Overcrowded Oxford

August 11-15, 2016: The last time I stayed in Oxford, I slept in Keble college, booked through universityrooms.com. Keble is a relatively new college, founded only in 1870, but I got a good-sized room with a big attached bathroom looking over Liddon Quad, and I ate breakfast in the impressive great hall, the longest, although not the highest, in Oxford. The college was just out of the center, but there was a bus stop nearby if I didn’t feel like walking. It was April, and the town seemed fairly quiet.

Tom Quad

This time, Keble was booked, and with a choice of Magdalen or Christ Church I chose Christ Church, although with some concerns about tourists traipsing through. While I would return to Keble, I will not return to Christ Church. True, their great hall is stunning (just look at the Harry Potter pictures), and I got to eat my breakfast sitting at the high table (I assume that the dons, if any still live in college, ate in the Senior Common Room). I had also bought dinner there the one night it was available (the food did not live up to the surroundings at dinner or breakfast). I also had the beautiful and historic cathedral all to myself for half an hour one morning. But that was the extent of the good news.

Fan Vaulting in the Cathedral

Christ Church admits visitors from 10:00 until 17:00 (14:00 to 17:00 on Sundays) and there were camera-happy tourists around every time I left the private Blue Boar Quad during those hours. Apparently the same hours are in effect during term time: it would drive me nuts if I were an undergraduate. The Blue Boar buildings were built in the 1960s, and had no view, but I’m afraid I didn’t care too much for the historic Tom Quad either, huge, and all too obviously unfinished. My bedroom was a reasonable size, but furnished with a cot instead of a bed, and I had issues with the windows it took two days to fix.

Blue Boar Quad

But my real problem with Oxford had nothing to do with my stay at Christ Church. The place was just too popular. I suppose it has been quite some time since I visited in the summer, and now it seems to be on everyone’s itinerary. Certainly the crowds on the High Street and St. Aldates were overwhelming, and the river was crowded with people who didn’t know how to punt. Happily, some escape was possible, especially if you spent a little money.

Take the Bodleian. The courtyard was jam-packed. But the tour I took had a maximum of fourteen people. Or the Botanical Gardens, where only a handful of people shared the trees and flowers with me. And I had Magdalen College, with its beautiful and historic quadrangle, and it’s extensive grounds, almost to myself. I also noticed that the town seemed a good bit emptier in the evening – I was able to get a table at Nandos on the Saturday night with barely a wait. Given the number of coaches I saw lined up along St. Giles, it appears that many of the visitors are on day trips.
I had four nights in Oxford, but I spent one day visiting family, so only two full days for sightseeing. I started at the Botanical Gardens, which I had missed on earlier visits, and which are mentioned in Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”. I always enjoy gardens, but I felt that these had changed a good deal since Sayers’ time, as some sections looked almost wild, and there were several beds of medicinal plants. I spent that afternoon at Magdalen, where I even got a look at the deer in the water meadows. The next day I visited the Bodleian in the morning, where I was pleased to get at least a glimpse of the Duke Humphrey Library, which also features in “Gaudy Night”. In the afternoon I took a look at the exhibitions in the new Weston Library, which included a First Folio Shakespeare. I finished up at the very busy Ashmolean Museum, where I avoided the crowds by paying for an exhibition on underwater archaeology around Sicily. I very much want to return to Sicily, so I was glad to see the exhibition, and was also interested to learn that a pioneer in underwater archaeology had been a British woman, Honor Frost.

I had bought a copy of the Good Food Guide 2016 over the internet before I left home, marveling at how much bigger it had grown since the early editions, and as a result my splurge meal for Oxford (not counting dinner at Christ Church) was at Branca. I needed a local bus to get there, but it was worth the trek. My first course was a very good pate with ham and saucisson, and the second a correctly cooked risotto with smoked salmon.
When I had arranged my itinerary, getting from Weymouth to Oxford by train had required just one change, at Southampton. But when I checked the routing nearer my departure, I saw that the line was out between Didcot Parkway and Oxford, and I would have to do the last stretch on a bus. This was less of a problem than I expected, as Didcot Parkway had an elevator, and the “rail replacement bus” was a large and comfortable coach. I did find it a bit annoying to have to do the transfer twice more on Sunday when I visited my family. However, a notice at Oxford station informed me that the outage was to allow work on flood protection, which has to be a good thing.

