Time is suspended on sabbatical. Exploration and discovery replace the normal routines of life. I find it difficult to mark time, to remember that this new life is not my own but borrowed like a library book. I am renewed.
Going on sabbatical is quite similar to creating a novel. I speak to strangers and walk down unknown lanes. The first days were intimidating. I felt lost, homesick and lonely. A year abroad seemed like a very long time, but there were benefits too.
A sabbatical, free of life’s commitments, offered time to focus without distraction. I’m usually very involved in my community. On a different time zone, e-mails didn’t ping until the end of my workday. The phone rarely rang. No one passed by to chat. I could start fresh in a new setting. England was a year-long writer’s retreat.
As I waited for my readers to comment on S.A.D., I set out to research NOT CRICKET (renamed A MATCH FOR EVE) and to gather material for my blog. The 2 book projects were perfect complements: one of introversion and revision and the other of extroversion and sensation.
After counting down the months to weeks and now to days, nostalgia has overtaken my longing to return home. Reading a good book, you race through the pages, wanting to find out what will happen, only to realize that there are so few pages left. Do you slow down to savor every word? Reread favorite passages that you skimmed?
I am in the final chapter of Oxford. Here are some earmarked pages, but to experience Oxford in its full complexity takes a sabbatical. It is a book in itself, the one I will write back in Maine.
In the past couple of weeks my family came to visit in 4(!) lots. We showed them round the most beautifully grand colleges, Christ Church (above) and Magdalen College. We also visited my husband Henry’s alma mater, Oriel College (the window shots above.) Another favorite was Merton College, which claims to be the oldest. Many colleges are open in the afternoon to visitors; some charge a fee.
My two favorite Oxford museums are The Museum of Natural History (above) and The Museum of the History of Science. The first one is especially good for kids and features the Dodo bird from Alice and Wonderland. The Divinity School and Bodleian Library are definitely worth visiting too. Great for rainy days.
When the sun shines, the Oxford waterways are a delight. These cygnets hatched at the end of May.
There are ducklings hatching now.
The City of Oxford is situated between 2 rivers: the Cherwell and the Isis. The River Thames is called the Isis only when it runs through Oxford. The Celtic name for river is tamasas which became Tamasis in Latin. Say it aloud, and you’ll hear both Thames and Isis. The city’s name is less grand: it was where oxen could ford the rivers. The ancient trading village predates the university, given its ideal setting on the rivers.
In later centuries a canal was also dug stretching 78 miles from Oxford to Coventry. The Oxford Canal is a pleasant hour walk from Jericho to Wolvercote. You pass many funky canal boats and back gardens of posh North Oxford homes. The Burgess Field Nature Park is most peaceful, and if you get thirsty, you can cross the first bridge in Wolvercote to The Plough for a pint. Dogs are welcome outside.
The best place for an off-lead (off-leash) dog walk is Port Meadow along the Isis, but you should hold onto your dog around the cattle and horses grazing free. Several ponies have dropped foals recently. Since the mares know me from my daily walks, they let me and my visitors approach. In my teenaged years I was a bit of a horse whisperer.
Whenever I’m feeling low, the foals cheer me up. They’re so friendly and funny.
My kids and I take advantage of the long days of summer to visit the herd after dinner. Our best buddy is a colt we call George (above and below) because he’s so curious. He likes to nibble on my son’s shoelaces. My daughter thinks the shy grey filly might be a unicorn.
The swans are NOT friendly, but they are beautiful to watch.
The best way to enjoy the water in Oxford is from a punt. You can rent them under the Magdalen Bridge or at the Cherwell Boathouse. We prefer the latter as it’s more rural, especially if you head upstream.
Henry gave our 13-year-old son a punting lesson. Within minutes, he got the hang of it. Of course he’d love punting as it involves sticking a giant pole into the mud and pushing off. The skill is using the pole to steer like a rudder and letting go if it gets stuck so as not to fall in! Our son proved to be a natural like his old dad. I’m now slightly less nervous about him learning to drive in 2 years time.
