (except a little pinker, where mine is more purplish), even to the identical black leather luggage tag. What are the odds? So I didn’t realize it (except to wonder to the driver why my bag looked a bit pinker than I recalled, and the wheels made a strange new funny sound) until I got to my hotel in London and actually checked the tag, then fished into an outside zipper compartment to pull out a long black wig!
Oh noes! Holy crap! Not mine! Back to the airport, hysterical. I figured the other lady wouldn’t have been NEARLY as stupid as I was and taken mine in return, and my bag was probably still there and not halfway to Scotland by then, and it was indeed there, parked lonely as a cloud by the luggage carousel. Shamed, I slunk off with mine in tow and left the other (which the airport people were incredibly cavalier about, “Oh, just leave it over there, luv”…I could have had it stuffed with explosives). What drama.
London was...well, I think I may be done with London. For one thing, even though I know it’s the height of tourist season, it didn’t seem very British anymore. NYC is a polynational city too, of course, but I did not at all like the way I hardly ever heard English spoken by British people on the street or the train. And every tenth woman I saw was in niqab or a burqa. I don’t think I’m a racist, but it disturbed me very much...
Bought very little. Too ruinously expensive and nothing looked any good anyway. Even Harrods disappointed, though it was worth going there just to view this simply appalling huge bronze statue of Diana and Dodi releasing a bluebird of happiness, or the albatross of public opinion, or the seagull of something-or-other, whatev, that Dodi's father, former Harrods owner, erected in their honor in a prominent position...tackiest thing EVER.
I did indulge myself in Marks & Spencer prawn mayonnaise sandwiches (Rennie's favorite!) as per usual, a complete bargain for lunch or hotel room snacking. The hotel (the Royal Park, on the north side of Hyde Park two blocks from Paddington Station) was lovely and a decent price for London, but then again I did book back in February...current summer room rates on TripAdvisor were over the moon.
Went to the Tate Britain to see the Turners and Pre-Raphaelites, and walked in Kensington Gardens to visit the Peter Pan statue and the Diana memorial fountain. That was it, really.
On Sunday July 24th I went by train to Oxford (again, not hearing a single English-speaking voice the whole way), and checked in at Christ Church College, where I was to be in residence for the whole week of The Oxford Experience, as the program is called. Christ Church is known as “the House”, from its Latin name Aedes Christi, House of Christ. Founded by the infamous Cardinal Wolsey in 1525, refounded by his equally infamous enemy Henry VIII in 1532, it has the most gorgeous architecture, and is the largest but far from the oldest college in the university and therefore has not much really medieval stuff going on. Even the college chapel, which is actually the Oxford city cathedral, and huge for a chapel, though quite small for a cathedral and largely Norman, is built on the site of much older structures.
I stayed in Peckwater (Peck for short), a lovely, large, U-shaped building from the early 1700’s, all classical-looking tan stone, kind of like the White House north façade, Staircase 8, Room 6. Rooms in Oxford colleges are usually arranged opening vertically off a staircase, not horizontally off a corridor as we have here, generally two to a landing; if you want to visit someone in the next stair over, you have to go downstairs, go outside, walk next door and go up---you can't just walk down the hall. Each student has a bedroom (with sink) and a sitting room (with small fridge), and accommodations vary tremendously. Worn but functional furniture, though some rooms have antiquey-looking pieces. My first room, rejected instantly, was a claustrophobia-inducing ground-floor one where the windows barely opened and the tourists passed by only feet away; I whined and moaned and was rewarded with a TWIN suite, two bedrooms (small) and a sitting room (large and airy), on a third-floor (what the Brits call second floor) corner, windows and window seats all over the place, overlooking Peck Quad on one side and Canterbury Quad on the other.
But. No bathroom. A toilet two flights up in the attic, and showers and more toilets and a single bathtub in the BASEMENT six flights down. The flights were longish ones of 12 steps each, two to a floor, switchbacking...aarrgghh. I never could find the same shower twice, and only once came across the laundry room: the cellar of Peck was a maze of twisty passages and weird doors. Like the Tardis. And several times I ended up in the basement of the next staircase over. Some of the other stairs in my building had toilets and/or shower rooms on alternating floors, but not Peck 8. I know it's student accommodation, but it still seems stupefyingly primitive. True, only six or eight students live on each staircase, so there's not that much competition for facilities, but all the same...
