Thursday, October 11, 2012

Real Tennis

No-- I haven't found a way to play tennis yet. I did, however, get to see the game which is the origin of the tennis we play today (and racquetball as well, I'm guessing).  It was sort of an accident, really.  It wasn't part of the day I had planned.

The day I had planned was to find the Gloucester Green Open Market, which only happens on Wednesday.  That was relatively easy to find.  It's a farmer's market, but then it has all sorts of other stuff as well.  You can see the "other stuff" in the picture below, sort of. I think it gives a good sense of the amount of junk on offer at the market.

There is good stuff offered at the market as well-- the produce looked really wonderful and seemed really reasonably priced, much cheaper than grocery stores.  And, there were food trucks set up to the side (I had a really great felafel wrap).  And, there was the general entertainment of listening to all of market vendors-- especially those selling produce or meat. I recorded some of it-- you can hear it in the  background (I think).  When I recorded this, I was actually trying to get the onslaught of pigeons which came out of nowhere and started circling above-- though I missed the original, very scary moment of hundreds of pigeons rising into the air en masse and circling, so it was much more frightening in real life.  That is, however, why this video is focused on the sky for a while.

I haven't really explored the Gloucester Green area in general, so I started wandering behind the market. I found the Old Fire Station (which I've read about in guide books-- and I'm now really glad I didn't set off in search of this or it would have been really disappointing). The Old Fire Station is now an art gallery-- though there was more on display in the gift shop than in the gallery itself.  That said, all the stuff in the gift shop is made by local artisans, so I guess it's kind of a gallery of its own... maybe that's the justification for the very small actual exhibition? Or, maybe it's between exhibitions. There wasn't really anyone around to ask.  Behind Gloucester Green, there's a cute road-- I like how in Oxford there are lots of roads that don't really look like they should be. This is Bulwarks Lane.

I walked up it-- it dead ends into a major road not far up, near Oxford Castle and the train station. This actually gave me a really good sense of how close together all these things I'd been taking a bus to are-- I go a different, somewhat circuitous route when I'm on the bus (not that it's a walkable distance from my flat to the train station-- I just didn't realize how easy it was to get to the train station from City Centre), so I hadn't quite gotten a sense of how compact the city is.  Wandering aimlessly and winding up at the train station in about 5 minutes makes it clear though.

Near Oxford Castle is also the County Council Office, which itself looks like a small castle.

(It's hard to get a nice picture of it because there's a bus stop and a parking lot in front of it.  But, I think it's fascinating how Oxford, and the UK in general, turn what, to me, look like incredibly gorgeous important  buildings and turn them into mundane things, like the home of County Council.) And, also near Oxford Castle is a Krispy Kreme-- complete with a hot doughnuts sign.

I had seen on Urban Spoon that there was a Krispy Kreme in Oxford-- and there it is.  It continues to perpetuate my belief that we really have exported some of the worst of America to the UK and Europe (not that doughnuts aren't yummy-- but that we've largely exported fast food chains and Starbucks sort of says that we're trying to make everyone obese.).

In my wandering, I also came across the Oxford Union, which is a debate club (this is really all I've learned about it), but, more important, a lovely building and courtyard (if you ignore the ugly poster sale sign)

and the Wesley Memorial Methodist Church.

The church is more interesting to me because I had yet to see a Methodist church and, since I work at a Methodist university in the US and my students are here because there was a relationship forged between HPU and Brookes a while ago which was based on a Methodist connection/tradition at both, I was sort of wondering where the Methodists were.  Now I know.  And, of course, it has the requisite gorgeous stained glass inside.

Wandering down the street with the Methodist Church brought me back around to High Street-- the road that runs through City Centre.  I've come to the conclusion that it's really hard to get lost in Oxford, at least in the center.  Eventually, you'll get back to a main road, probably High Street.

So, I had planned to head back to my flat, do some work for a while and then head to the Cultural Heritage class my students are taking-- somehow though, instead of doing that, I first popped into the Covered Market and decided to try Bolitas for the first time. Bolitas are cheeseballs (really, puffs) filled with either savory or sweet fillings.  There were very few left when I got there-- the guy who worked there was in the process of making more-- and so, for reasons I'm still not clear about except perhaps that I asked questions about the Bolitas and seemed really interested in them, I was given a chocolate bolita for free.  You wouldn't necessarily think that a cheese puff filled with chocolate (well, not filled-- but it has chocolate inside) would be good, but it is.  Surprisingly good.  (You can read more about bolitas here:  There's nothing British about them-- they're actually Brazilian. But, I've never seen them before and the stand is a permanent fixture in the corner of the Covered Market, so now it's an Oxford thing in my head. Anyway, once given a free bolita and told that, if I liked it, I could come back in about 10 minutes for fresh ones, I sort of felt obliged to buy something; I wound up buying a bag of frozen bolitas to make at home (I was going to buy the fresh ones, but I can see how they really need to be eaten immediately to be good. So, now I can make them fresh for myself whenever I want them.).

