In which septuagenarian Steve Satullo reflects on a visit to England around May Day 2018.
Of isolation and stasis, I am a devotee. I like to be all by myself, in one place, without interruption or excess exertion. So travel is always a stretch and a stress to me, and more so as I pass into my seventies (here’s hoping they betoken serenity, and not severity or senility). I figure that if I’ve got to put myself through it, I ought to get some writing out of it. And unaccountably, I suspect readers may be more interested in places and people far removed from my usual narrow track, when I am compelled to get outside my own head and look anew.
So the Old Man goes overseas, to see what he can see, over there in England, where his mother came from, and his son now lives and works. He’d be at sea without the ballast of his matey, or without the piloting of his daughter-in-more-than-law. He’s an “accidental tourist,” a rustic old-timer with little taste for new-fangled gadgets and citified gizmos, let alone foreign ways. But he’s also a flaneur, just strolling about and observing, without plan or purpose, but with an eye out for signs leading to wonders.
Trying to put my trip diary in something other than a plodding chronological approach, I’m going to get the time sequence out of the way right off, and then proceed with free association. So here are the stages of the trip in summary:
I: Getting there. (Tues-Weds 4/24-4/25.) Leave Lanesborough early afternoon, with plenty of leeway for stops on the way. No serious traffic hold-ups in transit to Comfort Inn in Revere, for park/fly/sleep. Way early for 10:50 plane, but pleasant enough wait. Plane less than full, so some room to stretch out. Into Heathrow by mid-morning, and bus to Oxford by noon. Nat meets us and we walk to Linton Lodge for check in, upgraded to “executive room.” CE rests, Nat goes back to work, and I go out for walk.
II: Introduction to Oxford. (Weds-Fri 4/25-4/27.) First I walk the couple of blocks over to N&N’s building, then a block past to the canal, and path alongside moored canal boats – long, low, and narrow. Soon discover Trap Grounds, a small natural preserve of swampy ground with boardwalk; see nesting swan and grey heron up close, among other spring delights. Continue walk far north, then back and over to Port Meadow. Retrieve CE after several hours, and show her some of my discoveries on way to dinner at N&N’s, which Nicole cooks delightfully, in their most attractive, light-filled apartment. Back to hotel for long shower and early night.
Next morning we walk back to N&N’s for breakfast, and after they both get down to work, CE and I walk through University Parks, and down alongside the Cherwell, past Parson’s Pleasure, down Mesopotamia Walk, and around Magdalen College to the Botanical Gardens. Meet N&N for lunch at Vault under University Church of St. Mary, next to Radcliffe Camera. Ben’s Cookies in Covered Market. After break back in hotel room, CE & I walk down canal and back up along the Thames and through Port Meadow. Another break, and then walk with N&N to Gardener’s Arms, the pub where Nat got word of his job offer after interview, then back to their place.
Friday we checked out and left bags with Nicole, walked to Ashmolean Museum to wander galleries and have lunch. Paid admission to Trinity College for gardens and chapel. Rain picks up as we walk back to N&N’s for tea, then bus with Nicole to meet Nat at car rental place. Nat drives us three hours to Airbnb in Lyme Regis; we listen to some of their favorite podcasts for entertainment along the way.
III. Excursion to Jurassic Coast. (Fri-Sun 4/27-4/29.) Arrive at great cliff-perched Airbnb house just before dark, then out to late but good dinner at Indian restaurant. Next morning Nicole goes out to bakery to get breakfast, serving everyone on her birthday; I’m still full from dinner, but eat egg & cheese “bap” as early lunch. Catching low tide we walk out rocky beach under cliffs where ammonites and other fossils are readily evident everywhere, in great variation and profusion. While Nat and others search with further attention, I look for smooth worry stones for Rachel. Head over to the Cobb before them, then miss connections, for mini-drama detailed below. Finally meeting up with CE, while N&N are in museum, we take a good walk upriver from restored old mill. All meet up back at house, N&N go out for same river walk, CE rests, and I walk around town and park. We celebrate Nicole’s birthday with dinner at Italia Restaurant, and hanging out back at the house.
I wake early and go for walk at high tide, along concrete walkway just below cliff where house perches, and elsewhere around town. We all pack up, then go to breakfast at Mill Courtyard Café. After check-out, with Nat driving and Nicole navigating, we go to Charmouth Heritage Center and fossil beach adjacent. Again they look for fossils, while I walk far down the beach. Then we drive on for walk to the Golden Cap, exhilarating windswept high-point panorama of entire Dorset coast. On drive toward Oxford, Nat spots sign for “Maiden Castle,” which he recognizes as largest Iron Age hill fort in Britain, and we take short detour – most impressive ditches and earthworks in maze leading to hilltop moor, where sheep graze and wind is literally staggering, amidst ageless twilight. Nat gets us back to Oxford just before dark, and we check back into Linton Lodge; get same room, which feels like coming home.
