Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Birmingham

Every other summer, the annual Medieval/Renaissance Music Conference takes place somewhere in England. It was fantastically convenient that this summer was one of them, so I took a week off from my work at the BL in London and headed up to Birmingham, the second-largest city in England. As with the Cambridge trip, husband came along just for the first day, which was really convenient as he helped carry my suitcase from the train station to the very small and hard-to-find hotel.

A word about British hotels: they're nothing like American hotels. Many of them are former houses that have been turned into bed-and-breakfast-style hotels. This unfortunately means the rooms are more like dormitories, with terrible mattresses and bathrooms shared by the whole floor. This one was neat in that it had a sink right in the room - useful for brushing one's teeth! - but I shouldn't have expected it to provide a hair dryer or bar of soap like an American hotel. So after checking in, husband and I set off to buy these items. It was harder than we thought; we stopped at four shops (two pharmacies, an electronics store, and a home-improvement store) before finally finding a small folding travel hairdryer at a grocery store.

Husband has long had a fellow youth minister friend who has been working all over Europe. Since she's currently working just outside Birmingham, we couldn't lose the opportunity to share dinner with her. Husband was delighted to catch up with an old friend, and I was happy to meet a woman about whom I'd heard so much. We saw just a bit of downtown Birmingham on the way to the pub, called the Old Joint Stock, which has a theater inside it and serves great burgers. We very nearly got to tour Birmingham Cathedral, but arrived just as Evening Prayer was ending and the cathedral was closing.

After husband left that evening, I settled in for four days of intense musicology!

Monday, July 28, 2014

St. Bartholomew's Hospital

We've been attending church at St. Bartholomew the Great, which is near St. Paul's Cathedral but on the other side of St. Bartholomew's Hospital:


It's the oldest hospital in London, and was operated by a monastery. In the English Reformation, when monastic institutions were closed, it remained open by special dispensation from Henry VIII because it provided vital medical care for the area.

One day on the way to dinner at a pub we'd noticed and wanted to try (The Old Red Cow, which immediately became one of our favorites because they serve amazing Welsh rarebit), we walked around the hospital in the other direction than we usually do. We saw a couple of really interesting things on the way:



We particularly love the line "the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papists." Quite a memorial plaque! There's also an English Reformation-related memorial on the side wall of the hospital, but I didn't snap a photo so I don't remember what it was.

So I wonder how many of my readers are familiar with the more contemporary fame of St. Bartholomew's hospital?

The long-awaited third series takes place two years after Sherlock was seen hurling himself from the roof of St Bart's Hospital, London, in an apparent suicide
Photo credit: found here
 Sherlock jumped off this very building! Here's our photo to commemorate our geekery. We weren't quite clever enough to take the photo at the exact angle that Watson viewed Sherlock's fall.

The coolest bit is the phone booth just below the building (on the left in the above photo), where passers-by have left notes and mementos in support of Sherlock:






The sad ending to this little adventure is this: we happened to walk by this phone booth a few weeks later, and all the notes had been removed. :-(


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Off to Cambridge tomorrow

Now that I've collected about a month's worth of photos and stories, I figured it was time to resume posting! We've done a fair bit of traveling and touristing, but when we're just home, we've enjoyed not doing too much (which has unfortunately included posting on this blog, but I'll remedy that now!). Oh, and poor husband was dreadfully sick for a few days and home with a fever, so that wasn't fun.

Bright and early tomorrow morning, we'll catch a train to Cambridge, where I need to visit two different libraries in order to view a dissertation (Cambridge doesn't really share its dissertations, which I think is a real shame, as it doesn't really enable this scholarship to participate in larger conversations) and a sixteenth-century book (with annotations by the author!). I'll be there for two days, one day for each library just to allow for any delays or problems, or unexpectedly fascinating finds. Because the train tickets are crazy cheap - only 6 pounds each way - husband decided to come along just for the first day. He'll do the sight-seeing while I work in the library, and I very much look forward to his photos and stories. He hopes to see Ridley Hall (the theological school) and the King's College chapel, home of the choir that sings the Evensong broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve.

