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Friday, December 7, 2018

MacDonald Randolph Hotel, Oxford UK

Martyrs' Monument is on the left

MacDonald Randolph Hotel, Oxford UK

Want to be treated like royalty? I’ve got just the place for you to splurge.

The MacDonald Randolph Hotel in Oxford, UK. A wonderland of a hotel with a homey feel and friendly, helpful staff. Terrific restaurant and lovely bar. Regal exterior in a style I call modern gothic.

Even better, It’s right across the street from two Oxford landmarks, the Ashmolean Museum and the Martyrs Monument. Talk about town center! The Randolph (as it’s been known since it opened in 1866) is a short stroll away from colleges, shopping streets, museums, pubs and every other reason you have for visiting this world famous university city.

Added to that, the hotel is an easy five-minute walk from the Central Bus Station. Very handy if you’ve come direct by bus from either Heathrow or Gatwick airports.

Mr. Moore, with his top hat and morning dress, will meet you with a smile at the bottom of the steps at the front entrance, then grab your luggage, with a very gracious, “Sir, let me help you with that.” Great fellow and I’ll speak more about him later.

What exactly is morning dress? In short, morning dress is formal wear for the daytime, consisting of a dark coat with tails, a vest, white shirt with tie, striped gray trousers, and a black top hat. These days it’s mostly worn for weddings or other significant occasions, or in the case of Mr. Moore, it’s his uniform and your introduction to a top class hotel. 

Check-in is a breeze. Lots of smiles from Daisy, our receptionist, who forever after called us by name. Yes, it’s that kind of hotel and deserves its five stars.

An elevator, within ten steps of the reception desk, whisked us to our 3rd or 4th floor room, depending on whether you’re thinking like an American or a Brit. What we ‘mericans call the 1st floor, they call the ground floor. That’s button 0 on the elevator panel when you decide to come down. And by the way, our luggage got there immediately and it’s a good thing because we were thirsty for something other than bottled water or hot tea. Button 0 here we come!

Back down to reception and another ten paces to The Morse Bar, with the elegance of wood paneling and deep carpets, also featuring a wonderfully warm fireplace and plush armchairs and oil paintings. Fire going? Hey, this was deep into November, in England! 

The Morse Bar is named for the character created by Colin Dexter, of whom I wrote earlier. Many scenes from the TV series, Inspector Morse, along with the follow-ons, Inspector Lewisand Endeavour take place in this bar.

The barman, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and gray tie, quietly and unobtrusively came directly to our table. We ordered Janneau Armagnac. You know about Armagnac, yes? Brandy from southwestern France. Oldest brandy region and right next to Brittany.

So the barman was young, but showed his stuff and earned my admiration in one quick question: “Shall I make that a double, sir?”

It’s no wonder many celebs have stayed here: Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, to name only a few. But one visitor stands out, and he should. After all, he is the reason the hotel was built.

Construction began in 1864 and was completed in 1866 in time for the arrival of the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne and the man who would become King Edward VII. Quite a guy, this king. Loved motorcars and was the first in the family to own one, a Daimler. Drove it himself around London, back in the days when celebrities were courteously left to themselves, even a bad boy like King Edward VII. These days, can you imagine any world leader driving himself or herself around town in an open car? By the way, the Royal Family used Daimler cars until 1960, when they changed over to Rolls Royces. 

I’ve written about the oldest purveyor of wine in London, Berry Brothers and Rudd and it plays a part in this story. A member of the Royal Family persuaded the wine merchant (Who says no to a royal?) to concoct a special drink to keep Edward warm on his drives. The result was the King’s Ginger. Very tasty and still produced. Heavy, with the sweet bite of ginger and the kick of Dutch gin. Anytime you’re in London, drop by Berry Brothers and pick up a bottle. In this day of instant gratification, you may also be able to find it online and not have to go through the terrible trauma of a trip to England where people are polite and helpful and use the language to it’s full fluency.

