Saturday, June 9, 2012

I can’t believe my groggy eyes this morning. There is sunshine in Somerset. Oh, hallelujah!  

I rush through my breakfast at 3 Abbey Green and then dart up to the Royal Crescent and over to Pulteney Bridge and back. I’ve got to catch a train to Oxford, but I am determined to get at least one picture of Bath with a pleasant, blue sky overhead before I leave.

By the time I arrive in Oxford, it’s just past one in the afternoon and dense clouds have gathered overhead, casting a dull shadow over the city. I check into the Royal Oxford Hotel just down the street from the railway station, where my accommodations remind me vaguely of a dorm room. I drop off my bags and then follow the map in my hand down Park End Street and across to George Street and Broad Street, which are lined with book stores and souvenirs shops that have an endless variety of Oxford University t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, and coffee mugs in their front windows.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with such beautiful and harmonious architecture that the poet Matthew Arnold once called it the “city of dreaming spires.” Both C.S. Lewis—author of the Narnia Chronicles—and J.R.R. Tolkien—who wrote The Lord of the Rings series—taught here and met regularly at a local pub as part of a literary discussion group known as The Inklings.

My own academic credentials are sturdy enough. I was fortunate to spend six years at Yale University in the 1990s, earning two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., but for the first time ever in my intellectual life—as I wander past the Sheldonian Theatre, Radcliffe Camera, and the Bodelian Library—I find that I am green with envy. Sterling Memorial Library at Yale is beautifully ornamental, with stained glass windows and gargoyles and fan-vaulted ceilings, not unlike those seen around Oxford, but Sterling was built in 1931 in the neo-gothic style, a modern ode to the great cathedrals of Europe. In contrast, the Bodelian Library dates to the mid-15th century, and the circular Radcliffe Camera with its beautiful Palladian proportions, was completed in 1749, when Yale was still in its infancy.

The sprawling Oxford campus, make up of 38 individual colleges, is impressive to say the least, and on this June afternoon it is pulsing with energy and excitement because there are new graduates, dressed in black gowns, hoods, and mortarboards, posing for photographs alongside their proud families.

From Radcliffe Square, I slip between Brasenose and All Souls College and emerge onto the High Street, where I spend some time browsing Jigsaw, Reiss, Whistles, and L.J. Bennett—all of Kate Middleton’s favorite shops, if Britain’s tabloid press is to be believed. When I reach the clock on Carfax Tower, with its two “quarter boys” chiming the bells at every quarter hour, I turn left down Saint Aldate’s, past Old Tom and a bookstore that inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Old Sheep Shop” in Alice in Wonderland, and into the War Memorial Garden at Christ Church.

The sun has broken through at last, and the view of the cathedral is sublime. The manicured lawn looks emerald green against a stone retaining wall, from which cascading waves of purple flowers fall. For the first time in more than a week, I take off my jacket and sit on a park bench, my head tilted back, soaking in the rays.

I check my watch and see that there is still time to tour the Christ Church before the evensong service at 6:00 PM. I head down the stone path to the Meadow Gate and follow a small crowd inside and up the stairs toward The Hall, a grand dining room crowded with old portraits and heraldic shields that inspired the filmmakers who created the Great Hall at Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. There are parallel rows of long wood tables that run the length of the room, lit with charming sconces and set with college china, and there is a medieval ceiling supported by thick, oak beams high overhead. I glance around and wonder if they would mind if I pulled up a chair and stayed for dinner and some delightful conversation? The looming presence of a guard tells me they probably would, so I take my pictures in quiet resignation and file out toward Tom Quad. 

The tour also includes Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the diocese of Oxford and the college as its chapel, dating back to the days of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. It’s a small space by the standards of European cathedrals, but it lacks nothing in grandeur. There is a long nave and a chancel with a fan-vaulted ceiling, and a beautiful rose window in stained glass above the altar. There is also an impressive early-17th century window depicting Jonah with the ancient city of Ninevah.

I rest for bit in the War Memorial Garden and then make my way back to the cathedral in time for evensong, which by tradition operates on “cathedral time,” five minutes late. There is a mixed choir tonight, make up of both men and women, the harmonious sound they create is peaceful and soothing, the perfect end to a busy day.

