2011 Europe by Rail – Day 28

OXFORD, STRATFORD, WARWICK – a new adventure with an old friend

Wednesday – an early start to the day – so what else is new I hear you say.  Today is our Evan Evans Tour to Salisbury Cathedral, Stonehenge and Bath.  I have been to Stonehenge and Bath and loved every minute of it.  Salisbury Cathedral will be another new place. 

We have to meet the coach at Victoria Station at 8.45am so we set off for Aldgate station – and when we get there – holy crap – the underground is in a mess and what normally would take less than half an hour sees us still trying to get there by the time our coach has left.  We survey the scene and spot an Evans Evans coach parked across the road so we hot foot it over and bang on the door.

Looking forlorn and bedraggled, huffing and puffing our tale of woe to the driver, he calls the guide and lo and behold who should it be but Cosetta.  If you have read my Britain post from 2003 – she was the guide on my tour of Leeds Castle and Canterbury Cathedral.  Eight years later and she is still with Evan Evans – she pretends she doesn’t remember me! Maybe she doesn’t want to show favouritism.

We repeat our story, she tells us that the coach for our tour has left but she has room on this coach if we are interested. Cosetta makes a call and tells her boss the story, they have already got our money and everything is OK so on we hop.

So now we are going to Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle.  Bummer no Stonehenge for Tyler and Kylie but still these places are interesting and at least we are going somewhere for the day.

K&T are lucky to get a seat up front and I am beside a young lad about 6 seats behind them.  Cosetta is in fine form as she tells us about the countryside we travel through and in no time she has the group smiling and enjoying the day.

First stop – Oxford.  A town well known for its university – it will be lovely to revisit.  There are so many interesting nooks and crannies here and the bonus is that we will get to go inside Christ Church, something that I have not done.

The coach comes to a stop across the road from the St Aldate’s Police station – renowned for its appearances in the Inspector Morse series.  Apparently, if you believe the web, there is a sign in one of the windows that says ‘Inspector Morse’s Office’ but I must admit I did not see it from here.  I also admit to not ever watching Inspector Morse.  Maybe a little bit of my own investigation of the channels when I get back home might lead me to viewing an episode or two.

We begin our foot tour and head for Oxford University and Christ Church.

This is the Meadow Building (known as “Meadows” to students).  It is aptly named as it looks out onto Christ Church Meadow.  It was built in 1863 and single rooms look out over either the college or the meadow. Originally, college undergraduates would be given a suite of rooms with views overlooking both sides. Recent building work has converted most of these rooms to en suite while leaving one staircase.  When it was first built, it was considered the least desirable accommodation at the college.

Doesn’t the plant growing on the building look picturesque?  I love the way it is cut around the windows.  We are surrounded by lovely gardens but ever on the move, we pass the Meadow and find ourselves standing in front of Christ Church.

In 1525, at the height of his power, Thomas Wolsey, planned the establishment on a magnificent scale, but he fell from grace in 1529, with the buildings only three-quarters complete – as they were to remain for 140 years.

In 1531 the college was itself suppressed, and refounded by Henry VIII in 1532 as King Henry VIII’s College.  In 1546 the King, who had broken from the Church of Rome and acquired great wealth through the dissolution of the monasteries in England, renamed the college Christ Church as part of the re-organisation of the Church of England making the partially demolished Priory church the cathedral of the recently created diocese of Oxford.

Not only that – Christ Church Hall is famous for a starring role in the Harry Potter series – doubling as the Great Hall at Hogwarts!  I think that excites me more than the history of Henry VIII.  Overall Christ Church is a huge area and we will visit just a small part.

We enter through a small doorway and head for the Great Hall.  Climbing the very same staircase that Harry, Ron and Hermione did when they first came to Hogwart’s, it certainly is worthy of more than one Kodak moments.

The Great Hall was replicated in the film studios to create Hogwart’s Hall. Only one of the portraits moves, sadly, but many of the faces are the real “Wizards” who have changed the way we understand the world.

As Harry and the new first-years enter Hogwarts they are greeted at this very same spot by Professor McGonagall. My imagination is on the gallop again.  This scene was shot on the 16th century staircase which leads up to the Great Hall. It was just as well they didn’t film this when the Hall was first built, since the vaulted roofing was put up 150 years after the staircase.

This is the Dining Hall.  You will have to use your imagination quite a bit as it is not as big as what is depicted in the movies but it still has the character.  On the far wall are portraits of Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII not to mention other dignitaries of the times.

If you are a lover of Alice in Wonderful then there is something for you as well.  Charles Dodgson came to Christ Church to study mathematics and spent the rest of his life here as a student and teacher. It was while he was here, writing for a student paper that he was given the writing name – “Lewis Carroll,” by his editor.

