A short stay in Oxford

We left home in sub-zero temperatures and fog to travel to Oxford. With climate change there have been fewer winter days like this in the last couple of years. I did not get chance to take any photographs before leaving but here is one from a few years ago.

The fog lifted around Birmingham, returned in the Cherwell Valley but had disappeared by the time we reached Oxford and settled into our hotel. We have been to the city numerous times but my most recent trips had been work-related, so I saw little more than a meeting room in the Ashmolean and the route to and from the station. The following morning was bright and sunny, so we walked into town. Blue plates proliferate on the walls of buildings around here and Tolkien’s house is nearby. I was introduced to his work at primary school in the very early 1970s when the miners’ strikes led to widespread power cuts. Our teacher read us The Hobbit by candlelight. Our first destination was the Weston Library which is across the road from the Old Bodleian. Its interior is modern but some of the walls are lined with collections of antiquarian books. We had come to see an exhibition entitled Talking Maps; some of their vast collection. It was varied and eclectic from some of the earliest to very recent examples. There was a map indicating where to buy a drink in Oxford in the 1880s.

This one is of Laxton in East Nottinghamshire which has a portion of the last remaining open field systems. The feudal rural Map of England dates from 1635 and there are three large fields still relatively intact in Laxton which is almost unique in post-enclosure Modern Britain.

Also on display was the earliest known medieval map of Britain produced as a separate sheet rather than in a book and drawn on the hides of a sheep and lamb. More recent maps were wartime examples, some fake to confuse the enemy. Maps of imaginary places included Tolkien’s (which could not be photographed) and RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There were also pictorial maps by Grayson Perry.

There were faith maps of Christian pilgrim routes to Jerusalem, maps to assist Muslims in identifying the direction of Mecca and others related to Hinduism and Buddhism. An interesting display explained that although maps were not always orientated north; they were never orientated towards the west as this was where the sun went down and darkness reigned. Later we walked into the Boddleian courtyard

and then wandered around the city, purchasing an antique map for our own collection from a dealer we have bought from online previously. It was interesting to meet him in person and find out a little more about his work. The Botanic Gardens in Oxford are the oldest in the country

and are situated near Magdalen College and Bridge.

Only three glasshouses were open as a renovation project was underway but the snowdrops were more open than mine are. The Gunnera Manicata had been cut down on the island in the middle of the pond and left folded over the stalks to provide shelter for wildlife. Some shrubs were beginning to flower and some other spring flowers. Fish were swimming around under the ice in one pond.

Just outside the garden is a garden with yew and box hedging. A notice said that this had been a water meadow in 1190 and became a Jewish burial site. In 1231 a new site was established under what is now the college. An ancient footpath connected the site with the medieval Jewish quarter and was known as Deadman’s Walk for 800 years. In 1290 Edward I expelled all the Jews in England and they were not permitted to return for 300 years.

We had a meal in the Three Goat Heads pub. The First English Guild of Cordwainers was founded in Oxford in 1130 and three goat heads appeared on the crest. Cordwainer is derived from Cordoba in Spain where cordovan leather was produced from goatskin and became very popular for making shoes. The original inn was owned by one of the cordwainers and dates from 1621 on another street. In the 1800s it was moved to the present site. Inside are three goat heads and numerous items used in shoemaking.

All too soon we had to return home having sampled only a little of what Oxford has to offer.

 

 

Walking to Edinburgh


In six months time, on May 30th 2018 I will commence my walk from my home in Cheshire to Edinburgh. The route is outlined, most of my accommodation booked and I am looking forward to tackling a longer walk than any I have done before. In previous years we have walked the 96 miles of the West Highland Way and the shorter Great Glen and Speyside Ways. I have also been trekking in India twice, the longest of these being 9 days of walking. As soon as I started to plan this walk I seem to have been bombarded by stories of people undertaking very long walks.

Aaron Huey, a photographer based in Seattle, walked 3349 miles from west to east across America in 2002. This took him 5 months and it is said that unlike me, he made no plans. He was accompanied by his dog and camera but did not take his cell phone. Having decided not to carry all the camping equipment, I have had to book my accommodation ahead as in some places there is only one option and things do get booked up in advance. I have also read books about a couple walking around the whole coastline of mainland Britain and two guys who walked from John O’Groats to Lands End in 1916.

They had various rules including not consuming alcohol en route which apart from my night in the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at Eskdalemuir, I will not be adhering to as I will probably enjoy a glass of wine with my evening meal. On the West Highland Way we met an ex-serviceman walking from Durness to John O’Groats to Lands End to raise money for ‘Help for Heroes’. He was wearing (apart from his boots) historic military dress. I hope i meet some interesting people on this journey.

Much of my route has been walked and ridden for many years before mechanisation and I will enjoy discovering some historic sites I have not visited before. Here is the route from Warrington to Kendal from the ‘Pocket Book of Counties of England and Wales’ by Robert Morden published in 1680. Some of the route into Warrington from the south is on a Roman Road.

