All entries for November 2004

November 21, 2004

Up to York

Another early Saturday morning on the bus with the international students. This time we were off to York, some three hours along the motorways up from Warwick. There's tons to see in this ancient place, once the leading city of England's north, but we had only so much of the day (and even less daylight). Through the winding, shadowed streets, we made our way to York Minster, the archbishop's seat and, we're told, the largest medieval gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

We walked along the top of a section of the medieval city wall and circled the great cathedral and its close buildings. White, timbered St. William's College once housed a whole company of priests whose task was to say prayers for departed souls in the cathedral chapels. Now it's a "conference centre" with a small restaurant, and we found it hosting a fair for Yorkshire craft merchants. Kerry found a very nice-looking scarf, and we both admired the timbered halls.

Inside the cathedral was another story. It's magnificent, of course, but what struck me was how different its appeal is from that of King's College Chapel, a gem of gothic perfection. There's also a unity of period style to York Minster, at least the existing structure (compared to, say, Winchester, with its romanesque transepts joined to the later nave). But the huge, complicated old Minster shows the accumulated layers of refurbishing and rebuilding — details crumble away, foundation work requires excavations, and fires break out every few decades. Masons and carvers are toiling away at it. Curiously enough, for a centuries-old building, it has the feel of a work in progress.

We spent a long time exploring the place. It's really spacious, because the nave is so wide -- apparently stone vaults reaching all the way across would have been too heavy, so the ceiling is timbered. The octagonal chapter house, each side trimmed in fine carvings, is a gem in its own right. But the Minster's truly stunning feature has to be its gigantic windows of original stained glass (or even older grisaille glass). As the setting sun hit the south transept, we saw the rose and its neighboring windows all light up. It was a kind of visual hymn, sung in colors of faith.

There's also a whole separate realm underneath the cathedral, where excavations turned up the remains of the basilica of Roman York, and new extensions to the crypt are filled with exhibits of Viking tombstones and medieval silver. Basically, we spent the day at the Minster, and I could have stayed a good deal longer. We did, however, leave plenty of time for cream tea at the small tea room run by Betty's, one of York's claims to fame and, I'd say, an ornament of civilization. The coal burned brightly in the fireplace, the "tea room blend" was flavorful, and the sandwiches, scones, and Yorkshire clotted cream were all totally scrumptious.

November 20, 2004

Off to Cambridge

I discovered a while back that there's no good way to get to Cambridge from the West Midlands by train or bus — it's not really very far, but since all the transit routes seem to go out and back from London, it would take hours. Thankfully, the International Office had arranged a day trip for us foreign students, and so last Saturday, at the bus stop on Victoria Avenue, Kerry and I stumbled out into a cold but brilliantly clear morning. Blinking in the sunlight, we wound our way through town, and found ourselves on Kings Parade, struck by the white Georgian splendor of Senate House, and the green courtyard lawns spread out behind the arches and gates of various colleges.

We went into the famous King's College Chapel, and were mesmerized by what we saw — the grace and intricacy of the fan-vaulted ceiling, and the flood of colored light pouring through the 16th-century stained glass. It's not huge, but it's as splendid and inspiring as anyplace we've been. We lingered for a long time just looking up and around.

We stopped for a quick lunch at a sandwich place, and stepped back out only to find the shadows now lengthening. We hurried down Regent Street to find a place Kerry had wanted us to see — the small museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute, which was hosting a unique display of items from Sir Robert Shackleton's Antarctic voyages. We saw pages from Shackleton's diary from the expedition on board the Endurance, written in 1915 while the trapped ship was being crushed in the pack ice. We also saw the pocket watch and chronometer he used on his open-boat journey across the sea, with two crewmen, to South Georgia Island, where they found help (after crossing the uncharted width of the mountainous island). We decided to stop complaining about the brisk day outside.

We then doubled back toward King's College and its ancient collegiate neighbors, crossing over the River Cam and approaching the college from "the Backs," just in time to snap a few more pictures in the dying afternoon light. It's a lovely scene along the Backs, with peaceful lawns and lush gardens, and punters steering tourists in small boats under the bridges. If Oxford had impressed me as being like an academic Valhalla, this was the Elysian Fields.

