Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Catching up: a weekend in London

It was a long journey from Aberdeen, in the somewhat northern bit of Scotland, back to London. A seven-hour train ride, to be exact, which surprisingly didn't feel that long. A highlight were the young boys who sat near us for part of the journey, who got very excited when the train crossed bridges along the coast: "maybe there are SHARKS!"

We were in London just overnight, staying with a friend, in order to take a train up to Oxford on Sunday, June 12. But we took full advantage of the brief stint in our favorite city. On Saturday evening, I'd gotten us tickets to see The Sixteen, one of my two very favorite early music choirs. It was a phenomenal concert, alternating Palestrina with James MacMillan, plus a few other miscellaneous works, including the new ornamented version of the Allegri Miserere. Unfortunately, our tickets were fully sight-restricted, but you didn't need to see the singers to enjoy their music.

We spent Sunday morning too with our friend, attending our London church, St. Bartholomew the Great, and then walking over to Lamb's Conduit Street for the celebrations. It was Sunday, June 12, after all--the day when England celebrates the queen's birthday. And the Persephone Bookshop was having a cream tea AND a book sale. How could I resist? My circle of book bloggers, folks who enjoy early to mid-twentieth-century domestic fiction by British women, all adore the novels published by Persephone Books. For us, it's like a literary pilgrimage to visit the Persephone shop. I'd never been there before, and I couldn't stop beaming. Yes, there was tea and scones, but more importantly, there was an entire shop full of the beautifully-produced, dove-grey Persephone books. They're nearly impossible to find secondhand in America. And now, having carefully thought through budgetary and luggage weight concerns, I had the freedom to choose any three I wanted, and start my Persephone collection!

(In case anyone's interested, I selected Mariana by Monica Dickens, and Someone at a Distance and Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple.)

Me being ridiculously excited in front of the Persephone bookshop (and my awesome Husband, the one who has to carry my books home on the airplane)

The whole day felt very, very English. There was a high Anglo-Catholic Church of England Eucharist; there was tea and scones; there were Morris dancers. And then, our train up to Oxford (and when we arrived, it started raining).

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Catching up: Aberdeen

EDIT: Oops! So much for trying to catch up! I wrote most of the below post in Oxford, and now it's a week and a half later and I'm finishing it up in Sheffield.

I write this from the first floor of the Bodleian Library. It's my last day in Oxford, and I've looked at all of the books I'm able to on this research trip. (I had the misfortune of picking the one week this summer where a lot of the books on my list are being moved around and are therefore unavailable to researchers. Oops! I'll come back later this summer to see the last few on my list.) Husband is still working though--it's his first experience with microfilms! I can't help but laugh at his complaints; I had to deal with the same thing two years ago at the BL.

So that's why I'm sitting here on the floor outside the reading room (not on the comfy couches, because the little coffee tables aren't nearly high enough): biding time until the appointed time. In other words, at 4:30 we're going to go for one last afternoon tea at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, before hitting up a grocery store and making our way to the train station. After a week and a half of research in Oxford, plus the earlier week in Scotland, we're ready to go home to Basingstoke. I myself am more than ready for a few days of not looking at sixteenth-century psalters. They're fascinating and I do still love my dissertation, but there's only so much time you can spend looking at different editions of the same book for days on end.

I left off this blog in Edinburgh. Sorry for the long delay in updating! Perhaps not unexpectedly, on research days in libraries, I find myself without much inclination to do more work on a computer in the evenings. Instead, I've been reading The Lord of the Rings, watching Doctor Who (up to season 2 of New Who; all hail David Tennant), and fully enjoying this summer of seeing my husband every day. But now the Oxford research trip is done, and while I don't have a lot of photographs or much to report, it's time to share a bit about our adventures since Edinburgh. Today, Aberdeen; in the next few days I'll line up posts about London, Oxford, and more about Basingstoke.

Aberdeen was a quick little trip. We arrived on Thursday night, I saw a few books at the University of Aberdeen on Friday, and we took our long (seven hours!) train to London on Saturday. Aberdeen isn't a touristy town. I was there for work, but Husband wasn't, and initially, I was worried that he wouldn't have much to do. However, I now have exceedingly fond memories of Aberdeen, because of the tea shop.

Ah, this tea shop! It's called Cup and it's glorious. I picked it for breakfast on Friday, and liked it so much that I insisted we return for lunch. It remains the single best restaurant I have enjoyed, this entire summer.

The best avocado toast I've ever, ever had. And Husband had black pudding for breakfast.