August 10, 2016: Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House? Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral? The Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London, the British Museum, even the U.N. Headquarters in New York, all are made of Portland limestone. The stone has been quarried at least since Roman times, from the unusual “tied” island that juts out into the English Channel south of Weymouth, the southern anchor of the equally unusual Chesil Beach.
In the summer months, open-topped bus 501 runs from Weymouth’s King George statue all the way down to the lighthouse at Portland Bill, the southern tip of the Isle of Portland, once an hour. A five GBP ticket gets you a day’s use. There is a more frequent local bus that serves the several communities on the island, but it doesn’t go the whole way. Given that the sun was still shining brightly, and the wind was strong even at ground level, I chose to ride inside. I also chose to get off at the first stop to visit the now-defunct Tout Quarry.

I quickly realized that I was wearing the wrong footwear – boots, not sandals, were needed to cope with the stone chips littering the ground. I also quickly realized that the quarry was not a particularly interesting destination. Plenty of loose chunks of rock, but they soon all looked the same, and the carvings scattered around didn’t hold my interest, either. There were a few good views if you made it up to the rim of the quarry, although here, as around Lyme Regis, the Southwest Coast Path had been rerouted back from crumbling cliff edges.
I walked back to the main road and headed south for the next bus stop, only to encounter a remarkable church. Built in the mid-1700s, it was resolutely Georgian, and it was a little hard to tell from the outside that it was actually a church, as the tower and steeple at the west end looked as if they had been grafted onto an unrelated building. Inside, I found that it boasted two pulpits set across from each other in the center of the nave, with box-style pews at the altar end turned to face the pulpits. Although the church had been Anglican, it had clearly been very low church Anglican. The building had been decommissioned and was now cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust. The elderly gentleman seated near the entrance told me that words had been deemed more important than sacraments, and allowed me to go up into one of the pulpits, a new experience for me. It provided a commanding view into all of the pews and the gallery, and I could see that it would be all too easy to develop illusions of grandeur from frequent occupation.

The gentleman recommended the Sugar Loaf in Weston for lunch, and after a good macchiato at Cycleccino, a cafe and bike shop across the street, I enjoyed an excellent crab salad. In fact, it looked so good I took its photograph. After lunch I missed the next bus because traffic kept me from crossing the road in time, and walked on to the island’s museum. As I had suspected, this was not a compelling destination, aside from a few mineral displays, but I did learn three interesting facts. First, the museum had been started by Dr. Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, who turned out to have a doctorate in paleobotany and not medicine. Second, a panel told me that the women on the island had enjoyed property rights well before the repeal of the Married Women’s Property Act, which infamously gave husbands total control of their wives’ money and goods, and some had even served as Reeve. Third, less surprising, was a map showing the shipwrecks round the island. Even with the lighthouse I was going to visit – and originally there had been two – this was clearly dangerous territory for ships.

By the time I made it to Portland Bill the day was clouding over. I chose not to go up the lighthouse, and instead watched the waves breaking on the rocks and an occasional fishing boat, and caught the next bus back to Weymouth. While I was glad to have visited the island, it occurred to me that Lulworth Cove might have been a better choice, although there were fewer buses headed there.

August 9, 2016: Abbotsbury offered a Subtropical Garden and a Swannery, and was reachable by the X53 bus. When I first heard that the X53 was affected by strike action I had thought I might have to forego Abbotsbury, but since it was running east of Bidford I could still visit, although there was only one bus an hour. I got an early (for me) start, and was set down at the new bus stop just up the lane from the gardens shortly after they opened.

Although I enjoyed the gardens, and there was a Japanese bridge, and a “Burma” rope bridge, and even a stand of rather thin bamboo, I had a hard time seeing them as subtropical. Lots of flourishing hydrangeas, plenty of shade, and an excellent view of the coastline if you trekked up a grassy slope at the far end, but not what I think of as subtropical. The view was especially interesting, because Chesil Beach was visible to the east. Beach is perhaps an odd name for what is essentially a long sand spit, but it is a very impressive sand spit – a full 18 miles of pebbles, separated from the main beach by the shallow salt water of the Fleet Lagoon.
After visiting the gardens and having a morning cup of coffee, I was between buses. Rather than waiting half an hour in order to ride one stop into the middle of the village, I chose to walk it, and was glad I had. The road into the village was picture perfect, lined with thatched cottages built in mellow stone. I had lunch – crab salad sandwich with salad – in a quintessentially English tea room in what had been the school house.

Then I headed out of the village in the other direction to reach the Swannery. I had thought of walking cross country from the gardens, but had been assured that it was longer that way, and the route looked to be short of shade. As it was, I had a look at the village church and churchyard on the way. August turned out to be molting season, during which swans are grounded, so, while there were certainly a lot of them, none were flying. It might be a more interesting visit at a different time of year. In addition to the swans, a small group of enthusiasts were displaying birds of prey and owls, and there were boards with information on the large reed beds.
While it had been a pleasant walk down, I went back uphill rather fast, just making the 15:09 bus to Weymouth.