IV: Living in Oxford. (Sun-Sat 4/29-5/5.) Soon we walk back over to N&N’s, then around the corner to their neighborhood pub, The Anchor. Back at hotel, I finish reading Anne Tyler novel that’s been my travel companion, and conk out on the early side.
Monday morning we get off to leisurely start, wandering into town for destination-less constitutional, and winding up in Covered Market for brunch. Intending to visit Pitt-Rivers Museum after noon opening, we never make it through Natural History Museum, well-designed and endlessly-fascinating epicenter of Darwinism. Returning to hotel, CE rests while I go right back out, to walk up to Summertown neighborhood and over to Port Meadow again. Finally over to N&N’s, to eat Nicole’s delicious dinner, look at Nat’s pictures of Munich etc., and Skype with Rachel. Early night, since CE and Nicole are getting up before dawn to attend Oxford’s May Day celebrations.
I’m still in hotel room when CE returns at 9 to nap; I go for another random walk, into University Parks and over to Jericho neighborhood, where I have “yummy scrummy” porridge (and read The Guardian) at Jericho Café. As calendar flips to May, the weather turns sunny and milder. At noon CE and I go meet Nicole for long circumnavigation of Port Meadow, stopping for lunch (and cider) at The Trout and for dessert (and porter) at The Perch, alongside Thames and ruins of medieval convent, amongst cows, horses, geese, and swans. After another interval back at hotel, we walk to meet N&N for dinner at Thai restaurant down old alley from High Street. Afterwards, passing by, we visit Nat’s office and happen to meet his “boss.”
Wednesday morning we go over to N&N’s for breakfast and back to hotel for another leisurely start. It’s drizzling a bit as we walk to Pitt-Rivers and proceed to take in the whole museum (ha-ha!). We meet N&N for lunch at Pie Minister in Covered Market (yum!). When they go back to work, CE and I visit new Weston Library section of the Bodleian, and exhibition on “Women Who Dare.” With sun now out, we take circuitous route back to hotel, though CE is exhausted and I am weary and sore. After nice respite, and swing through nearby garden hideaway that I want to show off to CE, we go for another of Nicole’s tasty dinners, and entertaining evening with N&N.
Next morning, again without any special agenda or rush, CE and I walk through park into town, for breakfast at Turl Street Kitchen and wandering into colleges with free admission (St. Edmund’s Hall, All Souls) and around Christ Church Meadow, to meeting of Cherwell and Thames rivers. We follow separate paths back to hotel, where I shower and rest before we go to meet N&N for dinner at Jericho Café, and on to play board games at Thirsty Meeples. Back at hotel, I follow Indians and Cavs games by internet.
Friday we breakfast again at N&N’s, and I take CE back to Trap Grounds and up canal, reprising my first day in Oxford. While waiting for Nat, I go into their very pleasant back garden and reflect on week’s visit. Go with Nat to lunch at Gee’s, nearby greenhouse restaurant, then we three meet Nicole at boathouse to go punting on the Cherwell, which turns out to be great fun. I show N&N around nearby Bishop’s House Garden, and we again eat dinner at their place. Nicole sets me up on her laptop to Skype with Rach and Jane. Back at hotel, I am re-reading Lyme-set French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Up early on Saturday, thinking about next phase of travel. While CE goes to breakfast at N&N’s, I clean up, pack up, and check out; meet them at bus stop in transit to train station, and on to London.
V: Visiting London. (Sat-Mon 5/5-5/7.) We walk from Marylebone station to Manchester Street apartment booked through Airbnb, which is rather a disappointment. We take out lunch, and go to eat in Regent’s Park, where Nat meets us after short run. Further disappointed in group not having desire or stamina to explore more of park or other sites, I follow along on phone-dictated beeline to British Museum, with slight detour for Nat to show me University College London archaeology department, where he will be interviewing soon, after a conference in Russia. At museum, three of them go one way and I another, meeting up again for long walk to Little Georgia restaurant in Islington, where we’re joined by Nat’s excavating colleague Anthony, in great Georgian feast. Thankfully, Nicole finds handy, if circuitous, bus route back to Marylebone neighborhood.
Sunday morning I’m up early, and out in search of ibuprofen for my aching knee, before gathering others and walking into Hyde Park, for breakfast at Serpentine Cafe. Into Kensington (past place we stayed in 1999), we detour through Harrod’s food halls on way to Victoria & Albert Museum, where we stay all afternoon, with me again the lone wolf meeting up with them occasionally. Eventually we walk back past Albert Memorial and through Hyde Park again to apartment, where we turn around and go back out to nearby Chinese restaurant.
