London Retrospective, Week Four

(4 Feb to 10 Feb)

Classes continue, business as usual, except for the part where our instructions for certain classes include things like “Meet in front of St. Paul’s.” You can’t really…do that, in Syracuse, you know? By now I’ve established a fairly consistent pattern in my weeks – classes Monday through Wednesday, group-project meeting(s) on Thursday, field trip on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for homework and one or two jaunts around London. It’s a pretty good arrangement, I think.

This week’s field trip is Oxford, and, since I’m a nerd, I’m incredibly excited to see the famous university and its town. Yeah, yeah, it’s where Harry Potter and The Golden Compass were filmed, blah – I’m more interested in the fact that it’s where the The Golden Compass, as in the novel, is set, and in the history of the actual place. The coach ride is about an hour and a half, and as I’ve discovered, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day, a chance to catch up on music-listening and watch the scenery flashing past. Today, because of a reported accident ahead, our driver pulls off the motorway onto the country roads, and it becomes quite evident where the term “scenic route” came from. Broad green fields sitting under the sun, the fog still in the process of burning off; wooded hills gently receding into the distance; narrow roads I’m surprised the coach can even navigate, birch trees closely crowding either side. Villages – actual villages – nestled romantically between the woods and the fields. It’s so picturesque it’s hard to believe it all actually exists; “Come on,” I find myself thinking, “there’s no way it can be this pretty.” But it is, and that’s the incredible thing, this beautiful and green country just sitting there, existing, content in itself. We drive through Henley-on-Thames, a (ridiculously) gorgeous little village bridging the river (famous for its boat races), with all the old houses sitting sleepily in an odd mixture of sun and mist from the water.

Unfortunately, we have Tour Guide Calvin on the coach with us, and he spends the majority of the ride being in love with the P.A. system – whose idea it was to give that guy a microphone I don’t know, but the constant, repetitious commentary is the only thing distracting from an otherwise wonderful, wonderful journey through the countryside, the real countryside you can’t see from the motorway. I vow to myself several times that, someday, I will go on a cycling tour of southern England (Aaron, Sean, feel free to come along), because as much fun as it is to drive past all of these wonderful things, the hermetic, upholstered environment of the coach is so distancing. I want to ride down these roads and be able to feel the sun, the breeze from the Thames, the play of tree-shadow on the ground. I want to stop in a village, buy a hunk of bread from the bakery in an honest-to-goodness thatched cottage, and stroll through the narrow, ancient streets. Think of the photographs, the poems, the stories that could come from a slow, reverent journey through rural England.

When we finally arrive in Oxford, Flatmates Megan and Kathleen and I decide that, instead of sticking with the group (I don’t think I can take another five minutes of Tour Guide Calvin, let alone another three hours), we’re going to walk around on our own, maybe find a park to sit and eat the lunches we’ve packed along. We spend perhaps twenty minutes strolling through the town, dodging cyclists, admiring the buildings and, for once, not feeling obligated to know every detail about them and their history. It’s refreshing, really, to look at these things and just see them – don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore learning about all of the things we’ve been seeing, but it’s so nice to have a break from that.

We don’t have much trouble finding a park, and once there, we touch down at a bench in the sun, across the path from a couple of large evergreen trees, through which we can see deeper into the park. And then, we just…sit. We eat our lunches, we talk, we shed our coats and scarves – it’s a ridiculously lovely day – and we just sit. We watch the breeze in the trees, we watch a crow preening itself on a branch above us, we smile at the one or two students who pass by us (“She was so Oxford,” we whisper, amused and in awe, to each other). It seems somewhat counterintuitive, I know, to visit this famous university town and to spend most of the visit staring at some trees – but sitting on that bench, feeling the sun on my back and soaking up the greenery that surrounds us (I can’t believe it’s February – it feels like April) is so wonderfully grounding. The spring-like atmosphere, the three of us agree, makes us want to frolic – and so we do, running around the green field behind our bench, taking some ridiculous pictures in the process. It’s hard not to, honestly; the day is that gorgeous, the park that beautiful. Frolicking done, we walk a little further into the park, coming upon a Ye Olde Bridge over the Thames – the scene is so perfect it’s almost a cliché. We stand at the center of the bridge for another half hour or so, watching the geese and ducks in the water, secretly wishing that we didn’t have to go back to the city at the end of the day.

We’re scheduled to have an afternoon visit to one of the colleges (very few of them are actually open to the public), so eventually we leave our park, but not before discovering the herd of crocuses growing in the grass next to the path. They’re so beautiful it’s almost painful – gold and lavender and white varieties, all gleaming, literally, in the clear early afternoon sun. I can’t stop looking at them; it feels almost like I’ve never seen a flower before, like this is the first time I’ve encountered something so exquisite. More photographs are taken (I discover my camera has hardcore macro capabilities), and we each pluck a single flower, strolling even more slowly (reluctantly now) back towards the town. “Don’t you guys feel so…Edwardian right now?” I ask. “Rambling through a park, in Oxford, holding a crocus?” Before we leave the park, I shut our three flowers in the pages of my sketchbook.

