I am writing this post from London, at the end of a long first day of a choir tour! After what felt like a million hours of travel and a very jet-lagged day yesterday, I was finally able to get some sleep last night, though I did wake up at 4:30 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep for a couple of hours. Fortunately, several of my colleagues were in the same situation. Unfortunately, my roommate was not one of them. Oh well.
As many choir tours do, our trip included several concerts as well as many opportunities for sightseeing. The first concert on our list was at Christ Church College Cathedral, Oxford.
If you’re not familiar with the college system adhered to by Oxford and Cambridge, each university is made up of several colleges within which students do all of their studies, regardless of their field of study. The closest metaphor we have in California are the UC and CSU systems, where “University of California” is the overarching organization, like Oxford, and “UCLA” is the individual college, like Christ Church College. It’s not a perfect explanation, but it works. Unlike the UC and CSU systems, however, each of Oxford’s colleges is located within the town of Oxford itself and exists as its own enclosed fortress.
The drive from our London hotel in Earl’s Court to Oxford took about an hour and twenty minutes total. Luckily we had a wonderful tour guide traveling on our bus (“coach”) with us, Marianne, who gave us all sorts of fascinating British history lessons regarding the Queen and the royal family, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, and the histories of Oxford and Cambridge. Did you know that both universities used to be monasteries? English students had to go to the Paris Sorbonne for their higher education, but when a French archbishop excommunicated Henry VIII (maybe? I can’t remember), the English students had to find a place to study in their home country, and they turned to the monasteries. In turn, the monasteries expanded to accommodate the students, and both institutions gradually evolved into places of higher education, not just religious studies.
In addition to the history lesson, the views of the English countryside on our drive were gorgeous. Everything was so green, which we don’t always get in California, and there was the occasional herd of cows, goats, or sheep taking their mid morning naps, which made me miss my cats. We also made a short “comfort stop” at a big rest stop that was complete with Starbucks, where I bought myself a London Starbucks tumbler.
When we arrived in Oxford, I couldn’t help but drool over the beautiful brick Victorian houses that line the streets up and down. It’s such a quaint place, something we definitely don’t have in the Bay Area (in fact, I’m not sure many people there could even tell you what “quaint” is).
We didn’t have much time to explore upon arrival, since we had to head to Christ Church College Cathedral and rehearse for our lunchtime concert. When the concert was over and we were all back in our “civvies” (street clothes), we were set loose on the cobblestone streets of Oxford for a few hours.
My first stop was the Ashmolean Museum, which features permanent exhibits on the artistic and cultural fusion between the UK and Asia. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I only spent about fifteen minutes wandering the galleries before I realized why I don’t normally frequent art museums: they are too overwhelming for me. There’s always too much to look at, so I don’t look at anything unless I’m there for a specific purpose. So I gave up. I’m sure you would appreciate it if it was your thing. They also had a featured exhibit on Cézanne that you could pay to enter.
I remembered that Marianne had mentioned a street full of bookstores, so I decided to venture off in that direction next. This led to about an hour and a half in heaven as I browsed through Blackwell’s Books.
Notice how that sign actually says Blackwell’s Music. The front part of the store is a music store, and we’re not just talking instruments, accessories, and novelties like music socks. They had an entire room full of sheet music, some of which was marked down to incredibly low prices. I exercised a lot of self-control and didn’t buy any of it, mostly because I knew I could get those pieces online and not have to carry them home in my suitcase. However, our choir director went pretty crazy. After about an hour in there, he had a giant stack of heavy scores that he ended up having shipped home. And once I discovered the shelves of opera DVDs, I knew I was in big trouble. Somehow I managed to leave with just two of these rarely-sold-retail DVDs. Basically, it was a huge haven for music nerds.
Plus there was the back room, the Norrington Room, which was an even huger haven for just about every other kind of nerd.
We met as a group in the evening and walked to dinner at Brasserie Blanc in Oxford. I wish I could tell you what we ate, but since the meal was pre-ordered and prepaid, we never even saw a menu. However, it was delicious! The appetizer was a cheese soufflé, the main course was beef with roasted carrots and white rice, and dessert was an apple crumble with cream. Yum!
After the drive back to London, a few friends and I decided to grab a drink at The Goose, a pub near our hotel. We each had a different type of fruity cider, all of which were delicious, but last call was at 11:00, which was pretty lame. Our night ended there, since we knew we needed sleep before another long day.