Learning London: Birthday Celebrations with Weekend Excursion to Oxford

Last week at UCL’s Engineering Front Office we celebrated birthdays, for my colleague Inês, and for me as well. A group of us had lunch out together on Wednesday and we also enjoyed lunch in the office together on several other days of the week.

It’s really not so bad getting old when you’re surrounded by loving friends! Even if they keep rubbing in my nearly-senior status….

At the end of the day, Friday, Aongus and I darted out of the city for a weekend away in historic and picturesque Oxford. This blog post recounts these birthday adventures using pictures.

Birthday Lunch at Sagar

On Wednesday, a group of us enjoyed a south-Indian lunch together at Sagar, which our lovely colleague, Sital Thanki, has introduced us to. In addition to a few photos of the birthday lunch, I show below some of the many kind cards and gifts I received from colleagues, friends, and family. The packages, calls from parents, and online messages I received from friends via Facebook and LinkedIn were also heartwarming.

Weekend in Oxford

As a birthday present, Aongus booked a weekend away in Oxford. We left London after work on Friday by bus (cheaper than the train, but with its own unique pitfalls). Overall, we enjoyed two nights in one of the world’s loveliest university cities before re-boarding a bus back to London.

Exploring the City

We ventured out briefly for dinner on Friday but focused on resting up for Saturday.

On Saturday morning, we wandered through the city fairly aimlessly. We wanted to see the high street areas, visit some of the shops, and get a feel for the University of Oxford.

 

Natural History Museum

On Saturday afternoon, we visited Oxford’s museum for Natural History, which I’d read about in one of Bill Bryson’s books. In addition to the exhibits on dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and insects, we also took in the special exhibit on bacteria. I’d need an extensive blog to tell you what I learned about bacteria, and I held off posting all the photos I took. But you’d be surprised to learn how bacteria created oxygen, photosynthesis, and cell-splitting that enabled human life to form.

Really amazing stuff!

Visiting this museum, you see the huge value that researchers add to our knowledge of everything in the physical world. Curious minds want to know! And many of these curious-minded people become life-long researchers–exploring the world to find answers to questions we didn’t even know we had, as well as questions we knew!

History of Science Museum

We narrowly missed the departure of the morning “Footprints” tour on Sunday, but we booked in for a later tour and headed into the History of Science Museum, originally a stockpile of curiosities, and now spread across three floors. My favorite parts covered sundials, photography, and penicillin–crucial research on penicillin was done at Oxford. Also fun were the measuring devices, calculating machines, and astronomical gadgets. Again, thank goodness for curious minds, figuring all this stuff out over time!

 

Blackwells Bookstore

To escape the cold–and take a little rest between the science museum and the planned walking tour–we stepped inside Blackwell’s Bookstore. A mindboggling collection indeed! It’s multiple floors and the basement sprawls far under Trinity College. Incidentally, at Oxford, the colleges are residential–they are where the students live, eat and sleep. Every student belongs to a college, and every student studies in a department.

Thankfully, Blackwell’s also features a coffee shop, which is optimal for a welcome and well-deserved rest.

Footprints Tour of Oxford

The Footprints company offers free walking tours as well as paid ones. To ensure we were part of a small group and could enter some Oxford sites where there are entry fees, I purchased tickets for the two-hour walking tour at £15 each. Although the plan seemed ideal, the weather turned ugly. Just before the tour started it got very cold, and shortly after the start, hail pounded down. The tour guide had to skip the first two sites and run straight into a library. Aongus was frozen solid by the tour’s end.

 

Divinity School

The large hall with its ornately carved stone ceiling at the Divinity School is featured in all sorts of films–from Harry Potter to the recent Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite. Our tour guide brought us inside for a stop off–and I was thrilled to see this space.

New College: squares, dining hall, chapel and cloister

Of the 38 colleges at Oxford, we peeked inside only a few–they have entrance fees, and what you are permitted to see varies from one to the next. I wasn’t sure how to manage all that without insider knowledge, so we hired a guide! There were only ten of us in the tour group.

Our tour guide brought us to her favorite, the New College. You’ll likely recognize the dining hall, which is featured in movies. Of note, the cloister and the tree in it appeared in Harry Potter, but the dining hall used in that series of films was custom built, a near replica of a hall on campus that has only three actual long tables for the students. As Hogwarts had four schools, they made the studio version a bit wider to accommodate the extra row. Most college dining halls at Oxford also have a high table where the privileged sit and eat superior food.

The chapel in the New College is exquisite, and we heard a bit of organ practice while seated in there. Many colleges destroyed their historic old chapels and replaced them with more modern ones. What a waste. This Gothic one is stellar, though the ornate end wall was a somewhat recent addition.