He first met the Dean’s children Harry, Alice, Lorina and Edith when he had asked permission to photograph the Cathedral from the Deanery garden. While in the process of setting up his cumbersome equipment he was approached by Alice and her two sisters who wanted to be photographed. The girls loved Dodgson to tell them stories, turning their everyday surroundings into Wonderland stories. Christ Church – the place which Alice had known all her life plays a very important part in many of her adventures in Wonderland!

Time to move on and our exit path leads to the Great Quadrangle, more popularly known as – Tom Quad.  It is the largest of the college quads in Oxford and although it was begun by Cardinal Wolsey he was unable to complete it.

Wolsey planned that it would actually be a cloister and the supports required for this can be seen at short intervals around the quadrangle. It is dominated to the west by Tom Tower designed by Christopher Wren.  Parts of the quad are still lived in by undergraduates, including the staircase above the Porter’s lodge, known as ‘Bachelors’ Row’ s’ which is only inhabited by first year male undergraduates.  In the centre of the quad, there is an ornamental pond with a statue of Mercury.  Just my luck that there is a dirty big orange truck making deliveries.

In the tower pictured is Great Tom – the loudest bell in Oxford, weighing six and a quarter tons it is still sounded 101 times every night, which signifies the 100 original scholars of the college plus one (added in 1663). I know that would drive me crazy.

Oxford is such an ornate university.  Many of the buildings have intricate carvings and ornate embellishments.

I must admit I have no idea what the carvings and crests mean – maybe a bit more internet investigation in the not too distant future.  But it is great workmanship don’t you agree?

Our time at Oxford is at an end and we are soon back on the coach and heading for Shakespeare Country – Stratford-upon-Avon.

This is a really pretty town and is primarily known as the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  I was here in 2003 and it doesn’t seem to have changed except that today the skies are blue.

After parking the coach we are left to our own devices to roam around – so we head off looking in a few shops – buying some sweets and the usual touristy knick knacks.  Of course no visit to Stratford would be complete without a visit to the house where good ole Will was born and – shock horror – there is now a rule of no photography allowed  inside.

Inside the house the rooms and passageways are so small – I would think that people must have been only around 5 foot tall.  It is still set up the same as I remember and now there are ladies in the rooms explaining what is what – or maybe they are there to keep an eye on everyone.

When the walk through the house is finished we come to the exit and of course the souvenir shop.  Strange how these two things always go together.

As we are feeling a bit on the hungry side we head off to find a nice place to eat and discover a lovely little restaurant at the end of the town.  We place our order and the food is lovely – not to mention it is nice and cool in here as the day continues to heat up.

After a refreshing rest it is back into the heat to board the coach for our next and last stop – Warwick Castle.

Warwick Castle was founded in 1068 and was rebuilt and updated a number of times. Today it combines castle ruins, largely of the fourteenth century with one of the finest great houses in England. Two small projecting towers, which date to the late fifteenth century are said to have built as artillery platforms.  The Castle is of Norman origin and rises above the River Avon.  On this natural cliff, William I founded a motte castle in 1068 on lands seized from a nearby Saxon convent. A wooden tower built on the motte was evidently still there in the reign of Henry II, by which time a polygonal shell enclosure had been raised round the motte top. Only fragments of the shell enclosure now remain and are incorporated in the rebuilt shell.

It is a lovely afternoon for a walk around this magnificent place – and obviously everyone who is here has the same idea.  Our entry fee is included in our tour cost and there are a few exhibitions on offer to us for no extra charge. That is always a bonus – –

Our first little investigation leads us to ‘The Kingmaker’.  This is the story of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and we find ourselves back in Mediaeval days, lucky enough to join him as he prepares his extensive household for battle.

We see how they made their weapons and armour and also get a feeling of what Mediaeval life was really like through sights, sounds and smells!

A little bit of History on The Earl – on 2nd March 1450, Henry VI bestowed on Richard Neville, the husband of Anne de Beauchamp, the title Earl of Warwick.

History came to know him as Warwick the Kingmaker. During an increasingly fraught time in English history with the outbreak of Civil War, Neville’s family connections made him a Yorkist. His strong battle sense during the Battle of St Albans in 1455, ultimately lead to the defeat of the hapless Henry and the ascension of Edward, Duke of York, to the English throne. As a reward for his help, Warwick rose to a position of great power.

Another bit of information is that all the exhibitions are handled by Tussaud’s so of course they have  made all the wax models.  Above left is Fortune, the Earl’s trusty steed.  By the time this poor beast had his armour thrown over him and then he had to cope with the Earl and his armour – well, really, it is a wonder he could amble into battle let alone gallop!