But, there’s something else about Edward VII. He liked women….A LOT….and as he grew in girth, he was afraid his bulk might crush them. Soooo, he had a furniture maker in Paris create a special chair (siege d’amour) to support his paramour while the two or three of them made the breast of the afternoon. Presentation of the crown? Played hide the scepter? Queen for a lay? 

Even in the pre-kingly days, the Prince of Wales was known as ‘Dirty Bertie’ and ‘Edward the Caresser.’

I’m sure he and his guests chair-ished the moment. And the list of names of the prominent women, most of them married, would fill the book of Whores Who.

Today, of course, he’d be the Prince of Apologies and the King of Rehab.

So much to think about when you stay in such a refined hotel. And, I know you want me to get your mind off ‘Dirty Bertie,’ so let chat about food. Wonderful fare.

Breakfast is expensive, but it came with the room, so I feasted on a Full English every morning. Below is a link to let you enjoy your own Full English. Only had one evening meal at the hotel and after an afternoon with Mr. Armagnac, salads were in order, along with an exquisite crème brûlée.

Now back to the doorman, Mr. Moore. I always say the best part of any trip is the people you meet. Turns out Mr. Moore spent eighteen years in the Royal Air Force’s Regiment, which is the RAF protective force that works hand in hand with the Special Air Services (SAS). For those of you who don’t know, the SAS is the Brit equivalent of Army Special Forces/Navy Seals. Mr. Moore had been stationed in Germany and other overseas location, but his biggest test was in the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland during what is known as ‘The Troubles.’ He told me that while there is no overt violence now, it’s still an armed truce and while he was there, there was blood in the streets. I was in Belfast last summer and know exactly what he meant. Even today, in Belfast, there are Protestant areas and Catholic areas and some mixed areas. There are pubs where you don’t go if you’re of the wrong religious affiliation. At night, the gates between the different areas are shut until morning.

He and I also bemoaned the shrinkage of the RAF, which is down to less people than could fill a high school football stadium. We also chatted about misspent funds and he told the story of The Regiment being tasked with field-testing newly developed (and purchased) rifles. Mr. Moore was quite emphatic that the new rifles were, to quote him, “less than satisfactory.” Pieces of plastic came off, jamming was not unknown and when the regiment took them to Norway for a winter exercise, the trigger only produced a ‘click,click,click.’

Now let’s talk about the hotel again. Elegant, from the furniture to the central stairs to the exquisite, high ceilinged dining room, hung with the coats of arms of all the Oxford colleges. And we certainly can’t forget the tearoom and a wonderful afternoon of High Tea. Leave a hotel like this without High Tea? Have you lost your mind? Yes, I have, but I took tea anyway.

How do they manage to keep such an old establishment in such wonderful condition? Part of the answer is a fire that destroyed a portion of the building. The Chef was flambéing beef stroganoff and the ceiling caught fire. What was he using? A flame thrower?

The result was a make-over, inside and out. Some 235 artisans worked for a year reconstructing everything from elaborate stonework to delicate furnishings, the equivalent of a team of plastic surgeons and syringes enough for full-face Botox. But the patient lives on and is as beautiful as ever.

What an experience and worth every penny of my wife’s money. And now that I have the full scale plans to Dirty Bernie’s chair… But, first, an Armagnac or maybe a tot of the King’s Ginger.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Two Famous Oxford Pubs

The Eagle and Child, The Lamb and Flag
Two Famous Oxford Pubs

If you’ve read my blog, you know my proclivities for hoisting a flask of English ale in an ancient pub. If you’re not one of my three faithful readers, before you start this adventure, I suggest you first fly to England, visit some pubs, and ponder your decision over a few pints.

It’s my humble opinion that to understand England and the English, you must first understand pubs. Don’t worry, I will eventually get to The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag.

Pub is the shortened form of Public House and the Public House is the center of English social life. It’s not a bar, it’s an intimate social gathering that serves beer, wine, and a wide variety of other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to a broad range of the English social strata. Business men and women in suits will often be seen having lunch and a pint next to those sporting tattoos, black leather jackets and rings through their noses.  I call pubs:  The Great Levelers.  

You can also stop into some pubs for a morning coffee and a full English breakfast.

