Day 5:    Paddington, Oxford, Blockley


Day 5 Photos (49)

Early breakfast and then set off on foot to London Fields overground station transferring at London Liverpool Street to the tube. Saw our “most remarkable person” sitting across from us, tattooed, mascaraed, widow-peaked, high or low on something and glaring straight at us. Her partner wasn’t quite as colorful but equally unhinged.  Glad it was daytime!

Ate some decidedly delicious meat pasties in Paddington Station and stalked the digital departure signage until our platform was announced.  The whole question of this train trip had been in debate since two weeks before we arrived, when the rail service announced “scheduled industrial action” –strike—for this weekend. After a lot of mildly panicked online research and attempts at Plan B’s, we learned the night before that most likely our specific train would run on schedule. And it did, whew!!

Some delay in being picked up by the car rental company as promised, but eventually David the Driver collected us in the rain and so much liked our story and our attitudes that he offered (he said for only the second time in his career) to let us park our rental car in his flat’s visitor spot, so we could maximize our walking-about time in Oxford central, which was only about 10 blocks from his place. We accepted with delight, handed him a free download card for “Home at Last” (something we did about 10 times to kind and/or interesting folks we met), and took possession of our diesel-fueled, automatic, black Renault Capture, Claire driving for the first shift.  Our London day trips had done a lot to orient us to the realities of driving in England, and we made it to David’s parking lot with no incident, even in the rain.  

David had encouraged us to walk to a University Museum and get out of the rain, but we took a wrong turn and landed right where we wanted to be, in the middle of the Inspector Morse Oxford…Trinity and Balliol Colleges and a dozen more. Even though we are fans of Morse, we had not intended nor prepared properly to visit his sites, but Trinity College was open and inexpensive, so we explored the grounds and got a taste of all that tradition. Marvelous. Trinity College Chapel was closed for some major renovation, but we read that it had been founded by monks from Durham, one of our destinations later on this trip.

Wandering the streets of Oxford, admiring the architecture, we found ourselves nearing the Radcliffe Camera, now a reading room for the Bodleian Library. Room under the streets for 600,000 books. St. Mary’s Church tower beckoned and we climbed it on very narrow circular stone stairs (of course) but were surprised to find that the space for walking around the tower at the top was also very narrow. Squeezing past strangers in the space that was about 20” wide did not discomfit us too much, but I imagine it was quiet torture for some.  And there was a fairly steady stream of people making their way around to see all of the spectacular views.

We took turns being gargoyles for the camera. Late afternoon we headed back to David’s, and began the road trip that was both intensely white-knuckle and marvelously liberating. It’s true that we didn’t see much of anything except the road ahead while in the car driving. It took the GPS (we named her “Nancy”), one of us with an open atlas, and the driver’s intuition and attention on high gear to navigate the 400+ miles we covered in 5 days.  But we were so very aware that we could not possibly go and do what we wanted without leaving the tours and public transit behind. 

About an hour and 15 minutes for our first foray into real traffic, and the biggest lessons learned had to do with roundabouts, which crop up nearly every couple of miles. England has been populated for so many years, and here are SO many intersections, many with 5 or 6 roads coming together, that roundabouts are truly the only obvious way to manage. But unfamiliar drivers face the same rather mind-boggling set of challenges at every one: how many exits will there be this time? Which one do I need to take? Will it be well-marked? And for the larger roundabouts, do I need to stay in the left-hand lane and hug the outside, or move to the inside lane and hug the hub?  Someone had assured us that if we missed the exit we wanted, we could just keep going around, but in many cases, that wasn’t an option because of the double lane business.  Add to the mix the fact that you’re approaching everything opposite to what you are programmed for, and it’s often raining a bit, and you really don’t want to ruin the action-packed vacation by totaling a rental car, and you’ll get the idea. Exciting is the word!

The countryside was miraculous, however, as it slowly rolled and flowed about us, and nary a billboard to mar the view—when we could look to right or left.  We arrived in Blockley to a hearty welcome from Mandy and Rupert, the owners and refurbishers of a mill that had been repeatedly flooded and left for dead by the locals. Mandy and Rupert took over 7 years ago and thanks to his civil engineering and landscaping acumen, it is almost completely functional again and free from the threat of floods.  They showed us to our upstairs room –“Mind your head on the stairs!” – and then pointed us to the village pub just two blocks away, run by David and Freya Shakespeare. Really.

This is another pub that has taken on the challenge of changing the stereotype about British restaurant food and Freya is a chef extraordinaire. Both she and Mr. Shakespeare (in their late 60’s), had decided to retire and then took on running a pub instead. The locals obviously appreciated their efforts as the place was packed. At the bar there was a plaque stating that the “Grumpy Old Men Club” met here.  Turned out Mr. Shakespeare spent a year in Bellevue, WA. I’m wishing I had taken better notes on the food we ate at each meal, as we often had gourmet quality fare and it might interest a few folks to hear about it. All I recall about this meal was that we were very hungry at first, and then very satisfied. Ingredients were farm-fresh and the recipes were complex enough to be interesting but simple enough to be easy to digest.

No one tips, which we thought was wonderful, though the wait service in many places we visited showed the downside of this. Young staff rarely exhibited an understanding of customer service as we have come to know it. Sometimes very slow service just to get things like water, and sometimes they were not able to answer questions about their own menu items. 

We walked in the dark down the hill to the Inn. Rupert was at his computer in his home office, the parlor looked inviting but we'd used up all our energy reserves and climbed the steep stairs (carefully) to our beautiful Heron Room, named for the 3 panel screen against one wall.

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