August 8-11, 2016: After negotiating a twisty one way street, buses arriving in Lyme Regis from the east stopped at the bottom of Broad Street, and I had had an easy walk to my B&B. But buses arriving from the west stopped instead at the top of Broad Street, and I had a bit of a trek to get there. London to Bournemouth, and Bournemouth to Lyme Regis by public transport had worked fine, now I expected to take First Bus’s X53 service direct to Weymouth.
Until, that is, the friendly locals waiting at the same bus stop told me that strike action was in progress and the service was probably not running. The driver of their local bus confirmed the bad news. Well, the X51 was still running – I could take it back to Dorchester South and get a train to Weymouth from there. It would just cost me time, as the X51 left thirty minutes after the X53. But then the X51 driver told me that the X53 was running east of Bridport, and I could connect with it there. At the cost of another thirty minutes, but the views of the coast were worth the wait. If I had checked the First Bus website, instead of relying on the timetable I had down loaded and my phone, I would have seen the notice about strike action and could have avoided the first wait.

The bus terminated roughly in the middle of Weymouth’s long Esplanade, which bordered its curving, sandy beach. Unlike San Sebastian, which I visited last year, where most of the tourist action was inland, here it reached to the sea. While I was amused to see an old-fashioned Punch and Judy show set up on the beach, I found the overall impression a bit tacky, and the crowds thronging the pavement a nuisance. The crowds on the main pedestrian streets turned out to be worse, Weymouth was definitely doing good business. Virtually every building along the Esplanade was a hotel or B&B – I did notice one or two cafes, and a lone dentist’s office – and so many sported “No Vacancies” signs I had to wonder what was wrong with the occasional exception.

My B&B, the Chatsworth, was nearly at the southern end, and a little away from the action. My London-small single on the first floor was screened by tall bushes from the beach, but also from a collection of fun fair rides. The bathroom appeared to have begun life as a closet. However, there was a nice terrace overlooking the harbor at the back of the house, where I drank my breakfast coffee. I spent my first afternoon exploring the town, winding up on the south side of the harbor, which I much preferred. Although there were a number of cafes and restaurants, it was quieter, and behind the buildings I found the Nothe fort (closed) and the Nothe gardens (well worth a wander). I had my first scone and clotted cream of the trip in the Ivy Coffee House, and ate my splurge meal for Weymouth in the Monkey’s Fist, just inland. The monkey’s fist turned out to be a rather impressive knot – http://www.netknots.com/rope_knots/monkeys-fist – but the food wasn’t anything to get excited about.
I spent my two full days based in Weymouth out of town.

Update: my sister emailed me to say she has just seen a report that the Punch and Judy show in Weymouth will close because kids have been throwing rocks at it! That is so depressing. I had seen the Punch and Judy puppets and booth in a museum right before arriving in Weymouth, and had been so pleased that there were still real shows.

August 4-7, 2015: Although many streets in Lyme Regis climb steeply up the encircling hills, flat walks are possible. My first afternoon in town, after checking into my cosy B&B, I walked over to, and along, the Cobb, taking care not to fall down the steps, as I hadn’t brought a Captain Wentworth along to catch me. Lyme Regis now extends all the way to the Cobb, and in addition to good views of the coast, I noticed several interesting buildings.

The next day, after the mostly flat history walk in the morning, I went east. The coast around Lyme is known as the Jurassic Coast for the age of the rocks, and is subject to erosion and frequent landslides, often exposing significant fossils. Tracy Chevalier’s latest book, “Remarkable Creatures”, is about Mary Anning, who made major discoveries in the early 1800s, including the first ichthyosaurus. The local museum organizes fossil walks at low tide, but I didn’t want to carry rocks around for the next three months, however interesting they might be, and stayed off the beach. If the word “beach” conjures up a picture of flat sand, or even pebbles, think again. This beach was an intriguing wilderness of mud and rock. Significant work had been undertaken in recent years to stabilize the ground and a new walkway now ran above the beach to the east. It didn’t go far, just far enough for me to get a good view.

