Sunday, August 6, 2017

Bittersweet Ending

This post has come on way too soon--the last post from England, specifically Oxford. I can't even begin to describe how much of an absolutely amazing journey this has been for me. I've tried to convey it in my posts, but there's just something I can't describe. It's not just all of the absolutely mind-blowing places that I've visited, walking in the footsteps of some of the most amazing authors. It's not just the great food, the lovely accents, the good beer, the amazing sights, the intense history, it's that I came over here and did this. I've never truly travelled on my own before. And yes, I've almost always had people around me during this trip, but I was doing a lot on my own--navigating London and Oxford, staying on my own, getting the most out of this experience as humanly possible.

I haven't written much this week because I was trying to focus on my course and experiencing Oxford. I've met some pretty incredible people while here, not just in my course but in the city too. I even made a new friend that I've gotten to know pretty well. But the people in my course are some amazing students who come from all backgrounds and offered the most unique of experiences to the idea of Oxford and Fantasy. I can't recommend enough the OUSSA program through the continuing education department. They offer week long courses throughout the month of July and into August. There were some people who had taken several weeklong courses over the summer. The administration is very helpful, and if you find the program soon enough, you can actually stay at the college (I was a little late to the game, but my Air BnB was still great and centrally located). My tutor, Maria...her knowledge literally blows my mind. She knows so much and has so much to say, and there's never enough time to get it all out. She posed some great questions in class that led to interesting discussions. Plus, it's pretty fun to listen to an Oxford educated tutor with a Phd talk about how much of a geek for Lord of the Rings she is. We finally got her talking about what she doesn't like about the Lord of the Rings movies in the last class session.

And the other wonderful part about being in this course--you're surrounded by people with the same interests as you. Your conversations are meaningful, and you can totally geek out because everyone is as geeky as you. Now, I was the only real hardcore vampire fan, but that's okay. I think I inspired some people to get back into the vamp genre haha.

All I've seen in Oxford while not being academic:
The Perch (beautiful pub outside the city that has you walk through Port Meadow)
Merton College (where Tolkien taught)
Christ Church College (where scenes from the first Harry Potter were filmed and where Lewis Carroll taught while write Alice in Wonderland)
The Ashmoleon Art Museum
The Natural History Museum (which has a bunch of creepy shrunken heads)
The Turf pub (where Bill Clinton did NOT inhale pot... where the prime minister of Australia set a drinking record, and where a lot of the HP cast would hang out during filming) #
The Bear (the first pub in Oxford that basically existed before Oxford was actually a city)

And now I'm going to go out and enjoy my last day in England, which is surprisingly nice weather (don't get me started on how much I've talked about the weather while I've been here. It's a real thing. I get it now).

