The English Countryside in Autumn

29 01 2009

As fans of English literature and culture, my travel companion D (my mother in law) and I felt that a trip to England would not be complete without a tour of the countryside. We wanted to see the fields of sheep, quaint cottages, parish churches, manor houses, and places of learning that featured so prominently in all the novels we’ve read and shows we’ve seen. That is, we wanted to see more of England’s pleasant pastures and mountains green and less of its Satanic mills.

A charming view of a Cotswold farm with fields of sheep in the background.

As non-drivers who didn’t have a lot of time, the surprising choice for us was the bus tour. We originally wanted to do a tour that provided a tour guide, used trains, and took us to fewer sights (so we can spend more time at them) but the tour operators were not running that tour when we were there in November.

Seeing Oxford, the oldest English speaking university in the world, was a must for us!

Magnificent Gothic architecture at Oxford.

Old buildings blend with those that are not so old at Oxford.

Although I am usually not a big proponent of bus tours, sometimes it is the only viable option. I try to avoid bus tours in general because they are usually expensive, crowded, and on a set schedule. I never feel like I have enough time to see what I want to see. In addition, being part of a mob and/or only seeing something through a window isolates you from the places you visit. You only see what the tour company wants you to see, and that may or may not be true to the place.

We were only able to take a quick peek at the town of Oxford.

However, if you are short on time, cannot drive, and absolutely want to see something, even if it’s just a glimpse, sometimes it is your best (and only) option. Bus tours do have some positives; they usually provide tour guides, they are great for inexperienced solo travelers, and you will not get lost. In addition, some tour companies really put in the time and effort to make a well rounded experience, such as themed tours. If you are picky about what type of tour you choose, you can minimize the bad parts and make the best of your trip.

Radcliffe Camera, the most photographed library on campus.

A guide will explain why there are 38 different colleges at Oxford and how they are organized. They will tell you where famous movies were filmed. They will attempt to explain architectural details.  They will make cheesy jokes.


According to our guide, this was Tolkien’s Room at Exeter College.

One of the many libraries at Oxford. They filmed scenes from the Harry Potter movies here.

We ended up choosing a mini-bus tour (maximum 12 persons) of Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. I actually didn’t want to go to Stratford-upon-Avon since I had already seen it and thought it was overrated. Also a third location meant less time at the other two. However, there was not an option that excluded it. We chose the mini-bus over the huge tour bus primarily because it could navigate the tiny lanes in the Cotswold towns but also because it avoided the huge crowds/mob feeling.

A gorgeous home in Stow-on-the-Wold.

We stopped by a gourmet market in Stow-on-the-Wold. Too bad we only had 10 minutes.

Another positive of small groups was that the tour guide could make small adjustments to his or her commentary and itinerary to suit our interests. For instance, when our guide heard that my travel companion was interested in historic churches, we decided to explore the parish church in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

An atmospheric church in Stow-on-the Wold.

The fascinating graveyard of the parish church in Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of the graveyard.

After seeing Oxford and exploring Stow-in-the-Wold, we had lunch in the town center.

View from the town center of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of Stow-on-the-Wold.

This fish pie was as delicious as it looks!

I wish we could have stayed at a B&B like this in the Cotwolds.

After lunch, we drove around the Cotswolds some more. We stopped at Lower Slaughter and walked up to Upper Slaughter. These village names sound much more bloody then they are. Slaughter actually derives from “slough” meaning wet land.

Homes along a stone wall in Lower Slaughter.

Peeking into a quaint house in Lower Slaughter.

Autumn Leaves in Lower Slaughter.

I love the sheep on the hill.

View of Upper Slaughter from Lower Slaughter.

Church in Upper Slaughter.

Driving out of Upper Slaughter.

After a scenic drive around the Cotswolds, we then proceeded onto the final part of the journey. We were actually running late, but still managed to be the last group into Shakespeare’s birthplace. This worked out quite well since we ended up having a private tour given by a Scottish Laird!

Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Harry Pottermania can be seen all over England.

Although travel doesn’t always go as planned, compromises are not so bad if you do your research.  In this case, a mini-bus tour served our needs quite wonderfully despite our reservations about bus travel.  We were able to see the Cotswolds and didn’t have to worry about transportation.  Now whenever I read British novels that feature pastures, villages,  and universities, I don’t have to imagine.  I can just remember.


Happy Chinese New Year!

26 01 2009

新年快樂 Xin nian kuai le!  I wanted to drop a quick note to wish everyone a Happy Chinese New Year!  According to the predominant Chinese lunar calendar, it is the year 4707 and the year of the ox.  Unfortunately for many of us, the year of the ox does not herald a bull market.