Monday, I’m up early again, to take my ibuprofen and go get my circuit around Queen Mary’s Garden. After we all pack and leave our bags in apartment, we go out to breakfast and then to nearby Wallace Collection house museum, after which they have drinks, then lunch, at sidewalk cafes, before collecting bags and walking to train stations, us to Heathrow Express out of Paddington, while N&N veer off to Marylebone for train back to Oxford.
VI: Getting home. (Mon-Tues 5/7-5/8.) Again early to airport for 6:30 flight, wait again pleasant enough. I get beer and a bite, still reading FLW. Plane again has empty seat for relative comfort, also good and plentiful food; watch two pretty good movies, and into Boston on time, in effect just a couple hours later than departure. Handy shuttle to Comfort Inn in Revere, which is indeed comfortable and convenient, where I get to watch Cavs complete playoff sweep of Raptors.
After good breakfast in hotel, we brave downtown Boston rush hour, without too much delay, and get back to the Berkshires by noon. Stop at Guido’s for groceries, and home to walk down driveway, and check on foal that was born just before we left. After unpacking, and revving up my computer, I go north to check in on Rach and Jane. Trip complete without mishap.
So much for chronology, now we turn to alphabetization. Going back to basics – the alphabet book. Each letter of the alphabet will set off a recollection of the trip, long story or short, summation or rumination, running the gamut from A to Zed.
A is for Ashmolean. When Nat was a student at Oxford and we visited in 2008, the Ashmolean was mostly closed for renovation, so it definitely counted as a must-see on this go-round, now that he’s a teacher and the museum is greatly enhanced. As will be true of every museum I mention, the Ashmolean is a real miscellany (and free!), with something of interest around every corner. It put many things into context, most notably the high status of archaeology in U.K. relative to U.S., and the “hoards” discovered by amateur “Detectorists,” as in the great British comedy series of that name, along with oddities like T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian dress robes. Painting is a top-floor afterthought, but with interesting collections of Pre-Raphaelites and Pissarro, among others.
[A could also be for Airbnb (a great one in Lyme Regis, and a convenient but incommodious one in London), Air Travel (surprisingly tolerable), or Ammonites (see J).]
B is for British Museum. Inevitably. Last time in London we’d stayed at the Penn Club, just around the corner, but somehow got only a brisk run-through. And missed the Reading Room, which is what I most wanted to see, then engaged in writing about libraries. Missed it again this time, closed between exhibitions. The ground floor was too crowded for me, so I wandered through the upper floors, without much system or purpose. Truth is, my background is weak for many of the British Museum’s exhibits – so many ancient empires I never heard of, appropriated by the fading British Empire. Frankly, the part that engaged me most was browsing the bookstore. In an odd tic, whenever I meant to speak of the BM, I’d always say “Berkshire Museum” by mistake. So that experience was one in a string of mild disappointments on that Saturday in London; for the antidote to which, see G.
[On a more upbeat note, B could stand for Botanical Garden, our destination on the first morning in Oxford. From the prior trip, I remained parsimonious in approach, but not quite so pinchpenny, so this time I was willing to pay for entry, since CE had been so enthusiastic about it. Interesting and attractive displays, from both an historical and a natural perspective.]
C is for the Cobb. On the first page of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Lyme Regis resident John Fowles refers to the Cobb as “quite simply the most beautiful sea rampart on the south coast of England” and “a superb fragment of folk art… primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate… full of subtle curves and volumes.” You can see it in the very first shot of the movie adaptation, as a very young Meryl Streep walks to the end of the serpentine structure in a long black hooded cape. And it was right there that I played out my own little Victorian melodrama.
Nat and the ladies lingered on the Lyme Regis fossil beach longer than I was inclined to, so I found myself drifting toward the Cobb, confident that we couldn’t miss each other on that exposed jetty, narrow and sinuous. I walked to the end and back twice, dawdling in expectation of their imminent arrival, but realizing that from their perspective I had just disappeared. So I walked back out to the beach expecting to meet them. That, in retrospect, was my big mistake (after not announcing where I was going in the first place); we must have passed like ships in the night.
So I went part way out the beach, but not seeing them in the distance, returned to the Cobb and resumed walking its full length back and forth, back and forth, until I had to find a bench where I could see either level of walkway coming and going. There I sat and literally watched the tide come in, gradually filling the basin behind the barrier and lifting the beached boats. By now something was definitely wrong, and I began to worry that the others were so involved in digging up fossils that they’d be trapped around the bend by the rising tide.
