Sunday, October 7, 2012

Uffington, Blenheim, The Cotswolds and SUN!

It is amazing what a little sun can do for a mood.  Even when it's not raining here, it's grey. A lot.  Like right now as I'm typing. This makes it look deceptively chilly outside as well, though fortunately, it's often warmer than it looks (or than my chilly flat would lead me to believe).  Mostly, though, the weather changes many, many times a day-- it can be sunny at one moment, and then suddenly start raining (or be both sunny and raining at the same time), it can be quite warm out and then a cloud passes over and the temperature drops 15 degrees (Fahrenheit, not Celsius-- I'm never going to get that conversation in my head).  However, on a rare day, it's just gorgeous all day.  Yesterday was one of those days; the day before was not.

Friday, I forwent the yoga class I had planned to attend to go to Uffington with a few of my students.  Uffington is best known for the White Horse, a chalk outline of a horse carved into the hills-- it stands out as white because the soil is pretty much white chalk.  It was carved sometime between the 5th and 9th century AD, though the date is really unknown and the reason even more unknown.  Clearly it's important, or after all these centuries, someone would have just let the grass grow over it.   People over time keep clearing out the image (otherwise, the grass would just cover it up).  The White Horse is pretty hard to photograph (a helpful website states that it is best viewed from above-- and then points out that this is "sadly not an option" for most people.  This is the sign demonstrating what it does look like (I include it because, as you'll see, this is the best picture I could get of it-- even though this isn't actually it).

Many people think think the actual White Horse looks like a cat. I don't really get that, but maybe it depends on what angle it's approached from. Without an aerial view, it's hard to get a position that allows for seeing the whole thing, especially up close. Viewing it "live" really makes it look like thick white lines in the hill.  I tried getting it from multiple angles-- this was made slightly harder by the rain.  It's hard to take good pictures in the rain, even after putting the umbrella away and being resigned to getting wet. An image right on top of it makes it clear how big it is and how white.

The best picture of it is from far away though, on Dragon Hill.

Even then, not such a great picture-- at least not one that really makes it look like a horse.  Mostly, it's cool because it's so old and, much like Stonehenge, no one can say why it's there-- though at least with Stonehenge, there are some guesses because it does seem to have some connection to the sun's position.  As far as I can tell, the White Horse doesn't provide any clues to its purpose.

From the White Horse, we walked up the hill to Uffington Castle and the Iron Fort.  I will admit, I was a little confused before we went-- I was thinking of the Iron Age as the time from Iron Bridge, so I was expecting at least remnants of a castle and fort.  I was think of the wrong Iron Age-- they mean the one in the early centuries, not the more recent 1700s.  So, this is Uffington Castle:

I even took a picture of the sign,
partially so I would know why I was taking a picture of a field with some sheep (you can get quite close to them, but not too close or they run away-- my students kept trying to get close enough to pet or hug them, which never worked. Sheep can be surprisingly fast when they don't want to be hugged.)

and partially because the Brits have got to be the only people who see a castle where there is nothing but grazing ground left.  It is possible to see how the hill was developed as a fort; the hill indentations make it "clear".

And, it is a pretty high point, so obviously a good defense point.  Not quite as exciting as I was expecting though (I do still think it's funny that a vast expanse of land is a "castle." There are a lot of actual castles and palaces in England-- I wouldn't think they would need one more...)

From "the castle" we went back down the hill and then climbed up Dragon Hill, where St. George is said to have slew the dragon.

(There is also a picture of me, with the White Horse in the background, standing on top of Dragon Hill, but by that point I was soaked and I look like a wet rat... so it's not on this blog.)  Because of its proximity to the White Horse, there is one theory that the White Horse is actually a representation of the dragon St. George killed, but I think if that's true, it means St. George just killed a really mean, large horse and that doesn't have the same ring to it.

We left Uffington and went for tea at Peter's house (the faculty member at Brooke's who planned all the fabulous early excursions and who teaches the British Heritage and Culture course--though that is a really reductive description of all that he does. He drove us all to Uffington.).  I am starting to get the British obsession with tea; I don't drink it much when I'm in the US (I think of it as the thing I drink when I have a cold), but there is something comforting about it after a dreary, cold day (and, since dreary cold is pretty normal here, that does make it an every day staple).

