An excellent location for being blown off a cliff.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting Around In Central London

London has become a teeming mass of people & traffic chaos--sensory overload. Even the Congestion Fee imposed during the day seems to have had little or no effect on traffic jams, & while the Underground (or tube, as most people call it) spares you auto & bus traffic on the streets, they are becoming almost intolerably crowded too.

On our last visit to London we made a point of trying to find our way everywhere by using the bus--those ubiquitous red buses one sees everywhere, many of which are double deckers. We not only wanted to see how it compared to using the tube, we wanted to sightsee along the way. On most of London's busiest arterials designated bus lanes make it easier than taxis to navigate, & in central London we found the schedules are such that we didn't usually have to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus--usually much less.

Travelcards (for visitors) or Oyster cards are far cheaper than paying for individual tickets on the bus or the tube & can be used on either. You can get details on the Transport for London website. Briefly, there are 1 or 3 day Travelcards. If you're only there for one day & will be traveling after 9:30 a.m. or anytime on weekends a card will cost you £5.10 for unlimited travel. (Regular price for an individual ride is £4, so if you ride somewhere once it will cost another £4 to come back.) Three day cards are £15.40 for travel any time. Cards for either individual or 1 or 3 day passes are inserted into a slot in the tube turnstile. They pop up as you go through to the other side, so hang onto them unless it's a one ride ticket.

Oyster cards are like pre-loaded credit cards & are used by the "natives". You pay a £3 non-refundable fee for the card & load it in £10 increments, but it never expires. Each time you use it the fare is automatically deducted when you pass it across a yellow disc (about the size of a pancake) at the tube turnstile or as you board a bus. If you visit London more than once your Oyster card will always be good & you'll never pay more than a 1 day Travelcard, but even if you're there once, from 4-7 consecutive days, the 7 day Oyster card, at £22.20, with unlimited peak time travel within Zones 1 & 2, is your best buy. Most of London's tourist attractions are within Zones 1 & 2.

Most hotels can supply you with bus route brochures & detailed schedules are posted at bus stops so it's not difficult to plot a course to wherever you want to go. Double deckers served most of the routes we used so it was fun riding upstairs & enjoying the sightseeing as well as observing the madding crowds from a distance. We decided it was a good way to go.

It's a good idea to carry with you a London A-Z (called A through Zed by Londoners), which is a detailed street map, as well as Rick Steve's London.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Micro-Destination: Christ Church, Oxford University

Oxford University is the oldest English-speaking university in the world with 9 centuries of continuous existence to add to its prestige. Kings, Prime Ministers, U.S. Presidents, Actors, Nobel Prize Winners, Saints, Archbishops & Cardinals have all studied or taught at Oxford.

Although it is one of 39 colleges that make up the University, Christ Church is never referred to as "Christ Church College", as in "Trinity College". It is simply Christ Church, the home of the smallest of England's ancient cathedrals as well as the largest and most architecturally impressive college in Oxford.

Wolsey & Henry VIII founded college
Founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey, as Cardinal College, it was refounded by Henry VIII in 1532 after Wolsey fell out of favor. It was never finished according to Wolsey's plan, so only the Hall, the unfinished quadrangle, the lower part of the gatehouse & the old Priory were allowed to survive. The old priory church became the cathedral of the new diocese of Oxford as well as the college chapel; the Dean appointed by the Crown.

Spartan quarters for students
As participants in a conference on the Middle East we were residents of the college for one week. Housed in student housing in the ponderous, Victorian Gothic Meadow building, we lived in spartan quarters in a room with 2 cots, a simple lounge chair, a night stand and large desk. It was 3 floors up and no lift, but we requested and were given (after a sizable upgrade charge) an ensuite room. Some participants had to make do with a community bathroom. It was easy to imagine myself sequestered as safely as a nun at Christ Church (except for the presence of my husband), for once outside Tom Gate, the main entry point of the college, the cacophony & activity on the streets of Oxford seemed almost frenzied after the peace & solitude of the college inside the quadrangle.