Afternoon tea for lunch! Giving me an opportunity to try a second offering from their extensive tea menu.

Then it was off to the university library to see a book and a manuscript.

Such an interesting building, architecturally

Beautiful stairs. I, however, didn't go up but down into the basement to find Special Collections.

I finished my library work by lunchtime, so we had the rest of the day to not be working. We took it easy, spending much of the afternoon at a coffee shop, and the evening at a pub to watch the first game of the Euros.

My truly ridiculous hot chocolate

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Well, friends, it's been a long while since I've posted (relatively speaking--one week feels like a long gap in this summer-in-England blog). I've been to Scotland and back! It was most definitely a work trip, and I found that after a full day of research at the library, I didn't have much mental energy left to spend more time on the computer in order to blog. And of course, long days at the library don't leave much time to see the city! But I do have interesting things to report and lovely photographs to share.

Because it was our anniversary (five years!) we splurged on first-class train tickets up to Edinburgh. First class was really nice: the seats were larger, and leaned back; lunch and coffee were provided; and we had free wifi for the entire four-and-a-half-hour trip. I made good use of that time, organizing my library plans for Scotland. By this point, I've spent countless hours on various libraries' online catalogues, and countless emails back and forth with the librarians in special collections--and the summer is only half over!

Our apartment rental was close to the Edinburgh train station, and right in the middle of the city center. Close to everything, overrun by tourists, just a few blocks from the two libraries at which I worked (the National Library of Scotland and the divinity school library of the University of Edinburgh). And because the area was so close to the university, there was an astonishing array of restaurants, coffee shops, and interesting shopping, all within my graduate student budget.

Because it was an apartment rental and not a hotel room (hooray!) we were able to buy groceries and make our own meals about half the time. The other half, we explored some of what Edinburgh had to offer. In the end, we tried four of the Edinburgh's supposedly best coffee shops, and liked one so much we went there twice. We had great Thai food, an authentic and truly delicious Scottish breakfast (you can tell it's a place beloved by the locals when it's a tiny hole-in-the-wall diner frequented by construction workers), and awesome falafel. And we accidentally ended up finding the very cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter! We weren't looking for it--I'd forgotten that I should--but we walked past it one evening and when the falafel place was already closed, we went back for dinner.

Happily, I finished all of my library research with a day to spare, so we were in the end able to play tourist. That day, we returned to our favorite coffee shop, Brew Lab, for breakfast, took a tour of the Museum of Scotland, found the falafel place (open this time), enjoyed Scottish art at the National Gallery, and finally, caught our train to Aberdeen. And of course none of these research excursions is complete for me without seeing a church or two; here we attended a morning Communion at St. Giles and were able to walk around the church and churchyard of Greyfriars.

The National Library of Scotland, and the place at which I spent the most time

First breakfast at Brew Lab - Husband's flat white, my Earl Grey tea, and two amazing pastries, a cinnamon roll and a custard-filled donut

Second breakfast at Brew Lab - same beverages, granola with fruit and yogurt, fruit salad with yogurt, and two equally amazing pastries, pain aux noisettes (chocolate and hazelnut-filled croissant) and a jelly donut

Amazing, amazing falafel and shawarma at Elfalafel

St Giles Cathedral

The National Museum of Scotland

A cast of the world's most complete set of T-rex bones (the bones themselves would be too heavy to display in this pose)
The lens assembly from a Scottish lighthouse
The Lewis Chessmen: twelfth-century, Norwegian in origin, found in a large collection of chess sets and other gaming pieces. A really iconic archaeological find. 

King James VI and I

Our tour guide telling us about King James' childhood. This scholar of the English Reformation couldn't help but cringe at some of the facts he got wrong (but it was fascinating to get the Scottish point of view)

Eighteenth-century printing press

The natural science room was my favorite

An orrery (working model of the solar system, except that this one no longer functions because its gears are worn out)


A klezmer can-can, performed by bagpipe rock band. Yes, this really happened.

Some favorites from the National Gallery. I spent a lot of time looking at the partbook, trying to figure out what it was (too blurry to make out much, but definitely late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century music printing.

#dissertating. Martin Luther!

This one reminds me of Jane Eyre

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Off to Scotland

This post will be brief; in just under an hour, we will be leaving this lovely, extraordinarily small London hotel room and walking up the street to St Pancras station to board our train to Scotland. I need to spend several days researching at the National Library of Scotland, probably the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Aberdeen, so we'll be in Scotland (Edinburgh and Aberdeen) for the next week. It's part work, part holiday; yesterday was our five-year anniversary, and Husband has only just joined me in the UK, so we're making sure to take some time to reconnect and enjoy our time together.