Beside him is the Bowmaker – really no explanations needed for you to know what he did.  We finish our visit with the Earl and head for the next exhibition, the State Rooms.  These rooms have been extended, altered and embellished during virtually every century, to provide the best possible environment to entertain the noblest of guests and to display the family’s most prestigious possessions.

The Great Hall is the largest room in the Castle and as we enter, we are greeted by ladies dressed in the appropriate costume of the day.  In the early middle ages, straw and dirt covered the floor and burning in the centre of the room would have been a large fire.  The only natural light filtered through narrow lancet windows. It was in here that the nobility ate, drank and slept.  Nothing like a bit of get-togethering after a large meal and countless goblets of ale!

The Great Hall as it stands today was first constructed in the 14th century. It was rebuilt in the 17th century and then restored in 1871 after it had been badly damaged by a fire which swept through part of the Castle.

Set against the wall is a magnificent carved oak buffet.  Named the Kenilworth Buffet, it was made by local craftsmen for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Also in the Great Hall is a huge cauldron known as ‘Guy’s Porridge Pot’, named after the legendary Saxon hero, Guy of Warwick. About 500 years old, it was used to cook stew for the castle’s garrison of soldiers.

Other exciting artefacts include various suits of armour and two pristine pieces of equestrian armour. There is a miniature suit of armour which is believed to have been made for the four year old son of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. He died at the age of six.

Walking from the Great Hall to the State Dining Room, Queen Elizabeth II welcomes us but unfortunately she does not offer an invitation to join her for dinner.  The Dining Room was originally commissioned by Francis Greville in 1763; George IV, Edward VII, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert all dined here and this room continues to be used for impressive dinner parties.

Leaving Her Maj we progress to the Red Drawing Room (below left), the Cedar Drawing Room; The Green Drawing Room where Henry VIII and his 6 wives are on display (thanks Tussaud’s); The Queen Anne Bedroom – named not after Queen Anne but the bed that was sent in advance of her stay.  She never made it but the bed stayed.  The Blue Boudoir (below right) was formally a dressing room.  The walls were redecorated in the 19th century with silk from Lyon.  The dominant feature of this room is another portrait of Henry VIII.

Our tour of the State rooms ends and we are back in the sunshine and fresh air.

We have one more tour which will complete our visit to Warwick Castle – ‘The Weekend Party’. In 1898, Frances Countess of Warwick, more affectionately known as Daisy, hosted a weekend party at which the principal guest was the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

Let’s go and see how the other half lived!  In typical Tussaud fashion we are greeted by the Count and Countess themselves. Through former private apartments, wax figures of the principal attendees stand alongside authentic furniture and furnishings to help bring to life the excitement and scandal that swept through this weekend party.

We see Daisy trying on her new gown and young Winston Churchill reading a book in the library.  We even get a view of Edward the Prince of Wales himself.

It is now late in the afternoon and time to head back to the coach and return to London.  From a morning that started as a shambles it has turned out to be a great day. We arrive back London in the early evening and thank Cosetta for a most enjoyable time.  She is an excellent guide, not only knowledgeable but able to keep everyone interested in what is going on around them be it on the coach or wandering around by ourselves.

We get the Underground back to the hotel and rest up for a bit before deciding to venture forth again – this time to get some night shots of The Tower of London and Tower Bridge.  It is only about a 15 minute walk from where we are so loaded with cameras and tripods we are on our way.

The Tower of London is one of my most favourite places, I just love it and the history of this magnificent fortress never ceases to amaze me.  I will not give you another history lesson here about the Tower and the Bridge as we will have plenty of time to do that on our daytime visit.  Just sit back and enjoy the night with me.

In my opinion, the Tower does not lend itself well to night photography so most of my time is spent photographing the Bridge.  There are quite a few self-indulged photographers out and about making the most of the clear night and still waters.

I am having a wonderful time using different settings and lenses – it is great not be hurried along and able to pick and choose where to stand and how long to take.  Here’s the Tower Bridge in all its night-time glory – with and without stars.

Which one do you prefer?  I think I like the stars.  I just love my gadgets!  We stay there for a long time until the Tower Warder starts to lock all the gates and tells us that we must move on.  We pack up our gear and head back home.

But then it hits us that we are a bit hungry.  We visit a local pub have a good feed and get back to the hotel and prepare for another big day tomorrow – a visit to see Her Majesty’s Buckingham Palace.

Highlight of the day : standing at the top of the staircase and pretending to be Professor McGonagall at Christ Church Oxford.

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