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Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
August 18 - 24, 2005 Edition
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North Road: Journal extract from England
August 11, 2005
We found soon after our move to Martha’s Vineyard that we would not have the built-in summer vacations we had expected. The pressures from work in summer made other-season vacations mandatory. One year we decided to spend a month in Oxfordshire in a small, rented cottage in Woodstock, 45 minutes by motor from Oxford. Mary Ann stayed at home nursing a flare in arthritis and insisted I go alone.
After a week I felt confident in my driving and hadn’t put any more nicks in the hub caps since my first couple of days of driving too close to the curb on the left side. Traffic continued to be insanely fast. This particular day was perfect, warm for October, clear sky and atmosphere. I usually began each day with an exploration of the roads leading out from Woodstock. The countryside outside Charlbury on the Burford road was astonishing. The gently rolling fields lay like a Grandma Moses quilt with hedge rows dividing panels of green, yellow, tan, brown and chalk white. Everywhere you looked you could see a clump of stone houses in a tiny hamlet and almost every hamlet sported a stout church spire. The fields had all been plowed and harrowed for the winter fallow time except for those planted with winter cover crop, thus the greens and yellows. The countryside was as neat as a spinster’s classroom. Even barnyards were picked up. If there was trash, it was gathered in a neat pile waiting for the trash truck to pick it up. I never saw a dump or landfill the whole month of traveling about.
I traveled to Chadlington to find the Tite Inn, announced by a bright board sign of a maid collecting water out of a wooden trough. I was puzzled by the sign. Lunch was chili and a pint. As I was leaving, I asked the bartender the meaning of Tite. Ah, he said, tite is an old word meaning spring source of water. The Inn was on the site of an old mill which used the brook in the back for power and a source of drinking water. Pleased I had learned a new word, I forgot to duck under the door header, less than six feet high, and nearly had need of some cold water myself to take the swelling down from my head. I ducked out to the car park with everyone else in the pub laughing at the clumsy American who didn’t know the meaning of tite.
Back at Woodstock, I took a long nap and shopped for my supper, a filet of coley (similar to haddock or cod), green beans and new potatoes. Later I spent the evening reading some history of Henry II. For the first time I really understood that early English kings, beginning with William the Conqueror, were actually French (Norman).
Wednesday was a lazy, rainy day but ended with a rare treat. I called on impulse and got the last ticket at the Appolo Theater in Oxford and heard La Traviata played by the Welch National Opera Company featuring Maria Fortuna as Musetta. She was a smashing six-footer with raven hair and a gorgeous soprano.
At the White Hart after the show I ran into a real English character, young, bearded and somewhat forbidding, who claimed he worked for the English Stone Commission, in charge of the various ancient collections of rings and stones, the greatest being Stonehenge itself. Something like acupuncture, he said. He dashed my incredulous response by explaining how the ancients knew, as he did, how and where to harness the energy centers of the earth and, so, the reason for the placement of the stones in Rollright and Avebury and Stonehenge. He claimed to have had his glasses knocked off by a dowsing stick suddenly rotating toward water beneath his feet.
Thursday, the Dunkleys arrived from Wales. I turned in my car, and no one noticed the left hand hub caps. Sally and Malcolm were a breath of fresh air for their lonely host who had taken to talking to himself, particularly alone out on a country footpath, afraid he might not have the strength to reach the car. I practiced my English accent in a free spouting of foolishness which I suspect came out a mixture of pseudo Celtic-English-New England thankfully heard by nobody else.
We sampled one of the local restaurants for a good English dinner. Contrary to American reports, I found English food to be mostly delicious although the fare at the pubs became a little grinding at the end of four weeks. Friday we spent looking through many of the colleges in Oxford, shopping at Blackwell’s Book Store. The bookshop revealed an essay by the poet Shelley, who had been put down at Oxford for challenging the Anglican faith. His essay was on the necessity of atheism. After leaving Oxford he drowned, a tragedy perhaps felt providential by the dons at the university. Later we mingled with the jostling crowds and frenzied traffic in the streets. We found a covered market, a maze of shops hawking everything from jewelry and clothing to fast food, bakery goods, green groceries, racks of hare hanging in orderly rows and venison-on-the-hoof.