Saturday, however, the sun came out-- just in time for me to go on the tour I had booked to Blenheim and  Cotswold (really, southern Cotswold-- it's a pretty large area).  (As a side note, I was thinking the other day about words it's easy to pick up and words that are not-- I've picked up using book, instead of reservation, really easily.  I say it without thinking-- which makes me wonder if I'll keep using it when I return to the US.  On the other hand, I have to consciously plan in my head before I ask someone where the toilets are-- it's the word most commonly used for the restroom here [restroom would be a lounge; bathroom is a room that actually has a tub in it].  As an American, it still feels rude to ask for the toilet-- even though it's the word on the signs and the word everyone here uses.)  It's a two part tour-- so most of the people on the tour arrived after Blenheim Palace (which I think was a mistake...that's really the best part).  I was at Blenheim and in Woodstock, the town where the Palace is, with a lovely couple from Oregon (there are a lot of tourists in Oxford-- it's a large part of the economy.  This does make me think that continuing to do tourist things, which I really want to to, doesn't leave much chance for meeting locals.). 

Before we went to the Palace, we stopped off at Winston Churchill's grave.

It's clear people visit it regularly, especially factions of the Danish (the red ribbon in front is Danish military)-- they have their own celebratory "monument" across the sidewalk from his grave.

Churchill is buried at Blandon Church. His grave is around the back, so you can't see it in the picture of the actual building (though you can see the lovely blue, cloudless sky  So wonderfully sunny and warm that I didn't care that I had set off my own again.  It also made me realize how grey and gloomy has become the norm in the past few weeks.).

Blenheim Palace is where Winston Churchill was born-- it belongs to those in his family line.  It's astonishingly big.

This is yet another place where pictures aren't allowed inside, so I have none. I really wanted to take a picture of the framed invitations to Charles and Diana's wedding that are on display (the Palace is still lived in at some times of the year, so, like Highclere, there are framed photos of the current Duke and Duchess as well as these kinds of more recent artifacts on display-- most of them are, like at Highclere, in frames on tables rather than hung on the walls).  The invitations are really plain-- I would have expected that the invitation to the wedding of Charles and Di would have been ornate and royal looking. Instead, they kind of look like something that could be quickly produced in a word document (I'm sure they weren't; in fact, I'm sure they were quite expensive. But, it's hard to tell by looking at them.).  There is a self guided tour of the downstairs state rooms (it is possible to take a guided tour, but they set off when a large enough group gathers, not at set times, and the docents allow the groups to get quite big which makes it hard to hear the guide, so it's not really worth joining one. There are signs around.)  and then a "ghost-led" audio tour in the upstairs rooms which explains the history of the Churchill family (including how they lost the name and then gained it back-- the Churchill named had died out because at one time, there was only a female heir and she had her husband's name, but one of the later Duke's applied to have it restored as his name.) and is led by the ghost (there are videos in every room with her apparition) of a woman who served the first Duchess to live at Blenheim Palace.  It was a little cheesy-- I wish I could have taken pictures.  Every room had representative models of historical figures, like the first Duchess (Sarah) to live in the Palace and those figures had their backs facing those who walked in the rooms. They would then be positioned towards mirrors, and so when they were "speaking" the faces of actors, dressed like the figures, would appear on the screens of the mirrors. And, as those actors sighed or pretended to look at something off to the side or looked down to read letters, the figures in front of the mirrors moved as well (it was all a little disconcerting at the same time that is was fascinating, especially since the mechanical devices moving the figures made noise that could be heard over the dialogue).

The one interior I did manage to take a picture of was the chapel. I'm not sure if I was supposed to or not, but there was no sign saying no photography and no docent around to stop me.

The monument to the right in the picture is a tomb that Sarah had built for her husband to commemorate him-- it's truly huge.  And commemorative.

The grounds around the Palace are also lovely.  There is the Italian Garden, which I think is even prettier as the foreground to the back of the castle.

It's kind of the "back yard." (Actually, I guess that's the side wall of the Palace, so it's really the side yard.)

From Blenheim Palace, we (I had met back up with the couple from Oregon) headed into Woodstock to have lunch at a pub. The walk there, which is largely along the road that leads into the Palace, is lovely too since it's alongside the Queen's Pool (I love that it's called a pool...).

It's oddly nice to be able to order a beer with lunch and be among the masses, not one of the minority. Beer, for the most part, has a significantly lower alcohol content than in the US, so maybe that has something to do with it, but I've noticed a lot of people have wine (or beer) at lunch here.  And, it was a leisurely Saturday tour through some more rural parts of England (not really a leisurely lunch though because there wasn't much time for it before the van arrived to collect us-- we all had figured lunch was the most boring part of the day and so left barely enough time, especially since The Star Inn was packed) and a gorgeous day out, having a beer seemed like the thing to do. It was called Blond something-- incredibly light in color and then, again, surprisingly hoppy considering what I expect from a beer that looks that light golden in the pint glass. (Maybe I'll start taking pictures of my beer- that might help.)