For dinner, I’m not in the mood to wander or to wait. It’s after seven on a Saturday night in a bustling, college town, so I’m more than grateful that a table is available at a chain restaurant named Bella Italia. I order an arugula salad with parmesan cheese and a bowl of pasta carbonara, and both are reasonably tasty. On the walk back to my hotel, however, I can’t help but wonder what they’re serving in the Christ Church dining hall tonight, and the graduate student I used to be, countless years ago, wishes I was there.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I’m spending the day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Or, rather, I’m going to a close approximation of Hogwarts.

This morning, I’ve booked a ticket to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, “The Making of Harry Potter,” which opened just a few months ago in a warehouse about 20 miles northwest of London.

When my nephew was young, we devoured the Harry Potter books together, one after the other. And I still remember buying the last, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on the morning of its release at a bookshop in York, England back in 2007. Because I value reading and imagination above all, I’ve not been a big fan of the movie adaptations, but I’m excited nonetheless to see the sets and costumes, props and animatronics, that were created for the films.

First, I have to get there. By public transportation, I could have taken the tube from Victoria to Euston Station (£4.20 roundtrip on my Oyster card), a train from there to Watford Junction (£9.80 for an advance fare), and then a private shuttle bus to the studio (£2), where I would still have to pay a whooping £28 for admission. But for just £10 more, I’m opting for a far easier plan. I’m going with Golden Tours. Their bus departs just a few short blocks from my hotel, the ticket price is included, and as a bonus, I’m riding on the top deck of what looks remarkably like the Knight Bus.

The Warner Bros. studio is a boisterous, crowded place, but admissions are carefully timed to minimize congestion, and as I wait in line, I get a glimpse of the cupboard under the stairs, where Harry slept at the Dursleys before discovering he was a wizard. As part of the 11:00 AM group, I watch a short introductory film in a small theatre, and then the screen rises to reveal the massive wooden doors of Hogwarts castle, which open and allow visitors to pass through into the Great Hall.  

What comes next is a feast for the eyes. There is the Weasley family’s Burrow, Hagrid’s hut, Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room, and the potions classroom run by the onerous Snape. And there are props and costumes, too: the Sorting Hat, the Marauder’s Map, Herimone’s dress from the Yule Ball, the blue Ford Anglia that Harry and Ron fly onto the Hogwarts grounds, and the Mirror of Erised, into which Harry imagines a life in which his parents had not died.  

I take a break half-way through and buy a Butterbeer, which is cold and frothy and sickeningly sweet. Outside in the courtyard, there is a model of the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, and in front, a teenage girl poses with a T-shirt that reads: KEEP CALM AND KILL THE DARK LORD.

I head back inside and wander by animated models of Hagrid’s giant spider, Aragog, and Buckbeak, the Hippogriff that carried Sirius to safety at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I emerge next onto Diagon Alley, in all its glory. I see the crooked pillars of Gringott’s Bank, the cluttered windows of Ollivander’s wand shop, as well as Flourish & Blotts and Eeylops Owl Emporium, before spotting the garishly wonderful Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes at the far end of the street. The highlight of the tour, however, is an intricate scale model of Hogwart’s Castle that fills an entire room.

I glance down at my watch. I’m running out of time to meet the tour bus. There is one last room, however, and it’s made to look like Ollivander’s wand shop. There are stacks upon stacks of boxes on the shelves, and on the end of each box is printed the name of someone who worked on the films. It’s a rather fitting tribute to a vast army of talented people. But here’s the thing… Everyone around me is scrambling to take pictures of Daniel Radcliffe’s name, and Rupert Grint’s and Emma Watson’s—the actors who portrayed Harry and Ron and Hermione in the films. But J.K. Rowling is right there, too, and no one seems to care about the author who created this wonderfully magical world. I run my finger lightly across her name in gratitude, and then head to the gift shop for souvenirs.

Back in London, I’m too exhausted to go out for dinner, so once again I turn to Pret a Manger for takeout and pick up a salad and a falafel with halloumi to eat back at the Rubens. I relax for a bit, sorting through the pictures on my camera, but I have one more event to attend and I can’t afford to be late.

As I head to the Victoria underground station, I look down at the ticket in my hand. It says I have an “Invitation to Witness the Ceremony of the Keys” at the Tower of London, which has taken place every night, without fail and nearly without delay, for at least 700 years. Once, during the Second World War, the ceremony was interrupted by a German bomb that fell on the guardroom just as the Chief Warder and his escort were coming through the archway of the BloodyTower. Being British, they dusted themselves off and carried on. 

