England 2010, Day 3: Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and Travel to London
Tuesday, July 27—Today we had to say goodbye to the Cotswolds after two full, but altogether too short days. But Oxford—a place I have heard so much about for so long—is waiting!
Before breakfast we walked down to the Laundrette (I just love that name) to pick up Jeff’s clothes as a misty rain started to wreak havoc on my hair. We had a modified English breakfast back at Kymalton House: muesli, fruit, yogurt, toast, tea, scrambled eggs for Jeff, and poached eggs and baked beans for me.
We packed quickly, nervous about making the train to Oxford. We’d already bought our tickets when we came into town for the laundry so we just had to make it to the platform via the back footpath. I think we would have made it just in the nick of time except that the train was thankfully running late. As it turned out, we had plenty of time.
Once in Oxford, we were in familiar territory for Jeff, whom you might remember had just spent a week here for work. We walked from the station to the nearby Oxford Backpackers Hostel where we paid £3/bag to stash our luggage for the day.
Our first stop was not actually in Oxford, but Blenheim (BLEN-em) Palace just outside Oxford on the edge of the village of Woodstock (where Jeff’s work hotel was).
Jeff had visited the extensive grounds during the previous week, and also made a quick tour of the Palace with a co-worker. They are currently running a promotion that allows you to convert a single day ticket to an annual pass for free. Jeff had already bought us our tickets/annual passes, and I just needed to have my photograph taken for my pass. It felt rather odd getting an annual pass, but it worked out since Jeff was in the area twice. Our nice passes made a good souvenir at least.
Blenheim is one of the largest houses (more of a castle, really) in all of England, and was built between 1705-1724 as a gift for the Duke of Marlborough. The current Duke and Duchess still live there! The house sits on over 2,000 acres of parkland and gardens. The history of the place is fascinating, and you can read about it here (and see a great short video) and here if you wish. It is also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, a descendant of the First Duke of Marlborough and first cousin of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
After wandering outside for a bit, we ate lunch in the Water Terrace Café (aptly named) with a view of the Water Terraces:
After lunch, we took a quick tour of one wing of the palace itself, including a Winston Churchill exhibit and the room where he was born. Sadly, no photographs were allowed inside, but it was magnificent. The palace has a most beautiful library, The Long Library. It holds over 10,000 books, looks out over the fountains and lake, has a grand pipe organ, and is also a picture gallery. Heaven on earth!
Next, we explored a fraction of the grounds and the gardens. I had been waiting for my first chance to tour a garden like this!
First up, the private Italian Garden:
Then, my favorite, the Secret Garden. I could have wandered around in here for hours:
The Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife:
The Rose Garden:
All too soon we had to leave the splendor of Blenheim to get on to Oxford. We’d already extended our time at Blenheim and had just about 4 hours to take in as much of Oxford as we could.
Our first stop in Oxford was The Eagle and Child pub, famous as the home of The Inklings, the literary discussion group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Jeff ate there with co-workers during his week in Oxford so we just stopped in for a quick look around.
We wandered through the tree-lined streets of Oxford, stopping for ice cream, briefly popping into the Ashmolean Museum, and looking in at some shops. We eventually make our way into the Covered Market, where an old friend had told me we must find and consume Ben’s Cookies. I got double chocolate and peanut butter with milk chocolate, and Jeff had plain chocolate and milk chocolate with orange. Delicious! Thanks again, Angela, for the recommendation!
We stopped by the Bodleian Library, the research library of the University of Oxford, but couldn’t go inside any of the rooms without a tour and none were available. There were also a bunch of chairs and a stage set up inside the courtyard for some event, making it hard to get a good feel of the building.
At last we headed over to tour Magdalen College (pronounced “maudlin”), where Lewis and Tolkien were both professors. Magdalen is one of the most beautiful of the Oxford colleges and has the largest grounds, including it’s own deer park and Addison’s Walk. We arrived just as a tour was about to leave, but we didn’t have time to complete it and still make the Evensong Service at Christ Church Cathedral—another “must do” on our list.
The Cloister or Great Quad (built 1474-80):
The Great Hall:
Addison’s Walk, where Lewis was found of strolling:
Our last stop in Oxford was Christ Church College for the nightly Evensong Service in the cathedral. Our good college friend, Kristin, who spent a semester studying at Oxford, told us we must go to this service if at all possible. The service was open to all, but the college was closed to tourists at this time.
We still had our bag of uneaten Ben’s Cookies with us, and the guard of sorts at the entrance to the college looked us up and down. Jeff spoke first.
“Is there an evensong service tonight?”
“Yes,” the man said. “What’s in the bag?”
“You’re not going to eat them during the service, are you?”
“Of course not!”
“No, of course not…” he said as he stepped aside to let us through.
Neither of us had been to an Anglican Church service before, and we weren’t completely sure what to expect. The cathedral was long and narrow with a gorgeous rose window on the back wall as we entered. Worshippers sat on either side of the main aisle, facing each other, waiting for the ministers and choir to enter, and the service to begin.
We walked past the benches for the choir where white taper candles cast flickers of light through their glass hurricanes and onto music sheets. The lights were turned down low and a silence of reverence and respect filled the vast cathedral space.
We took our seats on the left-hand side and glanced through the order of service. Soon the ministers, followed by the choir—everyone dressed in white robes—filed in and the pipe organ broke the silence. The choir sang the Psalms in beautiful, liturgical voice, every note filling the rafters with praise. The two ministers read scripture, first from the Old Testament, and later, after more singing, from the New Testament. We followed along with the choir in our blue psalters. At one point in the service, a low, heavily accented voice quickly spoke instructions to the worshippers, but we hardly understood a word. As we flipped through pages, trying to follow along, a nice gentleman in the row behind us tapped me on the shoulder and handed me an open book, The Common Book of Prayer. I gave him a grateful smile and saw that’d we’d been fumbling through the wrong book all together.
The service lasted about an hour, and I would strongly encourage any believers to attend a service like this if given a chance. I don’t know the hearts of those involved, of course, but the words and music spoke of the richness and glory of our Lord.
After the service, we were allowed to walk around the cathedral and take pictures.
We couldn’t linger long, as we had just about a half an hour to walk back to the hostel, pick up our bags, buy our tickets, and board the train for London.
Once seated on the train, we were glad to have cookies and granola bars to eat, as we were hungry and feeling the fatigue of the day. We made it uneventfully to Paddington Station and made our way down to the tube station, bought our oyster cards, and navigated the London Underground for the first time. Thankfully this first trip was simple—Circle line directly to Victoria Station—as the vast unknown of London, especially at the end of a long day and with our luggage, was a bit intimidating.
It was dark by the time we exited large Victoria Station, but we found our nearby hotel without much difficulty. The delicious smell of Chinese food wafted toward us out of Jenny Lo’s as we walked by on Eccleston Street. Our destination was the moderately-priced-for-London Lynton Hotel, a little B&B run by brothers Mark and Simon.
Mark gallantly carried my heavy bag up the three flights of creaky stairs to our room. After we got settled a bit, we went back downstairs to ask Mark about some late dinner options in the neighborhood. He mentioned that Jenny Lo’s was quite good, and we needed no further encouragement. We got takeout and ate outside on the common terrace back at the hotel.