The British Library, the Occult, and a Walk to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese

St. Pancras station

The Meeting Place, by Paul Day

I’ve read several critiques of this piece but not one of them bothered to mention the butt-sniffing so I’m not certain they even really looked at it.

Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi

Our day began at the British Library, where we luckily scored walk-up tickets to the new-at-the-time-and-now-gone Harry Potter exhibit. There were no photos allowed in the exhibit itself and my intention at the time was to sketch a little impression of each room for a more in-depth post but as you can see, that didn’t happen. It’s for the best, though–while a cruddy sketch would have helped to show the larger, Harry Potter specific themes of each room (the floating books and interactive cauldrons and talking herbology pots, there were separate rooms for eight different courses taught at Hogwarts), the true treasures were, of course, books and scrolls, and these cannot adequately be captured via cruddy sketch. 

The books were astounding. Even if I didn’t give a single shit about Harry Potter (which is obviously not the case), I would’ve loved this collection– fifteenth century lavish illustrations of plants and their uses, scrolls of alchemical theories, sixteenth century books on mythical creatures… I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have full access to the books and see what other masterpieces hide inside. This feeling was compounded after we exited the Harry Potter exhibit and made our way to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, “Treasures of the British Library”, which contained the most beautiful, ornate books I have ever seen. Books bound in fine leather, jeweled books, hand gilded books, one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. Like, a first first edition of the Magna Carta if you know what I mean.

Aside from displays such as these, there’s no wandering about, getting lost in the stacks in the British Library as a tourist–in order to read materials, you must first have a reader pass, answer inquiries about what precisely you wish to read, and then best the head librarian in hand to hand combat. It’s furthermore my understanding that current head librarian, Roland Francis Kester “Roly” Keating, though slight of frame with salt and pepper hair and a kindly face, has gone undefeated in 2018*, soundly kicking the asses of scores of scholars unworthy to stand in the shadow of the sole manuscript copy of the poem Beowulf.

Even if you manage to defeat Roly, there is no browsing of the 25 million book archive, as only books you have a specific need for are delivered from a storeroom to a reading room for your on-site perusal. I’m not complaining, it makes sense to keep the grubby hands of the masses off of your national treasures, speaking as someone who once found a slice of cheese that had been used to mark someone’s place in a library book. But as a browser and a looky-loo, I do have to say that I wouldn’t have minded a peek at a storeroom. I had to satisfy that urge by wandering through both gift shops, and ultimately left with a slim volume on the nature of an aspect of the English language.

From the British Library, we began to walk in the direction of Ye Old Cheshire Cheese to meet one of my friends, who, incidentally, works in the library field. En route, I was pretty taken with this hotel’s mint green scalloped spires. Fun fact: the boxy chain hotel next to a grody strip mall in my town with an Expedia review of “I checked in and I saw a few bugs on the wall so I just killed them and was like whatever” has a higher nightly rate than this lovely one that’s kitty corner across a park from the British Museum, and this sleepy Seattle suburb has nowhere near 8 million items of historical significance. That’s even taking into account that our library is the place of the aforementioned cheese slice incident, but they haven’t even bothered to properly display this relic for future generations to appreciate. 

A shy block and a half from the British Museum lies the Atlantis bookshop, an independent shop stocked to the rafters with books on magic and the occult. Fun fact: every book you buy from an occult bookshop can and should properly be referred to as a “tome”. Just please refrain from sprinkling extra ‘k’s into your spelling of magic, that privilege and responsibility is reserved for 9th level warlocks and renaissance fair vendors. When first we arrived, there was a sign on the door informing us the owner had stepped away to make some tea and that felt like the most British thing that had happened the entire trip. Once she returned, Jason and I both found some really interesting books–my favorite was an ethnobotanical look at the oldest yuletide traditions and how they were transformed into the symbols we use today. Spoiler: the image of Santa Claus is deeply tied to magic mushrooms

Heavily laden with bags of tomes, we continued our walk to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese:

I love a good fancy gate.

This is basically what I want my backyard to look like.

Samuel Johnson by Percy Fitzgerald, 1910

We went inside to see if we could witness any justice being dispensed but alas they’d all sodded off to powder their wigs already. 

You know why I took this photo. You know.

There’s been a pub at this location since 1538. It’s been Ye Old Cheshire Cheese since 1667, rebuilt on site after the great fire of 1666 tore through a huge swath of London. Since then, it’s been a popular haunt of a number of writers, including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. It does have a funky appeal with its short ceilings and narrow staircases that rather give one the impression that they are sneaking off to do something a bit illicit. Not like, secret underground street fights illicit, more like you’re going to a party that you heard about from a friend’s friend’s friend and they said that they heard from a cousin’s neighbor that there was, like, a mummy there and nobody knows if it’s a real mummy or not but you’re pretty sure you want to look at it.