Although I wish we could’ve staying in the park all day, that isn’t to say that Oxford, the town itself, isn’t beautiful, because it absolutely is. It’s full of this wonderful academic atmosphere; students on bikes are everywhere – no, really, everywhere, it’s such a cyclist town, which is awesome – and the buildings are simply gorgeous. Brasenose College (…most hilarious name ever) is right off of Radcliffe Square, at the center of which stands that really famous domed building. You know, the one? With the dome? The one that’s all over The Golden Compass film? I have no idea what the building actually is, but it’s beautiful and I take about a million pictures of it – that and another college that’s basically a Gothic cathedral disguised as an academic institution. And Brasenose College itself, although it’s one of the smaller ones, proves an interesting visit – I wish we had a Gothic courtyard and dining hall and chapel in Syracuse. Sheesh. It’s hard to believe that students actually live and study in places like these every day; I can’t imagine what that must be like. I’m sure many of the students start to take it for granted after a while – which, in a way, seems like such a privilege in its own right. The rest of our Oxford visit plays out quickly; we browse through a market and stroll down the High Street, which is beautiful but discordantly populated by things like Boots (the British Walgreen’s, essentially) and designer boutiques. Such is the price of the modern world, I suppose. When we get back on the coach to head for London, I’m thinking more of our park (I think of it as “ours,” inexplicably) than the rush of buildings we’d just seen.

Saturday rolls around, and Flatmates Megan and Kathleen and I (Flatmates Sarah and Eric are in Edinburgh this weekend, on one of the school trips) decide to pay a visit to the National Gallery. When we get to Trafalgar Square, I’m again struck with how much life there is in this city. Last time it was a cold and sunny day on the South Bank; now it’s a temperate and sunny afternoon in the Square, with tourists and locals and the category-defying three of us milling around, feeding pigeons, cheering on buskers, watching a crew set up a stage for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. We have to take a moment to sit on the edge of one of the fountains and just watch – the spirit is completely intoxicating. When we finally decide to enter the museum, it’s with significantly elevated moods.

And oh, goodness – the National Gallery is incredible. We decide to go more-or-less chronologically, and start out in the pre-Renaissance wing. There are some incredibly interesting works in there, but it’s – well, forgive me, but all of the religious paintings (and there pretty much wasn’t anything else, back in those days) start to look the same after a while. We make a champion effort, though, and after heading outside to eat our packed lunches (really, such a money-saver) and watch some impromptu flamenco, we decide that we really need a shot of modernity. Heading to the right instead of to the left, we find ourselves in the Impressionist gallery, where pretty much every famous work by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, anyone who ever mattered, really, is held. It’s…just incredible. I keep muttering “um, Famous Alert” to myself whenever I catch sight of that painting – you know, the one that basically acts as spokesperson for an entire movement in every art history textbook, ever – which is about every ten seconds. As we move on, the paintings move back in time; we’re deep in Realism and Romanticism when we enter a room dominated by one painting in particular. Flatmate Kathleen is doing her Honors thesis on Lady Jane Grey (writing her own one-woman show, I’m so excited for it), and so she’s interested in the painting for academic reasons, but we’re all caught by the drama of it, its sheer scale, the incredible detail and emotion it captures. Oh, of course it takes significant liberties with the historical facts – Delaroche was an artist, after all – but even as we leave the National Gallery, walk back through the bustling Square, get on the Tube for home, the painting is still with me: the way the light falls on Lady Jane, the tender treatment of the fabric of her dress, the terrible expression on her handmaiden’s face.


4 Responses to “London Retrospective, Week Four”

  1. 1 Hannah March 1, 2008 at 4:32 am

    “Think of the photographs, the poems, the stories that could come from a slow, reverent journey through rural England.”

    I can come? Please?

    Your Oxford rambles remind me that I really (really, really) need to finish my application THIS WEEKEND. Thanks for the reminder.

    Are you trying to come up with the Radcliffe Camera?


  2. 2 Colin March 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Of course you can come! I want to do the same thing in Ireland, too, only I need to figure out how to bring my harp along with me. Hmm. A dilemma.

    The Radcliffe Camera is exactly what I was talking about; thank you for knowing everything in the world. Hee. Good luck with your application – I have no doubt that you’ll be spending the summer there. Although with both you and Kristin abandoning me, I don’t know what I’ll do. Sigh.

  3. 3 Perky (or am I peppy?) March 15, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    So how nostalgic for me was the description of the bus rides through the English countryside. My heart actually started to ache and I had these lovely little flashbacks complete with cold toes from the time i stepped in the puddle in front of the art museum in Oxford. DAMN YOU COLIN AND YOUR SUPERIOR WRITING ABILITIES!!!!!! I’m going to go put on my Oxford T-shirt now…..

  4. 4 Colin March 15, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Aw! Do you want to come along on our eventual bike tour? We can reunite you with Oxford – I’m sure it’ll be a joyful occasion.

    …Hope the Oxford t-shirt helps. Hee. Miss youuu!

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