I also went past Patisserie Valerie, where all the really fabulous look pastries sit in the window-- and I was really good and didn't stop. Though, I still need to have tea and scones here-- expectations are high based on the window display.

And then, on a lark, I turned down Merton Street (rather than heading to the bus stop) to see if this time the Real Tennis Courts would be open-- and they were!  (I've stopped by several times. They were never open and I was beginning to think it was a fake storefront.)  Everything I've read suggested I was going to have to pay a nominal fee to see the courts-- but when I asked, the pros there who run the shop just let me back into the club to watch a match that was going on.  

The courts look something like a small tennis court (the pictures had to be taken through the netting blocking the gallery I was watching from-- called the dedans.  This is really necessary netting-- the ledge in front of it is fair game for hitting the ball. Without the netting, people watching would get nailed with the ball a lot.)

I've been really interested in seeing Real Tennis since it is the game that the modern tennis was derived from (though in a lot of ways this looked more like racquetball with something akin to tennis scoring to me).  So, I sat and watched this incredibly confusing game-- and recorded parts of it.

That's Maggie and her son Jamie playing-- they quite generously let me record them (or, at least didn't yell at me to stop recording them) and, when they were done playing, spent a while talking to me about the game. (Maggie is something of an ambassador for the sport-- she's actually going to Chicago in about a week and a half to play on a court there. And, playing on in Washington state as well.  Apparently, no two Real Tennis courts are the same-- there are some standard parts to them, but there is also room for variation, so I guess the court itself poses some of the challenge.  She's incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic-- and was so gracious talking to me.)  

Some of this game was explained to me after, but all in all, I found the whole thing confusing-- mostly because I was thinking it would be like tennis.  And, I guess it sort of is in that there are people on either side of the net and sets are played to 6 (though, a player can win 6-5... there are no tie-breaks or need to win by two games) and sometimes the scoring is called out using 15-30-40 (though, it's hard to understand who is winning because they call the score of the person who won the last point first-- so you really have to pay attention to know who is up in a game).  But, that's about where the similarity ends, as you can see from the video.  Scoring is interrupted by something called chases which occur if the ball bounces twice on a side-- then another point has to be played so that the the player who landed the chase has to earn the point.  And this is done by placing the ball in better position than it was when the ball bounced twice. I think.  Anyway, it's why these lines on the side walls are important.  

To win a chase, a player has to hit a winning shot closer to the wall than the original ball that started the chase.  Also, players have to earn the right to serve (I never understood how this happened-- but Maggie and Jamie changed sides a lot at 40-30, so clearly something earns a player the right to serve.) and can stay in place as server for quite a while.  And, of course the walls are used as part of the playing area.  In fact, there are spaces on the walls that, if hit, constitute winning the point outright, even if the opposing player can get to the ball.   You can, I think , see one of them in the video.  There's a crest in the back, right hand corner on the receivers end-- that's the Grille. Hitting it wins the point-- and it only exists on the receiver's (or hazard) side, which gives the server a distinct advantage.  I think there's a lot more complicated stuff about the game-- to be honest, I'm not positive I got what I've written here correct. (I also learned that there is only one company in the world allowed to make the racquets for the game- a company called Greys.  The racquet itself of asymmetrical-- so that the flatter side could slide along the ground since the ball doesn't bounce very high-- and very heavy.)  The Oxford University Tennis Club explains all of this better on its site (  

What's most exciting to me about this (beside finally finding the courts open and being allowed to watch people play for as long as I wanted-- which was about an hour because then I really did have to go leave for class), at least for me, is that it's possible to play here without being a member of the club or a student at Merton College.  It's open to the public and it's possible to book a lesson with a pro to learn how to play.  So, barring it being prohibitively expensive to do this, I am going to try to get a lesson or two.  I figure if I can't play tennis here, I may as well play real tennis.

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