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!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Adventures at and around the Tower of London

Visiting the Tower of London - a former royal palace, which Henry VIII famously turned into a prison - is expensive, so expensive in fact that we hadn't thought we'd visit it at all. However, I remembered last Saturday evening that I'd made plans to meet a musicologist from Ireland at the Tower's chapel service the next morning. It turns out that, as at St Paul's Cathedral, "I'm here for the service" are the magic words. We were admitted free of charge into the Tower, and had a few minutes to enjoy the stunning architecture on our way to the chapel. And it's not just any chapel, it's one of the Chapels Royal (though we learned that the Queen seldom attends services, unless they're singing Stanford in B-flat!)

The service, Choral Matins, was really lovely, and featured the Te Deum from William Byrd's Great Service (as I whispered to husband when it was done, "this is why Queen Elizabeth tolerated Byrd's Catholicism!") We enjoyed a trebuchet demonstration (photo of it in action below!) and for lunch, the biggest fish fillet I've ever seen (so we just split one order of fish and chips). Husband wanted to see the Tower Bridge nearby, so we wandered across it and found all sorts of cool things to look at on the other side of the Thames, including some kind of music festival in the park and the HMS Belfast, before crossing back on London Bridge to find a tube station home. It was a spectacular Sunday afternoon.

The completely awesome Tower of London. The original castle bit was built by
William the Conqueror in the eleventh century.

The Chapel Royal (St Peter ad Vincula), which was smaller and simpler than I expected,
but really beautiful and with great acoustics, and the people were extraordinarily friendly.

I'm such a sucker for medieval siege weaponry; I couldn't resist stopping
by to watch the trebuchet demonstration on our way out.

If you looked really close at one of the turrets, you'd find this ghostly
soldier protecting Her Majesty's palace.
A view of the Shard (one of the distinctive buildings downtown near that Tower)

And a view of the Gherkin (another of those buildings that seems so incongruous alongside the
Tower, which is in the foreground). Husband says a gherkin is a small, sweet pickle.
The Tower Bridge, an icon of London. If your ship needs to pass through, you have
to give them 24 hours' notice.

Doesn't this totally look like Diagon Alley??

HMS Belfast, a decommissioned WWII cruiser now on permanent display. As the trebuchet
at the Tower of London was the siege engine of its time, the cruiser serves the same purpose for the twentieth century.

We finished up our trip by meandering down the river to London Bridge -
you can see its label on the side of the pillar. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, it looks pretty sturdy to me!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

My mum's coming to visit!

Since I spent the last week writing my article, in addition to extra-long days at the library because I've been working on some super cool projects there, I haven't had the time to post here. The highlight of the week was definitely celebrating our third anniversary, which we did at a fun pub which had really excellent beer. We also visited the Twinings Tea Shop - more on that later! I'm spending this afternoon on edits and citations, and then the article will be nearly done, hooray! And just in time, too, because my mum is flying out to London tonight to visit us for a week!

I hope to write and schedule several blog posts this afternoon, so that over the next few days I can share some gorgeous photos from last week, and no doubt I'll have exciting stories after mum's trip. Other than one small quote I have to double-check at the library, I'm taking this week as a vacation, and we'll be visiting Swinton, Oxford, and Manchester, in addition to showing my mom around London. I fully anticipate visiting great friends, sharing some delicious Indian food (my mum's favorite), late-night catching up over hobnobs and tea, and my first views of the exquisite English countryside.