Not a lot of pictures today. I spent about six hours checking out of the Oxford hotel, walking to the train station, waiting for a train, traveling to York, and walking to my guesthouse. Not a difficult day, but traveling definitely cuts into sightseeing time.
I also got away from Oxford about an hour later than I had planned – my computer stopped working, and it took me a while this morning to sort that out. I wanted to have the computer working so that I could watch a movie1 the four-hour train trip.
After I got settled into my guesthouse, I went for a bit of a walk to a pub I had read about in the guesthouse. And I took a couple of pictures.
The pub I was looking for was called The House of Trembling Madness. Trembling madness is a reference to delirium tremens, the DTs. It’s through a Bottle Shop2, and up a narrow, twisty flight of stairs.
And now, I’m back in my room, and going to read for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow, a sightseeing bus tour.
I watched Taken 3. It was so full of dumb, I can’t even begin to describe it. Even more than the first two. [↩]
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.
Got my keyboard working again, so I wanted to get a post up about yesterday’s trip out to Stonehenge, Lacock, and Bath.
Okay. First of all, 3:45 AM is very early to get up, especially on vacation. That said, I made it over to the hotel pick-up point well ahead of 5:00 AM – the pick-up time – so that’s good.
Overall, the trip was fantastic. Our driver and guide seemed to be good friends who worked well together, keeping us informed and entertained and on time. Despite the tyranny of the schedule, they were very flexible and accommodating when they could be, and just generally really good guys.
We made it out to Stonehenge around 8:00 AM – well past the sunrise, but we still had the circle to ourselves1 for an hour, and it was awesome.
After our hour in the circle, it was back to the coach and on to Lacock for breakfast. We had it in a pub called The George, which was established in 1361, and it was a very welcome meal by that time. I spent the meal chatting with a couple of very nice ladies from the US about The Book of Mormon, which they, too, had seen just a couple of nights before.
Then, we went for bit of a stroll around the village on the way back to the coach.
Back on the coach and on to Bath.
Bath was an important city during the Roman era of Britain. There were hot springs bubbling out of the ground, which the Romans took as a divine gift. They named it Aquae Sulis, and2 blended the idea of the local goddess, Sulis, with their own Minerva. They constructed a temple to Sulis Minerva here, and it became a centre for healing and pilgrimage.
The Victorians saw the long-vanished Roman baths rediscovered and rebuilt, turning the city of Bath into a world-famous spa city, where the rich would travel to take the waters.
And then3, it was time to head back. We were back in London around 5:00 PM, and I headed back to the hotel for some dinner and an early bed.
That was my last night in London. I need to go back at some point, because there is so much I didn’t get to: Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Temple Church, SoHo, Chruchill’s War Bunkers, so many other museums and libraries…
I don’t regret my choices of what I did go and see, though. I had a fantastic time. Well, maybe I would have picked a different day to go to Avebury, one that wasn’t quite so cold and windy and wet. But still.
One last closing note on London: I am in awe of the London Underground. I was a little bit intimidated by it at first, but it is so well organized and labeled that it made getting around very simple. And fast. Really, if you’re going to London, get yourself an Oyster Card and take the tube. So fast and easy.
But now, I’m in Oxford, and need to go hunt up some food. Tonight, I have a Ghost Walk, which I am looking forward to. The sky’s bright and clear right now, so I’m hoping it doesn’t turn as wet as the Ripper Walk did.
Not that rain’s gonna stop me.
That is, me, Frank the guide, Malcolm the driver, 29 other tourists, and two security guards to make sure we didn’t touch the stones. [↩]
Today was my first trip outside of London on this vacation. I took the train to Swindon and the bus to Avebury. There’s a stone circle there, the largest in western Europe, and you get to walk right in amongst the stones. Of course, it started raining while I was out there, and really picked up when I started walking the ridge trail.
That, along with the fact that the trail was closed at a couple of places for erosion control, and I didn’t get to see as much of it as I might have liked. But it was still very cool. The site’s almost 5000 years old, and being among the stones – able to go up and touch them – was awesome.
I got a few pictures.
By then, I was soaked. I got the bus back to Swindon, and the train back to London. Now, I’m going to bed, because I’m getting up at 3:45 tomorrow morning for my tour out to Stonehenge.