So this time I went out past all the people left on the beach, and still could not see them. Earlier I’d been taking note of how far from nimble and surefooted I’d become, in stepping from stone to stone on a rocky beach, but now with the passage of time becoming more frantic, I made exceptionally swift progress, and recovered a bit of my youth. What I didn’t recover was the rest of my party. So I rushed back to the Cobb, and turning onto it, saw on a bench near where I’d been sitting, a seated woman in a hooded garment (red slicker rather than black wool). She looked up as I approached, and said, “My French lieutenant, you’ve come back to me.”
CE and I just had a similar mix-up at her eye doctor appointment, so I expected her to be annoyed, but she just laughed it off. When she had reached the Cobb with Nat and Nicole, and they’d not seen me there after going partway out, they decided to go have lunch until I showed up. Nat was somewhat exasperated at my lack of a phone to keep in touch, but CE took it in stride. [Here’s a pic of them not finding me.] After eating, N&N had gone to the local fossil museum, while CE awaited my return to the Cobb, after which we took a very pleasant inland walk, upriver from the restored Town Mill.
[Without this story to tell, C might stand for Cherwell or Canals or Canal boats, any of which would illuminate how the landscape of Oxford is defined by the rivers and canals that run through it, the Cherwell and the canals finally flowing into the upper Thames. Walking down the Cherwell through University Parks or Christ Church Meadow, or punting up it with N&N; walking up the canal to “First Turn” and down to Jericho, where it meets the Thames; appraising the sociology of canal boats, from trim pleasure craft, to marginal residences, to tinkers afloat – all were quintessential Oxford experiences.]
D is for Dining Out and Dining In. Could also be for Driving to Dorset. Either way it shows the younger folks doing everything possible to make the old folks’ visit easy and pleasant. Some of the best dinners we had were cooked by Nicole, and half the time I had breakfast at their place (CE more often). And there’s no way we could have made the trip through Dorset without Nat taking the reins, so to speak – renting wheels, driving, parking, and detouring creatively – and Nicole providing navigation, as well as restaurant finding and other travel orientation (such as bus and train tickets). The old canard about British food was certainly disproved by a couple weeks of fine eating. Indian, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Georgian(!) – the ethnic food was excellent. As was pub dining (Gardener’s Arms, The Anchor, The Trout). And super lunches at The Vault and Pie Minister, and elsewhere in Oxford’s Covered Market. Had a vegetarian “Full English Breakfast” there that I liked, but the one traditional version I had was the most disappointing meal of the trip. Also in N&N’s neighborhood, Jericho Café and Gee’s greenhouse restaurant. All told, eating was a highlight of the trip.
E is for Entertainment. Sensibly, I took just two books, each purchased for a buck at a library book sale, and each fitting the bill perfectly. I’ve always been a fan of Anne Tyler, but hadn’t taken note of her more recent novels, so The Beginner’s Goodbye was new to me. The print was large, and the familiarity made it easy to pick up and put down. After visiting Lyme Regis (and having just re-watched the movie), The French Lieutenant’s Woman proved an extremely evocative read. Of TV, I did not watch a single minute over two weeks, though screens were omnipresent, but I did browse through the newspaper that appeared in the hotel room every day. On my cheap little tablet, I struggled to write a few emails, and followed Cleveland team results and NYT headlines, but little else. On the plane over, I watched Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, with Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev and other comic actors as the rest of the Politburo, though I missed about a third of the dialogue. Coming back, I chose a couple films suited to tiny screen and tinny sound. Finding Your Feet was a manufactured piece of British whimsy, but nonetheless redolent of our visit (one character lives on a canal boat!) and enlivened by some excellent acting. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist was broad and funny. Safe to say I was never bored for a minute.
F is for Flora and Fauna. (Including Fossils.) I was continuously engaged by both the differences and the similarities in nature between Old and New England. Most striking, perhaps, was my initial intimate acquaintance with a heron, grey rather than blue, amidst the marsh marigolds I’d been waiting to see come in at home. Made a leap forward to spring, which advanced toward summer in the course of our stay. Close encounters with cows and sheep, swans and greylag geese, magpies and woodpigeons. The ramps of the Uplyme walk [pic], and the bluebells of Langdon Hill Wood [pic]. Flowering trees and bushes all over Oxford – wisteria, lilacs, cherry, primrose, and clematis – growing over and even out of old stone walls. Venerable trees that go back centuries [pic]. Gardens are truly as beloved of the Brits as dogs.