Sally’s chief delight at Oxford was the old Bodlian Library. A guide took us to the third floor inner sanctum of rare books and manuscripts. Old leather bindings in varying states of preservation stretched up almost out of view toward the ceilings and scholars were actually working from them at desks here and there. Hushed by the atmosphere, we were back in academia for a short visit. Sally’s smile of wonderment was ample reward for climbing the stairs: Socrates, Plato, Plutarch and others unheard of. I found after some effort the damaged pillar at The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. Previously the seat of all activity in the university, the church had hosted the trial of Bishop Cranmer when he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by burning at the stake outside Bodlian College. The pillar had been damaged in erecting a platform for the good churchman during his trial. We enjoyed afternoon tea in the church parish house with incredible chocolate cake served by volunteers.
Saturday was a showery day, normal for England, and we journeyed to Warwick Castle. Although it dates to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it is incredibly preserved, probably the best in the United Kingdom. The lower regions are peopled with life-like wax figures involved in all the activities of a medieval community preparing for an enemy attack. Heraldic horns flare in the background as workmen prepare weapons at a forge or shoe the horses in the stable. The stables smell as if the wax horses were functioning in all respects just as the privies built within the walls of the castle suggest current use by its human occupants, good English realism. I had difficulty telling the dummies from
the tourists and apologized to at least one of the figures who wouldn’t respond. Upper floors depicted a weekend house party given for the Prince of Wales in the 1890’s at which the Lord and Lady of Warwick were hosts and young Winston Churchill was among the guests. Even the water poured by the butler into the waiting bathtub gurgled.
Malcolm and I found an American-style super market while Sally reconnoitered a doll museum, and we bought grub for supper. Sally made delicious pasta, fresh Italian spaghetti, English bacon, onions and wine sauce with lettuce and tomato salad. Dessert was mandarin orange tart from Saynesbury’s. Malcolm proved to be the prime mover for our touring. He led us on a walking tour along the Oxford Canal starting in Tackley on Sunday. We parked on the common green and walked past thatched roof cottages and well trimmed farms to the canal. We passed sheep and horses, a train, crossed a couple of bridges and had a good view of the Cherwell River, which winds its way to join the Thames in Oxford. A footpath, sometimes of slippery wet clay, followed the canal and we passed a couple of houseboats coming through the locks. They are a queer rig, long, narrow and top heavy, reminding me of a full pea pod, some dingy and in need of paint and others colorful with TV antennas and flower pots. Most are probably pretty old, fifty to a hundred years, Malcolm thought. I bent my back to help the boat captains open and
shut the lock gates and watched like a kid the water move from one place to the other and lift the boat upstream. Walking along the canal was the most peaceful occupation.
Suddenly we were aware of fishermen sitting alone along the bank of the river to our right. They were nearly hidden by the high reeds and totally silent. Even when hailed they barely grunted. Keep quiet so as not to scare the fish, Malcolm told us. I think they are a special breed of men who like loneliness and quiet. They had amazing gear, from camp stool to table for chum and equipment, thermoses for drink and plenty of food. Incredibly, they each carried also a huge leather case which held a tent in case of rain and their poles. Gypsies too we saw, cooking by open fire and with the area about their anchorage outfitted to make the observer believe they lived at that location for some stretches of time. At one great tree was a rope swing for children to swing out over the river. We were tempted to try it. Our four-mile hike seemed to stretch to double digits. Malcolm clearly had the advantage with his running conditioning. Sally and I were glad to slump into our seats at a very busy restaurant to be revived by our customary pint of bitter and a full English roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner. The evening was spent in front of British TV laughing hilariously at the British weather forecast, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and incredulous at the seriousness of the snookers tournament. Daylight Saving ended this day, a week earlier than in the States.
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