July 18th, 2011

Days 6 and 7, Oxford and Manchester

Oxford is just so incredibly beautiful, full of history and learning, gorgeous architecture and fields and gardens and places to buy books and pubs. But the thing that blew my mind is that this historical place going back centuries is *still* an accessible (well, to some) institute of higher learning. Just as my parents drove me to Montreal with my purple sheets and London Boy t-shirt when I was 19, some people’s parents drive them to *Oxford* and leave them there to increase their brilliance.

It was the summer term while we were there, so we didn’t see all that many students. A young man biking frantically ahead of our bus with his academic robe streaming behind him gave some idea of what the vibe will be there come fall. And we saw a few groups coming into or out of graduation ceremonies: the girls in pretty dresses, the guys in white tie and tails for some reason.

It’s just as well that most of the students weren’t around, as the tourists would’ve completely trampled them. I know it’s terribly poor form to complain about tourists when one *is* a tourist, but it’s also practically de rigeur–everyone does it. There were MANY tourists in Oxford, which surprised me–it’s a university, after all. Most were there, I think, for the architecture, which was stunning, and not so much interested in the colleges themselves. There was also an undercurrent about Harry Potter that I did not understand–apparently there are some scenes in the films set there, but I haven’t seen the films. We saw this broom at All Souls’ College, and people seemed pretty excited about it–thoughts?

Other highlights of the day included the Bodleian Library (though I was very sad that we were not allowed to see the actual stacks), Blackwell’s Books, which has 3 miles of shelving in the basement alone, and where I bought my lone book purchase of the trip, The Book of Other People, which I am much looking forward to reading. (NOTE: If I had not grown to loathe both my luggage and my miserable lack of upper-body strength, I would have bought many more. Consumer responsibility is increased when one will have to carry it.) We also had some really good pub food.

We saw our 7th consecutive sunny dawn the next morning, and were really starting to doubt the rumours about English weather. We left our cosy hotel and it was only when we were standing at the bus stop preparing to depart that I realized we’d be staying next to a Cattery the entire time. A cattery! House of cats must be what that means, right? Certainly explains the cat I saw in the parking lot at the hotel (I chased it; it bolted; I never learn).

We took the bus to the train station, and were very early (as usual). Then the train was delayed. Then we got on the train and it was chaos–no assigned seating, no where to put large suitcases, totally zoo with people still staggering through the aisle 15 minutes after the train had departed, looking for a place to collapse. The strange thing is that I was the only one that minded; the English were quite cheerful about having to stand in the aisle for a whole stop, or sit with their legs sprawled around their baggage. In light of their good grace, I refrained from complaining (much) either.

Still, it was a looooonng train ride to Manchester, and the flapjack I had bought as a genuine English treat disintegrated into a million particles all over me (and Mark) and was much too annoying to eat. Plus I never figured out where the bathrooms were. So I was not in great spirits by the time we arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, which I had thought was not actually where we were supposed to be, as our tickets said Manchester Metrolink.

It turns out that the Metrolink is a tram service (basically just like Toronto streetcars, but with tootling little kids-show-style horns), so the ticket saved us 90p in getting to our hotel. Unfortunately, a) some idiot tripped me and walked away as I crashed to the ground, so then my knee hurt, plus I was angry, b) our train had been delayed so much it was rush hour by the time we got on the tram, and c) when we got off at the stop proscribed by the info dude at the train station, it was completely not apparent where we were, and none of the streets were labelled.

So, I didn’t get off to a great start in Manchester. By the time we arrived at the Stay Inn (which is technically in another town entirely, Salford), I was in a bit of despair, and not thrilled to see that there is no entrance to to hotel from the street, and you had to go through an alley and parking lot to get in there. The very helpful and sweet staff working the desk were horrified at my suggestion that it wasn’t safe to be sending pedestrians through a dark alley and lot if they came home late–they assured me both that it was, and that the owners were building a street entrance the next year.

The room was nice, if small–the tv was on top of the wardrobe, which meant you either watched flat on your back, or with your neck at a 45 degree angle. Odd. The kindly hotel staff misunderstood our desire to see the town and sent us toe Piccadilly Gardens, which reminded me of Yonge and Dundas Square, with spray fountains and artfully arranged cement plazas, and nothing much to do but shop. Actually, as Mark pointed out, Manchester is a lot like TO, down to the tram/streetcars.

Instead, we strolled the Chinatown, and had a nice, very authentic meal in a room full of Chinese people–always a good sign. I kept thinking I would learn about the Chinese population in Manchester when I went to the People’s History Museum the next day, but I never did. That’s odd, too.

The next day was much better and I didn’t fall down once.

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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