See you back on the other side of the pond,
      HER

Sunday, July 30, 2017

I'm an Oxford Woman

Not really, just for the next week. But maybe by this time next year...? Who knows! But y'all...Oxford is amazing! My tutor (aka professor) describes Oxford as "the city that time forgot." And it's so true. I'm staying in the town where some of the greatest fantasy stories have been dreamt up--Monmouth writing down the first tales of the Arthurian legends, Lewis Carroll finding the rabbit hole to wonderland, Tolkien imagining our beloved middle earth, and Lewis opening the wardrobe to Narnia. I swear, this is all a dream!
I got here Friday, and after wandering around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to find my air bnb for 30 minutes, lugging big Bertha behind me, I finally found it. And drug big Bertha up 3 flights of narrow stairs. I'll be honest, there were some precarious moments, but I made it.
After settling in, I wound my way up to the Rewley house, where my course is them wandered into Blackwell's bookshop. I was starting to feel a bit homesick, but when I walked into that room of books and down to the basement that runs underground...man, I felt at home! I also found the oratory where Tolkien worshipped for years. It's a very modest yet beautiful church, with simple creaking wooden floors and pews. And the wonderful part? There was no one there! It's the first church I've ever been to while on tour that isn't filled with tourists. What an amazing thing!
Day 2, I went on a "free" donation based walking tour of Oxford. There wasn't too much walking but we saw a lot: Museum of History and Science, Weston Library (aka New Bodleian Library), Wadham College, the Claredon Building which used to be the printing press that printed the first Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Martin School (The Indian Institute, which trained many officers of the East India Trading Co.), the 2nd replica of the Bridge of Sighs, Old Bodleian Library (one of the most haunted places in Oxford), Christ Church College (one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, where Lewis Carroll taught), saw the college that inspired the two towers from Lord of the rings, the lamppost and door that inspired Narnia, and so on!
I went back to New College Inn road to find the college where they filmed the HP scene in which Mad Eye Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret. It was kind of surreal to be standing there. But I actual,y slipped in with an adorable British family who had been on my tour and had made a day trip of Oxfd. The mom pulled me in and we started talking as we searched for this courtyard, and to make a long story short, I was basically adopted by the Russell family. We want punting on the river, which is where the punter stands on the back of this relatively flat boat and guides it through the river with a long pole. Well, Mr. Russell decided to be the punter, despite not knowing note to swim, and immediately cramped up and proceeded to kneel on the back of the boat. I have not laughed that much in a long time! We got a picture together to commemorate the day! What fun!
Then it was time to start my course, we had a short orientation before jumping into the thick of it with our tutors. My Oxford and Fantasy course has ten students, all of different ages, locations, and backgrounds, which should mean good conversations! My tutor is great; she has so much to say so she talks quite fast. But I think I'm keeping up.
Today, we had one lecture, and I had my tutorial in the afternoon. The tutorial is a one on one session with the tutor to talk about the essays we turned in this summer and also to discuss the essays we have due on Wednesday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she really enjoyed my essay about author biographies playing into the criticism of their works. I don't think it does. And I guess she liked my argument!
They've been providing some lovely meals for us! And it's fun to get to talk with the other people in my course and get to know them. Again, I reiterate...I am in dream land. This is not real. Somebody pinch me.

Now time to get to work,
     HER

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I'm doing it!

I can't believe I'm actually navigating London on my own, for the most part. Gracie gets me started, but then I just go!
So the last blogpost, I wrote from a hotel lobby because apparently it's a thing here that people will come to work in hotel lobbies, treating them like coffee shops (if they have wifi). This hotel definitely didn't look like a hotel, super chic and modern...posh, as I'm learning to say. But they have good coffee! From there, I got myself to King's Cross Station. Yes the very one! I didn't know where exactly the Harry Potter store and Platform 9 3/4 was, so I just kept winding my way around until I found the huge line of people. But I found it! And while I did not stand in line and lay to get my picture taken in front of the platform, I did get a good picture, and of course explored the shop (which also had a line to get in).
Right next to King's Cross station is St. Pancras, which is the international railway and also the most aesthetically pleasing of all the train stations, their words, not mine, though it is very castle-like. Right next to that is my nirvana, aka The British Library. In the center of the library, encased in walls of glass, temperature controlled, is King George III's library. Patrons are actually allowed to request books out of the collection for research. In Sir John Ritbiat's Gallery are the treasures of the British Library. The have EVERYTHING 
>Ancient religious texts from all religions
>Gutenberg Bible
>Magna Carta
>Original writings of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, etc.
>Handwritten compositions from all of the most prominent composers
>A lyric that John Lennon wrote on a napkin

See, I'm not kidding. I spent a good couple hours in there before heading on my way to Primrose Hill in Regent's Park. I have to say-Citymapper is a really great travel app, however, it takes you down some really wonky routes. But I got there! Primrose Hill offers  gorgeous (free) skyline view of the city, and I was lucky that it was a beautiful day.
After an American dinner at  Meatliquor (which actually does American food better than some American places, we walked through Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Covent Garden to find this lovely Speakeasy! They gave us "newspapers" aka menus then took us down and down into what they had precisely decorated as an old train car and railway. It was quite hot, nut everything was so detailed and well done, it didn't matter. My drink, Keep Marm and Carry On, came in a teacup with a cookie and was delicious. Gracie's, Turning Over a new Leaf, tasted like a garden. The music was a great mix of old-fashioned jives with retro modern. Just so cool! And I finally took a double decker bus home.

