Saturday, February 06, 2016

Road Trip - Oxford and Bletchley Park

This blog entry marks my 412th blog entry.  That number is not notable for any reason other than it is a Pittsburgh area code and Pittsburgh always brings back fond memories.

In the US, the only international universities that I think we hear about (before graduate school or study abroad) are Oxford, Cambridge, and maybe Sorbonne (France).  This is likely because we are not considering attending an international school, but why then, do we still know those two English universities? Prestige? History? There have to be other international universities that have been as successful. My best guess is that it is because the USA was once a British colony. Beyond universities, I've been amazed at just how many things that I experienced in the USA were easily recognizable in Britain culture as well, though I don't know if they were developed in the USA, in Britain, or separately in both.

Bodleian Library in Oxford

Anyway, KLS and I went to Oxford. Oxford is a single university, but it is a collection of around 40 colleges. When you apply, you do not apply to Oxford. You apply to a single college. You sort yourself instead of the sorting hat (Harry Potter) choosing for you. That college will be the equivalent of your freshman dorm in the USA. Additionally, when they do intramural sports leagues at the university, they are more likely to be broken up by college than other criteria. In the USA, we apply to the university and when you choose your major you end up in a college. You can take courses across colleges and the college divisions don't effect day to day life. I suspect it has more effect at the administrative level.

Radcliffe Camera

The architecture of every college seems to be taken out of a photographic collection of what you imagine universities should be - beautiful buildings and grounds that are meant to inspire. Coming from an urban campus at the University of Pittsburgh (an experience I loved), I have always been taken by classical campuses like this. Each college had a front quad with a small patch of manicured grass in the middle. One person said that the reason the buildings look so good is that they have been used for so long. In my mind, that means they might be a little run down. However, that person suggested that because some of these buildings are 500+ years old and have been used that entire time, they have learned how to prioritize proper maintenance.

All Souls College and Radcliffe Camera.

Bridge of Sighs

The back of New College

There was so much bike parking.

My favorite memory of Oxford, but might be trying to get there.  KLS, smartly, was trying to me to park outside of the city. I felt that we should go to our destination and then back out to find the closest spot we could. Well, it turns out that the center of Oxford is a biking city. The roads are closed to cars, but buses still run on those some roads. Because there is no clear division, you can follow those buses right into the city, which is EXACTLY what I did even though you are not allowed to be there. For a few moments, I was appreciating the amazing bike to car ratio until I eventually saw a sign and figured out that I needed to pull a U-turn and get out of there in a hurry. When we walked back into the city after parking, I saw numerous signs explaining that the roads were closed ahead.

Dominus illuminati mea, carved into the stone below the clock, is the University of Oxford's motto.

A typical front quad of one of the Oxford colleges.

After visiting Oxford, KLS and I headed over to Bletchley Park on a tip from my brother David. During WWII, Bletchley Park was a secret base that decrypted enemy transmissions. The work done at this base is believe to have saved thousands of lives and shorted WWII by two to four years. Alan Turing and this base were recently brought back into the spotlight by the movie The Imitation Game, which was partly filmed on site. The museum shows how the systems to break the German cyphers efficiently were slowly developed and then how the day-to-day translating was done quickly with those systems. The systems they built for breaking codes included Colossus, a system that shares a competing claim as the world's first computer.

This was the best museum I went to in England and I'd highly recommend it for any code breaking, computer science, or WWII buffs.

Bletchley Park mansion

A functioning replica of the Bombe machine, which helped break the transmissions from the elusive German Enigma machine.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Road Trip - Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are an area in south central England containing as many quaint country villages and towns as you could cram into a small area. The government has officially designated the Cotswolds as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).  There are 49 of AONBs labeled with that incredibly British sounding designation, perhaps only to be out done by the outstanding names of the towns we visited in the Cotswolds: Bourton-on-the-Water, Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping CampdenStratford-upon-Avon and the lowly two syllabic Burford.

How about this scenic spot in Bourton-on-the-Water as an area of outstanding natural beauty?

Our first stops were at the sleepiest little towns of Bourton-on-the-Water, Lower Slaughterhouse, and Upper Slaughterhouse.  The Slaughterhouses are not named after buildings for killing animals, but after an old English word for mud.  There is supposed to be an amazing short walk through fields between the two towns, but KLS and I decided to skip it because of how muddy it had been the day before and the fact these towns were named after mud.  After a week of slopping through mud and rain, we were happy to take it easy and just enjoy a car tour.


Stow-on-the-Wold library and Market Square
Our next stop was the bustling town (stores on more than 4 blocks!) of Stow-on-the-Wold.  Even though there were more places to leave your money, the theme stayed the same - stone buildings with usually no space between them, a few thatched roofs, and easy to access farm fields just outside of town. Whenever I picture England, this is what I envision.  One small part of that vision that I had not partaken in yet was tea time.  KLS and I tried unsuccessfully to go to two different tea shops that were both closed for four weeks surrounding the new year.

High tea time!

When we finally got up to the market square, we found an incredibly packed tea shop, likely because it was the only one open.  We ordered high tea, which is really a meal.  Of course, the natural starting point is tea. KLS got a traditional cream tea. I got some funky smokey peat flavored tea from Russia.  Then, we had a tower of  three plates brought out to us. The bottom place was 3 different types of sandwiches - maybe ham, salmon, and egg. The top plate was 2 scones with rich butter and jam to smother the scones in. Finally, the most important piece, the middle plate filled with a variety of yummy tea time cakes (seen at the bottom of the photo above).  Yes, I am gaining weight in England.
Stow-on-the-Wold street - don't park on the double yellow line. Generally, don't park anywhere in these towns except the out of town parking.

Stow-on-the-Wold back yards.