A pub is also often a meeting place for the intelligentsia, and in Oxford, the city built around one of the most famous universities in the world, that means you’ll find fellows(professors), writers, and others who make their livings off brain waves, sipping an ale or two.  In the case of both The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag….which by the way are across St Giles street from each other and both owned by St John’s College….the calling card is famous writers from years past to the present.  J. R.R. Toilken, C.S. Lewis, and Colin Dexter among them.  The first two, along with others were part of a group called the Inklings and used to meet regularly in both these pubs to discuss and read passages from their ongoing efforts.

Here are thumbnail sketches to refresh your memory.

JRR Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien (JohnRonald Reuel, 1892-1973).  Famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both of which continue to be so very popular that Tolkien is sometimes called the father of modern fantasy.  He was a professor (fellow) at a few colleges in Oxford, but had lived, studied and taught all over the world.  

CS Lewis

C.S. Lewis (Clive Staples, 1898-1963).  Famous for The Lion Witch and the WardrobeThe Screwtape LettersThe Chronicles of Narnia, along with several non-fiction religious works including Mere Christianity. He worked at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Colin Dexter

Colin Dexter(Norman Colin Dexter1930-2017).  Famous for the Inspector Morse mystery books and Television shows, including the follow-on shows:  Inspector Lewis and Endeavour.  Unlike the previous two authors, Dexter was not a member of the Inklings, and although graduating from Cambridge University, he was a high school teacher and an atheist.

The lives of all three of these men are fascinating.   Here’s a bonus:  If you ever see the original Inspector Morse series, see if you can pick out the author, Colin Dexter. He often made cameo appearances in the original or sometimes in the follow-ons.

So, how ‘bout them pubs, Bro?  Ok, ok...grab a pint and cool down...

The Eagle and Child (Often called The Bird and Baby or more rarely The Fowl and Fetus) dates from 1684 and takes it’s name from the coat of arms of The Earl of Derby.  There may also be earlier and more shadowy connections from when King Charles I made Oxford his capitol during the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Inside The Eagle and Child: 

The reason it's called 'pulling a pint.'

The Eagle and Child's famous Rabbit Room, where the Inklings met.

The Lamb and Flag, which takes its name from the Book of Revelations
description of Christ as the victorious Lamb of God.  This pub is even older than The Bird and Baby and dates to 1566, but was moved to its current site in 1613.

It’s thought that Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote much of his novel Jude the Obscure here.  The pub has also been featured in the Morse TV series and it’s off shoots.  The pub is also mentioned in P.D. James’ book, The Children of Men. (Phyllis Dorothy, 1920-2014), sometimes called The Queen of Crime.

Thomas Hardy

PD James

Sad to say, pubs refurbish and modernize over the years.  In the case of The Eagle and Child, when it was refurbished around 1960, the Inklings began to prefer The Lamb and Flag, although they still met at both pubs. And, the Rabbit Room where they met atThe Eagle and Child still carries the name.

Inside the Lamb and Flag:

You see what I mean about English pubs?  They’re not bars, they’re history and literature preserved in a social mixing place and by the way, they serve damn fine beer!

A note about English beer:  It’s not served warm or flat, as the rumors go. The casks are kept in the cellar, so it’s always somewhere around 55ºF.  And the carbonation from the cask ales is the all-natural result of fermentation and not pumped in carbonation.  I only drink cask ales in England!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Oxford, UK: What a University Town!

Oxford, UK: What a University Town!

The first thing you notice when you get to Oxford is that it’s a stone city.  Massively stone.  Fortress stone.  And there is a castle here, built by one of William the Conqueror ‘s Barons.  The university is the town and the town is the university.  The vast stonewalls of the colleges spread throughout the city, with businesses and pubs fitting in where they can.

English poet, Matthew Arnold dubbed it, the “City of dreaming spires.”  Yes, spires and towers across the city skyline.