I also want to include in here a technical note about my blog. You may have noticed that some of my older photos that were hosted by Photobucket are not currently viewable. Apparently I exceeded the bandwidth of my Photobucket account this month. Don’t worry, they should be back by January 28th when the month resets. If we encounter further problems, I will look into moving those older photos into Picasa, my current photo host.

Thank you for visiting my blog. I should have some exciting new posts to come this year. In addition to finishing up my London posts, I am also planning on finally posting about my Paris trip. We will also be heading to the beautiful country of New Zealand in February/March.

In the meantime, have a happy and prosperous new year! 恭喜發財 Gong xi fa cai!

Tower of London and Anne Boleyn

21 01 2009

In preparation for this particular London trip, I read Phillipa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, to get myself in the right frame of mind for seeing historic London.  Although historical fiction is often far from fact, it helps bring history and old intrigues alive.  As is apparent from the title of the novel, The Other Boleyn Girl  is the story of the two popular Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, who charmed Henry VIII as mistress and wife, respectively, before their family’s dramatic fall from power after Anne is executed for treason at the Tower of London.  The Boleyn legacy lived on, however, through Anne’s daughter, who eventually became Queen Elizabeth I.  

As usual, it was cloudy on the day we visited the Tower of London.

The Tower of London is one of England’s most famous landmarks because of its turbulent and bloody history.  Henry VIII was just one of many English rulers who used this fortification, although he is arguably the most famous infamous.  While the innermost White Tower was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London as it stands today is quite a large complex of buildings and fortifications built over several hundred years. There is even a moat, although it is dry now. Our tourguide indicated, however, that there is a rumor that the city of London may fill the moat for the 2012 Olympics.

The old moat at the Tower of London is now filled with grass.

When the moat was still in operation in the middle ages, it connected directly to the River Thames. In fact, most prisoners entered the Tower of London by boat through Traitor’s Gate, which leads into St. Thomas’s tower. Princess Elizabeth herself was brought into the Tower complex via this entrance after her half sister Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) sent her here as a prisoner. Elizabeth was treated well in the Tower despite being a prisoner, however, because she was next in line for the throne after Mary.

Traitor’s Gate

The Tower of London has served over the years as a royal residence, fortress, and most famously as a political prison for high status individuals and royalty. In addition, the Tower was the actual site where the most important executions were performed. As a result, a tour of this landmark is quite gruesome. This makes sense, as the Tower was the site of involuntary confinement, political intrique, torture and execution.

Famous involuntary guests of the Tower included Kings of Scotland, Wales, and France, several princes of England, even supposed Kings of England, and of course Queen Elizabeth before she was queen. The succession of the throne of England was always in flux because there were often several heirs, which made everyone involved paranoid. As a result, whoever ended up in power would often lock up their enemies, especially if they were siblings who could usurp their power.

The Tower also hosted non-royal prisoners, including Thomas More.  More was a former friend of Henry VIII who was executed after he refused to sign a document making Henry VIII head of the Church of England. Another prisoner of the Tower was Sir Walter Raleigh, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Raleigh was sent to the Tower after he secretly married one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting without permission. Fortunately Raleigh and his wife and family were able to live in the Tower in comfort, as the crime he committed was not treasonous. Raleigh was later imprisoned again under James I, however, and beheaded for invading a Spanish city in the New World.

At the center of the Tower is the White Tower, the oldest building in the complex. Today, it is a fine example of Norman architecture and houses an exhibition of arms and armor. Honestly, I found this part of the tour a little boring. The most interesting part was an exhibit of Henry VIII’s armor, which showcased just how rotund this king was in his middle age.

The White Tower

View from the White Tower. Notice London’s new city hall, dubbed “Lord Vader’s Helmet” for obvious reasons.

Henry VIII’s Battle Armor

What I found far more interesting were the spooky interiors and staircases in the White Tower.

Norman Chapel inside the White Tower

Staircase in the White Tower

Once we got back outside, we saw much more interesting sights. First, we viewed the Royal Crown Jewels. No photos were allowed inside, of course. I considered this a must-see though! My favorite was Queen Victoria’s little crown.

Building housing the British Crown Jewels, as seen from the White Tower.

Guarding the Crown Jewels

After the jewels, we visited the courtyard where executions were carried out.  Only the most important prisoners of the highest status were executed here.  You knew you had “made it” in society if you died here.  As the queen of England, Anne Boleyn was executed here and buried in the church on the perimeter of the courtyard.  We didn’t go in the church, however, because you have to pay extra.

Execution site with the church in the background.

Medieval buildings surrounded the other side of the courtyard. The building in the corner was built for Anne Boleyn as her wedding present from Henry VIII. Nowadays, the yeoman warders live in these buildings. It’s a little known fact that people still live in the Tower of London. The church is also still used regularly.

