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: Four-Day Family Extravaganza

My cousin Kaitlin has been teaching English in Spain this past year. So we (my partner Aongus and I) decided to add a second stamp to her passport and we invited her up to London for an extended weekend

Aongus meet her at the Tube station and guided her home from the airport, with a stop for dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant, Indigo at Richmix. Meanwhile, I sped back via train from my conference in Newcastle and arrived home minutes before them.

We were up bright and early Thursday morning for the start of a whirlwind tour that lasted four days.

On day one, we included:

  • Kaitlin’s first double-decker bus trip, on Bus 8, so as to see St. Paul’s and other prominent sites from the top deck, front row–best seats on the bus!
  • Sir John Soane’s House Museum, full of Roman antiquities and memorable painting and flooded with daylight in every corner.
  • The British Museum, stopping for coffee in the courtyard and visiting the South American and Egyptian sections.
  • Dashing into the Building Centre in Store Street to view the enormous model of London.
  • A relaxing couple of hours in Bloomsbury, for lunch with my UCL colleagues Emanuela and Folashade–our farewell sendoff to Queen Mary University of London for Folashade.
  • A walk to Picadilly Circus and the courtyard of the Royal Academy, with rose petal macaroons at Laudre in the Burlington Arcade, then onward to Green Park, the gates of Buckingham Palace, and a stroll across St. James’s Park.
  • Arriving at Westminster Abbey in perfect time to attend the choral Evensong.
  • A walk to Trafalgar Square and up Strsnd Street to fetch tickets at the box office of The Savoy.
  • A quick but tasty dinner at Itsu, where Aongus joined us after his work day.
  • A delightful evening at the West End musical “Dreamgirls”
  • Wrapping up the day with a walk through Covent Garden, stopping at Gelaterino before our bus ride home

Day two was filled with more adventures. This was Saturday and we headed by Tube to the Bourough of South Kensington and Chelsea for:

  • The Saatchi Gallery (modern art)
  • Kale salad and chestnut/almond waffles at a favorite cafe on Sloane Avenue
  • The Natural History Museum, where we focused on the dinasoaur and mammal exhibitions
  • Drinks and tagines at the Comptoir Libanas restaurant on Exhibition Road where we snagged an outdoor table under the awnings and heat lamps to avoid the evening rainstorm
  • Art-till-you-drop and cultural-encounters-of-all-kinds at the Victoria and Albert Museum (we saw several new wings due to Kaitlin’s interest in world religions)
  • Visits to high-end furniture shops and luxury department stores (John Lewis top to bottom, Herrod’s food courts, and Harvey Nichols tour of floors)
  • Pints at the Wilton Arms to again wait out the rain, and chat with some lively Brits
  • Dinner nearby at the Alfred Tennyson to round out the day and a stroll through high-end alleyways en route back to the tube–admiring the pricy vehicles.

Kaitlin spent day three with a friend she graduated university alongside. I’m so impressed with Kaitlin and all she has learned and done. She graduated first in her university class last year and then came to teach in Spain fresh out of college. She has taught both in a school and also private lessons and she even played soccer competitively, on a team in Spain.

Since it was Sunday and she was otherwise occupied, Aongus and I made the most of the day with:

  • A visit to the Imperial War Museum and the Tibetian Peace Garden, located on its grounds
  • A walk over to Trafalgar Square with a delightful Sunday roast at The Clarence
  • Fancy desserts at the sushi place in Kingly Court
  • Bus ride back to Shoreditch to catch up with Kaitlin at a South American restaurant near our home

On day four, Kaitlin and I had specific plans. We headed to:

  • The Churchill War Rooms, also viewing the exhibition on Churchill’s life
  • The London Eye, for a half-hour trip around this impressive Ferris wheel with its sweeping views of London
  • A quick visit to the National Gallery
  • Our second lunch in Bloomsbury at Dim T, since we enjoyed the one wit Folashade and Emanuela so much
  • A walking tour across University College London’s city campus

We gathered our bags from my office at UCL and boarded the tube for Heathrow, where we bid each other farewell–me heading to Dublin for a week’s work and Kait back to Spain to wrap up her teaching.

It was a truly delightful four days, though I admit I was completely exhausted the day after we parted. It was a treat to get to know this first-cousin-once-removed a bit better and to learn how very much alike we are despite having drastically different parental upbringing. I’m so very impressed with the person she’s become and how intelligent and thoughtful and hardworking and courteous she is. I’m glad I’d worked ahead and could take comp days while she was here so I could really get to know her. It was a rare treat to tour the city with her, and one I hope to have someday again.