Jason and I arrived early, winding deep into the cellars to grab a table and wait for my friend and her partner. While we waited, we had a pint, looked at our new witchy bookstomes, and chatted. After they arrived, we had some more pints, and witnessed the baffling concoction that passes as “nachos” at Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (I blacked it out from my memory but I’m pretty sure the salsa was just ketchup or maybe there were pickles in it? The other food was fine.). That night I also learned that it takes me only two pints to slide right into a faux British accent and not even know I’m doing it.  Jason told me that I’d done it later and I was horrified because I’ve heard my fake British accent sober and it’s terrible. They were both absolutely lovely people and were kind enough not to mention or take visible offense to my slight Madonna turn. This is just like in junior high when I sat next to the new girl who’d just moved to the area from Georgia at lunch and fifteen minutes and a Little Debbie later I uttered my first y’all with a twang.

We drank and chatted, and on our way out, we took a double decker bus back to King’s Cross, which is where Jason and I had started the day. This was my only bus ride because while I got the hang of the tube easily enough (there are maps everywhere, what’s not to get?), I feel like I have to have some sense of where I’m going when I’m on a bus lest I get off at an entirely wrong place and get so lost that I have no choice but to settle wherever I wind up. I feel like the biggest country bumpkin in the world to be excited about riding a bus, but they’re so damn iconic y’all. Cheerio!

 

 

 

*This may or may not be true, there’s no way to check it without library access and foolishly I didn’t bone up on my mixed martial arts skills before visiting. 

The Queen’s Walk & London Eye

Millennium Bridge

Hey, look, it’s The Shard!

After our second visit to the Borough Market and stuffed full of perfect sandwich, we elected to take the Queen’s Walk along the Thames toward the London Eye, aiming to arrive at the Eye near golden hour.  Along the way, Jason encountered his pal Paddington, and we hung out and watched a bubble busker for a while, his bubbles marginally obscuring the nearby “no busking” sign.

The London Eye is, of course, ridiculously overpriced (moreso if you elect for the fast pass option, which of course I did as I sensed the sun slipping away over the horizon) and an obvious tourist trap, but remains somehow utterly necessary nonetheless. It’s thirty minutes of sweeping views of London and people being shuttled throughout it: boats chugging along the Thames, trains slithering down the tracks, double decker bus drivers leaning out to yell at someone blocking the lane, all while the light changes and the perspective changes and at one point I made some kids jump up and down in delight in an adjacent bubble because they were waving and I waved back. 

It was after crossing the Westminster bridge and walking up Victoria Street a ways to get a drink that I, thoughtful human being who is definitely not an inconsiderate turdperson, realized I’d completely forgotten that I’d arranged with a friend to meet them at a pub in the outskirts of Covent Garden, and that somehow, with traffic at a standstill and the tube lines packed full of commuters, it was easiest to hoof it there. Upon arrival at The Harp, I discovered that it, like most London pubs I’d encountered, had a total capacity of about twelve people, with, loosely, a thousand people inside. I’m exaggerating but really only a little. In my experience, British pubs make American taverns look positively cavernous. It was at this time that I, turdperson, tried to cancel said meeting through facebook messenger at the last minute because the thought of screaming back and forth while sweating through our coats sounded awful. My friend said no, turdperson, we will just find a more suitable pub, and while it took four tries, we eventually found our way into Bulldog Bar, which sits atop The Clarence. We ordered cheese and bread, drank beer and chatted. He couldn’t believe that I’d not yet had a proper doner kebab, and after we parted I went on a bit of a mission for one and STILL haven’t had one because at the point where I was pretty well done walking for the day lay a questionable Indian takeaway joint, so questionable takeaway it was. But as luck would have it, I’ve already purchased another round of cheap flights back to London so I will have another shot…and let’s be real, this isn’t going to be the last time I’ll be back, either.

Little Venice in Paddington, London

I no longer recall precisely how the map ended up in our hot little hands: whether it was given to us by the host of our AirBnB, or whether we picked it up ourselves from Paddington station. The important thing is that somehow I ended up holding the map whilst feeling impressionable: “Walk the Paddington Bear paw print trail!” and while I’m not particularly nostalgic about Paddington Bear, there was an area marked Little Venice with swans on the river and I thought “Oh! How charming!” and then I learned that there’s a little boat restaurant on which to have a floating tea and our walk there was a foregone conclusion.