A group of 13 of us went on to tour Cotswold. We went first to Minster Lovell where there is a church and the ruins of a 15th century manor (more like what I thought I was going to see in Uffington.).

The Church, St. Kenelm's, has obviously been upkept and restored.  There's the tomb of Baron Lovell is in the church--  I did learn that, although he is dressed to represent that he was in the military, the fact that his hand is not on his sword most likely indicates that he died of natural causes, not in battle. The hand on the sword would mean he died in action.  I've learned other interesting facts about tombs along the way (like that what their feet is propped on says something about station in life), so I may emerge from this whole adventure able to "read" tombs, at least British ones. It does make them more interesting to look at-- which is good, because there are a lot of them (though, this is the only one in this particular church-- it's not clear whether he's actually buried here though).

 The manor, however, has not. It's been left in its partially torn down, dilapidated state, though there is a sign depicting what it would have looked like.

Now it looks like this.

And this.

That's the window in the "sun room." 

The whole place is so run down because after the family was run out and the manor was abandoned, locals from the town started showing up and carting off the stone that made up the walls of the house to use to build their own homes. At some point (I think we were told exactly when but now I forget-- these all day kind of excursions and tours are amazing, but at some point, there is an information overload), the place was declared a historical site and protected, so the stone stealing stopped.  You can still see remnants of how amazing it must have been (though, where it's still intact, it's also dark, so you can't really see the way the ceilings were constructed).

And, the view of it and the church together give a nice sense of the grandeur.

From Minster Lovell, we went to Burford, a staging post for many centuries. Apparently Kate Moss and Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth Murdoch, live in Burford, but I didn't see them.  We did pass Elisabeth Murdoch's "house" (it cost something like 6.5 million pounds) but it's hidden behind a very large gate and wall, so even though it's close to the main road, you can't see it.  We visited St. George the Baptist Church

and went inside, though the churches (inside and out) have started blending together for me.  They're all lovely and magnificent and the stained glass is always gorgeous.  I'm just glad I'm labeling them all when I save them onto my computer or I wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

We also had time to wander around the town for a few minutes (still no signs of Kate Moss or Elisabeth Murdoch and family).  There's a fabulous store called Madhatter Books-- it sells hats and books.

And, there is an inn covered in the leaves and vines that seem to decorate a lot of houses in the Cotswold. 

It's especially gorgeous since the leaves have started turning.  Our tour guide told us what this is called-- it's a specific plant. But, I'm terrible with plants on a good day, and especially awful at remembering names after so many hours of information, so I've forgotten.  I'm guessing that it's not harmful to the limestone that a lot of these buildings are constructed in since it's everywhere.

There are lots of sheep in Cotswold.  It's a wool center-- that's what its economy is based on.  So, we went to Filkins, a village with a woolen weaving center and a historical display showing the process of how wool once went from shearing to loom product--  by hand.

From front to back, there's sheared wool, processed wool (that is now thick thread) to the loom. There is also a small tea shop at the weaving center, so we had tea.  I think I was the only one who had a scone-- it was hot out of the oven which was a huge bonus but served only with jam and not (surprisingly!) with clotted cream, and so still not as good as Oxford's Vault and Gardens (tea and scones are far more fun to review than yogurt-- I did start off the day with butterscotch toffee yogurt, but I can't even remember what it tasted like, so I'm thinking it was totally unremarkable. Then again, I did have to wake up pretty early to meet the tour, so maybe I was just to sleepy to notice.).

From Filkens, we ended the day in Bibury to see the weaver's cottages.

They're charming, located along the River Coln. They were converted from an old barn in the 17th century for the weavers. 

It's not a particularly big river, but I'm guessing served its purpose for transport.  There are rainbow trout in it-- supposedly there is a trout farm nearby, but we didn't see that.  We did continue to see the sun (as you can tell from this picture).  I had arrived in the morning with a heavy coat and an umbrella, prepared for all weather possibilities and didn't need either all day (well, I needed the coat when we got back to Oxford-- once the sun goes down, it's chilly no matter how clear the skies). 

And, since it was close to 7:30 by the time I got back to my neighborhood, and way to late to start cooking, I stopped at the good pizza place, Cafe Corsica (though, more recognizable as the pizza place since "Pizza" is written in big letters on the window and easier to see than the name of the restaurant) and got take away pizza-- with the added bonus that there is some left for lunch today.

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