Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oxford Eights Week

Apologies once again to Sarah’s regular readers! This is Henry, reporting (almost) live from the towpath during Oxford “Eights Week.”

This is the inter-college rowing regatta: 150 crews from the 35 different colleges race each other over 4 days, while a vastly greater number come to watch and/or drink. It’s the only event in the English social calendar to combine speed racing with a full-contact combat sport.

The details are way too complicated to explain here, so you can read about them here. Like so many other Oxford institutions, the rules have evolved bit-by-bit since the 1840s, seemingly designed to be utterly impenetrable to outsiders.

Crews race in line 1 1/2 boat-lengths apart, and the goal is to catch up to the boat ahead of you and hit it (hence “bumps” racing). Contact should be light, but this isn’t always possible at ramming speed. When contact has been acknowledged (the losing cox raising a graceful hand in surrender) both boats stop racing, and swap starting positions the next day.

Curiously, the combination of highly un-maneuverable boats, inexperienced coxes, high speeds and confined spaces doesn’t always end well. Here in the foreground black has bumped the red, so both have stopped, but the crews behind are still racing.

Seconds later, the race is unexpectedly over for everyone in a seven-boat pile-up:

Starting positions are initially determined by where your crew finished last year. Crews which “bump up” on all four days, or who achieve the top spot - “Head of the River” - earn the right to embellish an old oar with the names and deeds of the crew. So the races enshrine tradition, generate their own history, and entrench existing hierarchies all at once. Exactly like the rest of Oxford then…

You can see how the fortunes of different crews wax and wane over the decades with this bumps chart. As you can see, Oriel have dominated the event since the 1970s. Cynicism aside, my former crewmate Bruce and I got a kick watching the Oriel 2nd Eight bump up, musing that our fine performances all those years ago had had a direct, albeit distant, influence on the fortunes of the current crew.

None of these lads were even born last time we raced in the blue and white– back when “Tainted Love” was a song by Soft Cell rather than the Pussy Cat Dolls.

It was great to get back to Oriel and find the traditions alive and well. Great for me, that is. Not so much for the luckless undergraduates I found there. They were subjected to a mind-numbing series of dull stories beginning “Back in my day….” How much do you hate the sad, pathetic old timer who won’t let go? Well, that was me.

First stop was the dorm-room (as the Americans would say) traditionally inhabited by the year’s Captain of Boats. In it are accumulated all the blades, trophies and memorabilia of 30 years of Rowing Dominance. The current occupant was absolutely charming, even though he had a vital race in a few hours and vital exams in a few days. He graciously took time to show us around and even more graciously refrained from beaning me with an oar-handle as I launched into yet another tedious anecdote.

…finally I caught sight of this, all that remains of the Hardy Norseman, the boat in which I learned to cox. At the time it was cutting-edge technology; now it’s a museum-piece. There’s a message there somewhere…

The rest of the boat, I’m guessing, was burned on the paving stones of First Quad after a black-tie “Bump Supper,” historically convened for all the crews of the Head of the River College. At the conclusion of a long, rowdy meal (each crew had its own song and long-winded toasts and congratulations were always in order) we would torch the wooden shell and, linking arms, jump through the flames.

FANTASTIC fun. But then someone’s dress caught fire, and the Department of Health and Safety probably concluded, after a long investigation, that having a hundred drunken teenagers jumping in and out of a blazing fire was neither Healthy nor Safe. Go figure.

Instead, I gather, there is a more sedate dinner in our splendid Dining Hall.

That’s old boy Sir Walter Raleigh looking on, no doubt contemplating a bit of swashbuckling or getting it on with Cate Blanchett.

If the room, the Hall, or the boat-burning seem familiar, it’s because they appear in the cinematic classic Oxford Blues featuring Rob Lowe as the brash go-it-alone Yank who joins the Oriel Boat Club and learns the importance of teamwork and dating Ally Sheedy. Co-stars include Cary Elwes, Julian Sands, and the guy who played Batman’s butler. And me. I appear. As Myself. Patting Rob Lowe on the back after he has been beaten by Julian Sands in a sculling race. You’ll need a big screen, freeze-frame and a magnifying glass, but you can DEFINITELY make me out. Just.