It was charming upon first glance: a few well maintained cozy boats tied up, one trailing a floating dinghy that served as a garden. There were even a few swans out doing their swan thing. But not much further down Paddington’s pawprint path and it feels as though he might be leading you off to your watery garbage grave. Now, I have never been to Venice, but I find it hard to believe that the city that inspired so many quotes about beauty and grandeur consists mainly of houseboats with bags of trash strapped to the roof, and that’s the majority of what you’ll find in “little Venice”. The part of it that isn’t boats heaped with gas cans and glad bags is the canal itself, featuring a layer of floating rubbish thick enough to choke the waterway in its narrower stretches. I didn’t take any photos of the more murdery areas because it seems unnecessarily cruel to photograph someone’s home with the intent of mocking it on the internet;  you don’t spend your days living on a floating garbage barge because you have a lot of other great options. That said, I also don’t think this should be marketed as a thriving waterway with bustling cafes and shops, because that’s not what it is, in the slightest. London, you’re one of the greatest cities in the world–you don’t need to half-assedly crib off of another one for tourist purposes, I promise, just because a poet wrongly nicknamed the area such once upon a time. But if you’re going to do so regardless, might I suggest some waterway maintenance?  No one but Oscar the Grouch wants to take tea in a trash can.

Highgate Cemetery

It took until our uphill walk from the tube station for it to strike me: people in London don’t put bumper stickers on their cars. It feels like a curious absence, as in the States, it seems as though every third car has a sticker proclaiming the size of their family, their belief in Jesus, and their even more fervent belief that their toddler could kick your toddler’s ass in karate. No truck seems complete without one or two giant American flags just in case its owner might otherwise forget in which country they reside, between arduous tasks like walking from a big box store to their parking spot, diagonally across three reserved spaces at the front of the lot. Once I noticed this difference, I kept a weather eye open for any form of bumper-based cling and spied nary a one for the rest of the trip. How was I supposed to know if a stranger was my ideological enemy without these physical labels? Thankfully, to calm my American sensibilities, I was headed to a place where nearly everyone was going to be wearing a label: the cemetery.

Despite writing an impassioned letter in high school to the editor of my hometown newspaper in defense of goths (this was long enough ago that reporters believed that if you wore all black to school, you were an incipient murderer of other, normal children), I’ve never been fully committed to the goth lifestyle. I enjoy the literature and the music, black clothes are my jam, I am inordinately fond of velvet, and I do belong to the members-only goth club in town (even if I never go anymore). But hanging out in cemeteries and dancing in the rain have always felt outside of my wheelhouse, potentially owing to their involvement of both the outdoors and physical activity, especially if that outdoor physical activity involves the dampening of my velvet frock. Just thinking about moist velvet makes my skin crawl. This was a very long-winded way of saying I don’t often visit cemeteries. St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans was an exception. Highgate would be another. 

Nearly ten years ago, I saw Neil Gaiman on his tour to promote The Graveyard Book. In the ensuing decade, I have forgotten the book nigh-entirely, save for the fact that its setting was inspired by Highgate Cemetery. Luckily, it’s a fast, breezy read compared to the dense twelve hundred page tomes I’ve been reading lately, and thus I was able to reacquaint myself easily enough. This is when I discovered that the book references Highgate Cemetery west, and I’d visited Highgate Cemetery east, the western side being open only to guided tours booked in advance on weekdays. Doh! Nevertheless, “a sludge of fallen leaves, a tangle of ivy…and fallen angels stared up blindly” (231) could just as easily describe the eastern side, at least when you move beyond the very manicured main walkway.

Entrance to the west side

I know that those marks are IHS with the letters overlaid as a religious signifier, but in my heart, it’s a special dollar sign that only the really rich can use.

look I’m not saying I’m just saying

This angel legit looks like she’s trying to decide which toppings she wants on her sandwich

If there’s a dog I will find him

I told you I would find the dog

The wilder Highgate got, the more I liked it, plants exploding in a riot of life in this place of the dead, plunging their roots into the heart of our remains and springing forth as something new. Not gone, just changed; even as time, decay, and plant matter work to obscure and reclaim the stones themselves, removing the identities and labels people clung to in life, so that in death they may finally rest in peace with their neighbors.  

Our route to and from Highgate also took us through Waterlow park, which has several lovely ponds and was donated to the city by Sir Sydney Waterlow as “a garden for the gardenless”. These gardens also featured some benches for the benchless, of which we availed ourselves while watching some waterfowl paddle around. Sitting on a bench to watch ducks, I’m already vacationing as if I were in my twilight years. This must be very compelling content. 

A common coot, I’m not certain at which point in its life cycle it officially becomes an old coot. Hit me up, ornithologists. 

The British Museum

I could have spent the bulk of forever inside the British Museum. My visit was a foregone conclusion–how could I know that one country spent centuries invading, ruling, and claiming other countries’ treasures for its own, amassing many of them in one place, and not see that collection myself? And even still, knowing this, I did not comprehend the scope of the collection. Even now, I cannot fully comprehend it, and here’s why: the permanent collection at the British Museum comprises over 8 million items. EIGHT MILLION. I can easily comprehend something like eight million dollars in the context of what it could do–namely, in the Seattle area, it could buy you roughly 18 condemned houses at 2016 prices. Fewer, if there’s a bidding war (there will be). Closer to ten now, if that house just outside my neighborhood is any indication, because you’d need the million left over to tear down and haul away the abandoned car and bus lawn stockpile. Digression aside, I have a harder time comprehending eight million items, as objects that take up three dimensional space. As things you could set side by side and contemplate one after another after another after another, and the amount of time it would take to do so. If I spent one second looking at each item in a collection of eight million, it would take me 133,333 minutes to look at everything. 2,222 hours. If I went to the British Museum every single day from open until close, looking at one item per second, with no breaks, it would take me over 40 weeks to view eight million items. I could be impregnated the morning before my first day at the museum and walk out with a full term baby on my last. Except then it would presumably take me a little longer because no pregnant woman is going 7.5 hours (10.5 on Fridays!) without a bathroom break. 

