Terrible hostel internet precludes me posting pictures with this blog. My apologies. Remind me to add them later? UPDATE: Photos now added.
When I last left you I was roaming about Bristol getting unexpected sunburns. You’ll be delighted to know that I’ve demonstrated substantially more prudence in my sun exposure since without compromising my adventures even the tiniest bit. So let’s get caught up shall we?
On Wednesday, Alison had the day off work so it was off to Oxford for a day of colleges, museums, and trains. We walked in to Temple Meads from Alison’s gaff in Brislington just in time to hop aboard the train to Oxford. We’d been rather slower to get ready than we’d initially planned to be so found ourselves unfed on a train after a 30 minute walk into the station. To say that there was an urgent need for food would be a bit of an understatement. We were gasping. Which is how we ended up eating slightly pricey train porridge with little pots of jam. It was fairly tasty and only a little bit more expensive than I deemed necessary. After a train change in Didcot Junction, we eventually rolled our way into Oxford, hopped off the train and began our relatively aimless wander about the place.
It’s a cacophony of architectural styles from the medieval on up with each college sporting a different stylistic twist unrelated to the vastly varied and often overlapping academic themes. As we wandered, we made our way to the Bodelian (a shrine to conservationists the world over) and then landed in the Weston Library where we took in a few exhibits then headed back out to continue our ramble. The next stop (after a short diversion into a gorgeous three story book store) was the Pitt Rivers Museum, which beats even the Dublin Natural History Museum in terms of overwhelming strangeness and it’s decided lack of modern sensitivities and sensibilities. We could have lost the entire day there but instead settled for checking out some of the Haida masks, the magical amulets, the shrunken heads, and the textiles section. We did make a few diversions on account of the sheer overwhelming fullness of it all, but eventually my head began to spin and so we headed back out into the air to find food.
Back at the Weston Library we tucked into some very nice salmon sandwiches paired with salads and followed up with some nice little sweets (mine was a pistachio rose loaf). Having managed to fill our bellies, we then headed down to the Ashmoleian Museum where we took in a few more exhibits. We started with a temporary exhibit on women in Chinese art followed by a trip to see the Roman Mummies. I don’t think I’d ever seen Roman mummies before and this was an excellent first introduction. Firstly they are wrapped in this marvellous intricate diamond patter which recalls to me images of Indian step wells all gradually descending into the centre of the wrappings one linen step after another. And as if I wasn’t already completely fixated on the novel use of textiles, the Ashmoleian has a CT scan of one of the mummies which they have chose to display by printing each cross-section on a sheet of glass and aligning all of the slices neatly into place so that the image shifts in and out of visibility as you move around the display. I was quite smitten.
Having spent more than enough of our day in museums, we headed back out into the streets to yet another college. Unlike the colleges we’d seen earlier in the heart of the town, this one was seated in the midst of fields nearby to the canal. And there were cows! Yes, this college apparently keeps a herd of beautiful long horned cattle in their back 40. Alas the cows were not nearly as interested in us as we were in them and so we soon gave up our hopes of bovine beauty shots and headed off down the canal. Though none of Oxford’s famous rowers in were in evidence along the canal, we did see a group of kids out in a punt doing a rather impressively erratic job of punting along.
As we returned to the train station, we snagged a quick dinner from M&S and then headed back to Bath. In Bath we were to catch a student play put on by some of the students from Alison’s University. I won’t say I was apprehensive because I really wasn’t, but when we walked into the very informal, community theatre, I was a little uncertain as to what kind of quality we should be expecting. I was most pleasantly surprised. The students were excellent! It was two lads putting on a modernized revision of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it was bloody hilarious. I nearly cried I was laughing so hard.
Waking up in Bristol the next morning, I threw on some laundry, whipped up some crepes, and played at domesticity for all of an hour before it was time for Alison to head to work and me to follow along to see Bath Spa University’s campus. The campus is almost painfully pastoral. It is placed on an old estate with a long winding drive, a fish pond featuring swans, a partially ruined castle, a mansion house, a walled Italian garden, oh an tenant farmers. Yes, it’s quaint. Alison gave me an initial tour about the place and through the library and then released me to my own devices, which meant that I spent no small amount of time sitting in the folly up the hill from the swan’s nest reading papers then changed both attitude and location to lounge about the Italian garden reading more papers and watching students practice theatre in the sun. At some point there must have been some drama in one of the pastures because the sheep turned it up to 11 and all were nearly deafened, but by the time I finally made it back to the bus loop to head on to other adventures, all appeared to be well with only a few uninspired bleats emanating from the grazing herd.
From Bath Spa, it was on to Wells. I was meant to be on the direct bus, but we seem to have driven every back road in Somerset to get there so I’m not convinced that there isn’t even a slightly quicker route. Nonetheless, I found myself in Wells about mid afternoon faced with the terrible choice between spending my afternoon in the Cathedral or the Bishop’s Palace and gardens. Weighed by relative rarity, the Bishop’s Palace won and I settled in to enjoy. It really was a beautiful space, from the grandiose ruins of the former great hall, to the sunlit chapel, the shady wells themselves, the wild arboretum, and the most beautiful modern meditation garden. The wells are softly lit by sun through shady canopies and filled with just the right amount of mysticism while the modern garden uses smooth white forms between thickets of silver birch to create a space of such meditative simplicity that I couldn’t help but feel its serene call to contemplation.
Having taken in the gardens and rested for a while on a swinging bench, I was making a final tour of the place before leaving when I was inexorably attracted by a little door in the outer wall. There is something about doorways that is just so tantalizing! And I had no regrets for giving in to the temptation because beyond that door, I found a momma swan and her five fluffy little grey cygnets. Between her dives to pull up weeds for her offspring, a rather clingier little devil kept trying to climb up onto her back. It was positively adorable and I probably spent far more time than I ought to have leaning against the wall watching the tiny avian drama unfold.
