London and Ireland Trip, September 25: Cotswolds, Oxford, The Light Princess
Joining the trip was a little bit worrisome. We were moving slowly because of Lori’s hurting feet, and the Underground was packed so tightly with morning commuters that once or twice we had to wait for the next train because we couldn’t see a way to fit into the train in front of us. We arrived at the tour group late enough for the guide to chide us for being late, but not so late that we couldn’t dash to an ATM to get cash for the trip, nor so late that no others joined the tour, even after we returned from the ATM.
We took the train out to Oxford, then took a bus to the cute little town of Minster Lovell. Even the Old Swan pub (and boutique hotel) where the bus parked was ridiculously photogenic.
It’s actually something of a problem for these towns to be so charming. Because they have so much quaint-English-countryside charm, many of the houses are purchased as vacation homes by rich Londoners - and that means that the owners aren’t sending their kids to school or getting their cars fixed in town or otherwise participating in the local community. Minster Lovell, for example, no longer has a school of its own.
Of course, we weren’t really engaging with the community ourselves as tourists. We were going gaga over the fact that there are actually houses with real thatched roofs. It’s gotten very hard to find folks with the skills to do thatched roofs well, but it’s well-made and covered in chicken wire to keep out birds, a thatched roof can last for fifty years.
Some more random pictures of pretty houses:
We walked a block or two and looked at St. Kenelm’s Church. (I don’t remember the legend of St. Kenelm as the tour guide told it, but the Wikipedia article is fascinating reading, though Kenelm didn’t do much in life before being killed by his sister and her lover.) The church was originally founded in 1183, but it was rebuilt in the 15th century.
Just beyond the church was the ruins of Lovell Hall, which dates from the 15th century.
This was our first encounter with the fact that England (and Ireland) has so many ruins that they are not all restricted. Lovell Hall dates from the 15th century… but there are no fences or guards or guides, and the posted hours are “Any reasonable time”. I can’t think of anything half as old in the US that isn’t restricted.
We tend not to take many pictures of ourselves; we take more pictures of the things we see. But Lori’s mother oohs and aahs most about the pictures of us. So we’ve been trying to take more pictures that include us. So consider this our token proof that it was really us at Lovell Hall:
I know I’m getting spammy with the pictures of Lovell Hall, but we really found it fascinating and beautiful to have these old ruins so open to the public.
A panorama of Lovell Hall:
The weather in Minster Lovell was a soft mist that made all the greens of fields and trees look even greener.
This was the tenting field, where cloth was once stretched on tenterhooks. I’d previously gone decades without using the word ‘tenterhooks’ literally.
As we walked along the fields, I spotted other folks eating blackberries off the bushes. I took one for myself, but when I offered Lori one, she declined because it was too natural for her and she feared they might make us sick. Her loss, I said - mine was so ripe and so sweet and so good.
We took the bus from Minster Lovell to the slightly larger town of Burford, where we were given some time to split up for sightseeing, shopping, and lunch. We really meant to see the recommended sights, but our actions gave priority to the other two of those three. We stopped for a pub lunch at the Cotswold Arms, a pretty pub with an indoor courtyard.
There was one thing on the specials board that seemed particularly traditionally English to me.
My steak and kidney suet pudding was the second time in my life that I have encountered food that was recognizably delicious but not to my taste. It was very rich and tasty… but I don’t eat many organ meats, and halfway through the pudding it quite suddenly became too, well, organ-ic for me to continue.
Lori took a safer tack with fish and chips. It also was a very generous portion.
Even though we didn’t finish our entrees, Lori was eager to try the bread and butter pudding with custard. This was very good and very rich.
We lingered over our lunch long enough that we missed the sights of Burford and had only a little time to see a few shops that Lori considered absolutely essential.
We boarded the bus again to go off to Oxford. I took pictures from the window because it looked so much like my stereotype of rural English countryside. There were even old hedgerows.
I wish I had taken more notes on what we saw in Oxford, because I have so many of these photos for which I remember little bits at best, but the pictures look so Oxonian:
I don’t remember the identity of this monument in Oxford, but I remember the joke: apparently local students tell tourists that this is the steeple of a submerged church.
Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs:
The Bodleian Library is one of the places I’ve read about in books.
The Radcliffe Camera. Sadly, we didn’t get to go inside.
We got to tour one of the colleges of Oxford, Brasenose College (because the students and faculty weren’t present at the moment). It’s semi-modern, founded in 1509.
The dining hall was gorgeous; it reminded me of Harry Potter.
The chapel was also stunning.
Brasenose also has a portrait and a handprint of The Childe of Hale, a 9-foot tall giant who made a living as a bodyguard and exhibiting himself for money.
There was some free time in Oxford after the tour; we got tea in The White Horse, a pub in a building that dates back to the 16th century. Better than many of the pubs we’ve dined at in London, really.
One last picture from our walk back to the bus:
We paused in the train station long enough to get a picture of Paddington Bear, the most famous character named after Paddington Station.
We were cutting it a bit close, though, because we had theatre tickets that evening to see The Light Princess at the National Theatre. (I am yielding to local spelling there.)
London’s West End is as famous for theatre as Broadway is in New York. (It was fascinating to see so many posters for theatre productions in the subways.) And Lori was keen to see a show while we were there. I figured that if we were going to see a show in London, we might as well see a distinctively London show, something that would be the London equivalent of 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls. But we couldn’t identify any show that was so distinctively London that was playing while we were there. So we took a different approach for a distinctively London musical: we decided to see a musical that was opening in London and had not yet made its way to the US. And that led us to try on another hat in our grand experimentation with our roles as travelers, and find out whether we wanted to be the sort of people who would enjoy seeing a theatrical premiere.
The down side: we scrambled to get to the theatre to be sure that we would be on time. And we were tired from a day of walking, and didn’t see anything to eat on our walk to the theatre. So this night’s dinner came from the snack bar at the theatre, demonstrating that (a) egg and cress sandwiches are indeed to be found in England, and (b) an egg and cress sandwich from a theatre snack bar is a pretty sad dining experience.
The Light Princess was pretty good, but not as stunning as I had hoped. The special effects of the gravity-less princess were well done. The songs were pretty good but not good enough to make me crave the soundtrack album - though they did get better in the second act. The biggest disappointment was that all week, we had been seeing these stunningly gorgeous posters for The Light Princess in the Underground (and felt a thrill of “we’re going to see that!” every time), and the show itself had no moment as dazzling as the poster.
Afterwards, we wandered through the Embankment looking for more food, and came across a crowd dancing on the bank of the Thames. We thought that it might be a flash mob of some sort, but when we talked to them, it turned out that they were just theatre students partying. (These snippets of video are very short, and well worth a glance.)
They weren't all students, though; the guys in the foreground of this snippet were just blokes who had walked past on the way from the pub and decided to join in. This was definitely a better class of drunken revelry than we are used to.