So. My plan today was simple. Drop off some laundry, take a tour of the Bodleian Library, get a look inside the Sheldonian Theatre, see the exhibit of Bodleian treasures at the Weston Library, grab some lunch, and spend the rest of the day wandering through the Ashmolean Museum before picking up my laundry and returning to the hotel.
This mostly worked out, with one minor hiccup I’ll get to.
I got the laundry dropped off and an assurance it would be ready this evening. That was a load off my mind, though it was also somewhat expensive. They know when they’ve got you over a barrel, don’t they? Still, I needed clean pants, so there ya go.
After that, I walked back to the Bodleian Library1 and bought a ticket for the hour-long tour.
While I waited for the tour to start, I grabbed a couple more pictures.
The tour was fascinating, but a little unsatisfying. Because the Bodleian is a working library, and exams are coming on, we had to be very quiet and careful to stay out of everyone’s way. Also, except for the School of Divinity, we weren’t allowed to take photographs.
The tour even took us inside the Radcliff Camera, that I’ve talked about previously. What I didn’t know was that, originally, the ground floor of the Camera was open to the air, with open arches, providing a small sheltered area that was used for public gatherings, small markets, etc. The arches were closed up in the 18th century, when the library started needing more room for storage.
The Weston Library, where I went next, is hosting an exhibit called Marks of Genius. They are displaying a number of books, documents, and artifacts from the Bodleian’s collection. These were all available for photography, and I might have gone a little nuts in there. Here’s is a limited selection of my pictures.
After that, I walked back across the street to the Sheldonian Theatre. This is another building shared by all the colleges, and it’s used mainly for matriculation and graduation ceremonies.
The cupola of the Sheldonian gives a nice panoramic view of the city. Unfortunately, the windows are about five feet off the ground, which limits the view somewhat.
I grabbed a sandwich and a drink, then, and walked down to the Ashmolean, where I sat on a bench and ate my lunch before going in.
Which is when I learned that the Ashmolean is closed on Mondays.
By this time, I was tired, and my knees were twinging, so I decided to take an afternoon off2 and rest up. Besides, I had The Imitation Game on my computer, and really wanted to see it after my tour of Bletchley Park yesterday. Quick review – fun movie, but the history of everything was… simplified. An interesting starting point for learning about Bletchley Park, but shouldn’t be the only source.
And then I went and picked up my laundry and some dinner.
Tomorrow, I’m off to York. Oxford was great, and I could spend another couple of days here, but I’m starting to think that’s going to be the same at each of my stops.
Guess I’ll have to come back.
I should specify that this is the Old Bodleian Library. There was a New Bodleian Library, but it was renamed the Weston Library. People still refer to the old Bodleian Library as the Old Bodleian Library. I dunno. [↩]
I say take an afternoon off, but this was like 3:00. So, take part of an afternoon off. [↩]
One of the big things I wanted to do on this trip is visit the Bletchley Park Museum. It’s pretty much holy ground for computer nerds, WWII geeks, conspiracy theorists, secret history aficionados, and1 information security specialists. I fall into a couple of those categories, so this was a bit of a pilgrimage for me.
For those who don’t know, here’s the brief on Bletchley Park. In the early days of WWII, the British military set up a signals intercept and codebreaking unit at Bletchley Park. They brought together a varied group of geniuses, trained a bunch of technicians2, and started trying to break the German codes. They were very successful, shortening the war by an estimated two years, ensuring the surprise of the D-Day attack, and helping to find and sink the Bismarck. Along the way, they pretty much laid the foundations for modern computing.
And then, when the war was over, the whole operation was silently shut down. All the papers were destroyed, all the machines dismantled and dispersed, and all the people sworn to secrecy. Until the project went public in 1974, there was pretty much no leak about the existence and work done at Bletchley Park. Churchill called Bletchley Park, “the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled.”
About the only other single project that had this sort of impact on the course of WWII is the Manhattan Project.
The travel instructions I got for the park – gleaned from some Internet site I can no longer find – weren’t good. They landed me in Milton Keynes with the impression that the museum was an easy walk from the train station. It wasn’t. It was a fifteen-minute cab ride away. Not ideal, but easy enough.
And then I wandered in the footsteps of the greats.
If I had come here next month, there would have been a couple more exhibits ready, including a look at a reconstructed Bombe, with demonstrations of how it worked. Also, an exhibit of how the various codebreakers worked to break the codes.
One thing that was of real interest to me3 is that the whole focus of the initial codebreaking efforts under Dilly Knox was on what he called the least secure part of the cipher: the people using it. People were lazy, and used easy-to-remember key settings on their devices – the names of their girlfriends, rude words, etc. These things gave the Bletchley Park codebreakers their first fingerholds on Enigma.
The museum had an awesome multi-media self-guided tour device – essentially an iPod Touch loaded with a keyed multi-media presentation. It provided a lot of good info, along with ways to drill down for more information in the areas where there’s more interest. Overall, the entire Bletchley Park Museum was awesome, in the truest sense of that word – I am in awe of the things I learned.
The trip home was easier, because I had figured out where the Bletchley train station was. Just in case you cared.
Now, I’m going to bed. Tomorrow’s my last day in Oxford. Got a few places I want to see, and I also want to get some laundry done.