I have been advised that next time (if there is a next time) I should book a room in the very Tudor-looking Meadow Building, to my taste by far the nicest-looking dorm, though supposedly the most unfashionable when built in the 1800's, when Peck was the real des. res. I would have grabbed rooms in Meadow like a freaking shot if I'd had a choice (or better information): first-floor (our second floor), with en suite bathroom and a view over expansive and bucolic Christ Church Meadow (which was full of big round hay bales from the recent harvest). I shall keep it in mind.
But the Great Hall and Tom Quad, the big front Christopher Wren quadrangle and gatehouse, were simply glorious. The first time I went up the famous stairs (used in the Harry Potter movies), I was bitterly disappointed not to find Professor McGonagall waiting for me at the top. It was splendid.
Food was pretty good, especially at dinner, though they were quite stingy for breakfast: one egg, one sausage, no hot breakfast at all on the last day, just croissants and toast and stuff. I’m not used to eating three sit-down meals a day, in company, so that was a little weird… But dining under the gaze of all those ancient portraits and under that hammerbeam ceiling (I sat at the Gryffindor table as often as possible, of course, Ravenclaw when I had to, though the movie Hall was merely based on the Christ Church one and expanded by one table, and they really don’t like the Hogwarts comparisons, too bad!) was A. MA. ZING.
Oh, and there was Morris dancing, which I love, in Tom Quad one night after dinner, and tours of the college and the town, and the House has its own art gallery full of Old Masters, and I spent a lot of time in the Cathedral, not just the Cathedral gift shop. Pretty darn fun. The town was FULL of Asian teenagers on tour or attending summer school all over Oxford: I don’t think there was a single Japanese, Chinese or Korean adolescent left at home. They were delightful, if noisy, and I have never SEEN traffic like Oxford traffic, foot or vehicular. Well, it’s a medieval city and not made for modern hordes.
But sitting in my William Morris-print-covered window seat at 9:05 pm (Oxford University, being five minutes west of Greenwich, keeps its own time of five minutes later), windows open, leaning on the sill and listening to Great Tom, the immense bell in Tom Tower at the gatehouse, ring out its nightly 101 strokes for the original 100 scholars plus one added later, was truly magical.
Classes began at 9:15 Monday, after breakfast. Two classes per day. First one ran to 10:45, then there was coffee and tea and bikkies in the Junior Common Room (undergraduate rec room), and then another class from 11:15 to 12:45, and then lunch in Hall. After lunch, we were free to do as we pleased until dinner, which for me meant just roaming around Oxford, one of my favorite British cities. I visited Balliol College (alma mater of Turk Wayland and Lord Peter Wimsey), Magdalen (pronounced maudlin) College, Merton College (where Tolkien taught for many years), Jesus College (T.E. Lawrence) and a few others, and some Inspector Morse/Inspector Lewis locations, like the Sheldonian Theatre and the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library and a few ancient pubs, and shopped rather more than I had in London. Corny as it was, I bought numerous Oxford- and Christ Church-related items…and didn’t get to see half of what I had planned on.
My class, "King Alfred and the Vikings", was, I have to say, deeply disappointing. To begin with, my tutor, one Dave Beard, had an Attitude as well as an Agenda. He trashed Celts (“there were no Celts”), fans of Celticness (“Celtic loonies on the Internet”) and Templars (“they don’t exist in modern days, despite what crazy people think”), all this despite me raising my hand instantly to protest. Hey! Celtic loony AND crazy Templar over here, thank you ever so much! So that pretty much turned me against him, and rightly so, on the second day of class. By his own admission, he was an archaeologist, not a historian (despite him also teaching a History of the Vikings in Britain class online), and therefore claimed that he couldn’t answer most of my very specific questions. Helloooo?? Which was, after all, the reason I was there??? Duh. Also he was way too fixated on Saxon town plans and stonework and other boring crap that just about put me into a coma. And the course material was, in my opinion, waaaaay too much King Alfred and nowhere NEAR enough Vikings.
