Monday, June 22, 2015

Shutford Day 1– In Which Serena the Sat Nav is Useless, and Tradition Runs Rampant at Oxford.



I am not known for my navigational skills. On more than one occasion I have embarrassed my travelling companions by pulling out a huge map on a busy street corner, then proceeding to exclaim loudly how I can’t read the bloody thing only to have Zoe come over and tell me that it is a) upside down and b) to put it away as she has already worked out which way to go. However, navigating the English countryside can be a bit tricky, so I am happy when GPS or Sat Nav as everyone calls it here, is available. In her role as chief navigator, Zoe is charged with setting the thing up, entering the postal codes for our destination, and generally making sure we get to the right place. She also gets to choose the ‘voice of the Sat Nav’. We have a few choices on this system including Kate, who has a lovely calming voice which could actually become sleep-inducing under the right circumstances, and also Serena, who is more insistent and could be construed as bossy, even.

When we set off for Oxford, Zoe had employed Serena as our guide for the day. We got off to a bit of a slow start and Terra had to keep texting her cousin, Cole, who we were meeting in Oxford, with revised meeting times. To her credit Serena got us as far as the main road into the centre of Oxford without much trouble and it wasn’t her fault that we got stuck in the worst traffic jam ever. But I do think she could have been more helpful when we finally did make it to the centre of town, one hour later.

Me: I am pretty sure parking is going to be hellish in here. Look at all the people.

Serena: Turn left on to Upper Blodgett Street, then turn right on to Queens Street

Me: Easy for you to say, Serena. What about the wall in the way?

Serena: Turn left on to Upper Blodgett Street, then turn right on to Queens Street

Me: Yeah I heard you the first time. Ok I’m turning.

Zoe: There’s a lot of people walking on this street.

Me: Shit. Pedestrian Zone. SERENA.

Serena: Recalculating.

Me: She better not tell me to make a U-turn. That is not happening on this two-inch wide street with all these people.

Serena: When possible, make a U-Turn.

Me: When possible, short circuit, Serena.

Me: I’ll just go up here…and turn down this street and that should…Damn.

Zoe: Don’t hit those garbage cans.

My Mum: This looks like a dead-end.

Me: Should be ok if I make a 53 point turn...there. Ok now I’ll just try not to run over all these small children here while I manoeuvre back up to upper Blodgett…

Serena: Recalculating. Turn right on to Badger Row, then turn right on to Mouse Lane, then turn left on to Rat Alley then…

Me: Weren’t we just on Rat Alley?

Zoe: Stay on this street, Mum.

Me: I think I’ll just go up here and then…why is that bus staring at me. Shit. I think this is one way. Like as in the other one way.

Serena: Carry on straight through the intersection, then turn left.

Me: That might be the only thing to do.

Zoe: Mum that looks like another pedestrian zone…

Me: Yes it does. Let’s hope they don’t notice.

Serena: Turn Left.

Me: Has she completely lost her small metallic mind? If I turn left, I will drive straight into Balliol College. I’m going to park here instead.

Everyone: Thank God we’ve stopped…Pass me my purse…Do I need my coat?…Ok let’s go find Cole.

Me: Wait, this is a disabled parking spot.

Zoe: Well we’re disabled, I think.

Me: Thanks. I better move it. 

My Mum: There’s one across the way. I’ll go stand in it.

Me (parking again): Ok let’s go.

Dude next to me: You know this is a 20-minute zone?

Me: I’m going to start crying

After finally ditching the rest of them to go and find poor Cole who had by now been waiting for over an hour, I found a two-hour zone some 15 minutes’ walk away. It was ok actually as it gave me a chance to calm the fuck down after my stressful interactions with the streets of Oxford, and Serena. On my walk down St Giles’ I passed many colleges where arched wooden doors opened on to verdant green courtyards. It’s exam time in Oxford and many students having finished for the term, were packing up and moving out, many of them still wearing their sub fusc, the formal wear required of students, or readers as they are known here, while they sit their exams. Dark, high socks or tights, a black suit or skirt, white shirt, and a white bow tie for men and black ribbon for girls. They are also required to wear their robes over top of all this and also to carry their mortarboard (like a graduation hat). Cole told us that he once wrote an exam in too-short socks and at the end of it, was passed a note by an invigilator telling him that, at Oxford, socks must be worn high. Hilarious.

There was a real energy on the streets as parents arrived to collect their children, students hugged each other goodbye while others ran whooping down the street, their sub fusc covered in silly string and shaving cream courtesy of their friends,whose job it is to wait outside an exam and spray them as they exit their last exam. I saw one girl at a pub, still in her robes, covered in string and shaving cream, with a red carnation pinned to her jacket. Students wear a white carnation for their first exam, a red one for their final exam, and pink for any in between. Keeping up? There will be a test at the end of this blog. I will also apologize here for the lack of good photos in this blog. I managed to drop my camera and now it won’t focus so all my pictures look like this.


I think it is actually focussing on the inside of the lens. Great!. Towards the end of the day I figured out how to take reasonable quality pictures with my phone so all was not lost.