So tonight, in between packing and other preparations - you wouldn't believe how many different documents I have to bring so they'll let me into the Cambridge libraries! - I'll write a few blog posts and schedule them over the next several days. Here's a sneak preview of our adventures:
  • Sherlock-related geekery
  • Birmingham
  • Coventry
  • the Royal Artillery Museum
  • a tour of the Bank of England
  • the Tour de France
  • Olympic Park
  • the Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian
  • Nottingham
  • the V&A Museum
  • Hamley's
  • the Millennium Bridge
  • the Rose Theatre

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mum's visit: Manchester

For the last major adventure of my mum's visit, we headed up to Manchester to visit the family of the woman we're staying with in London. Absolutely wonderful people, amazing house, and a lovely city. Manchester is rather different than London or Oxford. It's full of universities, but it's not quite so much a university town as Oxford, and it's a lot more industrial than London. Our hostess knows all about Manchester's history, and she not only shared stories and took us on a driving tour of the downtown area, but knew just where to take us for some fascinating and fun touristing.

My favorite bit of the trip was a visit to The Lowry, an event center and gallery that showcases the work of English artist L.S. Lowry. Shocked that I'd never heard of him, our hostess was very excited to introduce us to this hugely important figure in English art. I adored him.
In the last few years, I've come to really love art galleries in general, but something about Lowry's work, in many different mediums and in several distinctly different styles, really spoke to me. I could have spent hours there, but unfortunately, there were things to do and places to see, so I had to leave well before I was ready. Lowry is famous for his industrial cityscapes like this one:

but he also did more conventional landscapes as well, like this one:

I brought home a few postcards of various paintings to add to my art collection displayed on my piano - I now have enough favorite pieces of art from museums all across the US (and now England!) that I'll have to rotate them through my five frames.


Most evocative for me, however, were Lowry's"grotesques," odd little distortions like these one below. They remind me strangely of Tove Janssons's Moomintrolls, perhaps Moomins meets Tim Burton.

The Funeral Party, 1953
Girl Seen from the Front, 1964
I spent a long time looking at these strange little people, thinking they could inspire some fiction-writing. Lately, I've been lamenting my lack of creative writing. I read so many novels, but all of my writing is academic, and I feel like I've lost a lot of the imagination I had as a child. I wish I could just start writing, but I feel intimidated and at a loss for ideas. But Lowry's grotesques cry out for backstories, don't they?

From the Lowry museum we headed to the Imperial War Museum, and went up to a little viewing deck where we had a fantastic view, including the river and two gorgeous bridges, the BBC buildings, and even the Manchester United stadium (where we stopped next, so my mum could look for souvenirs at the gift shop). It turns out that leaving the Lowry museum sooner than I'd wanted was a good thing, because the Imperial War Museum was closing soon, and we had far too little time in the exhibits, which focused largely on the experience of individuals and families in this part of the country.

After delicious fish and chips from the local chippy - I'm totally addicted to malt vinegar by now - we all settled in to watch the opening game of the World Cup, with hot cocoa for me, beer for most others, and fudge for all!

The next morning, we walked from the house into the local neighborhood of Didsbury, with shops and restaurants and things. The walk was completely picturesque, the ideal English countryside (complete with really narrow and often muddy lanes). I loved every second of that walk, and husband and I dreamed of a summer spent in just such a place, where we could walk in to a library or coffee shop to do our academic writing, and spend the rest of our time watching baby ducks and playing Pooh-sticks (both of which we did that day).

This excursion into Didsbury was all to humor me: I'd heard of a tea shop with a sizeable secondhand bookshop in the back. Heaven, right? And The Art of Tea was even better than I'd imagined, with a huge tea menu and a bookshop full of classics organized by edition (a book collector's dream). The adults were content to chat over drinks while I browsed, and I confess that they were very patient!