So I learned a couple of things, but mostly I tuned him out, and refused to “contribute” (shakedown) to his “gift” (extortion) at the end of the week. Why should I, after he had trashed my religion, my ethnicity and my Order? I'd never have been able to live with myself if I had caved and done so. Stupid pretentious git, and I certainly didn’t give a damn what the other students thought of my refusing. And the program will be getting a very sharp letter from me regarding him, you just bet it will. Too bad he’s the program director. Then again, I doubt I’ll ever be going back, so I'm burning no bridges giving him the pointy end of the stick. I was told that The Other Place (as they call Cambridge) has a similar, and superior, program---three courses over two weeks, and choice of college---so that's possible too, and I hear it's even more beautiful than Oxford, but I have no emotional attachment there the way I've always felt about Oxford…we’ll see.
Anyway, I discovered that you can stay in Oxford colleges like Balliol, Magdalen, Keble and Wadham, among others, without being obliged to sign up for a course, so I may try that next time. The staying in college part was the best part, and it would be fantastic to crash in Turk's old dorm room, or Lord Peter's, or dear Oscar Wilde's...I did wonder who had stayed in my rooms over the years, and hoped to find ancient graffiti carved in the walls, but no such luck.
But the people, at least some of them, were nice, though most were five or ten or even fifteen years older than I. We had a snooty Australian cow of a girls' school principal who sat next to me in class (held in the tutor’s office in Peck 2, seated all round on comfy chairs and sofas), whom I rapidly grew to detest, but two older men, Bob and Bill, were very dear and kept me feeling involved in the class and not invisible, and another guy, Herb, was nice too. Some of the women (Yvonne, in my class, and Lena, from the class on the Brontes) were also quite pleasant.
Still, they weren’t Our Kind of People, my friends, and perhaps I was naïve to have expected they would be. Also it was very cliquey among people who’d been there before, and not very welcoming or friendly for newbies like me; in fact, they were quite rebuffing, and most were not terribly interested in what I had to say. I did try: I was one of the younger students there, and pretty certainly the only one coming from my sort of background. (I ‘fessed up to being an author, but kept Jim strictly out of it and utterly unmentioned by name…just “my late husband” if anyone inquired, which almost no one did.)
I did get a chance to reconnect with the wonderful John and Caitlin Matthews, authors and Celtic scholars, whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years. We had lunch at the Tolkien/CSS Lewis watering-hole the Eagle and Child, known familiarly as the Bird and Baby, on Wednesday afternoon (great fish and chips!). Unfortunately, I had badly hurt my left ankle on my way there: the Achilles tendon popped on a bad step (not even twisted it, no rough pavement, just stepped down on it wrong and BLAM!) and I thought I’d torn it. Oh, the pain and the ouchiness. So that was no fun. But after lunch I went for tea chez Matthews, in a nearby village, and then they drove me back to college. Missed dinner since I couldn’t walk, though thankfully there was a pizza truck parked outside Tom Gate where I got a really excellent (even by NYC standards) personal pizza for my supper, and went to hospital the next morning to have the ankle, by now swollen and screaming, checked out.
God bless the NHS, is all I have to say, and shame on this country for having no single-payer healthcare system. The college had recommended their own private medical practice (100 quid for a walk-in visit!); I said no thanks and went to the excellent and speedy ER at the John Radcliffe Hospital, for which terrific care I paid exactly NOTHING. Not tuppence nor yet one pence. Big difference, and more shame on Christ Church for not telling people they have this option. (I did make a donation, but no one even hinted that it was mandatory, or even expected...)
Anyway, they said I hadn't torn my tendon, that it was just a severe sprain, and gave me this sort of compression stocking for my whole lower leg, called a tubigrip, a cane and some leaflets on care. I stopped at Boots, fabulous drugstore (chemists), for OVER-THE-COUNTER CODEINE PILLS and ice packs, and have been hobbling around (mildly stoned…) ever since. I’ll have it checked out by my own doctor if it’s still sore next week, but it’s improving gradually, though sloooooowly.
Needless to say, that put a damper on too much more roving around Oxford. But at least I escaped going on a boring field trip Thursday to Winchester (been there) and the Portchester Saxon Shorefort (didn’t care), so that was okay, and I spent the day in bed after the hospital. Though still a wasted day.