Anne Boleyn’s residence

The Tower of London is easily accessible by Tube (Stop: Tower Hill) and is one of the major stops on the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours.  We toured the Tower complex with London Walks, meeting at Tower Hill.  Our tourguide was very good, telling us both the history and lore surrounding this fortress.

While Anne Boleyn’s story is riveting, it also demonstrated quite dramatically how much power the English rulers had before the 20th century.  The mood and whim of the king could literally mean life or death for you, even if you are his wife.  Henry VIII went from being madly in love with Anne, even restructuring religious power in England so that he could marry her, to wanting to behead her when she was unable to produce a son.  Although walking in her footsteps on my visit to the Tower of London was exciting, I am glad that I did not have to live her life, even if she was queen.

Walking Old London

16 01 2009

One of the many ways to enjoy London is to go on a guided walk.  This way, you get to see the city at walking speed with a knowledgeable guide without wasting time getting lost.  A walking tour takes you through all the nooks and crannies in London, of which there are many.  Even if you have already seen a particular part of London, these tours can uncover yet another layer of this complex city.

On our first full day, we decided to take the Old London: the Medieval to Georgian walking tour with Hilary of London Walks. The tour was first rate and our guide was excellent.  Hilary led us on a loop concentrating on the area know as “the city,” the original city of London before it subsumed Westminster and other neighboring areas. 

The first stop of our walking tour was this Roman wall that was surrounded by modern buildings. Did you know that modern London is built right on top of old Roman Londoninium? If you look over the railing you see in the photo below, you can look down 14 feet to the bottom of the Roman street.  As a result, every building project in London needs to stop immediately if after breaking ground the workers find any historic objects until their significance can be ascertained.  This wall was sitting right next to a high rise hotel.  We would never have found this especially choice section of the wall without Hilary.

A remnant of old Londinium is surrounded by modern London.

The next stop on our walk was St. Olave’s Church, a tiny medieval church that escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Charles Dickens was so inspired by the grinning skulls over the churchyard entrance that he included it in his literary collection “Uncommercial Traveler,” calling it St. Ghastly Grim.

St. Olave’s Church, a medieval country church in the big city of London.

St. Olave’s was also the church regularly attended by the essayist Samuel Pepes, famed for his encrypted private diary chronicling first hand the happenings of the Restoration period, including Great Fire of London.

Samuel Pepes and our tourguide Hilary.

Most of medieval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, including 87 parish churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The fire itself started at Thomas the baker’s house on Pudding Lane and through a combination of wind conditions, poor decisionmaking by the lord mayor, and ineffective medieval firefighting techniques, a small flame became a conflagration that decimated the city.

The Great Fire of London began on Pudding Lane and ended on Pye Corner. Was it a dessert conspiracy?
There are several competing stories about how the fire started, but somehow Thomas the baker was not held responsible in any of them.  Instead, the blame was placed on the French and the Catholics.   What was not uncertain, however, was the fact that the Great Fire changed the course of London’s architectural history.  Among other things, flammable building materials such as wood and straw were prohibited thereafter in the city.  The Great Fire also propelled the career of the architect Sir Christopher Wren to the greatest heights.  Wren was the architect commissioned to design nearly all the parish churches destroyed by the fire, including his crowning glory, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Monument to the Great Fire of London, commissioned by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. The tube stop is named after it, and it is currently being restored to its full glory.

After speaking about the Great Fire, Hilary led us through a series of beautiful Wren designed churches that finally culminated in his most famous work, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

We walked through this beautiful ruined Wren Church that was transformed into a peaceful garden in the middle of the city.

In between Wren churches, we saw some wonderful examples of modern London architecture.

A modern interpretation of Gothic architecture.

Incidentally, this building was used as Cruella de Ville’s base in the 101 Dalmations movie.

KFC Telephone Booth

A London street built after the Great Fire.

We saw several churches that demonstrated key developments of Wren’s design style, from the simpler church built for a poorer parish to St. Stephen Walbrook, Wren’s own parish church and said to be one of his finest creations.  While plain looking from the outside, the interior of St. Stephen Walbrook is said to be one of the most perfect buildings in the world.  The dome was the one originally designed for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The dome at St. Stephen Walbrook.

Interior of St. Stephen Walbrook, Sir Christopher Wren’s own parish church.

Henry Moore’s modern stone altar in St. Stephen Walbrook.

Another interior shot of St. Stephen Walbrook.

After seeing the churches Wren “practiced on” we were finally led to his greatest creation, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But first we walked through some pretty side streets.

This is so clean!

Pheasants in the window of a butcher shop.

