Of Horses, Wool and Brain

Trip Start Mar 13, 2010
Trip End Mar 17, 2010

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Howdy, dear reader, Considering we'd been living in the UK for 5 years now we decided we didn’t really know the country very well at all. Given the abundance of rich and well preserved historic, cultural and architectural heritage the country has to boast we decided to do some exploring closer to home. So we took a short break to visit Oxford, Cheltenham and the Cotswolds stretched out between the two cities.


We spent 2 nights at Becket House B&B near the train station and then at the most excellent newly built YHA hostel across the road (they do doubles).

Sadly we wasted quite some time visiting the disappointing allegedly prehistoric Uffingdon White Horse etched into a hillside and not really visible in its entirety unless you're very far away or airborne...so we arrived late in Oxford. The first evening we just strolled through the streets, took in the beautiful riverside setting and wandered past various college entrances. The 40 colleges of Oxford combine to constitute Oxford University which dates its teaching heritage back to the 11th century and holds claim to being the oldest University in the English speaking world. Most undergraduate teaching at Oxford is organised around weekly essay-based tutorials at self-governing colleges and halls, supported by lectures and laboratory classes organised by University faculties and departments. Each individual college campus only houses small numbers of students (between ca 100 and 600) each. This means that the majority of students have extremely small tutorial groups, often receiving 1-to-1 teaching which is outright amazing in my books. The colleges are generally grouped around a central green space, the boarding students live in largely medieval buildings which also house the tutorial rooms, faculty offices, library, canteen and large and beautiful mainly gothic style chapels. And the most amazing thing is they presently don’t pay more than students at other more conventional universities (about £3000 a yr for domestic students + meal and accommodation costs). This may be loosened by the government soon, but until then your school leaving grades decide on the success of your application to the colleges of Oxford.

The canteen or "mess hall" at Christ Church College was used as the great hall in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Students actually still take 3 meals a day in this room. Incredible! The Chapel of Christchurch Cathedral doubles as Oxford’s Anglican Cathedral. We attended the daily 18.00 Evensong service there and were blown away by the spellbinding performance of the all male choir. The Magnificat they sang was by far the most inspiring vocal/organ performance I’ve ever heard and in itself is worth a trip to Oxford.

We also walked the grounds of beautiful Magdalene (pronounced “Maudlin”) college which is built around a beautiful cloister which was also used for filming Harry Potter.

Foodwise we had the most palate-pleasingly authentic Chinese food at “SoJo”. We weren’t quite sure what to order from the extensive menu so the waiter advised us very well according to our tastes. The place was packed with exclusively Chinese punters who all seemed to be drinking milk tea and eating braised marinated leg of pork (we certainly didn’t have this down as classically Chinese fare). We struck up a conversation with our lovely neighbours (exhausting the entirety of my Chinese vocabulary), 2 students, who in a loveably shy way organized 2 milk teas for us to sample. Thanks!

Next stop was Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. A sweeping estate built from the money awarded 1704 by Queen Anne to Sir John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, for his history changing victory at the Battle of Blenheim (i.e. Blindheim in Southern Germany) where he halted further French expansion to secure the stability of the European powers at the time.

The Palace houses a nice general collection and a good exhibition on Winston Churchill’s life. The multimedia “Untold Story” is quite frankly a waste of time (40 minutes with no chance of escaping). Meant we missed a tour of the private rooms (Blenheim Palace is still lived in by the 11th Duke and Duchess). The grounds, designed by Lancelot ”Capability” Brown, are extensive and include a maze which we proudly solved without taking a single wrong turn. Whoopee!

Note that this year you can transfer your entry ticket to an annual ticket for free. This gives you some benefits even if you only visit the once.

The Cotswolds

This beautiful area of rolling hills, woods, meandering rivers and little hamlets has a rich heritage mainly based on the medieval wool trade (c.f. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth). Every little town has houses traditionally built from honey-coloured local granite, often thatched.

We hamlet-hopped by taking small B-roads and stopped ever so often for strolls through the villages or the countryside. Our base was the lovely Trevone B&B in the enchantingly beautiful Bourton-on-the Water. Lyn who runs this place as well as the Mad Hatter Café was a most accommodating host. Here we also met a group of other guests who whet our appetite for Horse Racing. They used Trevone as their annual base for the Cheltenham Festival and introduced us to the concept.

So off we went to Cheltenham, a grand spa town on the western edge of the Cotswolds, bought our tickets and partook in the frenzy reminiscent of, albeit on a much more spectacular scale, Charles Bukowski.  Take 65.000 Irishmen, transfer them to the quaint English Countryside (last one to leave the country please switch off the lights). Add dizzying amounts of beer and lots of betting money and feel the emotions boil as everyone cheers on their horse as they jump the obstacles on sometimes very long and complicated courses.  Most fascinating. We could just about hold back so only lost the grand sum of £6 (plus entry fee). Great experience!

We stayed at Michael (Fung)’s place who treated us to a tasty Thai dinner at the lavishly decorated Thai Emerald restaurant.

The next day, after some refreshing sleep on our part and a long night shift at the hospital on Michael’s part we dragged the poor chap back out into the Cotswolds to visit Snowshill (pronounced “Snozzle”) Manor, former home to the eclectically eccentric  Charles Wade. Following his family motto “nunque peream” – nothing shall perish - this architect and craftsman literally piled his mansion to the rafters with artifacts from around the world including model boats and villages, bikes, 26 suits of samurai armour, clocks, looms, to name but a minute fraction of his quirky collection. You could live there and discover something new everyday. Michael declared him “God of the Messies”.

And off home we went after a very satisfying 5 days of mostly good weather packed with culture.
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Margaret on

We also visited Uffington White Horse and were intrigued by it so we did a little research. If you learn about Uffington Castle, the 5 yearly scouring of the White Horse, Dragon Hill and the Manger then you fully appreciate the White Horse. We are so pleased we went to see it. Perhaps there needs to be more information available at the site of the White Horse.

wenzels on

I certainly agree with you on all counts! Thanks for the comment! Peter

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