The sky is growing dim and it’s raining steadily by the time I arrive at just past nine, and our small group is let through the gate with military precision at 9:30. I’ve gone to some trouble to be here—applying by post months in advance and following careful instructions to include an International Reply Coupon, which wasn’t easy to find. I’m surprised, then, and more than a little annoyed to see a large number of people join our ranks for the ceremony minutes before it’s scheduled to begin. They are wandering about and giggling, and their umbrellas are blocking everyone’s view. There’s a swank corporate event going on at the Tower of London tonight and the Yeoman Warder apologizes, saying the group has paid “an exorbitant sum of money” to be there. Clearly, he’s not happy about it either. 

At precisely 9:53 PM, a warder marches in with a large ring of keys, accompanied by four guards. I can hear the patter of raindrops and the sound of their foot falls in unison against the pavement, but I can’t see much, nor can the kids in the crowd who have been far better behaved than the corporate suits.

As the warder and his guard approach Traitor’s Gate, a sentry steps forward to challenge them.

Sentry: “Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.”

They turn into the courtyard by the White Tower, the Warder says “God Preserve Queen Elizabeth,” and a bugle is played. The corporate suits rush ahead of everyone else and once again block the view.

By the top of the hour, it’s all over—a mere seven minutes—and I’m back on the tube, heading home to the Rubens. Try as I might, I’m still feeling disgruntled as I turn in for bed with Henry VIII and his six wives looking down upon me from their portraits on the wall. The Tower of the London is one of the world’s great fortresses, and the tradition I saw tonight demanded more respect than it was given. Surely, old Henry would have had something to say about that. He’d probably have had them drawn and quartered.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It’s still drizzling this morning, but I am up early and ready to go. My nephew and I have been reading the Harry Potter series together for years and today is the release of the seventh and final book. I flip on the TV in my room while I dress and see an interview on the BBC with a child psychologist. She’s giving advice to parents on how they can help their children cope with the darker elements in the book. I wonder what they know about the plot and begin to worry that Harry’s a goner.

The “full English breakfast” must have been invented for mornings like this. The eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and baked beans the hotel serves warm my stomach well. With an umbrella in hand, I walk around the corner to the Borders bookstore in St. Helen’s Square. There’s a large display of Harry Potter books, and blessedly no line in sight. I buy the adult version and glance at the epigraphs before heading back out into the rain. They are ominous. Good lord, she really is going to kill him off.

For now, Harry’s fate at the hands of Voldemort will have to wait. My first stop is the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. It’s a beautiful building with a first-rate audio tour. From there, with the fog lifting and the rain tapering off, I seize my best chance to walk the walls. I start at Micklegate Bar and head clockwise toward the Minster, over Lendal Bridge, past Bootham Bar, ending at Monk Bar. It’s a bit slippery and I wonder about the lack of railings. In the United States, surely, this would have led to some whiny lawsuit by now! But the views are stunning and I come to the realization that this weather suits York well.    

After a warm cup of chai tea at a local café, over which I devour the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I reluctantly head back to the hotel to gather my things. Because it’s so near the station, I stop by the National Railway Museum for an hour or so, but finally set off on a train bound for London.

Onboard I sit by the window in group of four seats. A young man is directly across from me, and a mother and her daughter are in the aisle seats next to us. The young man says he’s going to Boston this fall. I think Boston, Massachusetts. I look up from Harry Potter and tell him that it’s a wonderful city. He’ll have a good time. He says no, it’s a town called Boston in Lincolnshire, but am I from the America? I am. All three chime in. What’s Florida like, they ask? Hot, I say. How about Texas? Even hotter. They think this sounds wonderful, which I suppose makes sense given the dreary weather. They ask why I’ve come to the UK and seem surprised to learn that I did it on purpose. Why would I want to go on holiday here, they ask? I think, why would I want to go to Florida? For the first time, I truly understand what it means to say that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” I suppose we all just want to be somewhere else for a while.

Back at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel I run into a problem. My keycard won’t work. I fiddle with it for a few minutes before heading back down to the front desk. The desk clerk is cheerful and kind and follows me upstairs. Afraid of embarrassment, I pray that the door will not open for him. It doesn’t. I stay put while he goes back downstairs for another card. At last the door opens and my eyes are delighted to see that it’s a Club room, a complimentary upgrade for being a repeat customer. My nose, however, is less thrilled with the strong odor of cigarettes. I joke with the desk clerk about the hotel’s non-smoking policy and the fees they impose for non-compliance. I want someone to be billed £200 for this. He offers to call someone to sanitize the room. I’m skeptical because the smell is strong and it will take at least an hour. He says that they can give me another room, but it will have to be a standard double.