The Porch House dates back to 947 A.D.

Stow-on-the-Wold house on the outskirts of the town center.


Our next stop was Chipping Campden, essentially one long main quaint street. In my memory, I enjoyed it, but at the time didn't think it was one of the better towns. However, if I am choosing my best photos, Chipping Campden shows up the best. That might be because the drizzle finally stopped and we got some sunshine or that might be because I was filling a bit inundated by the quaintness of so many English villages and wasn't fully appreciating it.

Chipping Campden.

Chipping Campden.

Chipping Campden.

Chipping Campden.

Molly's Cottage.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Chipping Campden.

KLS admires the door to the Green Dragons cottage. It can be yours for the small price of $1,200,000.

Lower High Street, Chipping Campden.

The war memorial in Chipping Campden. I do not think we visited a single town that did not have one.

The inside of the 400 year old Market Hall

The outside of the 400 year old Market Hall

People were shorter when these houses and doorways were originally built.

Cute side street.

Chipping Campden.

At this point when KLS and I were both starting to tire out, so we made the ill advised decision to continue on to Stratford-upon-Avon.  Americans reading this might think that I have the town name wrong. However, at an American run trivia night in Antarctica, some of my British teammates put down Stratford-upon-Avon as the answer to where Shakespeare was born and were not given credit for the answer. They loudly informed the organizers and everyone else in the room that they lived in England and darn well knew what the town was called - Stratford-upon-Avon, not Stratford-on-Avon. While we are at it, why do all these towns have so many hyphens in the name?


Because we pushed on to Stratford-upon-Avon and got there late, everything was closing up.  It was definitely the biggest town that we had visited, it might have even been a city.  We ended up just eating, peeking in the window of things we might have visited like the Shakespeare museum, narrowly avoiding mobs of people exiting a play along the Avon from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and heading home for the night.  We used Airbnb again and stayed with a lovely woman who had once tutored the royal children. I know Airbnb makes some people uncomfortable because they want their own space, but the hosts are usually very welcoming and you get a firsthand look at modern English living that you otherwise might miss it.



The next morning, we were up early and out the door. KLS and I had a big day planned that started out in our final Cotswold town - Burford. This town had a single major commerce street and then cute residential areas near off to the side.  We surprised one restaurant by stopping in so early for breakfast even though they were technically open.



Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Road Trip - Driving back from Land's End (Southwest England)

I couldn't believe there were daffodils in full bloom outside on New Year's Day!

Our next stop was the small town of Shaftesbury.  I have no idea how KLS picked this place, but it was a cute one. It had a good mix of the small town charm we loved on the Cornwall coast with a higher population base. Our Airbnb spot was a new planned neighborhood that was still within 20 minutes of the city center.

The quaint town of Shaftesbury.

The post office and bank of Shaftesbury.

The entrance to Gold Hill in Shaftesbury.

The amazing view looking down Gold Hill.

Looking back up Gold Hill.

Another thatched roof, which is incredibly expensive to replace ($140/sq.ft.)

This religious looking building seemed to have been converted to single units to condos.

More cute streets.

The highest end pizza place in town.

KLS and I ended up at another pub for dinner. She was really excited about it.

We love the pub atmosphere.

After a quiet night in Shaftesbury, KLS and I went back to Stonehenge. She was insistent that we use our free passes this trip so we got up early and were on the first bus up to the rocks. Since it was so wet, only one half of the site was still open. Foiled again!  It is a curious tourist attraction.  The rocks themselves spark the imagination of what they were for and how they were built. However, there is a road running right by the attraction. The official visitor's center is a mile away by bus, but you can drive yourself around via back roads to the rocks as well. Also, you can walk a couple miles via right of ways from Woodhenge, but then can't get into the site. It seems like one of those places you'd want to commune with nature at, but it really isn't in nature anymore. It is still fun though, just look at KLS' smile.

KLS at Stonehenge!

Brody at Stonehenge!


After our quick stop, we were driving off to Bath. The Romans had built baths on the natural hot springs here. They did a really neat job of restoring the original baths while modernizing the building they were housed in. The whole city of 100,000 was a great fusion of the quaint architecture we saw in small towns combined with the modern elements a city of 100,000 needs.  KLS had already been on a tour here with her friend, so we got around the city pretty quickly until we got distracted an English Premier League game in a bar.
The Roman baths.

Bath Abbey.

A random street in Bath city center.

The Circus

A cool way to show the remaining ruins with a projection so you can get a fuller idea of what something looked like.

The actual baths.

It was a cold wet day. It sure looked tempting.

Bath Abbey towering above the Roman Baths.

Who knew smelling the natural springs would lead to such mental confusion . . . or I was just wearing two Patagonia jackets and the zippers happened to fit together. I'll take option one. Be careful, kids.

Bath Abbey.

Lacock, a medieval town from the 1300s, was next up on our tour. I think most of the town is owned by the National Trust and then rented out.  This town was the most preserved of all the ones that we had seen. This preservation has led it to be used in a number of movies, including Harry Potter. We spent an entire afternoon wandering the 5 or 6 streets that make up the entire town.  Unfortunately, we did not make to the abbey where the first ever photograph was taken and some Hogwart's scenes were filmed for Harry Potter. More for next time in this absolutely lovely town.

Main street Lacock.

The others side of Main street.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort goes through this wooden gate on his way to Harry's house to kill Harry's parents. It appears in a flashback scene as Hagrid tells Harry about his parents fate.

A bed and breakfast.

A lovely little stream running through a lovely little village.

Delightful (with a British accent) residential Lacock.

Sign of the Angel restaurant in Lacock where KLS and I had our favorite meal in the UK yet. Tait and Chelsea would be happy to know that it might fall under the fancy meal category and we still liked it