Bodleian Library

Perhaps the most iconic building at Oxford is the round Bodleian Library, a reading room for students. Turns out, a cylinder isn’t quite conducive to storing books. It’s better for studying, we hope!

Overall, Oxford has a massive collection of books. This library is second only in size to the British Library (a copy of everything published in the UK goes there, similar to the Library of Congress in the USA, which is the world’s largest library collection). Like these other two libraries, you can view books only on-site here–it’s not a lending library.

Famous Folks

Oxford provided inspiration for C. S. Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Hobbits. Although I must admit I know little of Harry Potter, I did read some Hobbit stories and all of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Near the end of our tour, we saw the door that inspired Lewis’ lion, witch, and wardrobe. We also saw the Oxford lamp post he made famous.

We also learned about some very destructive and badly behaved boys who attended Oxford (David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and their political cronies). We learned about others who misbehaved in the town less aggressively (Bill Clinton) and we learned of people burned for political crimes on Broad Street, where our tour had started.

Look for the Footprints office there on Broad Street, near the shop Boswells of Oxford. Pick up some new luggage and an Ameribag while you’re there! It will take your mind off the stories of deviant behavior.

Learning London: How office trivia aboard a double-deck tour landed me “The Language of Cities”

I’ve been spell bound all day by Dayan Sudjic’s 2016 book, “The Language of Cities.” I purchased the book after work yesterday to keep my knowledge of city-building fresh and up-to-date. I made that find at Waterstones, across the street from my office in Bloomsbury, and sealed the deal with a £10 gift card I won at Christmas.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve devoured every last page.

img_3672The Faculty if Engineering held a team-building event for Christmas, aboard a private double-decker bus that toured around the city of London. I got to know other members of our faculty as I sat with three people I didn’t previously know. Our table of four formed a team for the trivia contest, developed by our Dean’s personal assistant, the marvelous Maria Speight. Maria invented all the questions, having to do mostly with the sights we were passing. Excelling in this game required in-depth knowledge of the history of this fine city, which dates back to Roman times.

My team was fiercely competitive, and the two Brits in our team knew quite a lot about their city. I worried I couldn’t contribute; but I actually was able to help out.

I earned us a whopping nine points by knowing the name of every reindeer! In the end, there was a three-way tie. It took several rounds to break, but in the final round, I knew the winning answer. I had learned the population of London via my multiple visits to the city’s Building Centre. At the time the video at the Centre was made, there were about 8.8 million inhabitants. I extrapolated to today, guessing a current 8.9 mil, whereas Maria had an official count of 8.79…. Nevertheless, our answer was the closest and we won the top prize: Waterstones gift cards for our whole team!

What a great way to spend a day before Christmas, on a sunset tour of a glorious city, surrounded by passionate people who love their work in academia. I am truly blessed!

And now, I’ve soaked in every detail of Dayan Sudjic’s “The Language of Cities.”

The book calls me back to my days teaching “urban history and theory” to third-year architecture students at Hampton University, a module we provided students prior to their summer study abroad.

img_3706Sudjic’s book is full of insight, making fascinating new connections, so the synapses in my brain have been firing furiously today! Sudjic makes plenty of reference to the history and operation of London as well as cities around the world, and I am connecting the principles to places I’ve been.

Sincere thanks to the Dean and Faculty of Engineering at UCL and Ms. Maria Speight for helping get this book into my hands so I can learn more about the city we toured by double-deck bus!

The photo gallery below shows the bus-tour day as well as an informal night out for Christmas with engineering colleagues.

Learning London: Barbican and the Design Museum

We took things pretty slow last weekend — but in addition to reading a couple of journals manuscripts in my queue to peer review, I hit the town with Aongus en route to two design exhibitions.

Saturday, we visited the Barbican’s Art Gallery for the exhibition called “Modern Couples.” It was packed with visitors since the show is scheduled to close soon. And possibly also because it was so cold outside!

I’ve uploaded photos of the Barbican complex as well as a few related to the exhibition, to give you a feel for it all. There was on display an iconic table by Eileen Gray, one of Ireland’s most-recognized designers. (I just found that a house she designed was evidently “vandalized” by Le Corbusier.)

Aongus always delights in seeing a price tag on an Eileen Gray table, since we found one in the trash one night and carried it home. It was raining that evening in Dublin, and Aongus truly didn’t comprehend the table’s value at the time I hoisted it over my shoulder to carry home. Now he does! Ours is chrome, but there’s one in black matte finish in the book store there as well as on formal display.

The things you can find abandoned in dark alleyways…. It’s always best to have a tall, fit companion when you’re transversing such places at night, I have found. Especially if you wind up carrying furniture home! He soon was doing just that — but I made a good start in an effort to convince him of my undying love for this table. Now he loves it too.

