Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A feast for all the senses

At the end of April, we took a trip to Oxford, one of the few major British destinations we had not yet seen. It was lovely, every bit of it. It was the kind of weekend that makes the following Monday seem even harder, but it was worth it, because it was relaxing, satisfying, edifying, and inspiring.

We met at Paddington Station on Friday evening after a hard day's work and hopped on the train. Andrew had grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy en route, but we didn't have a corkscrew and they didn't have one in the buffet car, either. A very nice young couple across the aisle from us, recognising our predicament, shared some of their pinot grigio with us, in classy little plastic cups. We switched trains at Reading and got to Oxford in around an hour and half. It felt like we'd traveled hundreds of miles, though; London felt so far behind us.

We took a taxi from the station to our bed & breakfast, and we felt even further away. The owner was a gregarious South African named Stefan, and his establishment was comfortable and refreshingly free of any overblown floral fabrics. He gave us a recommendation for dinner, and it was a real recommendation, too. He didn't just list the restaurants that were nearby; he said "You must go to The Fishes. This is exactly the sort of food you should be eating." And he was right. We walked about twenty minutes to a tiny village on the outskirts of Oxford and found ourselves at a charming gastropub (which really just means, as far as I can tell, really good food with a focus on local, free-range, organic, etc. ingredients in a comfortable, slightly trendy setting. So, pretty much exactly what I look for in a restaurant). We shared a selection of appetizers, including fresh sardines, hummus, razor-thin slices of roast beef, blue cheese, chutney, and bread. It was all piled onto a big, chunky wooden cutting board, very rustic. Andrew went for steak and chips, and I had a scallop and bacon salad. Dessert was creme brulee and lemon parfait (not the layered ice cream sundae-type parfait, but a frozen meringue-type parfait). Everything was absolutely delicious and obviously made with love and attention. I could taste that the sardines had never seen a can, and neither had the chickpeas in the hummus. It's amazing the difference that can make. My scallops were some of the sweetest I'd ever tasted. Everything was just a little bit special; for instance my creme brulee had some creme fraiche in it, so it was a little tangy to cut through the sweetness. Amazing food, and a really good deal, too!

Let me warn you now, this will be a food-heavy post. We found better food in Oxford than we've found in London, for the most part. And that's quite a claim.

The next morning, we had a nice breakfast: the usual "full English" but with nice touches like a beautiful fruit salad and homemade banana bread. Then we set off for the day. Saturday was all about Blenheim Palace, just north of Oxford near the village of Woodstock. It's one of the most spectacular houses ever built, I reckon. It's most famous to Americans as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and I think he's probably the only person associated with the place who wasn't a total scoundrel, but that's just the way things go, I suppose. Oxford has a really good bus system, and it was very easy to find our way into town and up to the palace. We saw just a peek of the town on our bus ride, enough to pique our interest for Sunday. We arrived at the gates of the palace and walked down a long drive to get to the palace itself. We were quite impressed by the facade, but then we realised that we were only looking at the side of an annex wing. We entered the courtyard from one side, and then we saw the real palace. It's quite imposing. It's beautiful, certainly, but not really enviable. It looks more like a temple than a home. It was fantastic to visit, though.

We started by visiting the rooms on the ground floor of the palace. These were the state rooms, and they looked like the state rooms of any other palace: lots of brocade, tapestries, gilt furniture, huge silver urns. There was also a nice display of Churchill memorabilia that made me want to learn more about old Winston. Then we went back outside into the sunshine and had a tea break with a scone and ginger cake. We meandered through the grounds after that, first walking along the shore of the lake and then exploring the gardens. There was quite a variety of scenery, from quiet lakeside glades to a broad lawn that seemed to extend for miles. There was a charming waterfall and a "secret garden" with beautiful spring blossoms. The daffodils seemed to be a couple weeks behind London's, too. There were seas of yellow flowers.

