Saturday, June 18, 2016

Biking At Last, From London to Oxford (Sort Of)

The day before our departure by bike from London, a powerful storm marched westward across central Europe.  It got our attention when (1) several people were injured and one killed by lightning strikes, and (2) the reports said it would be in London the next day.  And was it ever.

Long-time readers of our blog know that we are quite the rain wimps, known to hang out for a few days when rain arrives.  But our bookings for the next 10 days are all non-cancellable, so what do we do?

With the internet we had gotten an estimate for the cost of a taxi ride to our next destination 32 miles away, and that was the back-up plan.  But Ollie came through.  Ollie was the delightful fellow who had checked us in to our flat in London, and it was he who was going to tidy it up for the next folks.  With a little pleading and an offer of hard cash, he named a price for the time and fuel, we agreed, and apart came our tandem into enough pieces to fit into the back of his small station wagon.  It was not a calm journey given the heavy rain and the always-heavy traffic (our destination is not far from Heathrow Airport), and we did leave a wake on the road in a few places, but Ollie got us there more or less dry and, more importantly, safely.  Whew, dodged a bad one there!

We were now at the Beaumont Estate, which has a history going back almost a thousand years, though the current main house is 'only' about 3 centuries old.  It was converted from a country estate into a Jesuit high school in the 1860s, and remained one for just over 100 years.  In fact, because of its high standards and its nearness to the famous Eton School, it was nicknamed 'the Catholic Eton.'  It's now been converted again into a hotel and conference center, and very full of families with school age kids at the moment since the summer school break just started and there is a LEGOLAND not far from here.  Somehow or other, we managed to miss it.

So at last we started our biking adventure in England, not from London but from Old Windsor to the west.  It's the first of June and we are wearing our summer biking outfits -- for England.  Yes, it was a bit nippy, about 12 C if memory serves.  Our first stop was in Windsor itself, to take a quick peek at Windsor Castle.  Where we are the views are free, but just beyond the barrier the price jumps to £18, or over $25.  Thanks, we don't need to see the whole bloomin' place, thank you very much.  Then it was back down the hill through town and a little mucking about in Eton, and we were off to explore the wonders of National Bike Route #4 to Reading, to be followed the next day by National Bike Route #5 to Oxford.

We had followed parts of National Bike Route #1 in East Anglia three years ago, and know that these national bike routes could be a little quirky, but these two portions took the cake.  At times they were on quiet roads, but on many other occasions they were "traffic-free," which sounds great but actually involves riding on bumpy dirt roads, skinny dirt paths, or on paved "bike trails" that are in fact only narrow (and often bumpy) sidewalks.

Jeff was more than a little frazzled by the challenges of steering our long bike down these narrow ways.  Not much time for sightseeing! However, we did get the occasional view, which helped.  We also started getting the occasional flat, which did not help.  By the time we reached Cambridge, 260 miles from Beaumont Estate, we had patched 7 of them!

Yet it does remain the case that we did go by some interesting places, like this thatched home and barn in one small town, or the medieval building that we bicycled through in another.  Jeff was also intrigued by the entrance to a pub where we had lunch.  He did have duck for his lunch, but that wasn't what the warning over the front door was referring to.

Oh, did we mention the wickets and gates?  Bike routes 4 and 5 often took us from a street to a path, and almost every time, that meant hopping off the bike to walk it past narrow wickets or through a latched gate.  Between these obstacles, the rough surfaces that often kept our speed to 8 or 9 mph, and one flat tire that had to be patched, we took over 8 hours to go 44 miles on our second day, when we at last reached Oxford.

We had rented a flat through Airbnb for 3 nights and it worked out very well, since there were several supermarkets only a short walk away.  It's always fun to explore another country's supermarkets to compare them to what you are used to, and great to have some non-restaurant food for a few days.  On our first full day there we headed out to see Blenheim Palace, an astounding mansion house 7 miles away.  It was built about 300 years ago for John Churchill, one of England's most successful army generals ever.  He also got a title out of the deal:  Duke of Marlborough.

Jump a few generations and you come to the 7th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, seen in marble framing this next corridor.  Their third son Randolph was visiting, along with his American-born wife Jennie Jerome, when Jennie realized her pregnancy was coming to an unexpectedly early conclusion.  She was rushed off to a nearby bedroom where she gave birth to her first child, a son they called Winnie.  You might recognize him in the photo above the bed.  Winston so loved his grandfather's (later his uncle the 8th Duke's) place that Winnie and his wife Clementine are buried nearby.

With 100+ rooms to work with, Blenheim Palace has turned a dozen or so into an animatronic tour through some vignettes in the history of the folks who have lived here.  The most interesting room introduced us to the "close friend" of one of the dukes -- though we're hard pressed to remember if it was the 3rd, 4th or 5th duke -- at the moment their mutual acquaintance, her husband, has knocked on the door.

On the way to Blenheim, and the next day when we walked into the center of Oxford, we followed the canal.  It was slow but scenic.

We also got a quick lesson on do-it-yourself canal boating in the UK.  First was the low bridge, which one member of the three-person crew unlatched with a special key you can purchase at a boating store, and raised the bridge while being careful not to let go of the rope.  The heavy beams on the other side of the bridge balance it, and it wasn't hard for her to raise or to lower the bridge.

Another couple demonstrated the way you lock through.  Once again the male crew is supervising the work --  don't they do it so well?  First you open the water valves with a hand crank, also purchased at a marine store.  When the water has filled the lock chamber you then sit on the long beam and 'walk' the gate open.  In the third photo, yet another boater is walking across a lock gate while water in this case is draining from a lock chamber. 

We were so fascinated about these so-called "narrow boats" that we went online to see what's involved to rent one.  Not surprisingly, the main thing required is money.  A random check for a week's voyage in mid-September for 4 persons in 2 bedrooms came up with prices from about $150 to $250 per day, depending on how tightly packed together you're willing to be, and how nice a boat you want.  That covers the boat (stocked with linen and kitchen items like pots & pans & dishes), a full tank of fuel that might make it for the week if you're not too ambitious, and a quick lesson on how to steer it and how to get under those bridges and through those locks (which our readers now have down pat, right team?)  We asked one couple our age how long they had been travelling, and their answer was that they boated 9 months of every year now that they're retired!  Given how very many canals there are in the UK, it could easily take a year or two to travel them all.

Seeing Oxford University is very, very different than seeing an American college campus.  While Oxford (and Cambridge University which we will visit in a week) is a single university, life is organized around some dozen-plus colleges.  Each college is closed off to the street and only accessible to outsiders by invitation of a faculty member or student, or on a tour.  As we happened to be there on a day when most of the colleges were having their graduation ceremonies, there were no tours to be had so we had to climb to the top of the tallest church in Oxford and look down, while admiring the many gargoyles along the way.


Back down at street level we encountered another gargoyle-like pair of Pans guarding a doorway, and walked through a Victorian-era indoor market that reminded us of the Pike Place Market in our home town of Seattle.  While much of the town is unimpressive, the downtown area is quite architectural.

Booklovers that we are, we cannot pass up showing you the Norrington Room in Blackwell's Bookstore.  It claims to have over 5 km of bookshelves in this one extensive room, plus many more books on tables.

It's now off to bicycle 100 miles or so to Cambridge, plus 2 or 3 days of riding without luggage on our way there if the weather cooperates.  We'll tell you all about it in our next blog entry.

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