G is for Georgian Feast. Nat led us on a hike from the British Museum into Islington, our destination the Little Georgia Restaurant, where we got a varied and delicious taste of the country that Nat knows so well. As close as we’ll ever come to a visit. Nat kept the food and the wine coming, and the restaurant provided Georgian hospitality. Adding to the archaeological flavor was Nat’s colleague Anthony, brother of the Oxford fellow who got Nat started in Georgia. “Ant” was a retired British civil servant, as eccentric as he ought to be, amusing as well, so the conversation flowed as appetizingly as the food and drink. Afterwards, Nat referred to him as “the last of the true amateurs.” Now I understand the particular application to archaeology, a field established by amateurs, though now dominated by professionals. But a part of me wanted to say, “What about your dad, Nat? He’s one of the last true amateurs as well.” Nonetheless, I realize that he’s not going to see me in just the way I see myself. So as with driving, and punting, and other activities, I was happy to put myself in Nat’s hands for the evening. And Nicole’s, to get us back to our apartment by bus. [G could also stand for another peak experience, Golden Cap, but for more on that, see J.]
H is for Hideaways. I take particular pleasure in stumbling across attractions hidden in plain sight, rather than ticking off high points on a blinkered tour. That’s as true outdoors as in, on walkabout as well as within the walls of a museum. It tickles me to have found a very special place within two hundred yards of their house that neither Nat nor Nicole were aware of. The giveaway to the Trap Grounds was the mural paintings on the first bridge over the canal north of theirs, with large pictures of some of the fauna and flora to be seen if you pass through that narrow portal into a few acres of swamp, with a boardwalk winding through it. There I saw my first nesting swan (others in Uni Parks) and grey heron, amidst other wildlife and vegetation, familiar and not. Similarly with the Bishop’s House Garden, where an open gate at a dead end led me into a magical, hidden-away little world, of domestic and wild flower plantings, espaliered trees [pic] and bamboo mazes, arbors and walkways. It was only a block or two from Linton Lodge, and I took the others back there on two different occasions. Even in the well-trafficked University Parks, my favorite place was an out-of-the-way weir known as Parson’s Pleasure, formerly used for male-only nude bathing, leading to the secluded between-river Mesopotamia Walk.
[In a different vein, H could stand for Hyde Park or Harrod’s. We passed through the park on a sunny, summery Sunday, on the way to and from the V&A, amused to observe the similarities and differences to Central Park. Also, couldn’t go past Harrod’s without a swing through the food halls, again observing similarities and differences, in this case to Cleveland’s West Side Market.]
I is for Me. Yes, I’m the culprit. Though Nat had a few remote and moody moments, I was the one big baby in the group, the one who had the others rolling their eyes, and muttering under their breath, “What’s with him?” My worst moments came after that string of minor disappointments on arrival in London: unsatisfactory apartment, mistaken lunch, being dragged away from park where I wanted to walk, disavowing leadership, but following in poor spirit.
When Nat suggested a short detour past UCL archaeology department, the two women seemed to veto it before I could say anything. (Or maybe I was silent to spite myself.) Anyway, following a few steps down the pavement, I let out a snort that made everyone stop and turn to me. “Well, I’d like to see where Nat is interviewing,” I whined. So Nat and I veered off, getting a bit lost in the labyrinthine halls of the college but happening upon its infamous mascot, the “auto-icon” of Jeremy Bentham. The department itself was under renovation, but the hoardings told the department’s history in pictures, flourishing under Mortimer Wheeler, famous for excavating Maiden Castle.
Meeting up again at the British Museum, I was still a bit of a pill, but walked it off in solitary roamings through the upper floors. By the time we’d reached the Little Georgia, after a forced march for the hobbling old folks, I was convivial again, though I remained a bit tetchy over the stresses of the city, and would be a bit snitty again on Monday morning, about not getting my way.
So I was thinking about these incidents as I drove west on the Mass Pike after landing back in Boston. And thinking about how our characters are formed so early, so our grade school report cards are keys to all that follows. My generally high marks always fell short in two categories. Over the years I have made some progress in “needs to practice self-control,” but I still get a very low grade in “works and plays well with others.” On that, I’ve made less progress internally, though I’ve solved the problem mainly by having less and less to do with others.
So if the ointment had a fly, I was it. But on the whole, everything was smooth and creamy, soothing and refreshing.
[I could also stand for iPhone, which gives me a chance to wax curmudgeonly about smartphones, express gratitude for being free of them, and resolve never to have one. It’s undeniable that Nicole provided innumerable services with hers, navigating, finding restaurants and timetables, etc. etc., and it’s part of the whole package of assistance that I heartily thank her for. But when it comes to walking, I’m a firm believer in following one’s own nose, looking for sidelights and attractive detours, steps off the beaten path as it were, rather than following some beeline dictated by an online map. So that difference in approach was one of the things that put me out of sorts on the way to the Berkshire, oops, British Museum.]