After our stroll through the gardens, we bought a bottle of Blenheim estate water (not that there was a choice) and lay down on a hillside high above the lake. We both fell asleep for a little while - just long enough to get a bit pink - which felt like a total luxury. Then we walked down to the "pleasure gardens," where we saw a butterfly house, a tiny replica of nearby Woodstock village, and a sweet hedge maze. Then we went back to see the first floor of the palace, which turned out to be a collection of rooms featuring an ill-fated effort to turn the history of the Marlborough family into a Disney-style attraction with outdated audio-animatronics. We laughed, then went back out into the grounds and walked up a hill to a huge column commemorating the first Duke of Marlborough. It was an impressive column, but the inscription on the sides of it was nothing more inspiring than the text of a legal writ setting out the details of Queen Anne's gift to the family of the palace and grounds. There were several feet of inscription devoted to the succession of the palace to daughters as well as sons. There were also a lot of leftovers from a flock of sheep that had apparently been allowed to graze near the column. We walked back along the other side of the lake, past several extravagantly coloured pheasants, to Woodstock village, which is the most charming town I have ever seen in my life. It looks like the most recent development was about 300 years ago, but everything has been kept up perfectly. We had a gin and tonic while waiting for the bus, then went back to Oxford to dress for dinner. What a trying life we do lead :-)

Getting to dinner did prove to be somewhat trying as our taxi was about 20 minutes late, but while we were waiting, we met a Swiss couple who we helped to find a hotel (our B&B was full). They gave us a card with their email address and invited us to stay with them in Bern any time!

Eventually our taxi showed up and took us through town to the River Cherwell Boat House, which is indeed a place to rent boats to go punting on the river. It's also a lovely restaurant, and we had a table overlooking the peaceful little river. We had a pinot blanc and started with the evening's amuse bouche of parsnip soup with tarragon foam - a lot more tasty and substantial than it sounds. Then I had a pea and mint mousse with crisp pancetta to start. Andrew had haddock with lentils and pesto. For dinner, I had trout and a butter sauce with tiny shrimp in it. It came with a painterly swish of sweet potato puree and braised fennel. Andrew had exceptionally creamy risotto with asparagus and parmesan. It was all really intense and beautiful. Dessert did not disappoint, either. I had chocolate mousse with a cumin-caramel sauce that was subtly spicy. Andrew went for the tiramisu, which was so much more delicious even than normal tiramisu, although I'm not sure how. The whole meal was delicious, and we had a really nice walk through town afterwards. We stopped at the Eagle and Child to look around and see where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to hang out when they were students. We wandered past some of the colleges, too, and thought about how wonderful it would be to study in such an amazing place. Then we caught the bus back to the B&B to rest after a long and wonderful day.

The next day we got up pretty early so we could get into town to walk around before we had to go back to London. We went to the botanical garden first. It features in His Dark Materials, which we both read recently for the first time. It's also a really nice little garden, with signs on all the plants, which I love. We've seen a lot of the same plants in different parks and gardens this springtime, and at the garden we got to see lots of different varieties of those same kinds of plants. We now know euphorbia and hellebore when we see them. Euphorbia is a particularly neat-looking plant. It, along with many of the plants in the botanical garden, is a very mathematical plant, with regular patterns resulting in fantastical structures. The one disappointing aspect of the garden was that there were thousands of irises that had not yet started to bloom. A couple weeks later and I would have been in heaven there! But all the flowers that were blooming were beautiful, and there were birds singing all over the place. We also got to watch people trying to punt along the river, which we decided was more fun than actually trying to punt ourselves. I know that from experience at Cambridge!

After the garden, we wandered around the colleges and found an amazing little store that sold board games, magic tricks, and math books. The store clerk showed us some tricks with a crystal ball and we leafed through some books showing the relationship between MC Escher's drawings and advanced geometry. They even had books on quilts and math. Then we found the philosophy building, saw the colleges of some of our favorite authors, and had a nice lunch in a cafe on the high street. I had a bloody mary and some beautiful crab salad, while Andrew had a Croque Madame. Delicious. Then it was back to the B&B, on the bus to the train station, and back to London. It was one of the best weekends ever. This is why we moved to England. Although spending so much time in a college town may have been somewhat counter-productive in terms of our job satisfaction, it was inspiring at the same time. Not that we are far removed from academia and general scholarship what with all our reading, but every once in a while you need a reminder of why you are who you are, and I think Oxford represents the sort of idealized scholarship and learning-for-the-sake-of-learning that Andrew and I thrive on. We just need to remember that it's a state of mind not limited to professors and college students. And any time we need a reminder of how beautiful learning can be, it's just a train ride away in Oxford.

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