Tradition really rules the day here at Oxford. Things have been the same for hundreds of years and they are not changing anytime soon. Oxford dons still walk the streets in their robes, looking important, monks can be seen pushing their pamphlets on unsuspecting tourists in the Cornmarket, and tired, sweaty undergrads on fixed wheel bikes battle their way through the throngs, bookbags hanging over their shoulders.

We felt lucky to have Cole as a tour guide, and our first stop was an ancient pub called the Turf Tavern. The place was full of students and families and tourists, but we were able to find a table at the back. This place has been here forever and a day and enjoys, like much of Oxford, a long storied history including being the location where Bill Clinton famously ‘didn’t inhale’ when he was a student at Oxford in the ‘60s. And of course, what he does with cigars on his own time is his business…

This pub also features frequently in the Inspector Morse series, which I love. I kept expecting to see a monk falling to his death off one of the towers around town.



Sorry about the terrible picture but you get the idea…

After lunch we went on a tour of the Bodleian library which is Very Old and Dusty (VOD) and in which you are basically not allowed to do anything, least of all actually look at a book. Our guide was barely able to even speak and we all had to wear earpieces just to hear her whispers. I did learn a few interesting facts such as the Oxford University crest features an open book whereas Cambridge also known as ‘The Other Place’, has a closed book. Apparently this means that Oxford students still need to learn everything while the Cambridge students already know it all.

We were also taken into the Radcliffe Camera, the Hallowed Halls of which mere mortals  such as myself are not permitted, usually, except today which was our lucky day as we were allowed in for about 30 seconds to look at the ceiling. There was such a build up that I don’t know what I was expecting…Dr Samuel Johnson? Stephen Hawking perhaps? Instead there was the usual grouchy looking librarian, a bunch of signs telling you to do this and that, wifi instructions (Wifi? In the Radcliffe Camera?) and a crowd of tired looking students tapping away on their laptops or pouring over their notes.


Just another door in Oxford.

We finished the tour in the Divinity College, which is probably better known as appearing as the Infirmary in the Harry Potter movies. It was here that students who wished to achieve their PhD in Divinity had to defend their thesis, and answer questions like ‘How many angels are there in Heaven’ before their family and friends, for up to three days. And all in Latin. Apparently hardly anyone passed. Well no shit.

Just across the Street was All Souls College which has the greatest endowment of any college here at Oxford. There are no students, and eight fellows (researchers) who must be invited to write the entrance exam. Famously the exam used to have a one word question like ‘blue’ or ‘innocence’ but apparently they have dropped that requirement now. If you pass, and again, hardly anyone does, you are instantly an academic rockstar and are entitled to a seven year tenureship during which time you are not required to teach, or publish anything at all, and you are paid for this. Apparently I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way…

By now we required a fortifying cup of tea and/or piece of cake and it was also raining so we crossed the street to the Weston Library. You can never have too many libraries here in Oxford – the Oxford University Library has a collection of 13 million items, and grows by 4000-6000 pieces a week due to their copyright laws which allows them the right to see every piece of published work, electronic, self published, blogs, or paper, and choose if they want to keep it in their collection, which they usually do.

I was less thrilled about entrenching myself further in England’s cake culture, and more excited about viewing the Marks of Genius exhibition of old manuscripts which was currently on at the Weston. Tucked away at the back of the entrance hall was a glass case on the wall that just happened to be displaying pages from and versions of, the original Magna Carta. It’s been 800 years since it was ‘written’ and there are four or five places around England where you can have a look at it. It’s a bit mind blowing, and very English, to be able to have a piece of cake (or not) and look over your shoulder to see the Magna Carta.



I was even more excited, jumping up and down excited, actually, to go in to the actual exhibit. My travelling companions were perhaps not *as* excited as I was, with the exception of Cole and my Mum, but they put on a brave face for me.

I was not disappointed. We saw original manuscripts of such works as Dante’s Inferno, Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, William Blake’s poems, Jane Austen’s diary, original wildlife drawings by James Audubon, and Robert Hooke’s original drawings that he made in 1665 of his observations through lenses. He went on to invent the microscope.There was a letter from Mahatma Gandhi, the diary of Elizabeth I as a child, original scores from Handel and Mendelssohn, and Franz Kafka’s diary.

Elizabeth I as seen under the microscope by Robert Hooke…

I wanted to stay but everyone was glazing over so we went back out in to the rain to climb the spire of St. Mary’s Church. I braved the 150 steps up the spire only to find myself on a balcony about the size of a matchbox, along with a bunch of other people. Better still, there was four of them and we were going to each one (balconies, not people, although in such close quarters, there wasn’t much difference). I white-knuckled it along the rail, feigning interest all the while imagining myself falling to my death. Cole casually leaned against the rail remarking on this college or that church, Zoe and Terra held their cameras out over the edge to take pictures until finally, Terra said ‘You look very nervous’ which I pointlessly tried to deny. So back down we went.

Everyone was starving again by now so Cole took us to a great little Thai restaurant before depositing us back at out car. I am ashamed to say that I forgot to take a picture of Terra with her cousin, in Oxford. Chris and Cheryl, I hope you will forgive me…And many thanks to Cole for being such an excellent tour guide.

Serena was slightly more helpful on the way home although I think I will retire her tomorrow and go back to Kate.

Fangs for preening,



No comments:

Post a Comment