Of course not everything is on display all the time, so I wouldn’t have to take a nine-month sabbatical to personally contemplate each and every item in the British Museum, but even still, the size of the collection on display is nigh-incomprehensible. I spent an entire day inside and still had to be choosy about which exhibits I most wanted to see. Which is a problem when you’re the sort of person who wants to see everything

The case of ants-in-my-pants must-see-it-all grew stronger when immediately after we arrived, Jason decided he needed a snack, so instead of some stupendous historical treasure, the first thing I saw in the British Museum was a woman in the self-serve snack line carefully weighing each and every single millionaire bar on the tray with the tongs to ensure she got the largest piece. That’s a thing I saw. 

Impatience aside, once we finally got into the museum itself, it was hard to understand the scope of the place, the expanse of the building. It contains entire temple facades, nearly half the Parthenon, the largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt, the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts outside of Iraq, one of the largest collections of different types of physical currency in the world, and I could continue listing them but my brain is already tired just revisiting some of those places in my head. It would probably take me the better part of nine months to describe all of the astounding, intricate, heartbreaking, thought-provoking things I saw, and I’m already two trips behind on this thing so instead, here are the high points:

Throwing knives

Knife money, do not get confused with throwing knives!

photographed B.H. (because horse)

Here, I learned that even in ancient Egypt, cats were dicks.

As is clearly evident, the ramen noodle hairstyle was popular long before 1998 Justin Timberlake, potentially predating packaged noodles themselves! 

This whole wing of the museum is essentially #housegoals. I’m sure “Library of King George III and given to the British nation by King George IV in the third year of his reign” is a very affordable home furnishing style.

They even make fun of us, their wayward child, on their teacups. Tough love!

You know why I took this photo. You know. If you don’t, look a little more closely.

Do you reckon that baby monitor is particularly valuable?

I was thrilled to see this work by Odilon Redon, as he is one of my favorite artists and I have yet to see very many of his works in person. 

photographed B.H.

All I want for my birthday is this chalice. Maybe a pair so there’s always a clean one ready to go.

Also, I would like a baba yaga pitcher.

I found another Jaime Lannister hand among the collection. 

You also know why I took this photo. Don’t click away before you spot all three! Ding dong, you’re good at this game!

I estimate I was able to see perhaps half of the rooms of the museum before having to hustle out so as not to have my coat confiscated by coat check. Which is probably for the best, as it kept me from actively trying to furnish my home via the exceptional gift shop. I couldn’t help but notice they didn’t sell any replicas of those wind chimes, though.

High Five Tea at Balthazar London

One of the things I really wanted to do whilst we were in London was to have a proper afternoon tea–scones, clotted cream, tiny sandwiches, the works. There are a lot of places eager to cater to tourists looking for this experience, and if I’d wanted, I could have taken tea every single day of my stay and still not visited all the most lauded options. And while I do love tiny crustless sandwiches, I don’t know that I could eat tiny crustless sandwiches for nine days straight and still be excited when the tenth tower arrives at the table, so I elected for one posh appointment: the High Five tea at Balthazar. I’ve since read Balthazar described as an American take on a French brasserie, so it may have been an unusual choice for an English tea, but I stand by it.

Balthazar is located in the Covent Garden district of Westminster. Nearby is a shopping center, a former vegetable market, that is now lined with tall, narrow shops, many spanning two floors. When I visited, there were a number of street performers on the lower floor, their singing expanding to fill the entirety of the hall. Jason kept attempting to purchase food, and I kept preventing him, reminding him that our afternoon tea appointment was like to be more of an entire day’s worth of food than the light snack he was envisioning. We did note some goodies that we’d be interested in returning to purchase should the tea not live up to our expectations (spoiler: we did not return), and instead spent the time before our reservation idly browsing the shops as neither of us were in the market for a luxury watch.

For their 5th anniversary, Balthazar developed their High Five tea: a towering tray stuffed with all of their biggest hits of the past five years, appearing in a haze of dry ice that swirls alluringly around the treats.

The bottom layer is the foundation of the meal: tea sandwiches of crisp cucumber and bright mint with a smear of earthy hummus, egg salad with watercress (I don’t do egg salad, but Jason liked it well enough to eat both), smoked salmon and lemon crème fraîche, and the perpetual British tea classic, coronation chicken, which with its combination of apricots and curry spice manages to be lightly sweet yet richly savory and was my favorite of the lot. Also served on this layer were miniature lobster prawn rolls served on buttery brioche. 