This morning, I went on the Oxford walking tour I had booked. The day was a little overcast, and windy, and cool, but that’s okay. There were also a lot of people in the Oxford gowns, along with well-dressed family members, roving the streets, which made me think there was a graduation ceremony in the offing1. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it meant some places were off-limits to us tourists.
But we set off as folks gathered, and saw some very cool things.
The stark contrast between the forbidding exteriors of the colleges and the sumptuous, well-groomed interiors really struck me. More than most universities I’ve seen, it was a profound delineation between the closed, pampered collegiate life, and the rougher, more earthly life in the real world.
Not that I consider academic life to necessarily be the ivory tower that this sort of display makes me think of. It’s more that, looking at this, I understand where that sort of idea comes from.
Anyway. We left New College, and headed back to a couple of other stops. The crowds prevented some of the pictures I took to be much good.
After the tour, I stuck my head in a couple of pubs, looking to find some lunch, but they were all packed solid with graduation celebrants. So, I wandered down the street to the Natural History Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Honestly, I wasn’t too interested in the Natural History Museum, but you need to go through it to get to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Still, there were some cool things in the Natural History Museum. For example:
Through the back of the gallery is the Pitt Rivers Museum.
But this was the thing that totally blew my mind and convinced me of the basic surrealism of the world.
So, here’s how those came about. Apparently, the hill tribes of the interior of Papua New Guinea made these big war shields. They painted them with images of ancestors and helpful spirits, binding the power of those things to aid them in war. When they started running into Europeans armed with firearms, the shields turned out to be less than useful in combat.
But they got their hands on some Phantom comic books. The idea of the Phantom – The Man Who Cannot Die, The Ghost Who Walks – as a defender of a native people against pirates and other exploiters resonated with them. They started to paint the Phantom on their shields to invoke his power, though they became items of ritual and ceremony rather than war against the Europeans.
That just made my day.
After that, I managed to have lunch in The King’s Arms, a pub that may2 have hosted the first performance of Hamlet outside of London. Shakespeare himself, while he was with The King’s Men, may have drunk there when he was in Oxford, which was not uncommon.
It was a good chicken and bacon pie, and a nice pint of cider.
Then I wandered a bit, feeling a little tired, and found the Oxford Martyrs’ Monument.
I was tired, then, and saw that I was right near a movie theatre, so I went and saw Avengers: The Age of Ultron again. Then, back to the hotel to do up this long post and plan for tomorrow.
I’m planning to head out to Milton Keynes tomorrow and see the Bletchley Park museum. Just as well, because apparently there’s a fun run going on in Oxford tomorrow, and it’ll shut down a few things. Then, on Monday, I’m going to hit the rest of the things I want to see here.
Oxford is awesome.
Turns out there were at least two: one for Trinity College, and one for Wadham College. [↩]
Left London this morning, taking the train up to Oxford. I’m glad I splurged for the first-class train pass; the seats are very nice, the tables are great, and there are power outlets everywhere. The trip to Oxford is under an hour, but the trip to York will be longer, and then York to Oban, Oban to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh back to London are quite long trips. The extra perks will really tell on those legs.
I got to Oxford around 12:30 PM – everything fell into place on the trip, with me getting to the tube just in time for the train to Paddington, and then got to Paddington just in time for the train to Oxford. That was nice, but it meant that, by the time I walked to the hotel on Broad Street, I was starving, as I hadn’t eaten yet.
After checking in, I unloaded my bags in my room, and went for a wander to find some lunch. Hunger being what it was, I didn’t look too far before stumbling upon a Burger King. Not a traditional English meal, but man, it was just what I needed then.
Then I took a stroll around the shopping district, just looking at stuff. At around 5:00 PM, I went back to my room to rest and read before the Ghost Walk tour. About a half-hour before the tour, I walked across the street to the start point.
There were only four of us on the Ghost Walk tour1, which is the minimum number for the walk to run. It started raining part way through2, so I didn’t get a lot of pictures.
Tom, our guide, was a great storyteller, and told some interesting stories. One that surprised me was the tale of the St. Scholastica Day riots – where the townies and the students went to war against each other, resulting in 30 dead townspeople and 63 dead students.
My favourite story, though, is about Cuthbert Shields. Now, I can find no record of this tale on the Internet, but that’s why I go on these trips, right? To hear the weird history that doesn’t get reported elsewhere.
Anyway, Shields was an historian at Corpus Christi College. He had previously been known as Robert Laing, but changed his name after his behaviour3 landed him in an asylum, and then forced him to spend many years traveling the world. He came back to Oxford around 1888 or so, and stayed there until he died in 1908.
He left behind a strange bequest to the college: a sealed silver box with a ribbon tied around it, and instructions that it not be opened until 50 years after his death. The college honoured his wishes and, in 1958, the librarian, assistant librarian, and warden of the college opened the box.
Inside were scores of Nostradamus-like predictions, carefully arranged and written, chronicling the years since his death.
They were all dead wrong.
The story goes that the Shields’s ghost attended the opening and seemed very disappointed.
Anyway, that’s my first glimpse of Oxford. Another walking tour tomorrow, where I’ll get to see more of the colleges and stuff.