I trust that the weather will be warmer and drier in six months time than it is at the moment.

Maps indoors and art outdoors

Those who know us well will appreciate that we had to go and view the National Library of Scotland’s exhibition of maps ‘You are here’. We have a very eclectic collection of maps dating from the 16th century: places we have lived and visited, mainly with some we just loved when we saw them. My most recent acquisition was a 19th century map of the Gulf Stream which I found in Denver. I don’t have permission to reproduce any of the maps in the exhibition so here is one of ours:
Scotland map  Aug 2016-1
One of the interesting things in the exhibition was a display of the development of depicting contours in the landscape. Yesterday, before heading back down south we visited Jupiter Artland in West Lothian. On the way out of town, a van driver who had ‘Obi Van Kenobi’ written above the windscreen raised a smile. Numerous works from a variety of artists including Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Cornelia Parker and others. We even got in for free as the park was nominated for the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award. Despite not winning they decided to allow Art Fund members in for free instead of the usual 50% reduction on the entrance price. The works are surrounded by woodland and wildflowers but the strong winds made flower photography impossible. I was a little unsettled walking through the woods in the strong wind as a guy wild camping in the woods near the Dean Village in Edinburgh was killed when a tree fell on the tent during the night. His mate who was also in the tent was injured. I don’t think I would have pitched my tent under trees in those conditions. There is so much to take in, including exhibitions indoors back at the ticket office/cafe area.
Jupiter Artland 14 7 Aug 2016-1
Jupiter Artland 1 7 Aug 2016-1
Jupiter Artland 26 7 Aug 2016-1

Winter weather and modern art

It had snowed overnight but not as heavily as in other parts of the US and the UK.
Central Park in snow 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
It was still lying on the grass in Central Park but the heat of the concrete in the streets was melting it and the flakes that continued to fall until mid-morning. We wandered through Grand Central, which was busy with commuters and then into St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was built in the 1880s but looks like a much older Gothic building from Europe. I was pleased to see that they were happy to let homeless people sleep on the pews out of the cold.
St Patricks Cathedral 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)

St Thomas’s Episcopalian Church had an amazing decorative carved screen behind the altar. We also found the Old Print Shop on Lexington Avenue and purchased two maps from 1660 of the Western Isles which we will have to find wall space for when we return home. One of our tasks for today was to find the marker of the start of the Lincoln Highway which I had read was at Broadway and West 42nd St at Times Square. Eventually I spotted the very small sign attached to a post and which we would never have found in June when we are driving through the city on our way to Philadelphia. At one point on our total of 15 miles around the city, we saw some members of the NYPD Counter-Terrorism Unit near the Rockefeller Plaza armed with guns. Quite why they were there was not obvious but one brave tourist was taking a photograph of them. Police do not usually like that & I have only been brave enough to photograph a sleeping policeman on the floating police station on Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia. In the late afternoon we joined the scrum sampling the delights of the Museum of Modern Art for free. This happens every Friday from 4pm to 8pm and involves lots of queues. The first, which no-one tells you about and is 300m long when you find it, is outside, to collect a free ticket. You then have to stand in another queue to deposit bags deemed too large to take inside and yet another to have your ticket inspected before you can enter the galleries. It is obviously a popular event and a great way of familiarising yourself with the layout and the collection but if you want quiet contemplation of the works, come at another time and pay your $25. I discovered a Belgian artist I had not known of before, Marcel Broodthaers, who worked in a wide variety of media, including poetry. Here is a work entitled Armoire blanche et table blanche’ painted furniture with eggshells.
Armoire blanche avec table blance MOMA 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
He used a wide array of different media over the years. Other works were old favourites especially the abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
White Light Jackson Pollok MOMA 5 March 2016 (1 of 1)
There was a wide variety of works to see including photography but after a couple of hours it was time to head away from the crowds (who were still queuing to come in) to go for dinner and a more relaxing evening back at the hotel. Part of me is already in the Sierra Nevada as I am halfway through reading a selection of John Muir’s writings that James gave me for Christmas. John Muir was born in Dunbar in Scotland, a very familiar place, and emigrated to the USA aged 11. The paperback I have contains the first two of his books and a selection from the remainder. Today I found a biography of Ansel Adams whose landscape photography I have admired for some time. So I have plenty of reading material for winter evenings.