The middle layer is comprised of buttermilk scones (half studded with plump sultanas, half without), served with generous pots of Devonshire clotted cream and house-made strawberry jam. These scones are soft, warm, fragrant vehicles perfect for mounds of cream and jam and utterly unlike the dry, crumbly triangles that serve as scones stateside. Ignore for now the boxes also nestled on that layer, we’ll return to them later.

The top layer is reserved for the crème de la crème: five cakes, one for each year the restaurant has been operating. Proceeding clockwise from the bottom right cake that reads “Balthazar”:

  • Balthazar Icon, a confectionary copy of their awning rendered in Valhrona chocolate on a shortbread base with raspberry jam fusing the layers
  • Union Macaron, a meltingly delicate red and blue cookie sandwich loaded with fresh blueberries and cream
  • Gooseberry o’ Clock, a roulade of choux sponge infused with elderflower and gooseberry compote and ensconced in a shiny, sugary cellophane
  • Queen of Tarts, a sweet strawberry tart topped with a white chocolate disc
  • The Golden Bombe, a creamy, dreamy chocolate and hazelnut pudding topped with crisp sugarwork

 

 

As though all that weren’t enough, we opted for the ultra indulgent version of the tea, which included a rosé champagne cocktail with crystallized rose petals and a 30g tin of imperial caviar, served with yet more crème fraîche and blini. I’d never before tasted caviar, and the briny oceanic burst of the eggs paired gorgeously with the heavy crème, each tempering the other and becoming more than the sum of its parts. I fair say we nearly rolled from the restaurant, stuffed as we were with every good thing, which doesn’t mean we were too carbohydrate-addled to pocket our take-home boxes on the second layer, each containing a crisp, deeply caramelized, divine cannelés bordelais.

They’ve since moved on to a flower-themed tea that looks return trip worthy, even when that return trip involves an international flight. Who is coming with me?

 

Oxford University

No, this isn’t the university, this is a half-timbered building in the city of Oxford.

Like most people, I occasionally spend time thinking about the course of my life–the choices I’ve made that have influenced where I am now, and the choices I’m making now that will no doubt influence my future. Although there are some things I’d do differently, as a whole, I’m happy with the way things have turned out so far. But visiting Oxford awakened within me a deep yearning I never anticipated, and I’m still reeling internally somewhat from the revelation.

I was raised to be a people-pleaser. I wasn’t always successful, and I certainly didn’t always try, but I had a lot of different people in my life to please: family, teachers, counselors, friends, friends’ parents, clergy, neighbors…the list goes on. I transferred authority to anyone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about. These authority figures would then talk about what they wanted or expected, and consciously or unconsciously, I tried to give it to them. Along the way, I absorbed a lot of messages about who I was and what I could expect to achieve. For instance, while it was agreed among these authority figures that I would go to college (“so smart” “such potential”), anything I was interested in going to college for was determined not suitable: veterinary medicine (“not smart enough”), art (“not talented enough” “do you want to be homeless?”), music (“did you not hear me say ‘homeless’?”), and English (“it’s too bad that’s the only thing you’re good at, because as an English major the only thing you could do is be an English teacher and you wouldn’t be good at that”).

As you can see, after I was convinced by the junior high school counselor that veterinary school was not in my future, my interests and skill set largely lay in the arts. However, only the sciences were deemed an acceptable path, so it should come as a surprise to no one that when I was railroaded into school for computer science, I crashed and burned. Hard. I never finished college. I didn’t even come close. I’m sure it didn’t help that I took a gap year between high school and college to be a Rotary exchange student in Taiwan. I learned a lot that year–getting out of small-town Wisconsin certainly shone a light on my overall ignorance–but the most important thing I learned was that so long as I stayed out of people’s way, no one could really make me do anything. It was astonishingly easy, and I tested its limits at nearly every opportunity. I transformed from a people-pleaser to a people-displeaser in record time.  Or, if not that far, at least a you-can’t-prove-I’m-doing-anything-wrong person. Plus, my third host family disappeared and left me alone in the condo for something like an entire month. That sudden complete freedom was intoxicating and I was not ready to relinquish it come fall, particularly to the faceless institution that was my university of choice. My summer working at BlockoLand with up to 6 different mystery bosses checking in on me to make sure I was pronouncing the company name in a way that one could hear an invisible ™ sign implied was a rude enough awakening. Thanks for visiting BLOCKOLAND™, home of BLOCKO™ blocks! Could I have rebounded if I was enrolled in a school I liked, on a path I would have been interested in? 