I had a charming conversation with the bookseller: "Name an author, any author," he said, "I promise we have a book by them." "Tove Jansson?" I asked, since I'm just dying to collect the rest of her Moomin books, and her other adult fiction besides my beloved Summer Book is supposed to be equally amazing. The poor man looked quite taken aback, and after I explained that she's a Finnish author, informed me that what he was certain to have was any book by a first-tier author. Hmph. But he was very nice and we went on to have a fun chat about Washington DC. And then he pointed me in the direction of this treasure-trove:


For those who don't know, these distinctive green-spined books are published by Virago. They are almost exclusively high-quality novels by women, and largely the early twentieth-century domestic fiction that I love. I collect Viragos (not indiscriminately, to my husband's relief) and am always on the lookout. They're not impossible to find in the US, but they're not common, and because Virago is an English press I was hoping for exactly this kind of opportunity while I'm here. I've never seen so many green beauties in one bookshop before! I delightedly picked out just five, several of which are war-stories, which felt appropriate considering the previous day's trip to the war museum. Since it's easier to carry around my Kindle on the tube, I plan to save these for the fall (and have a continuing taste of England even when back in North Carolina).


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mum's visit: Oxford

Our extra-London adventures took us throughout the England countryside - we all kept on the lookout for sheep - and the weather couldn't have been better. England's green and pleasant land indeed! I adored my views of those rolling green hills from the window of the rental car. Now I just need to take a train trip across England!

We started off with a trip to Swindon to visit one of mum's school friends. He lives in the most picturesque English neighborhood I could possibly imagine, and to make the experience even better, made me an impromptu steamed pudding when I confessed that I'd never had one and was dying to try it. We then headed up to Oxford, where we stayed for two nights in a quaint little bed and breakfast, giving us a day and a half to roam throughout these streets I'd only ever read about.

Oxford totally rocks. Case in point:


Walking into central Oxford, we happened to spot one of husband's professors across the street! So we ran over to say hello, and ended up parting ways with my mum for a bit. It was funny to see someone from Duke while on our trip here in England! Trying to catch back up with mum, we got distracted by the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and being us, we couldn't help wandering in. Neither of us were quite prepared for what we found inside.



This is the pulpit from which the likes of John Wesley, C.S. Lewis, and John Henry Newman preached, and below it, a memorial to the martyrs of the English Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics alike. I was quite overcome by this unusual recognition that believers of both traditions suffered and died for their faith, and I had to sit down quietly for a few minutes to silently say a prayer for all those who died whose names and stories we don't know.

And then, before we knew it, we had wandered into the courtyard of the Bodleian Library. Have I mentioned that Oxford is truly awesome? The courtyard featured doorways labeled with the subjects of the classical trivium and quadrivium, as well as a few philosophies. Husband proudly recalls that the unlabeled door leading to the divinity school is meant to indicate that theology is the queen of the sciences. 


Though their exhibition room was closed, there was a gorgeous mini exhibit on Wycliffite Bibles, which even had some useful descriptions that could lead to interesting avenues in my research on devotional materials from a century later. And of course, not knowing if we'll get back to Oxford to actually use the Bodleian for research this summer, we took a tour!


Providing me with a splendid opportunity to completely geek out, we found the Eagle and Child ("The Bird and Baby"), the pub where the Inklings (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and crowd) used to meet on Tuesday mornings to drink and think great thoughts together. I couldn't help taking a bunch of photos:





 This last photo includes the signatures of all the Inklings, and my favorite bit is at the bottom, where J.R.R. Tolkien proudly points out that he is the father of the above Christopher Tolkien.

Finally, we spent a highly pleasant afternoon frequenting St. Philip's Bookstore - a specialist in theology books, though unfortunately, neither of us found any books we couldn't live without - and the Bate Collection of musical instruments. This last was really quirky and fun. They had theremins on display and let us try them out, and we even saw Handel's harpsichord (they think - it's the only one by that maker that survives today, and there's a portrait of Handel containing an instrument that looks very much like this one) and the harpsichord that Haydn played when he visited England. There was also a really interesting cabinet displaying bow-making tools, which will soon be augmented by a researcher with a grant coming to work on this set.