Our tour ended with this wonderful view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Since it was around 4:30 PM at this point, Hilary suggested to the group that we stop for some tea at a local shop and then go to Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which starts at 5 PM on weekdays.  We took her suggestion and had the most perfect ending to our walking tour.  

St. Paul’s Cathedral at twilight.

Evensong at St. Paul’s was simply divine.  Hearing the angelic voices of the choir in the most magnificent cathedral I’ve ever seen made it one of the most memorable experiences of my life.  In my opinion, St. Paul’s is more beautiful than the Notre Dame or Canterbury Cathedral, although they are also splendid.  Admittance to evensong is free.  If you choose to attend the entire service, you can sit near the front past the ushers.  If you only have time to listen for a few minutes, you have the option of staying near the back of the cathedral.  I believe the service lasts about one hour.

I highly recommend London Walks, a tour company that employs certified Blue Badge guides to take you on a myriad of different themed walks for only 7 pounds each.  This company has specialized tours by neighborhood and theme, from the Beatles to Literary Bloomsbury to Old London history to Jack the Ripper night tours.  They even have wallet friendly Explorer Days that take you on day trips outside the city, supplying you with guides but saving money by using public transportation and trains.  We took two of these walking tours, and they were both great.  We thought Hilary was the best tourguide for our entire trip.

London, England, U.K.

14 01 2009

London, England is quite possibly my favorite city in the world.  For me, it has just the right combination of history, culture, architecture, lore and good public transportation.  Where else do finance types get to have their after work drinks in the same gloomy pub that was frequented by Charles Dickens and has been around since the 1500s?  In what other city can you find the most beautiful cathedral in the world built by the venerable Sir Christopher Wren?  And what other country has spawned so many literary classics and wonderful authors, from Jane Austen to J.K. Rowling to Neil Gaiman to Diana Wynne Jones?  Not to mention the fantastic television programs!

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this group in Trafalgar Square! These actors were promoting Monty Python’s new DVD box set.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I was in London this past November for about a week.  Although I have previously been to this historic city, it was over 10 years ago when I was a clueless student.  In that trip, I had done the typical touristy London in 2 days tour, where our school group sailed through all the major sites in one day on a bus, my friend was pickpocketed in Oxford, we trudged through a museum with no background, and it rained every day.  That is not how to do London and its environs and I do not recommend it.  

My first glimpse of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square.

What I do recommend is to take at least 3-4 days to really see London.  Even with one week, we felt we did not have nearly enough time to do everything we wanted.  I do feel that we were able to do the city a little more justice this time though.  We were able to just walk around Central London and explore, which is really the only way to get to know any city.  We still participated in tours and did the major landmarks, of course, but we did it on our terms, took our time, and had frequent breaks for tea.  It did rain, but it didn’t hold us back!

Big Ben is really beautiful up close.

Westminster Abbey

Covent Garden

I love how in London almost everyone calls you “love,” speaks with interesting accents, and likes to take tea and scones at 4 PM.  

Having a mini cream tea at TEA.

The fish and chips and Indian/Pakistani food are divine, and in fact the culinary world has improved immeasurably in the last decade.

Restaurants on Brick Lane, London’s Little India.

The best Pakistani food I’ve ever had in my life was at LaHore.

Lahore Kebab House is on Umberton Street right off Commercial Rd. The tube stop is Aldgate East.  The immediate area is deserted at night, so make sure you know where you are going before starting out!

When you travel on your own schedule, you can stop at places like this Cornish Pasty Bakehouse on a whim. Yummy!

One of several interesting things to see on Fleet Street.

I love the side streets of this old city.  I wish I could have walked down every interesting side street I saw.

Side street off Whitehall.

Side street in the Old City of London.

This quaint street is straight out of a movie.

In some places, it’s not difficult to imagine London in the middle ages, when rats and the Black Death reigned.

Anne Boleyn’s residence in the Tower of London complex.

A shop on Fleet Street.  We didn’t see any demon barbers though.

And where else can you stumble on the most surreal scenes? On one of our last nights, we were walking towards St. Paul’s Cathedral when we saw this eerily beautiful carnival.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

A carnival next to St. Paul’s Cathedral

In London, it’s as if every street name, street corner, and building has some historic or literary significance.  Since this is the city where so many things originated, this should be unsurprising. I cannot help being amazed, however, when I am standing in the tube stations of Richard Mayhew’s adventures in London Below, or listening to the angelic voices at Evensong in St. Paul’s Cathedral, or gazing at the London Eye, where the Nestene Consciousness took up residence in Doctor Who, or standing in the place where Anne Boleyn triumphed and fell in her quest for the throne.  I suppose for me the best part of London is that it stirs my imagination and brings to life so many novels and history lessons I’ve loved.

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