 

After I burned every dollar I’d saved for college flaming out, I was gun-shy about trying again, this time on credit. After all, I did so poorly last time that it’s readily evident that I’m not smart enough, not talented enough, too lazy. It couldn’t be that I chose my path trying to please those around me rather than myself, that of course I wouldn’t do well pursuing a career in the subjects I’d had less interest and aptitude in for my entire life up until that point. Nope! And now I have an inferiority complex about it, because the norm among my peers is one or more degrees and here I am, a college drop-out (before I could turn college kick-out) with an employment history of a lot of places similar to BLOCKOLAND™, and often I feel like the Entertaining Well Meaning Hill Person of the group. Any group.

Was it really necessary to go through all this to tell you about my trip to Oxford? I think it was, in this instance. Sometimes when I visit a place, I absorb a lot of information about that place. Other places evoke a feeling, and while I listened with half an ear to the tour guide as our group wandered among the university buildings, I felt as though my whole body was thrumming with wonder and regret. I’ll not be so bold as to claim that my grades were such that I stood even a fraction of the tiniest chance of admittance to any one of the colleges at Oxford and I certainly would have had no means of affording tuition, if, say, some sort of plague occurred that primarily struck down those with 4.0+ GPAs in my age bracket. Hell, I was stupid enough to believe that the only job you could get with a degree in English was “English teacher”. Clearly I don’t deserve to study at Oxford. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t struck with a deep, keening desire whilst I was there, and that what I’m left with after my visit is the wispy, wistful ghost of that desire. I don’t have a lot of facts about the university to throw around, and while I enjoy doing research and sharing what I learn, it seems disingenuous for me to do so writing about a place where I was overcome with a feeling, especially given that everything I write here is about my personal experience with a place, and not that place in general. Without going into the backstory, I feel it would have been difficult to convey the breadth of my sadness at never before knowing that a place like this was possible, that if I had known, if I had tried, if I had pursued my goals instead of what would make a committee of other people happy, the entire course of my life might be different. Maybe not. Probably not. At the root of it, I was still far from the cleverest Melissa even in a pool as small as a middling midwest high school, so an elite international university would likely have been out of my grasp no matter how hard I strove. At least that’s what I tell myself. What else can I do?  

Side note to the tour guide: telling us “You may recognize the interior of this  building from Harry Potter, but I don’t know anything about it so don’t ask me which films” is so much harder than finding out the actual answer

After the tour of the colleges/ painful introspection hour, we were given some free time to wander the area at our leisure. Our tour guide suggested a number of pubs and gift shoppes (I maintain that all stores within Oxford can be referred to as an olde English-style “shoppe”, when considering as best as I can ascertain, each one, regardless of specialization, seems to be required to sell tweed jackets, scarves, and bicycles) in which to while away the time, so of course instead of doing any of those, I found myself inside the university’s Museum of the History of Science, plugging coins into their mechanical orrery. As with any of these types of museums, I could have spent far more time inside than was available to me, but I’m glad for the opportunity to take a peek. One partial afternoon adjacent to Oxford University was better than never having set foot there at all. And if it’s forced me to break this cycle of introspection/self-flagellation/blame of others/inaction particularly with regard to education by acknowledging that I can change nothing about the past and wallowing there does nothing but prevent me from moving toward a future, it’s one of the best takeaways I could have. Along with the astrolabe I purchased in the gift shoppe, of course.

 

Stonehenge: The Greatest Henge of All

Nearly all the common knowledge we hold about Stonehenge is wrong. Built by druids? WRONG. Used for human sacrifices? WRONG. Looking at older legends, it was also not built by Merlin out of stones hauled from Africa by giants, nor was it built by the devil to confound humanity. 

NO.

But we remain kind of confounded. Built by a culture with no written records, it’s clear that the site and stones are aligned to the sunset and sunrise of both the summer and winter solstice, though the significance of that is unknown. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the oldest components of Stonehenge are 5,000 years old, though numerous changes to the site have been made between 3100 BC and 1600 BC. The stones are all believed to have been dragged to the site, some from as far as 200 miles away, which makes the Sarsen stones seem positively local, having only been dragged a mere twenty five miles. The stones themselves have been discovered to clang at different frequencies which may mean, like the temples of ancient Greece, Stonehenge was made as a form of musical instrument. Excavations of barrows have revealed that in the Bronze age (which, in Europe, technically covers the entire period of Stonehenge’s construction, so it’s not exactly narrowing things down), it was used as a burial site. The “slaughter stone”, so named for the reddish water that collects in the depressions on its surface that was believed to be the blood of ancient victims seeping out, was not used for human sacrifices–not only is the water color attributed to iron in the stone, but the stone itself used to be standing and as such was a wholly unsuitable surface for your everyday sacrificial needs. 