Trying not to look too much like slack-jawed gawkers, we strolled through the stately courtyards of Clare and Trinity Colleges. We pulled out the digital camera a few more times, but the results were increasingly dubious. (Happily, the upper floors of the Trinity College tower weren't being vaporized while I stood by. It's just the magic of accidental SFX.)

We ended up at St. John's College, becoming lost in a maze of gloomy courtyards. Then we emerged back onto the river, and crossed over Cambridge's own version of the "Bridge of Sighs." Kerry found us a decent vantage point nearby.

Kerry stayed to hear part of an orchestral concert rehearsal at the chapel at St. John's, while I made a quick trip back down Kings Parade to see the Cambridge University Press bookshop (a distinguished-looking inventory, but no bargain books) and a much-too-quick visit to the galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which will occupy us for several days whenever we can come back. But with night falling over this fine university town, we had to rejoin our fellow international students on the bus. We did at least treat ourselves to some delicious crepes from a stand on Sidney Street before saying farewell.

I can't resist telling you about our tour bus: The dashboard, and the rest of the area around the driver's compartment and above the toilet, were all decked out in plastic Christmas regalia. There was plenty of holly, some candy canes, and a small reindeer herd. Our driver explained to us all that he had spent the previous day driving a party of OAP's (old age pensioners) on a holiday tour. He hoped we didn't mind the decorations — they were there for "the old dears." We smiled, and heard no objections.

November 18, 2004

Ye Olde Guildhall

Last Thursday Norwood and I had dinner with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Coventry at the medieval guildhall in the center of Coventry, along with about a hundred other international students. It was put together by the international office at the University. We entered the guildhall courtyard and could see up to some massive stained glass windows and heavy wooden beams supporting various parts of the building. Inside, the main hall was really something to see. There was a series of old armor on display above us alongside tall windows of stained glass pictures and woodpanelling and carving everywhere. The lord mayor introduced himself with some difficulty, apparently he's newly elected—he did seem like a bit of a novice. Then this guy who is a tour guide for the city gave a bit of the history at the guildhall—it was the seat of Parliament for Henry VI during the War of Roses, Shakespeare almost certainly performed there six different times, George Eliot spent time here (the guildhall is described in chapter 43 of Adam Bede) and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here for a time. After that came a much less interesting and drony speech by some sort of chamber of commerce guy about all that the city has to offer for students, basically a PR pitch to get students to spend more time in Coventry and spend their money there.

I'm sure this is in part bec. Coventry has a reputation for being an extremely lackluster part of England. It was the most blitzed city during World War II and most of the city had to be rebuilt after the war, unfortunately with some fairly ugly or bland architecture. Coventry was pretty depressed place during the 70s, 80s and 90s but has started to find some ways to revitalize and the economy is picking up. However most students (and professors) seem to prefer to live in nearby Leamington Spa which is a great deal nicer, full of Georgian buildings, old churches, and nice parks. So I'm sure a lot of business owners in Coventry feel like they're always the "ugly stepsister" to Lem and Kenilworth. Maybe it's bec. I come from Bakersfield and Norwood is from Lubbock that we feel that Coventry isn't nearly as bad as people make out or maybe it's just the value of having arrived with incredibly low expectations, but we both think Coventry is fine and has several interesting things to see if people just bother to look. Maybe it also helps that we're only here for a few months though and don't have to stay forever. Finally the speech ended and we were treated to a nice dinner, cocktails and a yummy chocolate gateau with cream poured all over it. I'm really glad we went and not just for the free dinner!


It has been raining here all day—light but steady so the ground just gets completely soaked. Just a little while ago I heard on the news that there was snow on long the motorway just about an hour north of us—lots of it! Now it is snowing here not quite enough to stick but they are definitely snowflakes! I went into tizzy when I saw it but do not have anyone to share it with since Norwood is in Oxford and Laura is in London, sniff. This is supposed to be one of the coldest winters here in a really long time and the people on the radio reporting about it seemed incredulous that it could show up here so soon. From what I've heard people here don't know how to deal with it when it happens and there are always car wrecks, etc. just like in TX!