Places to see:  

TheAshmolean Museum (for art and archaeology ) Don’t you dare miss it!  Ancient Egyptian and Roman/Greek displays are extraordinary!
Christ Church Cathedral and the great hall, which was the inspiration for the fictional dining room of Hogwarts (Harry Potter).
The Alice sweet shop, where Alice Liddell shopped for candy. Alice, a family friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
Blackwell’s Books, perhaps the finest bookshop I’ve ever been in.
The Bodleian Library (known as Bodly or The Bod), it’s mainly a research library and each college has its own library.
The Martyr’s Memorial, memorializing three protestant bishops burned alive for their faith  by the Catholic Queen Mary. 
The Eagle and Child pub (sometimes called The Bird and Baby), where authors known as the “inklings,” including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) met for pints and discussion.

But, since this is a university town, let’s chat about that a moment. There are 38 Colleges and six more Permanent Private Halls  (PPHs) that form Oxford University.  Walk down any street and you’ll pass several, their high sandstone walls and picturesque inner courtyards more like fortresses than colleges. The earliest are Balliol and Merton, founded in 1249 and 1264.  Even earlier colleges are no longer in existence. 

What is the difference between the colleges and the Permanent Private Halls (PPHs)?  The colleges are run by the “Fellows” (professors) of the college, while the PPHs are run by various Christian denominations. 

Many of the colleges may be visited during specifically posted hours.

If Balliol and Merton are the oldest, what’s the newest? Kellogg College, 1990.  Two older colleges also combined into one in 2008.

No women allowed until 1878 and they couldn’t earn degrees until 1920.  The last all male college began admitting women in 1974. Now personally, I think there’s a place for single sex education, both high school and higher.  Of course, I’m prejudiced having graduated from all male schools.  But, of course I also prefer big band music and abhor rap. Also, I use the word ‘gender,’ only under protest unless I’m speaking grammatically.  So, I remain quite happily out of date.

Across the university, student population is about 12,000 for undergrads and the same number for graduate students.  Acceptance rate is about 16% for undergraduate studies and about 21% for graduate studies.  So that works out to less than 600 students per college or PPH. Note:  There are a number of other colleges and universities in the city, but outside the Oxford University system, bringing the city's total student population to about 33,000.  Note: The city's population is over 150,00.

Having taken three weeks of course work in Oxford during my younger, bolder (some say obnoxious) days, I love the Oxford system of education, built around reading, research, attending lectures of your choosing, and meeting with your personal tutor periodically to discuss your progress and map out directions for future study. It’s personal education at it’s best and the results speak for themselves, with so many notables having graduated from Oxford over the centuries, too numerous to name. Greatness abounds in every field of endeavor. 

So how do the colleges and PPHs fit together to become Oxford University?  Each of the colleges and PPHs are independently run.  The University is responsible for libraries, labs, and exams.  So, if you want to become a student, you apply to a specific college.  Those are the basics.

Relations between the town and gowns has not always been amiable.  It was in 1209 when students left to form Cambridge University.  The most tragic rioting occurred in 1355, when two students got in an altercation with a tavern keeper, ending with the students tossing their drinks in his face.  Word got out and the riot ended with 90 students and 30 townspeople killed. Wonder if that’s where the cheer, “Standup, Sit down, Fight, Fight, Fight came from.

For now, I’ll offer photos to give you an idea of the city of Oxford.  By the way, the name Oxford, comes from Oxanforda, meaning a ford in the river where cattle could cross.

Go!  Explore! Do not confine yourself to London!  In future articles, I’ll take inside the Ashmolean Museum, Blackwell’s Books, famous Oxforions ancient pubs, and more!

Best Way to Discover Oxford:  Hop-On-Hop- Off Bus 30 Pounds pp for 24 hours. Commentary provided in a host of languages.

How to get to Oxford:  We flew into Heathrow, found our way to the airport’s Central Bus Station and bought round trip tickets straight to and from Oxford.  Trip takes about an hour and a half to Oxford’s city center station.  Couldn’t be easier!

Now, to win a bar bet:  What is the oldest continually operating university in the world?
Karueein (859 A.D.), in Fez, Morocco.  And in Europe?  The University of Bologna, Italy (1088 A.D.)