After the Barbican pics below, you’ll find videos and snapshots from our Sunday adventure as well. We went westward, to visit the newly-renovated Design Museum in Holland Park, just off Kensington High Street. It’s about time I got to the new building, especially since my Ph.D. student, Thomas Empson, has become so involved there.

We didn’t view the paid “Future Homes” exhibition as our attention was held by a free exhibition of the permanent collection and another free show on Peter Barber and company, who seek to provide affordable housing in our city and beyond. The exhibition is called “100 Mile City and Other Stories.” We also attended a tour of the building to learn about its history.

Barbican Complex

 

Modern Couples

 

Design Museum

A bit of fun

You might have to click the little arrow at the bottom left hand of the video. First, we learned to rock. Then we could spin….

 

 

The Building Itself

 

Parts of the Permanent Collection on Display

 

Architecture Exhibition

 

Urban context of the Design Museum

 

Excursions from London: Newport and Bristol UK

I might not have made use of Celtic Manor’s pool and spa during the mid-December SRHE conference in Wales, but I invited Aongus to join me out west for the weekend following SRHE so we could make up for missing out on those amenities. The Manor was already booked, but I found rooms in Newport (in Wales, for Friday night) and Bristol (in England, for Saturday night) so we could relax and explore new sites.

Newport

Knoll Guesthouse

We stayed at the quaint and reasonably priced Knoll Guesthouse on Stow Hill in Newport. It was a great value! This stately Victorian home was built in 1897, a year after my former home in Portsmouth, Virginia. The gorgeous stained glass surrounding the entry vestibule delighted us. Also noteworthy were the cooked-to-order breakfast and the friendly and knowledgeable host, Barry Peters.

img_3201-1

Double rainbow viewed from Stow Hill, looking across the street from Knoll Guesthouse. We knew good fortune would follow us for the weekend!

Belle Vue Park

Barry from Knoll Guesthouse suggested a visit to Stow Hill’s Belle Vue Park and gardens. Despite the rain, we admired the park’s Victorian-era bandstand, conservatories, and tea house, all restored but dating back to 1894.

 

St. Woolos/Newport Cathedral

Then we found St. Woolos (aka Newport Cathedral) which has a lovely Romanesque design. Our experience was made complete with a very talented choir singing delightful Christmas carols.

 

Downtown Newport

We wandered through the shopping streets in the center of town, admired Calatrava’s innovative pedestrian bridge, and purchased salads-to-go before dashing to the Newport train station, en route to Bristol Temple Meade train station.

 

Bristol

Mid-day o Saturday, we boarded a train for Bristol.

 

Around Temple Meads Station

Entering Bristol via Temple Meads Train Station is always a delightfully Victorian experience. The splendor of this station’s exterior is unforgettable. I’d booked a room at a luxury hotel a short walk from the station, which would give us a place to store our bags the following morning when we checked out.

 

Mercury Bristol Holland House and Spa

This Mercury Bristol Holland House and Spa are located directly across the street from St. Mary Redcliff Church. We booked in for massages in the hotel’s spa.

 

St. Mary Redcliff Church

We spent several hours exploring St. Mary Redcliff Church, which was adorned with Christmas trees donated by local organizations.

 

Old Town and Waterfront

We walked through Queen Square and the Old City on Saturday evening, visiting St. Nicholas Market and a restaurant in the charming (but grungy) Old Stock Exchange.

The next day we retraced our steps through Queen Square as we headed toward the Watershed craft market and then walked along the quays to Brunel’s SS Great Britain (which we had not enough time to see). Heading back, we stuck to the path along the northern side of the river, so we could catch the best sun.

 

Bristol Cathedral

On the way back to the hotel to pick up our bags, we made a stop at Bristol Cathedral and listened to the choir practice.

 

Piemiester

We enjoyed two lovely pies, and then headed to the train station for our trip home!

 

Basking Joyfully in Southern France

I’m currently on a writing retreat, working from Dublin and doubling down on my extensive to-write list. I worked straight through two weekends here because my flat here is so peaceful and sunny. Now, I’m taking a day off for good behavior and pausing to post photos.

Here’s a glimpse of two sunny weeks Aongus and I spent in the South of France this past September. Ours was an outdoor adventure full of cycling, river rafting, kayaking, hiking, and swimming. We thoroughly enjoyed the dramatic coastline, the historic coastal cities and remote hill towns, the Gorges du Verdon, and the Cliniques near Cassis.

I’m sharing these pics to give inspiration for your next travel adventure–and ours, too!

Antibes

Saint-Paul de Vence

Castellane

Rougon and La Palud-sur-Verdon

Moustier St. Marie

Roussillon

Le Pont Julien

Bonnieux

Lourmarin

Aix-en-Provence

Cassis

La Cadière-d’Azur