November 07, 2004

Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night

So Norwood, Laura and I went over to Kenilworth, a small town about 2 miles from the university to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. Guy Fawkes being the traitor caught in the basement of the Houses of Parliament with a little too much gunpowder to look quite innocent. Why the english celebrate the torture and execution of Guy Fawkes or the near blowing-up of Parliament is a little curious. Still it was a cultural event not to be missed. As it happened it was one of those nights where there was a light but constant drizzle and way too many people. The fireworks and bonfire were to be set off near Kenilworth Castle. We had visited the castle a few weeks earlier just before Halloween and went on a "Haunted Kenilworth" tour during which our guide pointed out various points at which past residents had been maimed and killed and where their various ghosts had been spotted. One of the most haunted spots in the castle was actually the now-drained moat that surrounds it. There was a siege of the castle during which Edward I snuck up on the enemy outside the castle walls and killed many of them in their sleep and to warn the rebellious residents in the castle through all of the bodies in the moat, so they could see the hundreds of dead bodies floating around for god knows how long. Most of these bodies eventually sank to the bottom of the moat, hence none of them had a proper burial, hence many sighted ghosts around the moat. Where did we watch the fireworks display? Yes, in the drained moat. Add to this the fact that it had been drizzling for some time so we were constantly sinking our feet into deep mud—I kept imagining a clammy, scabby hand rising through the muck to grab my ankle. Although I suppose the fact that we were surrounded by hundreds of other people meant that this was probably not going to happen, it was still a lingering weird feeling. I could not see if there was a Guy Fawkes effigy or one of the Pope burning on the bonfire bec. although it was impressive it was still quite far away. Nevertheless, one of the only successful photos of the night was of us standing in front of the bonfire.

Eventually the lights were darkened and the castle walls were lit in multiple colors that flashed to some bad generic synthesizer rock. Then huge fireworks lit up the sky, really close so they seemed even larger than they usually do in the U.S. More bad music, beginning with Christina Aguilera's version of "Carwash"—again what this has to do with fireworks or Guy Fawkes, I simply cannot say. Finally it was over with one final humongous firework that lit up everything and we slowly made our way out with the crowd.

We were very hungry and went to a nearby pub, a chain I think, called The Beefeater. The food wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either, just overpriced and generic but the pub itself was nice and possibly very old (Tudor beams, lowish ceilings, etc.). We were all really craving hamburgers but they didn't serve them—plenty of steaks and a lamb burger which Norwood settled for, but no beef burgers! Actually after we finished and got outside we noticed the menu of the pub right next door which had a full array of hamburgers! I guess we'll have to see what British burgers are like another time.

November 04, 2004

Election Night in Oxford

Norwood has set up this blog so that we can give a few of our impressions of our time here in England and keep all of our friends back home up to date on what we are up to. Enjoy! Kerry

Norwood and I spent election night in Oxford. Our friend Laura, who is also a fellow in the history department here managed to get tickets to a panel discussion about the election at the Oxford Union. The union also had a tv set up to show the election results. The panel was interesting but by the time the tv room was set up the place was packed. Luckily we ran into another friend who is studying at Balliol College who invited us to come watch back at a lounge in his college's dorm, which was much better, plus they could get CNBC and CNN. We also got a quick sneak peek at Balliol, the oldest university at Oxford (though at least 3 other colleges claim the same prestige) which was neat all of the colleges are gated at night and only students are allowed in. Since results didn't start coming in after midnight here I ended up napping through a lot of it. Finally, by 6:00 a.m. we gave up on the increasingly dismal results and headed back to the home of a Warwick University professor who lives in Oxford and let us stay at her place when we were done. It is a beautiful large house and we were really thankful to have a place to stay and sleep for a few hours. The next morning with the results more or less conclusive we gathered to commiserate and bitch. Norwood went to the Bodleian Library and said the traditional pledge to become a reader there—basically some mutterings about not setting the fire to the place. I decided the best cure was to go shopping and bought a few Christmas presents and just generally walked around. I really like Oxford. If I ever got a job in publishing here I think I would prefer to have it in Oxford actually rather than London. Besides being slightly less expensive than London, though from what I understand Oxford can still be somewhat expenisive, it seems a bit smaller and nicer (in the center anyway) and of course as Norwood said "It's academic Valhalla!"

Hey there, world!

Welcome to a series of occasional comments on eclectic topics by me, Norwood, and by Kerry. We're here at Warwick only briefly, but hope to make good use of this, our little platform. Come embark with us upon our journey into the future.

November 2004

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