If I had been truly energetic I would have taken the bus east to Charmouth the next day and hiked up Golden Cap, which was reputed to offer fabulous views. But even if I had felt more energetic I certainly wouldn’t have attempted the hike in full sun, and the Dorset coast was enjoying remarkably fine weather. Instead, my B&B hosts suggested a circular walk, starting along the course of the river to the appropriately named Uplyme, and then looping across country. The walk to Uplyme was mostly shaded by trees, and featured a former mill and some pretty houses. I trekked uphill to check out the church, where the 10:00 am service was wrapping up with tea and coffee. It looked to have been well-intended.

Instead of following the directions for the rest of the walk, which looked complicated, I opted to make a loop in the other direction, which appeared easy enough on the map the T.I. had given me. Pity that the map didn’t have contour lines, as Gore Lane went up, and then up again, and again. It was one of those walks where you keep expecting the road to flatten out round the next bend, only to find that it keeps going up. However, eventually I crossed the A3052, and then joined the Southwest Coast Path and was rewarded with some really good views of the coast. I recovered with a crab salad sandwich and another macchiato at Amid Giants and Idols, where I had a long chat with the owners, learning that the coffee shop was their retirement business.
My B&B had made me dinner reservations for the Friday and Saturday nights (I can recommend the Millside, where I followed a duck breast appetizer with tender lamb chops), but I hadn’t bothered for Sunday. So it was my own fault when the Indian restaurant where I wanted to eat turned out to be full, and I ate the first fish and chips of the trip instead. Really quite good fish and chips (plaice).

August 5, 2016: The train to Dorchester gave me a look at part of Poole, which appeared to be a lot flatter than Bournemouth, and well provided with yachts. At Dorchester South I needed to switch from train to bus, and I had wondered whether I would have trouble finding it. Turned out that Dorchester South was a very small station, with just two platforms, and I could see the X51 bus waiting outside as my train arrived. Unfortunately, I had to cross the tracks to reach it, lugging my case up the footbridge steps and then down again.
I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery on the way to Lyme Regis – picture perfect agricultural England, rolling country covered with fields, hedges and copses, although the fields seemed a good bit bigger than I remembered. The bad news was the traffic, although on a summer Friday heading west I suppose I should have expected it. As we inched forward towards Bridport, on a winding two lane road masquerading as a main route, and then again on the way out of Bridport, I was very happy not to be driving.
The Old Lyme Guesthouse, my destination, was everything the Derby Manor in Bournemouth was not. Small, old, and unpretentious, with welcoming new owners, and with a wonderful location near the sea front. I had originally reserved a different B&B, but when I put my final itinerary together, and rechecked the reviews, I realized that it was up a very steep hill. In fact I passed it during my stay, and was exceedingly glad to be going downhill at the time. The Old Lyme had begun its existence as the town post office, and the old wooden mail slot, thought to have been used by Jane Austen to mail a letter to her sister Cassandra, was still a much photographed feature.

For a small place – year round population maybe 5,000 – Lyme Regis has a remarkable history, and a number of literary connections not limited to “Persuasion”. My first full day I took the history walk advertised by the helpful T.I. and learned a whole lot. The town was packed and I had though the walk would have drawn a crowd, but only two couples joined me.
While I associated Lyme Regis with tourism, sea bathing didn’t take off until the 1800s, and I had imagined that it had previously survived as a fishing port. But the local enthusiast leading the walk told us that Lyme Regis had been a trading and ship building port of major significance – bigger than Liverpool, he said. Its population in Elizabethan times had been the same as it was today, and the sheltered anchorage provided by the Cobb drew shipping until eventually bigger ships needed deeper waters and the town languished, to be reinvigorated by the Georgian craze for drinking sea water. The trade had been wool for wine, with a fair amount of smuggling at various times.
The Cobb, the breakwater so crucial to the port’s development, had existed in some form since at least 1313, although it had been renewed and improved a number of times. I was surprised to learn that it was not connected to land until 1756, and further surprised to see that it was not in Lyme Regis proper, but in Cobb hamlet a short walk west.

I had already taken a look at the parish church, but now I learned that parts were older than I had thought, with a Norman arch at the entrance, although the elaborate font that I had admired was only Victorian. The town’s buildings have succumbed at various times to bombardment, fire and flood, and, in the case of the Georgian assembly rooms where Jane Austen danced, to outright demolition, but some old ones remain, including a Tudor building with a Georgian front.