J is for Jurassic Coast. We took a dinosaur-sized bite out of Dorset on England’s south coast, from Lyme Regis to the Golden Cap, part of the World Heritage Site designated as the Jurassic Coast. Lyme was for me a fine stand-in for the Portwenn of Doc Martin, even if we didn’t make it as far as Cornwall. It really constituted fossil-hunting for dummies, as they were evident everywhere, the nautilus-like shapes of ammonites imprinted on rocks more than a foot across, and other shells and forms affixed to the mudstone and limestone that fall to the beach from the “Blue Lias” layers of cliff behind, in a stretch known as the “ammonite graveyard.” When we went east along the coast to Charmouth the next day, finding the tiny fossils required more meticulous search, so I spent my time walking far down the beach, while Nat pocketed a handful of finds, including one perfect little ammonite preserved in pyrite, which CE unearthed and allowed me to take back for Rachel, as a memento of a hundred million years ago.
From either beach, the Golden Cap was visible as both the highest point along the coast, and for the unique sandstone material that made it golden at the top. Driving on to Langdon Hill Wood, it was not too long a climb to the promontory, where the stiff wind kept us at safe distance from the precipitous drop to the sea, but the peak offered a panoramic sweep of the coast, from Lyme and Charmouth to the west, around a long bend, including Chesil Beach, to the point of Portland in the east. To the north, the rolling hills of Dartmoor [pic] were divided by old stone walls into green sheep fields and startlingly yellow fields of rapeseed. We came down from the heights into pleasant woods, where the hillside was carpeted in bluebells.
[For a delightful postscript, I link to a New York Times travel article that appeared just after I wrote this. The first picture perfectly describes the arc of the “dinosaur bite” we took in, with Golden Cap in the distance, and the fourth represents exactly my view as I was “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide come in.”]
K is for Knee. And also for Keen, two things that impeded all the walking I did, hours of it every day. The knee was as it always is, the pain coming and going, but finally wearing through as my leg wore down. The novel injury was to my foot, where my new Keen hiking boots, rather than breaking in, broke my foot on the first day’s trek – I must have tied the laces too tight. Luckily my other shoes did not pinch in that place, so I managed most of the time. And at least my occasional gimpiness kept me to CE’s pace at times.
L is for Linton Lodge. If the decidedly mislabeled “majestic” Airbnb in London made me feel like a dunce, the Linton Lodge in Oxford made me feel like a genius: fantastic accommodations in a fantastic location, perfect comfort less than three blocks from N&N’s apartment, with easy access to wherever we wanted to go, into city or country, park or museum. I could have handled the booking a little better (direct through Best Western, of all chains), but they were very accommodating in our leaving for two days in the middle of ten, and the upgrade to an executive room completed the comfort (though I never saw a standard room for comparison). A bow window looked out on the back garden, and created the space for a chair and loveseat around a coffee table. And the room had every amenity, from free snacks and drinks to fluffy white robes. Usable desk, closet, and drawers, decent lighting and comfortable bed, accommodating bathroom. Great neighborhood, as typified by the house around the corner where J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings. Really, a perfect home away from home, which made being away from home that much easier.
M is for Maiden Castle. Not at all what the word “castle” conjures, this is an Iron Age hill fort, the largest in Britain. Nat had been looking at brown tourist attraction signs on the road back to Oxford, for a break along the way, and when he saw a sign near Dorchester for “Maiden Castle,” he knew exactly what it was, and made the quick detour that had us there in minutes. What an impressive feature in the landscape! A high plateau surrounded by a maze of huge trenches and earthworks. We arrived in tenebrous twilight, with a howling wind sweeping over the moor, where we walked through herds of grazing sheep, and contemplated the settlements of two or three thousand years ago, with the ruins of a Roman shrine that followed, and then the centuries of nothing but grazing sheep. In its own way, more impressive than Stonehenge.
N is for Nat and Nicole’s Place. Their flat is in a very desirable residential section of North Oxford, nestled between the hip neighborhoods of Jericho and Summertown. Woodstock Road is one of the main arteries radiating from the city, with regular bus service, but their apartment is on the third floor rear of a house built in 1900, overlooking an enclosed garden, so it is very quiet. It’s also light-filled, with lots of windows and skylights, bright décor and nice furniture. A ten-minute walk will take you either into the center of town or into the countryside, the mix of urban and rural amenities unsurpassable, and a car quite dispensable. Nat relies on his bike to get around, while Nicole walks and buses wherever she needs to go.