The Hall recreated for Harry Potter movie
Meals were served in The Hall, easily recognized from the Harry Potter movie. As we learned, however, the room was recreated for the movie when college officials refused to take down the official portraits lining the walls. We were impressed with the quality of food, as well as the service. Each dinner was a gourmet treat; breakfast a full English breakfast. Adhering to the Christ Church custom we stood behind our chairs each evening until grace was read in Latin by the Dean.

Colleges open to visitors
We encountered many visitors led by guides, others individually consulting guidebooks & taking photos. All the colleges are open to visitors at their regular hours. Christ Church is open Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sun. 12 noon to 5:30 (4:30 in winter). There is an admission charge. Consult their website

Photos top to bottom:
The Hall, Christ Church, recreated for the Harry Potter film
Christ Church quadrangle & Tom Gate Tower
Meadow, the Victorian Gothic dormitory where we lived
Hall outside Cathedral

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Oxford, England - Inspector Morse's Stamping Ground

For most PBS fans, myself included, Inspector Morse was a favorite to look forward to each week and, like any popular TV drama, when it ended with the death of John Thaw, who played the lead character, we all mourned.

Oxford is more than historic
That's why, before you see historic Oxford & visit various colleges you may want to take special note some of Morse's old stomping grounds & film locations.

Christ Church featured in many episodes
Christ Church, where we stayed for a conference, (see above) is the Wolsey College of The Daughters of Cain, where the unpleasant Ted Brooks, whose body is found in the river, had been a "scout" (what the college calls a sort of servant. A scout made up our room every day.) The interior of the library is shown in another episode, & in still another Morse & Lewis walk from the library through another part of the campus & then into the Tom Quad (the quadrangle of Christ Church, with the Tom Tower as the centerpiece). The quad makes an appearance in several other episodes too, and the Meadow, which we looked out upon from our bedroom window & after which our "dormitory" was named, was also a film location. The Meadow is a favorite sort of park for tourists & residents alike, for it is lined with trees and has a well tended grassy area that people lounge on. We noticed it was always well used.

Randolph Hotel has Morse Bar
We had breakfast one morning in the bar of the Randolph Hotel, one of Morse's watering holes. We had awakened early with jet lag, and since breakfast in The Hall at Christ College, where we were conference participants, wasn't until 8:30 we decided to look for someplace that would serve an early breakfast. We asked several people on the street and the consensus was the only place that was open at that hour was the Randolf, aside from McDonald's. The dining room, it turned out, was only open to guests of the hotel, but it was suggested we could get service in the bar. Our waiter simply took empty plates into the dining room & filled them from the buffet there after we ordered. It was good, if a bit pricey since the Randolf has a 5 star rating, & as we left we noticed a decal sign on the window that said "Morse Bar". You can have tea there, too, or cocktails before you dine elsewhere. (Jamie Oliver's Italian Restaurant is not too far from there & they have delicious food.)

In all, 16 colleges have been used in various episodes, as well as other public buildings and museums in the area. If you prefer a more professional approach to finding Morse's Oxford, there is a walking tour available every Saturday, which can be found on Oxford's web site:

The Randolph Hotel

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Micro-Destination: An Ancient Norman Church, Oxfordshire

A pleasant 2 mile walk along a towpath beside the Thames in Oxford will take you to the picturesque village of Iffley, where you'll find a small boat lock and the ancient Norman church St. Mary the Virgin. Built in 1170 by Robert de San Remy, a wealthy immigrant from Normandy (Remember the Norman Invasion of 1066), it is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England, remarkably preserved & retaining its original simplicity of architecture.

Early neglect served to preserve it; Reformation brought changes
In 1383 the manor of Iffley passed to the lords of Donnington (Newbury), who cared little for Iffley so did little to change the church, other than put in larger windows & a rood screen.