We spent yesterday in London: lunch at a noodle place near the British Library, tea with a professor friend at the BL (I was so happy to have their bakewell tart again!), an afternoon of wandering through the medieval and Renaissance religious art at the National Gallery, and then, to celebrate our anniversary in our best fashion, dinner at our favorite London pub, the Greenwich Union. They make a fantastic fish and chips and brew their own amazing beer...and when they heard that we were an American couple who had come out to this pub specifically to celebrate our anniversary, they also gave us tasters of all their beer which we hadn't already ordered. Husband and I have decided to renew the franchise for another five years. :-)

We got up too early this morning to attend the early service at St Pancras New Church, just up the street from the BL and our hotel, and then found some delicious breakfast at a cute pub called The Water Rats. I suppose now I'm just killing time until we have to head over to the train station. I did want to let you all know where we're off to. I've never been to Scotland and I'm really looking forward to this trip!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

To London to see Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman has been among my favorite authors since I was a child and first read Neverwhere. I didn't understand it all at the time (it means so much more now that I'm actually well-acquainted with the London Underground!) but many of his books have captivated my imagination since then, and it's been remarkable to see his name attached to other things I love (he writes splendid book introductions, for example, and did you know he did the screenplay for the English voice dub of Princess Mononoke?) When he announced on his blog that he'd be giving a public talk on his new book (a collection of his nonfiction, including some of the aforementioned book introductions) in London, I didn't actually realize right away that I'm actually in the UK; I could go to that!

So I planned my first day in London of this summer research trip. My train would get me into London around lunchtime, and the event wasn't until the evening. What would I do in the meantime? Find lunch at my third-favorite London restaurant (Husband had asked me to save our two favorite pubs for when he got here), and plan research appointments at two London libraries, of course!

The cafe of St-Martin-in-the-Fields does my very favorite meal deal in all of London: housemade soup and warm pudding, all for less than 8 pounds. This time, carrot and coriander soup, and apple crumble with custard.

My first library date was with the Society of Antiquaries

This unassuming facade is one of the most beloved places in England for an academic. Walking up to the British Library, my poor heart went pitter-pat, and I couldn't stop beaming. (The beaming stopped when I'd settled in the Rare Books and Music reading room and realized I'd forgotten my account password from two years ago, so I couldn't get on the internet...)

Then it was time to head towards Union Chapel. The event started at 8, the doors opened at 7, and I'd booked the 6:30 dinner reservation in the chapel restaurant. I arrived in the area around 5:45, planning to camp out in a coffee shop for the next almost-hour, when I spotted the queue already forming at the chapel doors. So I got my tea to-go and hurried off to join it! It was a remarkable experience. It was cold and grey, dismal in atmosphere but delightful in company. I've never camped out or even queued for an event before, and it was absolutely wonderful to learn that fellow geeks are just as easy to talk to as fellow academics. Talk of favorite Gaiman books, Harry Potter conventions, and Doctor Who occupied us all the way to 6:30, at which point, I realized that there had been no need to wait in the line after all: those with dinner reservations would be using a separate door.

I have no idea why everybody didn't book the dinner. It wasn't all that expensive, and even if it had been, I'd learned that the chapel uses the money raised in its restaurant and bar to help fund its work with the homeless, and I wanted to support that. The restaurant/bar itself was totally cool, dark and colorfully lit, with loud, pounding music. It was out of the cold (and indeed, apparently it did start raining--and even hailing???--before the line was let into the church at 7). They were serious about reservations--each seat was labeled with a name. I had lamb and potatoes cooked in cinnamon and cumin, a glass of pinot grigio, and yet more fun conversation with a fellow fan. And the very best part? We were allowed into the church first, which meant that we all landed in the first three rows!

Dinner and the excited wait for the event to start felt as surreal as the time my choir sang with the Rolling Stones. Perhaps even more--I'm not a rock fan, and my excitement there stemmed largely from the excitement of everyone around me. Here, however, I was about to see one of my favorite authors, in real life. He was a real, physical, material human being, not just a source of text. Someone I'd loved for years, and had so little thought I might ever see in person that it wasn't even on my list of things I hoped to do someday.

The view from the second row
The event came with a signed copy of Neil's new book!

The surprise special guests turned out to be, unsurprisingly but still awesomely, his wife Amanda Palmer and her father. The two have just created a soon-to-be-released album, and they performed one of the songs for us.

Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger discussing The View from the Cheap Seats

Neil reads us one of its shorter pieces--a spooky reflection on Halloween and why we love ghost stories

Interestingly enough, as I was leaving for home, things felt a whole lot less surreal. This wasn't a life-changing event; I didn't go away with my entire worldview shattered by the things Neil said or from the mere fact of seeing him. This was just an author, a really genuine and open author, chatting about his new book and answering questions about his writing. In a way, I love that even more. Neil Gaiman is just a person who has ideas that I love and that sometimes some I don't, who encourages the creative process in everybody. And if you don't have to be some otherworldly celebrity to do it, but just a person, perhaps we all can write things that are beautiful and meaningful to someone else.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


I had such a wonderful time in Winchester (and it's only one train stop away!) that I hope to return later in the summer so Husband can see it too!

As usual, my first stop was the library. Or in this case, not really a library at all. I needed to view a book from the Winchester Cathedral Library, but unfortunately, the library (indeed, the whole south transept) is under reconstruction. Learning this, I feared I wouldn't get to see the book at all, but the archivist very kindly allowed me to see it at the local Record Office. The Record Office was a nice, friendly space, if not nearly as picturesque as a cathedral library. I did my work and had the rest of the day to spend as I pleased!

My church here in Old Basing is a part of the Diocese of Winchester, which means Winchester Cathedral is our cathedral. In an initiative to encourage more of its membership to visit, the cathedral gives reusable passes out to each of its parishes. This meant that I didn't have to pay the (admittedly minimal) fee to enter the cathedral, but more importantly, it meant that I felt like a parishioner rather than a tourist.

Winchester Cathedral made me so happy. I couldn't stop smiling during the entire time I was in the building. It was a different experience than my visit to Norwich Cathedral (site of so much personal academic history) or Worcester Cathedral (which had no fewer interesting things to see). I can only attribute it to the fact that I felt a different sort of connection to this place.

Lunch at the cathedral refectory - butternut squash, carrot, and rosemary soup with a crusty roll

A side chapel - the Chapel of Saint Alphege called Venerable

A stunning triptych in Bishop Langton's Chapel

The chantry chapel for Bishop Gardiner - another one of those lesser-known English Reformation figures I get so excited about.

This space was possibly the most beautiful choir (quire) I've ever seen. Later in the day, I sat here for Evensong.

I've sung his music!

12th-century font, decorated with carvings showing the miracles of St Nicholas, patron saint of children

Also, I didn't even realize until I'd walked into the cathedral that it was the resting place for Jane Austen. I spent a moment thanking her for her books, and utterly delighted that the cathedral was a tasteful memorial to her and not an overly-commercialized tourist trap.

The Norman crypt, with an astonishingly meditative modern sculpture

Not pictured: the Winchester Bible! The largest surviving 12th-century Bible, the stunning illuminated manuscript was copied out by hand. It's in four volumes, one of which was on display. You can read more about it here, and see images.

After wandering through the cathedral happy as a clam (are clams happy?), I still had a few hours. I could have returned home to Basingstoke right then, but I wanted to stay for 5 pm Evensong. Luckily, there was no shortage of wonderful things to do. On my way to the cathedral, I'd walked down a street full of shops and stalls, the kind of local market I always love. I bought a rhubarb tart and sat on a bench, enjoying it and the street violinist playing folk tunes and classical works. I couldn't resist going into a chocolate shop, and bought some as a gift for Husband when he arrives. Then I retraced my steps back towards the train station in order to visit the Great Hall, the only surviving portion of the medieval Winchester Castle. There, I got to see the legendary Round Table of King Arther (or rather, "Round Table," since it is now known to date from the 13th century).

The Great Hall

Just in front of it, a few surviving castle passageways, which originally led from a tower in the castle wall to the moat

Here it is, the "Round Table"

Photographs from the restored medieval-style garden. It was such a sanctuary of peace and quiet, and smiles, as I watched a few children play in the water.

I couldn't resist buying myself something silly from the Great Hall gift shop! This necklace is a Tudor rose, an image I know well as a scholar of the English Reformation.

To my surprise and joy, I still had about forty-five minutes before Evensong. So I could indulge myself and drop by the other chocolate shop I'd spotted, this time for hot chocolate and a bit of dissertation writing. It feels disloyal to say it, but it was the best hot chocolate I've ever had, even over Durham's awesome Cocoa Cinnamon. It even came with one of their chocolate truffles (in this case, lemon curd). Other than the cathedral, obviously, it is this shop that I most want to share with Husband.