[For N it was hard not to go with Natural History Museum, which is one of my favorite places in Oxford, for its architecture, its history, and its range of displays. From its Victorian Gothic brickwork to its Crystal Palace-like iron and glass vault, it’s crammed with enough demonstrations of evolution to silence any biblical doubter. Built at the same time Darwin published Origin of Species, it was the venue for the famous debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog.” See also P for the adjacent Pitt-Rivers Museum.]
O is for Oxford. I guess one has to start with the “dreaming spires” and the golden stone of medieval cloisters, and the elaborate brick and iron work of Victorian Gothic piles, with the occasional modern accent of new buildings. But parks and waterways follow close behind in defining appeal, with more museums and libraries than one can shake a stick at (and why would one do that?). Cosmopolitan and pastoral at the same time, bustling streets and quiet retreats, compact and diverse. The immemorial push and pull between town and gown. The weight of the past and the press of youth. Walking the streets was an audio installation unrivalled this side of the High Line, hearing so many languages passing by in a narrow space, a benevolent Babel. So much to make living there agreeable, including one amenity that none of us sampled, but still representing the admirable range of choice – a first-class repertory film theater in Jericho. Really, Oxford has everything you need for a fine life, and Nat and Nicole are lucky in where they live.
P is for Port Meadow. Speaking of pastoral, one has to speak of the pasturage of Port Meadow, where cows and horses grazed, and waterbirds flocked. Reminiscent of Concord’s Great Meadows, river-adjacent and frequently flooded, and presided over perpetually by Constable clouds in the high, wide sky. From N&N’s place, you go around the block and past The Anchor, across a footbridge over the canal, and another over the train tracks, and there you are in the wide open spaces. Nicole led us on a circumnavigation on a beautiful afternoon, stopping for refreshment at two pubs, exploring the ruins of a medieval convent, and mingling with livestock, as a group of mostly black heifers congregated at a gate we had to pass through [pic].
[Vying for the P designation are two other Oxford delights. Pitt-Rivers Museum was added to the back of the Natural History Museum, when General Pitt-Rivers donated the fruits of a lifetime of collecting to the University, for a museum of anthropology and archaeology. Other collections followed, into the idiosyncratic cabinets of curiosities that make up this quirky study site. There are hundreds of display cases devoted to artifacts by use, rather than region or culture or era. So you can see in a single case far-flung examples of baskets or dolls or toys or masks, musical or medical instruments, pipes or tools, or what-have-you. The big square box of a room is crowded and dark, with two upper galleries of cases around the large central space. My glasses were better adapted to the lighting than on last visit, so I didn’t have to avail myself of the flashlight and magnifying glass that they will supply for a modest donation. The place evokes simultaneously a cultural crime of imperial appropriation, and a celebration of the diversity and commonality of human endeavor.
[For sheer hilarity, P should probably stand for Punting on the Cherwell, a traditional Oxford activity (CE has inherited a framed picture postcard of exactly that, from 1910), of which I was rather dubious, not being an aquatic animal myself, and remembering a white-knuckle canoe ride with Nat up in Maine. But Nat gondoliered upriver admirably, only once “catching a crab” (losing the pole when it sticks in the mud), and after stopping at a pub for cider to take aboard, Nicole took over downstream, with a minor but very funny mishap, when she got thoroughly entangled in the willow branches hanging over the water, as reckless as Mr. Toad in his motorcar.]
Q is for Queen’s Lane. Which I take as representative of the merits of aimless rambling, and finding the best attractions off the beaten path. I doubt Queen’s Lane is on any recommended tour of Oxford, but it provided one of the most breathtaking sights of our visit. Go under the Bridge of Signs and follow New College Lane around a bend into Queen’s Lane, which bends again into High Street. It’s hemmed in by medieval stone walls, but over them spilled great limbs of lilac and apple blossom, in a flood of color and scent. Serendipitous, indeed.
[Q might also stand for Queen Mary’s Garden, but that section of Regent’s Park was not as much in flower as on our prior visit, or it might stand for the Quaker Meeting in Oxford, which is one of the centers of N&N’s social life there, and which CE and I popped into for a brief quiet interlude.]
R is for Rain and Sun, Wind and Weather. Progressing from April to May, the weather went from raw spring to brink of summer, starting with chilly and wet and ending up warm and sunny, while never being a serious impediment to any activity. Got a bit damp once or twice, but never soaked. Buffeted by wind, but never blown over. So as with British food, British weather exceeded its reputation.