During the Reformation, however, early wall paintings were considered idolatrous so were whitewashed, replaced by biblical texts. Side chapels were blocked up & plastered over, the roof was replaced with a lower one & the pulpit raised so everyone could see the preacher.

Other minor changes were made during the 19th century, and in 1995 the church was restored & refurbished.

Of particular interest on the exterior are the west front, with perfect geometrical proportions & beautiful carvings, including two rows of beakheads with an outer molding of figurative carvings around the entrance.

Vicarage available to rent
The original vicarage was a large building in front of the church, now too large to be economical for one person. It has been acquired by the Land Trust & made available for public rental. The vicar lives in a small portion of the building, & the rest, large enough to accommodate 6 people, at about $2,800/week. See the Land Trust web site below:

(Directions: Walk south from Christ Church on St. Aldate's Street to Folly Bridge on the Thames. Cross the bridge & take footpath on the left, beside sightseeing boat ramp.)

Exterior, St. Mary the Virgin, Iffley
Entrance detail, beautifully preserved

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Micro-Destination: Kartchner Caverns AZ

James Kartchner was the first to notice something odd about his property in southeastern Arizona as he rode horseback tending his cattle herd. His horses hooves made a peculiar hollow sound on the limestone rock.

Whetsone Mountains known for extensive limestone deposits; sinkholes
An area rich in limestone may contain caves since limestone dissolves when water seeps through it, forming underground cavities. There had been talk of possible caves beneath the Whetstone Mountains, an area riddled with sinkholes as well as the most extensive limestone deposits in southern Arizona, but so far no important discoveries had been reported.

Discovered by cavers but kept secret
Then, in 1974, two young cavers stumbled on an open area in a sinkhole large enough for them squeeze through and explore, and what they found so astonished and thrilled them that they kept their find a secret for four years while they could decide what to do. They feared tourist invasion & resulting vandalism that occurred in other caves and wanted to preserve this beautiful natural phenomenon. 

One of the few "living caverns" in the world 
What makes these caverns particularly fascinating is that it's one of the few "living caverns" in the world, and possibly the only that is open to the public while employing extreme measures to keep it pristine. A living cavern is one that is still evolving; water is continuing to seep in through cracks in the outside surface; stalactites and stalagmites are still being formed. In order to preserve this state the atmosphere is kept as near to its original condition as possible. This is done by controlling the number of people inside at any one time, and at the end of the day washing down the elevated tour paths and any rocks that have been touched with distilled water.

Precautions taken to preserve the original
Before boarding a three car tram that takes you to the entrance of the caverns you're told nothing can be brought into the caves except the clothing on your body; no cameras, purses, backpacks, etc. If you don't wish to leave your belongings in your car lockers are provided. Since the atmosphere inside the cavern is in the 70s, with almost 100% humidity your jacket or sweater must be rolled up and wrapped tightly around your waist. 

After proceeding through an air lock that prevents outside air from entering you are told nothing must be touched with the exception of railings on the paths. If you accidentally touch something or observe something being touched you are to report it to the guide who will include the violated spot in the nightly wash down. Lighting is kept to a minimum; turned on only as a tour group approaches and turned off as they move on. The result of all this precaution is the advantage of seeing what a "real" cave looks like.

Arizona park system purchases property 
Four years after their discovery--in 1978--the two cavers finally informed the Kartchners, who agreed on the importance of preserving this cavern of wonders. They were "in complete disbelief at it's size and beauty," according to a Kartchner son. "It was almost a sacred experience, so exquisite and out of this world."

Finally, in 1988, after appealing to state authorities, the cavern was purchased by Arizona State Parks and is still being explored. It is now open to the public on guided tours at 20 minute intervals by appointment only. (Buy tickets online)

Directions: 49 miles southeast of Tucson. Take Interstate 10 to exit 302, State Route 90, and follow signs. Kartchner Caverns State Park entrance is on the right side of the road.