Ah, the memories. But where, you ask, can I get a drink? In my thirst for knowledge, I checked out three boozers. The Head of the River has OK food, OK beer, and great deck overlooking the finish.

At the other end of the course is Iffley Lock.

Five minutes up the hill is a hidden gem: the Prince of Wales. Fantastic food, great beers and, astonishingly, the quintessential rowing cocktail Pimms on tap. Nice one.

Finally, the pub-formerly-known-as-the-Isis-Tavern on the towpath at the start-line is now the Isis Farmhouse, selling tea, coffee and cakes as well as some food. Sarah was not researching for this post, so she is on Elderflower Cordial. She only drinks on the job. Luckily co-researcher, medieval literature expert and keytar heart-throb Professor Aaron Kitch can attest to the mean half of lager. Cheers!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Merton College Stories

Don’t you just love gargoyles? Actually this Merton one must be a “grotesque” as it doesn’t spit water. These little monsters crawl over many an Oxbridge façade, favoring high perches, drain spouts, hidden nooks and John Kelly’s Voxford blog. I’m so honored to be featured as Kelly’s gargoyle of the week. Look up when exploring the old colleges if you feel googlie eyes.

Merton is “the oldest college” at Oxford, a title it shares with two others: Balliol and Univ. They were all established between 1249-1264. The dispute centers around which started teaching first. Merton’s claim of antiquity rests upon being the first college in England to receive a royal charter. Its oldest quad has buildings without chimneys because the technology hadn’t made it to England from the Continent. College treasures are still stored in the stone buildings to protect them from fire.

Merton also houses the oldest continuously functioning English library (built 1278 -1378) in the world. Merton cleverly built up its library by requiring academics to bring and bestow their personal book collections to the college. They also had three ancient astrolabes and a couple of multi-locked chests that used to house books before the advent of bookcases.

Photo of Merton Library from Wikipedia

I wish I could have taken photos of the Merton Library myself. It was like walking into a wooden crypt or a sacred mausoleum of literary antiquity. The walls and stalls were oak paneled and the ceiling open to the roof beams like an attic. The tiny stained glass windows let in little light.

The best lit stalls housed the most learned texts in the hierarchy of knowledge: theology and philosophy, followed by law and medicine. The lower humanities were in the least favorable northern corners. The progression of subjects lead to enlightenment as in those days colleges were formed first and foremost as religious institutions.

In the darkest recesses the first year students of past centuries might be reading lowly literature. And what literature! There’s one of the first printed versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and it’s in the best shape of the 8 existing copies. Priceless! Merton also has a second volume of Shakespeare. I had to take out a tissue to avoid drooling over all the leather-bound, chained books.

Perhaps I should have been trembling with fear. The Merton Library is haunted! John Duns Scotus supposedly walks shin deep, wading through the new raised floor. Students sneak into the library to see him at night. I heard this tale and others from our student guide, Krishna Omkar.

Merton is as rich in stories as it is in history. J.R.R. Tolkien had an office in Fellows Quad. He met with his buddy C.S. Lewis in the Merton gardens which are lovely on a warm spring day. They sat around a stone table, that was to feature in the Narnia series, and discussed their writing when they weren’t meeting at the Eagle and Child pub.

This is The Stone Table? It wasn’t large enough to kill a cat let alone a mighty lion, Aslan. As for the name Aslan, my son told me that it is Islamic. He has a friend from Iran who is teased mercilessly for that name at their English boys school. Kids can be so cruel, but I like that there is more to the Narnia books beyond a Christian allegory. It feels like a treasure hunt living in Oxford and uncovering the inspiration for classic literature.

Merton also has tales from more recent times. On the day that the clocks fall back an hour, old Mertonians gather in Fellows Quad by the sundial. At 1:57 am they drink a toast. Linking arms, they walk backwards drinking port for an hour! Don’t mock it. This ritual is the only hope we have of maintaining the space-time continuum. Needless to say, it is a modern practice dating back to the 1970’s. Yes, I know that for some of you that is ancient history. My daughter’s eleven year old friend referred to the Bee Gees as “this really old band from long ago.” She then added, “They were guys but sounded just like girls.”