I’m already running late. I have to eat dinner and get to the theatre by 7:30. He understands and offers to deliver my luggage to a new room while I’m gone. He’s sorry about the Club room, but I smile and tell him somewhat sheepishly that I will be back in London for one last night on Monday, so perhaps he can upgrade me then. He promises that he will.

For dinner, I decide to go to an Italian restaurant called “Il Posto” near the Victoria Palace Theatre. I have a Caesar salad and spaghetti Bolognese. I snap a picture of my plate, which arouses the curiosity of the owner. I explain that I am keeping a photo diary of my trip, and I’ve come because his restaurant was recommended by various Trip Advisor members. He seems genuinely pleased. He is proud of his food and hands me a business card.

When I arrive at the theatre to see “Billy Elliot” I see that the Theatre Monkey website has once again given me great advice. My seat in Row F is perfect, and so is the show. There is a constantly rotating cast of young Billys. Mine is Travis Yates, a 13-year old from Middleton. I’ve seen the movie, but the musical is absolutely fantastic! I laugh until my sides hurt as the cast sings “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” wearing giant Thatcher heads made of foam rubber, and find a lump in my throat at the end when Billy walks away up the center aisle, suitcase in hand. 

When I get back to the hotel late, I find a smoke free room with my suitcase safely stowed in the corner.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rain, rain go away. It’s raining in Bath this morning. Pouring down rain. For Britain this is not exactly news. It’s been raining all summer. There is flooding everywhere. But as a tourist I am ensconced in my own little world. It is rude and narcissistic, I know, but the weather is interfering with my plans.

As in York, the full English breakfast I have at Oldfields warms my stomach, but this time there is no avoiding the messiness of the situation. If I walk into Bath for the day I will have to walk back up this bloody hill. I had planned to leave my bag at the train station, but the desk clerk tells me they no longer have left luggage facilities. Would I like to leave my bag at the hotel instead? They could arrange to have a taxi drive it down to the station later. This sounds quite odd to me. My bag riding alone in the backseat of a cab. I decline. But I can’t carry it either. The circumference on my travel umbrella is quite small, and putting the bag on my shoulder means it will immediately soak through. I decide to rest on the laurels of yesterday afternoon and take an early train back to London.

By afternoon I am back, for the third and final time, at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel. My friend at the front desk has come through for me in spades. I am directed to a palatial Club room on the 3rd floor. It is so large I could do cartwheels down the center. Well, theoretically at least. I have not done a cartwheel since I was twelve. I love upgrades.

I venture out briefly, first to the gift shop at Kensington Palace to pick up a DVD I regretted passing up last year, called “Tales from the Palaces.” My second stop is at Starbucks for a chai frappuccino. It’s raining in London and Harry’s final adventure beckons. Drink in hand, I spend most of the afternoon curled up on the couch in my hotel room reading.

By 5:30 PM, things are getting intense. The Battle for Hogwarts is raging, but it’s time for me to head off to the Lanesborough Hotel for afternoon tea. When I made my reservation weeks ago I was told that the Conservatory would be closed for renovations, but I am delighted to find that it is not. I am escorted to a choice seat facing the center of the room and I anticipate an elegant experience similar to one I enjoyed at the Ritz last year. Alas, it is not. A server delivers a meager looking tea tray with a few tiny pastries and sandwiches. At first, I expect it to be refreshed, but it is never is. The service is not just indifferent, it is almost non-existent. I guess after they won the UK Tea Council’s top prize in 2005, they stopped trying. It’s among the most expensive meals of my trip, but the only truly disappointing one.

I spend my final night in London watching “Les Misérables” at the Queens Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue. Perhaps it is because of the comparisons I draw to “Wicked” and “Billy Elliot,” or because I am fighting off hunger following that dreadful tea, or maybe it’s because I finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows moments before the curtain rises and my mind is reeling, but it is my least favorite of the three. It’s very good, of course. Nothing on the London stage is ever bad. But it does not captivate me in the same way as the others.

On my way out of the theatre I realize that I’ve been in this city off and on for five days and I have still not seen Big Ben. In a light rain I walk to Trafalgar Square and stand for a good long while at the base of Nelson’s column looking down Whitehall. The view satisfies some small part of me and I say goodbye to London.