S is for Signs. I never managed to interpret the lines, dashes, and zigzags painted on the street pavement, so it’s a good thing I never had to drive. I rarely felt a wish to be shown a sign, to tell me where to go or what to do. Though as with those murals next to the canal, I was always happy when guidance and instruction were provided spontaneously. And then there were all those signs with word choices amusing to American ears. “Rising bollards” put me in mind of a gang of unruly youth, mods or rockers I’m not sure. “Polite Notice” rather than “Warning” seemed ineffably British. As did boasts of “Considerate Construction,” or directives of “No Antisocial Driving” in a “PSPO Zone.” For the clueless, the last stands for Public Spaces Protection Order; does that order mean “don’t honk your horn” or “don’t plow into a crowd of pedestrians”?
T is for Thirsty Meeples. That’s the name of a board game cafe where Nat and Nicole took us one evening, where we had drinks and played (a meeple is a game piece). Like punting, this was an activity I went along with somewhat dubiously, but wound up enjoying. The game we spent most of the evening on was Word on the Street, “The Hilarious Tug of Words.” That game may even have influenced the alphabetic organization of these recollections. [In terms of recurrent centrality to trip, T might stand for Trap Grounds, but that is covered under H.]
U is for University Parks. Our typical path into town took us through The Parks, and we sampled every corner of it, from the North Gatehouse, just a few blocks down Banbury Road from our hotel, to the pond where we got another great view of nesting swans, down alongside the Cherwell and the Rainbow Bridge, up and down Thorn Walk and Oak Walk, and across Lucas Walk, to the weir at Parson’s Pleasure, and the rollers that we later confirmed were for portaging punts, and through the inter-riverine wilds of the Mesopotamia Walk. We crisscrossed the space often, till it was less an attraction in itself, and just an everyday part of the natural environment.
V is for Victoria & Albert Museum. The pinnacle of museum-going on this trip, where we spent the entire afternoon, with nary a glance at the Natural History and Science museums just across the street. With the British Museum covering ancient history, and the National Gallery and the Tates covering art, the V&A’s brief is simple – everything else. A dazzling and daunting collection of design and decorative arts, spanning the globe and centuries of history, all exquisitely and informatively displayed. Though I didn’t linger long anywhere, I did cover the immensity of the place, appropriating a kaleidoscope of images and impressions. Like a shark, I had to keep moving, or sink to the bottom of it all. Met the others in the courtyard, where they were taking a refreshment break, and then in the shop at the end of the day (where I did not find a birthday present for Nicole). Here’s a pic of her with me in the museum’s courtyard, with her trying to get me into a picture I’m trying to get out of. And another of me with N&N in front of the Albert Memorial.
W is for Wallace Collection. At least the cramped apartment in Marylebone was well-located, central to the London museums we visited, and just a block from this tremendously interesting house museum, to which several generations of aristocrats brought a wide range of collections in depth, from small Renaissance wax sculptures I’d never seen anywhere else, through room after room of armour, and then upstairs to room after room of paintings, which had some familiar Old Master masterpieces, but were most interesting to me for the overlap with Sterling Clark’s collecting, which followed upon the Wallaces’ until he got into buying the Impressionists. So Academic artists like Vernet and DeCamps, of which Clark has one example each, were here in great numbers. I liked both the preservation of an old townhouse mansion, and the low-key but informative curation; could have stayed longer.
X-Y-Zed is for extra, et cetera, and the last word. Some events fall into several alphabetical categories, or none. For example, I learned about kites, one sort of Fauna, at the Natural History Museum, how the bird species had been threatened but made a big comeback; then one time when I was walking in Port Meadow, a kite flew directly over my head at low altitude. I hope the interconnectedness of all these entries is manifest.
There were always these little light bulbs going off, urging one to connect the dots and see the big picture. In each of these museums (and out in nature too), I found the antidote to internet addiction, or at least the methadone. All those little endorphin rushes you’re supposed to get from clicking, in order to keep you clicking, are more than compensated for by wandering from gallery to gallery, never quite sure what you will see around the next corner, and how it will tie together with everything else you’ve seen.
That typifies what I consider the main theme of this crossing over the sea – making connections. Maybe Y can be taken to represent two roads converging, an intersection of paths, a joint journey to a common destination. In England, I met my mother, and discovered a bit of Ma in me. In England, I discovered a bit of me in my son, but also met him as an independent adult for perhaps the first time: Dr. Nathaniel Erb-Satullo of the University of Oxford. I don’t need to belabor the other connections that were made, but they were manifold.
Chronology and alphabet, time and letters, two of the things that make humans human, that give us our rung on the ladder of evolution, these tell the story of a voyage through spacetime, from past to present to future, or vice versa. This writing is my way of booking passage to an afterlife.
So the Old Man went over the sea, and came back none the worse for wear, a little older, maybe a little wiser, but full of sights and sites, walks and visits, urban excitement and rural pleasure, family fun and intellectual stimulation. His curmudgeonly mumbles are few, his gratitude immense. It was a trip.