It only enhanced this trip that I'm currently in the middle of a Lord of the Rings re-read. It also made me really want to re-read Philip Pullman's Dark Materials now that I have an actual mental picture of Lyra's Oxford!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mum's visit: Kensington Gardens and the Tower of London

It was such a treat to have my mother visit us! She was super excited when she heard we'd be spending the summer in England, because she herself studied at Oxford for a year abroad, and has been dying for an excuse to come back and visit her old school friends. Husband and I took the week off - okay, that's not quite true; I had to make one very brief trip to the library to check some page numbers for the final details of my article. But we mostly set our work aside and enjoyed a week of touristing across England. It was the first time we've gotten out of London - but more on those adventures later.

For our first day, mum and her husband wanted to accomplish two goals: see the Peter Pan statue and the Crown Jewels. So first we headed off to the beautiful Kensington Gardens, and spent a few hours tramping across the gardens looking for the statue. We walked around the beautiful park, looked at the vivid flowers by the palace, stopped for some delicious ice cream, and got a little lost. That's when we came across this:


These rocks are not accidental. In fact, this is a commissioned sculpture called "Rock on top of another rock." While mum and her husband stopped to ask directions, I sat under a tree (my legs were rather sore by this point) and bemusedly admired the sculpture. Husband and I decided it reminded us of the Japanese tradition of the artificial mountain - when you live in a city in Japan, and are disconnected from nature, you bring something from nature into the built environment so you can contemplate it. "Rock on top of another rock" looks quite a bit like the stainless steel artificial mountain on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Some more walking and the beginnings of a sunburn later, we found the Peter Pan statue. Curious why this statue is here in Kensington Gardens, we did some googling and found out that Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a 1906 novel by J.M. Barrie that tells Peter's origin story.


After lunch - mum's first British pub of the trip - we headed over to the Tower of London. It was quite a different experience to be there as an tourist rather than a member of the congregation. We arrived just in time for a tour led by one of the yeoman warders, who was both extremely knowledgeable and extraordinarily funny. At the end of his talk, he repeated a few of the sillier questions he's been asked before; my favorite was "Are these the original ravens?"

For those who don't know, the Tower of London has been inhabited by a group (an "unkindness") of ravens since William the Conqueror built the place in the eleventh century. According to legend, if the ravens leave the Tower, England will fall. So naturally, England's response is to clip the ravens' wings so they can't leave - making my husband grouse about the bloody-minded logic of empire. Empire aside, I thought they were extremely cute!
 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Twinings Tea Shop and Museum

Most people know that I'm an avid tea-drinker. There's nothing like a nice warm mug of deliciousness while you're writing a term paper, cuddled up in bed with a good novel, or sharing great conversation with a friend. I go through 50-packs of Twinings Earl Grey tea like candy. Of course, I also drink a lot of loose-leaf tea, my favorite being Naughty Vicar from the London Tea Room in St. Louis, but with the sheer amount of Twinings I enjoy, there was no way I was going to miss their shop on the Strand while I was in London -- especially after I heard they have a tea museum there too.

The shop is small and extremely narrow, and gets easily crowded, but gosh does it smell amazing. They have so many varieties that aren't available in the United States, or at least aren't sold at the grocery stores where I usually browse the tea aisle. They don't just have Earl Grey, for example, they also have Lavender Earl Grey and Blossom Earl Grey and Jasmine Earl Grey. Most of their teas on display have little sample jars so you can smell them. One whiff of their orange and cinnamon black tea had me swooning, and I'm definitely going to bring some of that back home with me. Can you just imagine a hot chocolate infused with orange and cinnamon tea?

At the back of the shop, they had a little tasting counter, where I tried a type of Darjeeling - a pity I don't remember which one, because it was particularly delicate and wonderful. They also had their very small museum, which chronicled the history of the shop, the history of their branding, and a bit about the history of tea in general. Did you know that Twinings is the official tea supplier to the British monarchy?

I didn't buy anything - shocker! - because I'm still working my way through a large box of Twinings Earl Grey which I bought as soon as I arrived in London, and because anything we bring home will be fresher and tastier if we get it closer to our departure date. This just means we'll have to go back!




I wanted to read every book in this cabinet
 
In case my friend who is writing a dissertation on the history of tea culture in Russia found this interesting!