Friday was the last day of class, and that evening there was a reception in the Masters’ Garden (where Lewis Carroll had been inspired to write “Alice”...the Cheshire Cat's tree is still there) and a formal dinner in Hall. Oh, and on Monday night I had been invited to dine at High Table, as each student was one night during their stay: very nice. To both events I wore pearls, diamonds and my Templar breast star. You know (as Bill said sardonically), that order that doesn’t exist?? (He knew Templars himself, and we had a nice chat about it...) So sucks to you, Mr. Beard, arrogant, self-impressed academic that you are, and would you have dissed the Masons or Judaism the way you dissed the Templars and Celts? Well, maybe you would, in the depths of your ignorance…
On Saturday the lovely Liz Williams picked me up and drove me down to Glastonbury to stay with her and her husband the lovely Trevor Jones for several days in their fabulous house in the deep country, with dogs and cats and even a pony. We drove down through Wiltshire and Somerset: tea and market day at Marlborough (the wonders of Waitrose!), lunch at Avebury, in an ancient pub in the middle of the ring of stones (like the rest of the village), and met up that night in Glasto with our friend the lovely Elle Hull. A delightful evening of much merriment ensued, in the George and Pilgrim Hotel pub, and later we all had dinner at the Ashcott Inn in a nearby village. Steak and ale pie. Brilliant.
Next day Liz and I did the Viking Tour of Wessex, hitting all my Guthrum/Alfred sites: Athelney, Barrow Mump, the hilltop village of Wedmore, where the two kings signed a peace treaty, bunch of other places. Very helpful in visualizing how the land lay, even after a thousand years. MUCH more instructive than my class. And more than enough reason to justify the tax writeoff.
Monday we drove down to the Jurassic Coast, to Lyme Regis, a gorgeous old sea resort town much frequented in Jane Austen movies, where an evil nasty seagull kamikaze'd in and grabbed a piece of chicken sandwich right out of Liz's hand and we felt the need to recover from the shock with clotted-cream vanilla ice cream, as who wouldn't. Then along the coast to Chesil Beach, an amazing-looking feature (Google it!), and up inland again to say hi (it being Lammas) to the Cerne Abbas Giant, an equally amazing-looking hillside chalk figure of, er, impressive dimensions. Keep it up, sir!
Tuesday I spent mostly at Chalice Well, in Glastonbury town at the foot of the Tor, drinking sacred spring water, sitting in the peaceful lovely gardens and walking through the Healing Pool in hopes of repairing my hurting legs (surprisingly effective, so thank you, Chalice Well; I’m not limping quite so badly now, though my calf is still deeply sore and now my right knee hurts from favoring my left leg so much---sigh). I spent the last night at Magdalene (pronounced magdalen) House, a lovely guesthouse right across from the Abbey, so as to conveniently catch the Heathrow bus the next morning at 6:45.
More drama. Bus driver had to leave the M4 Motorway due to it being blocked completely by a bad accident, and then he got totally lost on his detour. No GPS. We must have driven around Basingstoke, Newbury and environs from every possible direction on every possible road (though we did pass right through Watership Down country, so that was okay, and went by Prince Charles's old school, Cheam), and were two hours late getting to the airport. Which was fine, as I still had three hours to kill before my plane left.
I tripped getting off the moving walkway and went crashing to the floor, but two very nice young men instantly ran over to help me up. And I had ordered a wheelchair to take me to the gate, but Virgin Airlines is so stupidly run that I had to walk halfway there myself, upstairs to a special “Special Assistance” room where EVERYBODY flying that day who needed a chair or had crutches or kids or language difficulties or other problems was corralled. Horrible polyglot bedlam, though I did get taken to my flight, finally, in one of those cool golf cart/buggy things. At JFK they put you in a chair right there at the check-in desk and wheel you straight to the gate, where you just sit for as long as it takes. And then the plane was an hour late. And I was wiped out from dragging about a half-ton of luggage: I never will learn to pack light, I fear. But I needed everything! And I had to buy books!
By the time I got home, about eleven pm New York time, I was exhausted. But all in all a great trip. My profound thanks and love to Liz and Trevor, for the wonderful hospitality and for tolerating my food preferences, and to Lily for the endless doggy kisses, and big hugs to John and Caitlin and Elle. My only regret is that I didn’t eat more fish and chips than I actually did…