After the Bishop’s Palace, I attempted a visit to the cathedral but was thwarted by the impending Evensong service. I managed to spend about ten minutes listening to the choir, saw the Wells clock do its famous song and dance featuring a wooden figure ringing a bell and wooden knights racing about jousting each other off wooden horses, and then was ushered out unless I planned to stay for the service. Fearing I might get trapped in a lengthy bit of Christianity from which I could not gracefully escape, I made my leave and set out to find dinner. To say I was thwarted might be an understatement. Apparently all of the cafes in Wells close at 5pm and all of the pubs don’t start serving food again until 6pm. Wandering down streets of quaint little closed signs, I found a chain coffee shop where I scarfed some sustenance in the form of tea and cakes before heading back to the bus.
The bus back to Bristol swept through even more rolling countryside filled with charming little herds of sheep and cows, but did so rather more swiftly than the bus from Bath and in no time at all I was back in the Brislington Tesco choosing my dinner from the clearance aisle and heading back to Alison’s. Though my dinner was mediocre at best, my choice of beverage proved most delightful. I had whimsically grabbed a bottle of cider on my way out of Tesco and it just happened to be Brothers Rhubarb and Custard. It tasted like dessert in a bottle. Genuinely. If stewed rhubarb and custard was a beverage it would taste exactly like that cider and I might have birthed an obsession just then–an obsession with has sadly proved impossible to assuage as I have yet to find a single other bottle of the stuff in my further travels!
And then it was Friday, I was piling my freshly line-dried clothes back into my bag, and it was time to bid Alison farewell. From Bristol, I caught a bus to Birmingham where my obsession with folk art and craft lead me straight to the industrial exhibit hall of the Birmingham Museum. Wandering through cases of pottery and metalwork, I admired the beauty of the Edwardian rooms that housed the exhibits and after reading each and every explanatory plaque in the gallery, settled into the Edwardian Tea Rooms below to rest and lunch. My lunch was a delicious bowl of potato and leek soup, followed with a slice of Victoria sandwich cake. I felt very British and a small bit steampunk-y as I sat there under the aging glass roof amongst the industrial decor. It was a very pleasant break altogether.
Leaving the museum, I met up with another wonderful library friend from my Dublin Days, Cai. We killed most of the rest of the afternoon catching up in a vegan coffee shop before glutting ourselves on aubergine, dumplings, and tofu in the Chinese Quarter. When we eventually returned to Cai’s we set up my bed (a giant bean bag) and then settled in to drink cider and chat our faces off until sometime after midnight. As you may be beginning to sense, we had a lot of catching up to do.
Saturday morning we woke up and headed for Harborne. A pleasant sunny walk later, we were brunching merrily in Boston Tea Party (a chain of the best, most authentic variety). We’d found seats in a sunny courtyard and I’d ordered a corn hash which I can best describe as three delicious corn fritters seated on a bed of tomato and guac and topped with two perfectly poached eggs. It was a heavenly way to spend a morning.
We spent another few hours wandering about the Birmingham University’s charming Edwardian campus before losing ourselves in the very well appointed teaching gallery in the University’s Art History Department. It even had a few gorgeous bits of Degas bronze.
After a short break to save ourselves from the heat of the day, Cai and I then returned to Harborne area to join some of her uni friends at a backyard barbecue. I feel that perhaps it is sufficient acclaim to report that we left after midnight with bellies so full we could hardly move. Very good people all together.
On Sunday, we caught a train out to Stratford-Upon-Avon for a bit of that quaint weekend-y charm that only Shakespeare’s birthplace could provide. The town is almost agonizing charming with hilariously irregular half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, and wisteria bedecked walls in every direction. We wandered the main streets of the old town, visited the church, watched the last chain ferry in England cross the Avon, and somehow ended up eating rhubarb fudge and packed lunches on a shaded patch of grass watching the world go by. Reading in our shady bower, for me soon turned into napping face down in the grass with only the lightest tendrils of sunlight keeping me perfectly toasty and content. It was an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
On our way to the train station, we grabbed a quick pick me up in the form of iced coffees which carried us safely through to Cai’s place where we put together a vegetable casserole of the tastiest kind and chatted night away while watching Bake-Off. Can you say, excellent weekend?
And now it’s Monday. I spent most of my day on a train zooming over the better part of the country, winding through the stunningly rugged Lakes District and eventually depositing me in Edinburgh. I checked into my hostel, charged my devices for a hot minute, and set out to explore. Starting with the Edinburgh Museum to gather some context for the rest of my wanderings, I then headed down the Royal Mile to the Scottish Government Buildings and Holyrood Palace. As it was already after 5pm and there was someone of consequence resident in the palace, I stuck to outside views only and soon turned towards the hills. I do so love to be up high; it really is no wonder that I ended up climbing up through a graveyard, past a very dilapidated through incredibly grand old building and on up to Carlton Hill. From the top of the hill, the southward view is one of the ornate but darkly stained stone that gives Edinburgh its dour almost gothic grandeur, while the northern view lead my eye out over the misty reaches of the Firth of Forth and on to a brightly gleaming light which my oilfield trained eyes immediately labelled a flaring station. It was mystical and yet nostalgic all in one as I stared out over the landscape of sharply carved ridges and valleys, hills, and sea. It was stunning.
On my way back to the hostel I dropped past a bunch more painfully grand buildings and took a quick stop by the Scott monument before I crossed back over the train station to the hostel common room where I sit now, scribbling away to you.
At a glance, I think Edinburgh and I will get on very well and on that note, my stomach has just informed me that I am forbidden from further scribbling until I feed it.
The Salsa Girl