Lyme Regis has a surprisingly martial history, having withstood a lengthy siege during the English Civil War. A strongly Protestant town (known to Mary Tudor as “that heretic town”), it sided with Parliament, and Prince Maurice spent five weeks in 1644 attempting to take it for the Crown before withdrawing to fight the Battle of Lostwithiel. A few years later, in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in a bid to depose the Catholic James II. A number of local men joined the rebellion, and following Monmouth’s defeat were executed or transported after trial at the infamous Bloody Assizes, presided over by Judge Jeffries. (James was subsequently kicked out without casualties in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary.)
After all this serious history I was glad of a lighter story involving Henry Fielding (author of “Tom Jones”). Seems that while staying in the town he attempted to abduct a local heiress, only to be soundly defeated by her relations, who intended her as a bride for her cousin. Fielding left, never to return, but Austen clearly liked the place, and John Fowles (“French Lieutenant’s Woman”) lived there for many years, and was curator of the museum for a decade.
The walk had stayed on the flat, but you need to be fit to live in the town, as most of it climbs steeply in all directions. I had asked the tour leader where to find the best coffee in town, and he had replied that he didn’t drink it himself, but there was a place called Amid Giants and Idols that was supposed to be good, along with Aroma. Aroma was on the flat, but I couldn’t resist the quirky name of the other place, and trekked up, and up, to Silver Street, and a reasonable macchiato and a good smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich.

August 3-5, 2015: Well, I never did get around to writing up the English leg of my last trip, but I am starting this one with a month in England, with a little North Wales. I grew up, and learned to drive (stick) in England, but it has been many years since I lived there, and over a decade since I last drove there. (And the last time I tried to drive stick, two decades ago, the gear box complained, and my knees complained.) I travel solo, so renting a car can be expensive, and I don’t want to have to worry about where to park and when to overtake on narrow roads, even if a GPS might take care of the navigating for me. Recently I’ve spent most of my time in the UK either visiting family or in London, so the issue of how to get around didn’t arise, but this trip I wanted to see more of the countryside, and so I’ll be seeing how well that works just using public transport. I’ve already had an email from Southern Railways about strike action next week, but fortunately I won’t need one of their trains until I go to Gatwick at the beginning of September.

I flew into Heathrow on a direct flight, but in economy. It was a remarkably old plane, with drop down screens playing movies for the whole flight (from the Terminator genre, at that), so even with an empty seat next to me I was only able to nap for an hour or so. An on-time arrival, and a quick trip through passport control (automated kiosks), baggage claim and customs (walk through) and I had loads of time for a proper breakfast before making the trek to the central bus ststion for my National Express coach to Bournemouth. (Although I have driven through Dorset a number of times on the way to Devon and Cornwall, somehow I never stopped there. I thought it was past time to have a look.)

We spent the first 30 minutes of the trip visiting T3 and T4, although the coach was still only lightly loaded as we picked up speed and headed west on the M3. The scenery along the motorway, was, as usual, not especially interesting, but I did notice that most of the vehicles were smaller than the behemoths my neighbors in (non-rural) North Carolina seem to find necessary. After we left the motorway we drove through the middle of the New Forest, which I was excited to see. Parts were more open – even agricultural – than I expected, but other areas were thick with dark and aged trees. We made one stop in a small but crowded village and then pulled into Bournemouth coach station. Since it was right across the road from the train station I bought my senior rail card and the train ticket for the next day before walking to my hotel.

The Derby Manor was very convenient for the coach and train stations, although not so much for the sea front. More expensive than the places I usually stay, it was glitzy enough (can’t say I care much for crushed velvet and diamanté accents) but quite remarkably dysfunctional. For instance, the bathroom sink was only about four inches front to back, and as the tap took up much of that I was barely able to wash my hands. Still, they produced a good crayfish and rocket sandwich and I spent most of the afternoon asleep, my usual jet lag cure going east, which once again left me synced to local time by morning.

My smart phone kept working and then not working, but I was able to figure out the buses to get into the main part of town, where I enjoyed strolling through the public gardens. I made the trek up to West Cliff for some views, but didn’t get as far as Alum Chine. I spent the next morning at the Russell-Cotes house museum, which I thought was well worth the six GBP admission. Built right at the end of the Victorian era for the owners of the Royal Bath Hotel next door, avid travelers and collectors, it felt more Edwardian to me. The building was full of art, and although as usual I was more interested in the decoration and furniture, I appreciated some of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures. The rooms on the top floor boasted magnificent sea views – on a good day you could supposedly see the Needles off the Isle of Wight, although not when I was there.

One of the rooms held a temporary exhibition of masks and puppets, including shadow puppets from Asia, and masks from Asia and Africa. I had coffee in the conservatory and would have been happy to eat lunch there except I was still full from far too much breakfast. Instead I retrieved my bag from the Derby Manor and just caught the 13:25 train to Dorchester South – no thanks to the incredibly large tour group of Asian students who arrived just before me.


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