Yesterday was a bit more relaxed, slept a bit more then spent the morning into early afternoon exploring Soho again for some shopping, going back in stores that I'd noticed the night before. I found a really cute, unique souvenir shop called We Built This City. 
I made my way to Trafalgar Square, home of the National Gallery, the new, positive giant thumbs up statue, Sir Nelson's Column (an admiral in the Battle of Trafalgar), and the beautiful mews. They also have The Mud Soldier sculpture to commemorate the Battle of Passchendale, which saw the loss of 500,000 soldiers, who either died in battle or because of the horrendous rains that turned the trenches into oceans of mud, drowning horses and soldiers. 
I spent the afternoon in Spitalfield Market, which has a bunch of great booths, restaurants, and other shops. That day, Covent Tea Society was hosting a dance, so a bunch of older couples were waltzing and tango-ing to a full band, having such a lovely time. I took some videos. Then we went to the Hummingbird Cafe, Gracie's favorite for a Blackbottom Cupcake...literal heaven. So good!
Then we walked back to Fleet Street so I could get some yummy tea from the Twinings store before we went to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub, one of the oldest in the city and also where Charles Dickens frequented. My bangers and mash were amazing, or maybe I was just really hungry. Or maybe it was a combination. Then we walked around because the pub is deceptively big, mainly downstairs. Also just old and classic. You can practically envision Oliver Twist being written there. 
We topped off the night at City London Distillery so I could become an official Londoner and try my first Gin and Tonic! All the gin is made in house, and if you pay to do a tasting,they actually give you the recipe, and you can make your own gin. It was fun to people watch! 
Over the past two days, I have walked 55,000 steps, equaling 22 miles.
Can't believe it's my last day in this wonderful city!
Cheers,
   HER

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

London Calling

Woah baby!! I made it. I caught the train, successfully switched trains, and made it to Paddington Station all by my lonesome. My lovely cousin Graci was there to pick me up and help me navigate the tube with my steadily growing suitcase. And after dropping Big Bertha off, we just started walking.
Journeying through Bank (where all the banks are), we arrived St. Paul's Cathdral, which is pretty spectacular! We walked past the Australian House, which we think was meant to be the Australian embassy, but the cool part is that it was the inspiration for Gringotts Bank in Harry Potter. And this is right around the corner from the Royal Courts of Justice, our equivalent of the Supreme Court. Let's just say it made me feel pretty small. This path led up to the original Twinings Tea Co. store, which I will be going back to because there are so many different brews! After a quick sit for coffee at Grind, we popped into the British Museum. I literally mean we popped in, saw the Rosetta Stone and the Enlightenment Room, and popped back out because SO MANY PEOPLE. 
Travel across the Holburn Viaduct with me,the first bridge built in London, to Christ Church Greyfriar's Garden, which is a cute little hidden gem with the garden organized as the pews were. Next on the list is the the Towers of London, which houses the Crown Jewels and the Queen's guard (they live inside with their families). 
For dinner, we went to Brick Lane-just a strip of middle eastern food with men standing outside trying to beckon you into their restaurant with deals. But the food was amazing! Fun fact, chicken tikka Marsala (not an actual Indian dish) is the national dish. We walked through Shoreditch, the super hipster-gentrified-graffitied-funky funk area to Brewdog, which was some really yummy craft beers. 
Yesterday...I may have originally taken the wrong tube line to Westminster, but it's fine. I self corrected and got there to take in the magnificence of Westminster Abbey, the only attraction that I paid for yesterday. Totally worth the 20 pounds. The best way to tritely describe it--they're collecting famous dead people-Kings, queens, soldiers, poets, authors, scientists. It was breathtaking. But again...so many people. Then I admired Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, walked through Whitehall garden, across the Jubilee bridges into Southbank, which is where the London Eye is. I looked at it, looked at the line, took a picture and kept walking. Going back across Westminster Bridge, I crossed through Horse Guard Rd. and past the Churchhill War Rooms, through St. James Park (a beautiful little reprieve from the city), and right to the gates of Buckingham Palace! I was slightly disappointed that the bobbies don't stand outside the gates anymore and that there weren't any corgis running around on the lawn. But I'm still in awe of how amazing it was...from the outside... Then I snuck into the gift shop (go up along the left side of the palace gates and you'll see it), and it's basically a shrine to corgis and it's wonderful. But seriously, if you don't want to pay to go into the castle, just go to the gift shop because they have stuff that no one else has. 
For dinner, we went to Poppie's Fish and chips which was YUM! It's a cute little diner style restaurant. Then we went on an awesome Jack the Ripper tour. Turns out Gracie lives across the street from where Jack the Ripper killed his last victim (also the worst mutilation). So yeah...no ch ace this street is haunted at all...
We kept up with the Ripper theme by going for a nightcap at Ten Bells Pub, where a couple of his victims used to partake. It actually used to be named Jack the Ripper until some reasonable soul pointed out that we should not be glorifying a serial killer.
So in two days, I've walked a total of 50,000 steps. I don't feel bad about my fish and chips at all.
Time to go explore,
       HER

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Last Tour Day

Note I said tour, not end of trip. Tomorrow continues into London, though I'm sad to see this part of my journey coming to an end! I've had some amazing adventures with Ivor from Vorscot tours, so I highly suggest his company for your future travel needs.