Back when Oxford students were still dancing to those “oldies,” my husband was at Oriel. The Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan was at Merton. Naruhito was invited to a formal ball and was provided a suitable date but didn’t know how to boogie. Henry came to the rescue and taught the crown prince how to disco dance. Not to the Bee Gees, that would be cruel and unusual punishment, but to Soft Cell. An international crisis was thus narrowly averted.

Despite the demonic gargoyles, Merton is a spiritual place with a huge 13th century chapel that was originally built as a parish church. It supposedly has the second best acoustics in all of Europe. A microphone is never necessary. The screen to the chapel was Sir Christopher Wren’s first commission.

At the end of our Oxford Newcomers' Club tour, we had tea in the grand hall, quite typical of the old colleges. On the way home down the cobblestone road, I had a good laugh. This is where you can find the Philosophy Department at Oxford:

For those of you hungering for more Oxford tales from my husband, next week Henry will be guest blogging about Eight’s Week – an Oxford rowing race. He’s out there on the Thames/Isis today with an old Oriel buddy. They’ll probably do some “research” down the boozer too. Time to push off.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Port Meadow in Spring

Look! The sun is shining! The skies have been bright blue and the temperature in the 70’s (low 20’s C) for a whole week. As you can tell from the lush green foliage, this is not common for England. It makes you want to roll in the buttercups . . .

. . . or row along the Thames/Isis.

Greylag geese are out with a fuzzy gaggle of goslings (count those g’s!)

The young adult swans are showing off their bright new feathers.

The cattle are young enough to be very curious. They buddy up as if missing their moms.

The horses and ponies wintered in Port Meadow, but the cattle didn’t join them until the end of April.

Can you believe that is basically the same view of Port Meadow?

Everything is blooming. The wisteria look lovely by St. Mary’s. The steeple stands out against the perfect blue sky.

I had planned to blog about Merton College, but that will have to wait for another week. When the sun shines on the British Isles, you must get out and enjoy it. After dinner there is still light to stroll along the river.

On days like today, I can’t bear the thought of leaving Oxford. These hours spent working on my novels and walking in Port Meadow have been the best writer’s retreat. In the remaining 2 months of this blissful sabbatical, I’ll have to break my hermitage. I have more material to collect for my English novel, and friends to see before going back home to Maine.

There is still plenty of Oxford to explore although it already feels like a second home. My posts will get longer again as rain is in the forecast. This evening I’ll sit by the river for sundowners and enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Down Farm Devon

Often the weather is better in South Devon than in the rest of England. It gets more sun and less rain. In May the bluebells are a lovely contrast to the yellow gorse. Sandy beaches appear as the tide ebbs.

The hedge rimmed fields are a green patchwork quilt. Farm country rolls through hills terminating in steep cliffs by the sea. Cattle stand at most unusual angles unperturbed, unlike my ten-year-old daughter. When one cow mooed very loudly at her, she put her hands on her hips and faced the moo-sayer, “Are you disrespecting me on account of my lactose intolerance?” She watches a lot of Catherine Tate on You Tube.

Devon is stunningly beautiful but takes nerves of steel to navigate. The centuries old hedgerows are a maze with cars and tractors speeding through them. You can rarely see over the dense hedges or around the bend. Most lanes are only wide enough for one vehicle. The rule of the road is the closest (or downhill) driver backs up to the nearest pullover space to let the other pass. At least the hedgerows are abloom with wildflowers – you get to see/smell them really close up!

You can spot the local Devonian who zooms mid-lane at top speed, one hand on the wheel and the other hand brandishing a lit cigarette. The “grockles” (those from away) inch along in their SUV’s cringing into the nearest hedgerow. You need a GPS or my map genius son to find your way, but even he couldn’t help much. Many lanes are unmarked. My husband dove back into his childhood memories and did not lead us astray.