Leaving the Aeolian Islands and discovering the Ionian coast

Breakfast was at 6am on Friday morning as we had to catch the 7.20am ferry back to Milazzo. The sun was rising as we arrived at the port, just in time to hit the morning rush hour but were were soon on the autostrada towards Taormina. The original plan was to walk from Castelmola to the top of Monte Venere, a limestone mountain nearby.
Castelmola from Taormina for blog (1 of 1)

As it was forecast to be at least 32 degrees, a few of us decided that was too hot for the climb on bare rock and opted to explore Taormina instead. The walkers were dropped off close to 10am and it was already very hot. We were taken to the town and after a coffee, started to explore, coming across a photography exhibition of work by Letizia Battaglia. She documented life in 1970s Palermo and this exhibition was entitled ‘Rompere il muro de silencio’ (Breaking the wall of silence). She was one of the people interviewed by the author of a book I am currently reading: Midnight in Sicily – on art, food, history, travel and Cosa Nostra by Peter Robb who lived in southern Italy for 15 years from the late 1970s and returned in 1995 to write the book . Our walk around the town led to the discovery of an old portion of Hellenic mosaic, many intriguing alleys, old churches and an antique map shop. We found one to add to our collection: a French map of Sicily in the time of the Greeks published in 1806. The Teatro Antico was on a high point with views of Mount Etna and the coast and quite amazing despite being prepared for a concert.

IMG_0197

There is also a large public garden with an interesting tale about its development by a woman banished from the UK by Queen Victoria as she was deemed an unsuitable mate for her son Edward. She later married the mayor of Taormina and created the gardens before dying at the age of 55. Things we did not expect to find in Taormina were an Irish pub and someone wearing a Manchester United shirt.

Afterwards,we met up with the others. They had got to the top of Monte Venere but had to take a bus back down because of the heat. A public bus took us down to Giardini Naxos which is less pricey than Taormina. It is very much a beach resort with hotels, stalls and a lot of tourists but on Saturday morning we found the archaeological park and museum which documented the earliest settlement here. It has the remains of houses outside and two museum buildings with the house contents and those of an early shipwreck. We met an Irish couple who told us about a large Roman villa in the centre of Sicily that has some very good mosaics and has taken several years to restore. That will need to be left to the next trip to this part of the world. The garden nearby provided welcome shade from the heat.

It was then time to head to the airport. We could have enough material from our time there to contribute to Little Britain’s ‘Come Fly With Me’. The staff at the bag drop desks were having a prolonged conversation despite the long line of people waiting. When we got to passport control there was no-one there. Eventually a dour-faced man appeared and spent ten minutes logging into the system. I got no response to my ‘buongiorno’ and he glanced at my passport and shoved it back to me without making eye contact. Fortunately we were soon in the air bidding goodbye to Mount Etna and watching the sunset over France.

Sunset

The north Antrim coast

On Friday we set off for Portstewart and the art gallery. We had a coffee and a chat with the proprietor who had been a social worker in a previous life. The conversation ranged from social work, politics, old maps and books to his wife’s health. We eventually settled on a sixteenth century map of Ireland. Unusually it is not orientated north to south as back then, maps were orientated towards Jerusalem.

After a saunter along the seafront and another coffee we visited some relatives and then set off for Portrush. We had a look in the secondhand bookshop there but found nothing of interest on this occasion. We then carried on along the coast past White Rocks Beach (for exploring on another trip) and Dunluce Castle, a ruin.

White Rocks near Portrush 1

Dunluce Castle

It was then time to turn inland to Bushmills where the bookshop has closed and take the obligatory photographs of the distillery. In the evening we took James’s parents out for a meal at one of the coastal hotels. Despite the calm sea, there were some people trying to body board on almost non-existant surf. We spotted a sign for coastal trail which requires further investigation as a possible walk at some point.

On the rails again

The train manager and another member of staff both had American accents and I could have thought that I was back on the California Zephyr travelling from Chicago to San Francisco and on holiday. Unfortunately I was on my way from Crewe to London for a work commitment. Passing through Stafford I saw the almost inevitable train spotter. Most have now swapped notebooks for technology but I have yet to see a female and/or under 50 train spotter. In London it was sunny and as I walked through the university I came across a farmers’ market with several street food stalls with huge vats of curry and paella which smelled wonderful but it was not lunchtime and I was not hungry. I finally reached my destination in Chancery Lane and in the reception on the fifth floor of the building had a view over the incredibly elaborate chimneys of the building next door. So often in cities, we do not lift our eyes above the street to see what is up there. Fortunately the room my meeting was in had a much less interesting view so I could concentrate on the business in hand. Afterwards, as I left, I saw the London Silver Vault on the other side of the street. A notice said it had 25 shops but much as I love antique silver, I resisted the temptation and wandered on towards Covent Garden. It is an area I have known since my student days when a friend was working at Crown Court Church of Scotland and I used to come down from Aberdeen to visit in my holidays. Today the market was in full swing and there were several buskers. A tenor was singing operatic arias downstairs and several others were performing in the surrounding area.

Busker (1 of 1)

I dipped into Stanfords on Long Acre to pick up some more State maps for the Lincoln Highway drive and a coffee stop and browsed in a couple of second hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road on my way back to Euston. On the train we had a very friendly and helpful member of staff who was very chatty as there were only a few of us in the carriage. He told us (after only two people had cheese and biscuits) that any left over food would be thrown away and gave the remaining cheese to one passenger who had enjoyed it. Needless to say I have tweeted Virgin Trains to ask why they cannot donate uneaten food to a homeless shelter or similar rather than throwing it away. I await their reply.