In the early 20th century, funds were raised to preserve the area and prevent modern construction from encroaching on Stonehenge. These lands are now managed by the National Trust and have reverted back to grasslands gently rolling out from the site in every direction. Up until the late 1970s, people were free to walk through, touch, and even climb upon the stones. The sheer number of visitors (some 600,000+ per year) treading among the stones killed all the grass, which was replaced with orange gravel, and the severe erosion of the land led to the closing off of the direct site to the public.  Visitors now walk on a path surrounding the structure, the sole exception being during the solstices, when they are opened for direct access for the religious use of modern pagans–neo-druids and the like. 

You also can no longer drive directly up to the site–instead, everyone’s car and tour bus unload near the new visitor’s center, and everyone inside then jockeys for place in line for the site’s own shuttle buses up to the monument itself, two and a half miles away. It’s a distance that’s not unwalkable, but would have been challenging given the time constraints laid on us by the tour company, so we waited a little and crammed ourselves on a shuttle. Crammed is the correct word, if someone animated the scene, surely the shuttle would be bulging with various body parts pressed up against and flapping out of the windows. Almost immediately after the drop off site is the area where the path is closest to the monument, and is thus very crowded with people waving selfie sticks around, heedless of whom they strike. But as we walked around the monument, the people thinned out dramatically, making it much easier to take photos, contemplate history, and attempt to commune with ancient peoples.

Burial mound

The heel stone

All too soon, it was time to hop on a shuttle back toward the visitor’s center, where we walked around recreations of neolithic houses and learned where these ancient peoples kept their extra gift shop wares. I didn’t feel compelled to check out the gift shop itself, because I don’t need a plastic replica of stonehenge in a snow globe (and I would venture to guess that no one does, but they were doing a brisk trade anyway). Of our three stops, this was the lunch stop, and we just barely had time to eat a scalding hot pasty and visit the restroom before we had to get on the bus…and wait another twenty minutes for a different group of stragglers to arrive.

After they finally showed up, the tour guide reminded them that they should have been back earlier, and that this lateness was really going to cut into our time at Oxford. The reply? “You didn’t say anything to the late people last time, so you can just stop talking.” I think the entire rest of the bus muffled their collective gasp. I could have cut the tension with an authentic Stonehenge knife™ if only I’d deigned to visit the gift shop. Why, oh, why did I not visit the gift shop? This person did have a point–if you’re going to have rules, they should be enforced fairly. However, it’s really cruddy to see someone else’s bad behavior and use it to justify your own. The guide, to her credit, rose above and thus the start of our trip to Oxford was only a little awkward.

Windsor Castle

Having visited every Stonehenge within driving distance of my house, I certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see the real thing in person. However, given that I have less than an hour’s experience driving a manual transmission and I wasn’t keen to work on my skills while also becoming used to driving on the opposite side of the road, I decided to do the best thing for everyone involved and join a tour group rather than cause an International Incident. The British Tourist Board has been pounding my inbox ever since I entered an essay contest to win a trip–“Have you visited Britain yet? Why not?” and I have to say that the constant wave of advertisements worked because I booked my tour through their website.

There are a number of day trips out of London to Stonehenge, most bundled in with other stops, primarily Windsor/Bath/Oxford. I lobbied hard for Bath, and Jason for Oxford, and we ultimately settled on a Windsor/Stonehenge/Oxford tour, the determining factor for Oxford over Bath is that it seems a shame to go to an area renowned for its spas and not have time to indulge, whereas no one expects even the most motivated learner to earn a degree in an afternoon. Windsor Castle was a given– I’m a nerd, of course I love shit like castles.

After a slight kerfuffle about where to meet the group (it turns out that Victoria Coach Station is a different thing than the bus stop outside of the tube’s Victoria station and has nothing whatsoever to do with Victoria’s Secret), we departed from London bright and early. On the way to our first stop, Windsor Castle, our tour guide told us what to expect from the day in terms of our schedule and repeatedly stressed that if people are late returning to the coach, they will be left behind, merrily telling us of passengers they’d abandoned at various locations around England and how we didn’t want to find ourselves in the shoes of those unfortunate souls. NOTED. I did not want to be on the hook for an Uber from Wiltshire to London.

Windsor Castle is reputedly the Queen’s favorite, though she was not in residence at the time of my visit. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was built in the eleventh century by William the Conqueror.  Since then, it’s undergone massive renovations several times as it became used less as a stronghold and more as a royal court. No photographs are allowed inside Windsor Castle, and this is enforced in a rather roundabout fashion. After passing through an airport style security check, visitors are handed a large, awkward audio guide which effectively fills their hands too much to fumble with a camera and if they try, it’s immediately evident. Well played, Windsor. 

The first tour is of Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. It is no doubt an extraordinary technical achievement to reproduce such grandeur and detail on such a small scale, but it’s difficult to appreciate the nuances of miniature craftsmanship when you’re being hustled through the room in a long line of impatient strangers, all eager to get back to their respective buses. At that speed, my brain just went “Yep, that’s a doll house, all right” and didn’t really register much more. Each room of the dolls’ house has been photographed, each item has been cataloged and documented, and items are regularly taken out, inspected, cleaned, and repaired. If I worked there, I would find it nigh impossible to resist making and tucking in the occasional new accessory, like a tiny ouija board or Necronomicon. 