My parents were visiting from NYC and enjoyed their first punt. We had one of the best lunches I’ve had in Oxford at the Cherwell Boathouse. The food was gourmet and excellent value at only £12.50 for the 2 course set lunch menu on weekdays. The dockside setting couldn’t be better on a nice day.
When it’s not raining, England is pleasantly 60’s or low 70’s at this time of year. You appreciate the sun that much more when it shines, and it's never too hot. The gardens thrive in this climate. Ideal boating weather.
Despite my son’s facility, punting is not easy. We tried our best not to laugh watching these Spanish girls try to figure it out on their own. It was more like bumper cars as the punts bounced from bank to bank. By the time our food came, the plucky girls had set off down river and had returned just as we were tucking into pudding. Book ahead to get a table but just show up for punting.
On a rainy day, you’d be better off having a gourmet lunch at Jamie’s Italian. It just opened in Oxford center. Usually I’d advise avoiding Italian food in the UK at all costs, but this is one of the rare exceptions. Jamie Oliver is a young celebrity chef and cookbook author.
We enjoyed the ciabatta with its assortment of toppings even though they were served too cold and took forever to come. Henry’s lamb was excellent but the basil sauce was odd. My fresh-made pasta arrabiatta was excellent as were the homemade sorbets. The lunch menu was quite affordable. The only downside is they don’t accept reservations, and it was noisy.
Jamie’s serves the best gourmet lunch option available in the heart of Oxford Center. For more casual recommendations read my Best Lunch and Tea in Oxford post. I’ve also reviewed some other restaurants in Fine Dining in Oxford.
Since my parents were in town, we went to the two best gourmet restaurants in Oxford. The Old Parsonage and Gee’s are under the same ownership, but are quite different in feel. The best dinner I’ve had in Oxford was at The Old Parsonage, and it was so good that we are going back on Friday for our last meal here. The setting is charmingly Old World without being stuffy. The marinated tuna sashimi was sublime and the duck delicious. Everything we ordered was excellent as was the service. It a short walk up Banburry Road away from the City Center.
The food was not as good at Gee’s, but perhaps that is my taste as it is more traditionally English. The ingredients were fresh and local when possible. We had an excellent turkey dinner around Christmas that couldn’t have been better, but the two other times we dined there were not as good. Still, my family was happy with our meals, and we are picky eaters when it comes to quality dining, especially at that price. The only disappointing dish was the lobster risotto – remember the avoid Italian food in England rule? We'll have the best lobster back home in Maine anyway.
The Victorian glass conservatory setting at Gee’s is just lovely and quite unique. It’s worth going for the atmosphere and top quality service for a special date. The ambiance, however, was ruined by the live jazz music on Sunday nights. It was so loud that we couldn’t talk.
And there was so much to say about how much I’ve loved this sabbatical in Oxford. It's going to be very hard to leave in 4 days. Still I’m eager to head home to be closer to family and friends. Tomorrow I’m meeting a friend from home, Scott Sehon, for a pint and dinner. These visitors help ease the transition. It was hard to say goodbye to my English friends, though.
I’m an emotional yoyo about leaving. All the work of packing is ahead of me in these next few days. Even the weather is reflecting my mood. Yesterday I got soaked in a downpour, and then it hailed so hard I couldn’t see out the window. A rainbow appeared for only minutes. A gazillion frog babies are hopping down the sidewalk and through our garden to Port Meadow. That’s an English pound coin and an American penny by the frog for cross-cultural size reference. I’m not sticking around for the plague of locusts.
We’re not going directly home but spending a night with Henry’s family and then with friends in Cambridge, UK. Henry is flying with our dog to Boston and then driving to Maine. The kids and I are flying via NYC to catch up with family and friends. Next week I plan to blog from Manhattan on Thursday. Any tips, world travelers, on adjusting back to life in the USA? How's Maine?
Yes, the blog will continue on my usual Wednesdays in Maine. It’s a special place too if very different. As much as I enjoyed Oxford, I love my home most of all. Stay tuned to find out why.