Henry’s grandfather sold the family farm to his other grandfather in a tiny town called Kingston. It’s basically an old church and a fine pub, The Dolphin Inn. Kingston hasn’t changed much in appearance, only in ownership. Sadly, much of coastal Devon has become second homes for Londoners, but there are still plenty of working farms.

Henry spent his toddler years at Robin’s Farm (above) when his father was at sea with the Royal Navy. Even when his parents settled in Oxfordshire, they came back for all vacations that they weren’t sailing. Once the children grew up, my grandparents-in-law sold the stone farmhouse and moved into thatched Robin’s Cottage (the yellow house on the left.) It was there that I first came to visit (almost 2 decades ago) and fell in love with Devon. Henry’s grandparents welcomed me into the family without hesitation.

When my grandfather-in-law passed away, his wife moved to Plymouth to be near one of their three daughters. It was there that the extended family gathered to celebrate Hester’s 98th birthday. My gran-in-law always amazes me. I hope I’ll age that well. It’s always a delight to see her. Even the weather was better than predicted for the three day weekend.

My family stayed at Down Farm in the middle of nowhere. But isn’t it a gorgeous nowhere? It is a working farm run by the Foss family for 140 years. The farmhouse is the oldest inhabited dwelling in the parish, dating back to 1392. Despite its longevity, even the locals couldn’t tell you where it is.

Down Farm is only visible from air or sea and looks over an estuary with fine sand. The closest big town is Kingsbridge. More sheep than people out here.

Originally there wasn’t even a sign on the road until Judy Foss started the B&B nine years ago. She comes from a farming family too. Amusingly enough for us Mainers, Judy said she vacations at Moosehead Lake! That’s another favorite vacation spot of ours. Both Judy and her husband, Richard, were very warm and friendly. We felt like houseguests.

Judy serves a full English breakfast (fried egg, tomato, mushroom, potatoes, bacon, sausage and toast) in the original 14th century dining room. The sitting room and extra bedrooms were a later addition – 1542! The bedrooms are obviously small but each has its own shower. From the windows you can see the ocean and hear the farm animals: sheep, cattle, chicken, and geese. The spring lambs licked my daughter’s hand, much to her delight.

“This is way better than a petting zoo,” my daughter said before writing 10(!) pages in her journal. She and her brother never once asked to turn on the TV.

We all fell in love with Patch, the border collie puppy. She’s in training to be a sheep dog – it takes 2 years. Patch was so friendly that she had to be chained up or else she wriggled through gates to follow us.

You wouldn’t want a puppy on our cliff walk. The view couldn’t be finer (see opening photo) but check out this sign:

They weren’t joking. That’s Henry hugging the rocky face with our daughter encouraging him. Two hundred feet below them are sharp rocks and crashing waves.

Oh, to see, hear and smell the sea again! I had missed it so much. The rocky coast and wildflowers reminded me of Maine.

At the end of our walk, we were rewarded with a panoramic view from Start Point lighthouse . . .

. . . and one more funny sign:

Judy Foss recommended a great place for dinner in Beesands. The Cricket Inn is by a pebble beach overlooking the Start Point lighthouse. At night the pub glows like a beacon.

Best of all, I got 24 points for being the first to spot the cricket players pub sign. Henry’s family invented this road trip game: you get points according to the number of legs on the pub sign. So zero points for the King’s Arms (if only he had legs too!) and 8 points for the Fox and Hound. Lucky me to spot a whole cricket team – that’s 11 players and 1 sub, totaling 24 legs. Oh, and the fresh diver scallops and local Otter Ale were divine.

It was vacation but work too. I’m thinking that one of the characters in my English novel will hale from a Devonshire farm. With a title of Not Cricket (renamed A Match for Eve), the book should have a scene at The Cricket Inn. A harrowing cliff walk could provide some drama. I like to write about what I know and love.

There's an old Devonian expression, "dreckly," that means either 2 minutes, 2 hours or even 2 years. It's going to happen, but who knows when. As we left Down Farm, I promised Judy that we'd be back dreckly.