I started writing this last night, and began falling asleep as the pictures were loading. I couldn’t be bothered to go back and change all the references to “today.” You’ll have to live with it.
Quick update tonight. It’s late and I’m tired((Starting to be a recurring theme, huh?)).
My plan for today was to walk along the riverwalk on the south bank of the Thames, find the giant dead parrot sculpture, see Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe, then make my way to Piccadilly Circus and the Prince of Wales Theatre to see The Book of Mormon. As has become traditional, I started at Tower Hill, and took a stroll across the Tower Bridge to the south bank.
Okay. The parrot story. One of the reasons I was walking this way to get to Shakespeare’s Globe was that I had read this story a couple of months ago. I thought it would be very cool to get a picture of the giant parrot, perhaps even a picture of me with the giant parrot. Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked closely at the date of the article.
Then I made it to Shakespeare’s Globe1, and saw Romeo and Juliet.
Now, I’ve said before that Romeo and Juliet isn’t one of my favourite plays. That said, this production was amazing. They did some remarkable things with the staging, the music, and the switching of roles2. Benvolio was not, as is often the case, a crap actor – the actor playing him was also Friar Lawrence, and showed how Benvolio can be an amazing character.
While all the actors were fantastic, I have to single out the woman who played Juliet. It was pretty much the first performance I have seen where Juliet had a perfect mix of spoiled and naive, and really felt like an overly-romantic thirteen-year-old. Just wonderful.
After that, it was time to start heading to Piccadilly Circus, so I decided to walk across the Jubilee footbridge.
From across the footbridge, it was a quick tube ride to Piccadilly Circus. I picked up my tickets, and had my first sit-down dinner in the UK. I went to a place called Scotch Steak House. The food was okay, and the decor was not bad, and the prices were pretty high, but the service was out of this world. My waiter seemed to be everywhere, doing everything, always happy and friendly and helpful.
The Book of Mormon was amazing. It was a much deeper show, talking about truth and belief and right and wrong, and also about colonialism and inclusion. Because it’s by the South Park folks, it also had a lot of toilet humour, which worked, as it always seems to in their hands. If you know something about the LDS church, the humour is extra biting, because you realize that some of the insane stuff said on stage is not made up. Even if you don’t know, though, it’s a funny, funny show. I was laughing so hard I was crying at a couple of points.
On my way back to the tube station, I snapped this picture.
Then it was home and bed. And now, I’m heading off to Paddington station to catch a train to Swindon and a bus to Avebury to see the stone circle there.
Again. I may or may not have bought more DVDs of their performances. If I did, I probably had a good reason to do so. [↩]
By which I mean one actor playing multiple roles. [↩]
I got a bit of a slow start this morning, being very tired from the combination of jetlag and an obscene number of stairs yesterday. When I finally hauled myself out of bed, took some time getting dressed and ready for the day, then took the tube back to the Tower of London.
Why there? Mainly because it’s only one tube stop from my closest tube station1, and the sightseeing bus stops there, and that’s where I got off the tour yesterday. So, I got to ride the rest of the tour and, incidentally, find out where the theatre is for seeing The Book of Mormon tomorrow night.
I got off the bus around Picadilly Circus, with the intention of catching the red tour from the sightseeing company2. I managed to do that, though it took getting lost and finally making my way back to Trafalgar Square. When I got on the red tour, I found that it was the same as the yellow tour, but without a live guide – all commentary was on a recording, and I, not realizing that, neglected to get a set of headphones to listen to it.
By the time I figured this out, we were almost back to the Tower of London, so I figured I’d get off there and figure out what to do next. Turns out I was just in time for the 61-gun salute that the Yeoman Warders were firing in honour of the new princess. I stayed for that but, as a late arrival, I only managed to glimpse the guns themselves as I maneuvered around the edge of the crowd. Easy to hear, though. And to smell – huge clouds of smoke drifted over to us every time the guns fired.
That took about twenty minutes, in all, and I still hadn’t figured out what to do. So, I wandered down to the pier, and saw that there was a river bus service that would take me right to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. I’m heading there tomorrow for Romeo and Juliet, but I thought it would be nice to take a tour today, and wander around the area.
The tour was awesome, led by an actual cockney named Mick. And he took us into the (mostly) empty Globe to show us the place.