I wish I could have photographed the interiors of Windsor–not because I would have done them any justice, but because there’s so much to take in and so little time, and there’s no ticking clock when I examine a photograph after the fact. The rooms were resplendent with rococo and baroque designs. The furniture, oh! the furniture! (Personal to Your Majesty: if you ever decide to redecorate, keep me in mind for your cast-offs.) When I have a gilt desk, no doubt I will stop writing such low-class fart jokes. Instead, my fart jokes will be refined and elegant, like a fart gliding through a silk nightgown.

We lingered behind as large groups passed through the various rooms, wanting some time and space to appreciate the decor and also have the opportunity to ask questions of the Wardens stationed within. You’ve heard the old chestnut “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”, yes? I can attest that this is not the case, as you should have seen the Warden’s face when I asked if the princes get ceremonial armor. “No,” he laughed. “They do not.” Apparently tradition doesn’t extend that far, which is kind of disappointing. It seems like that should be one of the perks of the princedom, being able to clink around a palace in a suit of armor, pretending you are a Transformer.

We paid a penalty for that leisurely tour, however. After the tour, a trip to the restroom, and a debate at the gift shop as to whether we should purchase a tiny crown to go with the tiny stuffed corgi (we did), I began to feel the invisible finger of time poking at me, making the hair on the back of my neck rise. I interrupted the cashier halfway through her spiel about getting refunded on tax paid to inquire about the time, which is when I discovered that we were still smack dab in the middle of Windsor Castle with a scant five minutes before our bus was set to depart. There was no time to check out St. George’s Cathedral, there was no time, period. We grabbed our bags and bolted out of the gift shop, slowing down only to return our audio guides. We must have made quite a spectacle, sprinting out of the castle grounds, past the guards, and down the street, up and down a flight of stairs, dodging baby carriages and people alike. I arrived, red-faced, sweaty, and breathing hard, just on time. I took my seat, and then we waited twenty minutes for some other straggling passengers to arrive. I don’t know what I’m angrier about: that I didn’t get to see the cathedral, or that I ran for nothing. Probably the latter, if I’m being honest.

GŎNG Bar at The Shard

I should’ve used Jason for scale, this door is much smaller than it appears in this photo.

After touring a structure with nearly a thousand years of history, we headed across the Thames via the Tower Bridge to a much newer addition to the London skyline: the Shard. Side note: I adore the nicknames for London buildings, which include among their numbers The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, and The Cheese Grater.  Completed in 2012, the Shard is 95 stories of neo-futuristic steel and glass looming over the city, complete with an indoor/outdoor observation deck located at its upper reaches. A costly observation deck, particularly if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, so I thought I’d be clever and go to the nearly-as-high GŎNG Bar instead for my sweeping city views and spend what I would’ve on elevator tickets on drinks instead. It’s twenty floors lower than the observation deck, but they craft a mean cocktail and you don’t have to pretend to be impressed at the “opportunity” to shop at “the highest gift shop in London”. Oh boy! 

The thing I should have gleaned from the name alone, with its insistent all-caps and needless diacritic, is that GŎNG Bar is also pretentious as fuck. And so whilst I saved myself an admission fee, I paid a different sort of price. The sort of price that sticks long after the temporary pain of parting with money has passed.  It began with the wait–reservationless, we were directed to a couch in the lobby to wait. And wait. And wait. Ostensibly, we were waiting for a table, but when we were finally allowed up, the many empty tables conveyed to me that during said waiting period, GŎNG Bar was also waiting: for me to leave.  Well, joke’s on them, as an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (I’m talking about my butt*, of course, which stayed firmly planted on the couch until the receptionist heaved a sigh, hobbled over in the floor length red gown and heels that was her uniform,  and invited me up.)

Am I certain that I was unwanted at GŎNG Bar? No. No one ever said to me “You don’t belong here.” But no one needed to say it aloud. The appraising up-down look (I didn’t look like a slob, but I certainly wasn’t wearing a gown), the artificial wait, the cruddy service: it spoke volumes. I felt unwelcome. Jason felt unwelcome, and he’s usually the one telling me that I’ve got it all wrong, that it’s just my inner critic dialed up to eleven and projected onto other people. It left us both feeling vaguely uneasy the entire time we were there.

The drinks, as mentioned before, are excellent–creative, complex, well-crafted. I truly enjoyed my drink, an ode to Peter Jackson with rum, New Zealand wine, beetroot, and pine honey, redolent of the deep forests of middle earth, served in a silver pipe. The views of the city with fireworks peppering the skyline? Also excellent. But I also could not see myself visiting again on a future occasion: I like myself too much to be subjected to an entire bar’s negative opinion of me.

 

 

*Their toilets are also incredible, and I’m not the only one who thinks so