Today was a whirlwind! We journeyed into Great Missenden, which is no easy place to find, to the home of the fizzpopping, gobstopping home of the larger than life Roald Dahl. His wife has created the most marvelous of museums dedicated to preserving his work. Though are writing systems and styles are a bit different, Mr. Dahl and I agree on one thing-the perfect writing space. He had a writing but built in his garden, filled with mementos and knickknacks he'd collected over the years. I actually sat in his writing chair, soaking in the inspiration before I went to have a "Miss Honey's scone" in the cafe. I highly recommend this inspiring, interactive museum honoring one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century.

We took a quick trip down to Henley-on-Thames to go through The Wind in the Willows exhibit (book by Kenneth Grahame). It was an absolutely beautiful 3-D exhibit with intricate settings from the book that you watch while listening to the story. If you or your child hasn't read this book you should. If it's good enough to be one of A.A. Milne's favorite, it's good enough for your library.

The day ends in Windsor on a dreary, stereotypical English rainy day. Unfortunately, we pulled in a little too late for admittance to the castle, but I walked the Long Path, that has an excellent view of the castle. Then I walked down High St., through a wave of tourists, curtsied to the statue of the queen before working my way down to the riverside to feed the ferociously beautiful swans. I journeyed across the bridge to Eton and Eton college, where the princess went to school-beautiful campus! And in my search for food, I walked the length of the city again! Thankfully the rain had stopped :)

Cheerio lads and ladies,
           HER

Friday, July 21, 2017

Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare country over here in Warwick, and it's absolutely lovely and charming!! We arrived yesterday around noon and met up with our Stratford expert (among many other expertise that she has) Jasia, pronounced ya-zah. She's a cute English-polish tour guide with a throng of talents and a wealth of knowledge. She took us to Shakespeare's birthplace. With an excellently done video montage of how Shakespeare still affects people today, the exhibit was wonderful! They have one of the home's original Windows that has been graffitied over the centuries. That's right, folks--graffiti has always been around! I also learned where the phrase "sleep tight" comes from: until age 5, children slept in the parents' room on the trundle bed that slid out from under their own, and every night, they had to tighten the ropes that supported the child. Cool, huh?

We then ventured farther out to Anne Hathaway's cottage (Shakespeare's wife), which 13 generations of Hathaways lived in until 1911. We saw the three original rooms, but the best part was the lavender maze. I got very excited when I saw this sign because I love lavender! But when we found it, the gardeners were tearing it up. When they saw how disappointed we were, the head gardener told us that we could each pick a bushel, so I now have a nice lavender bouquet resting on my desk. This is the best smelling hotel room I've been in :) After a tea in the cafe, we had to drop Jasia off at the train station so she could jet off to France for a family vacation. Merci beaucoup, Jasia! The rest of the day was relaxing; I walked around by myself exploring the shops and the town before meeting Ivor for dinner. And afterward, I went down to the Dirty Duck, a pub known For the actors that frequent it, to do some people watching and writing! I'm trying to get in as many literary cliches as I can into this trip, if you couldn't already tell :)

Today was equally as fantastic! We drove out a bit further to Mary Arden's Tudor farm (Shakespeare's mother). Apart from the awe of being in the place where Shakespeare began, this was my favorite Shakespeare exhibit. William would've never visited the farm that his mother grew up on since his grandparents died before he was born, but it was marvelous! They have fantastic actors who have so much knowledge about the time period! We saw a goose herding (back then they would've herded the geese all the way to Nottingham on foot for 4-5 days), a falconry show with a barn owl (also called a ghost owl or in Wesley's case, a boomerang owl because every time he tried to launch her into the air, she just came back to his arm for food), a unique house tour, and then a table board lunch demonstration-how the people of the Tudor time actually would have composed themselves at the dining table. So much fun!