The theatre is constructed in Elizabethan fashion – uncured oak, with lath and plaster between the beams, and a thatched roof. Since the great fire in London, thatched roofs are illegal, but the Globe has special dispensation. Also, a whole lot of sprinklers on the roof.
After a quick stop at the gift shop3, I set out to wander through the area and see what there was to see.
From Monument Station, it was just two underground stops to my home stop of Aldgate East. I had a bit of dinner and a bit of a rest, and uploaded the day’s pictures. While they were uploading, I went for my evening’s planned excursion: a Jack the Ripper walk.
It started getting overcast, and was beginning to sprinkle a bit of rain as the walk started, so I only got a few pictures. Although, to be fair, most of the actual sites we visited were radically changed from history, so there wasn’t much to photograph. That said, our guide, Phil, did an amazing job of painting the picture for us, and did a magnificent balancing act between humourous fun and dignified respect. I did get a few pics, though.
By this time, the rain was coming down pretty hard, so I put the camera away. We finished the tour, and I came home to post this. Pictures loaded very slowly, so I’m running late again.
Moved to my new hotel today. It was raining this morning, and I was still kind of tired, so I decided that, instead of walking the 40 minutes or so back to the tube station1, I’d pay for a cab. This was an important lesson: the money I saved by staying farther away than I had intended was eaten by the cost of the cab. I should have just picked a closer, if more expensive, hotel.
I was, of course, way too early to check in. In fact, I arrived in the middle of what seemed to be half of Germany checking out and storing their bags. But they cleared, and I got my bag stored until later, and then I headed off to the tube station in my rain jacket and very fancy hat to get my sightseeing ticket validated.
That happened to be at Trafalgar Square.
After looking around a bit, I found the place I needed and got my ticket validated. Then, I got on the tour. We saw a whole bunch of cool stuff but, as usual, it’s very hard to get a good picture from the top of a moving tour bus. I did get one that I liked.
I got off the bus at the Tower of London, which is one of the main things I wanted to see on this trip. I spent about four hours there, looking at stuff, and I didn’t even get in to see the Crown Jewels – the lineup for that tower was very, very2 long. The Tower is fascinating; it is actually a tiny little village inside the walls. There are about thirty-five Yeoman Warders3 who live in the Tower with their wives and children, plus the Royal Fusiliers who are garrisoned at the headquarters here. In total, there are about 130 people who live on the site.
If you go to the Tower, make sure that you take one of the Yeoman Warder guided tours. That’ll show you what you want to spend more time on, and give you a bunch of cool history.
There were some other interesting exhibits around, too:
Now, despite the bloody reputation of the Tower of London, only six people were ever executed within the Tower grounds. The other 2000 or so were merely imprisoned there, and were marched out an up Tower Hill for their executions.
Aside from being a royal residence, and a fortress, and a prison, and the royal mint, the Tower was also, for a time, a royal zoo. They had loads of fun stuff, like lions and elephants and a room full of monkeys running around loose that you could go play with4. There are sculptures of a lot of the animals, seemingly made of chicken wire, around the place.
The only living animals still kept at the tower5 are the Tower ravens. Legend says that if the ravens leave the tower, England will fall. The ravens even have a Yeoman Warder Ravenmaster who looks after them.
I walked the walls of the Tower, as well, and got some very nice views of London.
Then, seeing as it was almost five, I went and checked into my hotel for real, and spent a couple of hours getting my photo software working and uploading my pictures, before heading back to the Tower of London for the Ceremony of the Keys.
They don’t allow photographs or recordings for the ceremony, and I can understand why. It’s the oldest military tradition of it’s kind in the world, having been conducted every day for about seven hundred years. It was delayed only once, during WWII, when bombs were dropped on the Tower during the ceremony. After the Warders had helped their injured comrades and put out the fire, they continued with the ceremony, and the next day, sent a letter of apology to the king. The king said he understood, and that the Warders were not to blame because it was enemy action, but that he expected the ceremony to never be late again.
It was kind of moving to be present for the tradition, and everyone was nicely quiet and respectful as the situation warranted. At the end, we were told that all the names of attendees at the ceremony had their names recorded in a big, red book, so that they became part of the history of the ceremony. And that’s just cool.
Then, back home to do up this post, and now, because it’s after midnight, to bed.
Lots to see and do tomorrow.
Assuming I could find my way more easily than I had the night before. [↩]