This afternoon, we walked to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. On his headstone, he has engraved, "Blessed be the man that spared these stones, and cursed be he that moved my bones" because apparently it was a common practice to dig up bones and throw them out so the church could resell the land. I guess The Bard freaked everybody out enough with his curse because his and his family's bones are still there, as far as we know... It's also a gorgeous church, and worth a walk along the Avon River. We took a canal-river cruise to follow this up and wrap up our afternoon-nice and calming-lots of swans and duckies to look at.

Note to future travelers-do your Stratford shopping during the day. Most shops close by 5:30 at the latest, even on a Friday night. So what do people do, you might ask. They go to pubs and performances of course! I convinced Ivor to go back to the Dirty Duck, and we had a fantastic meal there on top of the classic pub atmosphere.

I can't believe tomorrow is my last day with Vorscot Tours! It's amazing how quickly time flies. I'm convinced time moves faster on this side of the Atlantic.

See you in Windsor,
         HER

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Finally, England

My first experience experience of England-the Lake District! Wow, what a lovely view that is!

Our morning began in Dove Cottage (Grassmere), the home of William Wordworth...for 8 years. BUT these eight years were when he produced his most famous poetry, such as "The Daffodil." Our tour guide (who's from California) told us how one night, Samuel Taylor Coleridge decided he wanted to visit his dear friend so he walked 16 miles to Dove Cottage, arriving at 1 am and stayed up talking with the Wordsworth's all night. Why does no one do that anymore? They have a beautiful garden filled with wild flowers hat they dug up during their walks in the country. They actually have a notebook for people to leave notes in, and in the home of one of the most popular English poet laureates, someone wrote "Roll Tide." :/ come on, America...

But it's a beautiful little village with old stone cottages and pretty gardens. I sat up on the hill for awhile before venturing into the museum and writing with a quill and ink.

Next, we just went a bit up the road to Hill Top, the partial home and forever inspiration of Beatrix Potter. Our gorgeous Bed and breakfast was right next door to get home, so I got to spend plenty of time to explore her gardens, orchards and home. They had her differ character books placed throughout locations in the house that inspired them. It's also a beautiful home with lovely views from each window. Then I went a bit up the road under the direction of "follow the trail to Mocs Eccles Tam, more inspiration." Well, here's the trouble. The map said nothing about the trail diverging. So I took the path that called to me. Apparently, it called to me wrong because, while it was a beautiful, mossy forest path, it was not I was supposed to be... A logger may or may not have yelled at me to get out. But no worries! I found the right path, had a nice silent, peaceful stare down with a cow, and finally found Mocs Eccles, which is a beautiful large pond beneath a series of big rocks to sit on and observe. A few people were swimming because it was absolutely beautiful weather.  We had dinner across Windermere lake in Bowness at a delicious Indian restaurant.

TODAY I visited the highly anticipated Brontë Parsonage. If I haven't said it before, Jane Eyre is my favorite classic novel, and getting to see the precise table where she wrote it was absolutely wonderful! This year is Branwell Brontë's bicentennial, so they have an expansive exhibit on his...wild life. But the home is filled with antiques, as well as costumes from the recent PBS special, To Walk Invisible. I had a lovely chat with the volunteer about the Brontës as well as my literary tour and even my book! Then, I moved into the unique graveyard with slabs upon slabs of headstones, nearly touching. I then took another path less travelled by in my determined attempts to find the moors and feel like Jane Eyre. And I did find a moor. Just not one that people are normally allowed on...it's fine. My legs are just a tad scratched up haha. But then we found the actual moors on Penistone hill, and they were fantastic! It was easy to imagine walking there, being whipped around by the bitter winds and harsh storms. I could've walked forever.

This afternoon ends in Yorkshire's Thirsk, the home of James Alred Wight, aka James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, among so many others. They have a charming museum in his home  with tons of props to make it look as it would when he lived there as a veterinarian with his wife and two kids. There was a fun fact: so his writing popularity didn't take off until his books reached America, and he came on a giant signing tour there. One signing line was so long that he temporarily lost use of his hand! That's the goal, folks.

Thirsk is a quaint, sweet little town, mostly outdoor adventures. We're staying a bit out at the White stone Cliffe Inns, which is a series of bungalows right beside a private farm. So naturally, I've made friends with the chunky sheep that likes to lay against our side of the fence. I think I'll name him Welington. Now, we're just sitting in a pub so the stupid American can access wifi and talk to the rest of the world. It's time to people watch.

See you in Stratford-upon-Avon,
          HER