A Poet of the Cherwell…….

Friday, August 15, 2008   Oxford, UK

Relinquished my big, old Merlin’s room key. Gave a few folks some photocopies that Peter was kind enough to print off on his laptop and printer. Said my good-byes, and then smuggled my dinner plates out through the Gate and past the Porter (I did have my Oxfam receipt, just in case). Out through the large door (which is actually open for deliveries this morning)–and out into the wide world.

Joss has arranged for me to be able to stay for the extra week that I have intended at his place in Jericho, near to the old canal. He will be gone all the following week, but has offered to put me up, and to lend me an extra cel phone, in case he needs to contact me while I am watching his house. Jericho is actually Oxford’s old Jewish neighborhood, down along the canal. I would hesitate to call it a traditional Jewish Ghetto, although I suppose that it was at one point. Joss gives me a key to 34 Nelson street, and then he is off to other things, until late afternoon, when he will give me a call.

And so a day of walking and looking and seeking. I sat for awhile in the sun along Broad Street. Watched the morning walkers and joggers. Thought about the commercial space and structure here– a Picture of Concentricity.

By and by, I moved with the sun down around the corn-market, and did lunch about 11 a.m. At the covered market. Eventually I will come and buy a whole selection of various cheese here, and maybe some raspberries to go along with.

Walked down hill all the way to Folly Bridge, and then into the gardens and meadow at Christ-Church. I have now sat for a good measure of the afternoon on the sunny bank of the Cherwell, watching the punting boatmen and the tourist families. Still, the boatmen look to my eye like young Charons, manning the rudder between here and thereafter.

As I am writing this, a little girl asks from her boat as she passes by, “Are you a Poet?

I said to her, “Sometimes.” Which made her mother laugh.

The day is warm, and the boats are many, and I almost wish that I had a poem to write– but I confess that today the rhyme-schemes and even the deep languid thoughts escape me. I look at little horsetails growing in a marshy ditch, and think of the natural history museum. It is little wonder that natural history was not a hard sell at Oxford!

I have gotten a little sleepy by the stream, and in the park. And so eventually I walked again– first down to the proper Isis. Then up past the Botanical Garden– I can see the apple trees, including the newest planting of heritage apples, over the tall fence. To Magdalene Bridge, and to Magdalene College. Found as close as I will come to a Saint Oscar Wilde Tree. A huge sycamore or plane tree, along the edge of the Cherwell, full and ripe of seed pods. Some of which are in my coat pocket now.

I have sat and watched people for a very long time along High Street. This is very close to the “clock-front” view that one sees. There is still a green tree at the corner, just like there was all those years ago– it seems to be an elm tree. Although I was half expecting a plane tree. One of the most famous trees in the world, although I dont suppose that anyone knows it. Here is the “perfect aesthetic” discussed in “The Stones of Venice.”

Now by the Radcliffe Camera once again– there is a tiny afternoon organic tea shop– a small little gate leading into the grounds, the vaults and garden of St. Mary the Virgin. The crypts seem a strange place to tuck a tea house– but here it is– and you can take your tea among the few remaining tombstones in the garden. And so I have paused here for an afternoon pot of tea and a large slice of walnut cake. I was thinking a lot about Oscar Wilde earlier– but I confess, I am sleepy, and that seemed a lot of effort. Now with my belly full of tea, the vaults of the ceiling are mostly making me sleepier…

Saturday August 16th, 2008

Now settled in at Joss’s place: turns out to be a very nice little Worcester College house, over by the Oxford Canal, and above Glouster Green. With a very nice disarrayed walled garden in the back– I am entertained that the house next door is that of Simon Bagnall, the head gardener at Worcester College. His little backyard plot is full of tree ferns and banana trees. A good reminder of how tropical/temperate it actually is here.

Actually I spent most of the early part of the day reading (a copy of Phineas Redux (1873) by Anthony Trollope)– and I suppose it is a wonder that I am not reading DeQuincy! Also writing a lot of sketch notes for something eventually on Sustainability strategies at Oxford– And napping a bit. This little cottage has a very nice claw-foot bathtub– and I spend some writing time in a tub of very hot water.

In the evening I met Joss at “Angelus” pub on Little Clarendon Street—to do dinner with his mom, who is up from London. I wasn’t sure that I knew the location, so I went in that direction early– Poked around and found the little grove of Sequoia redwood trees at Wellington Square (some of you will get the joke of that). And then walked over to photograph a number of the stones at St Giles Churchyard. Visited the Boneyard apple tree with its red, red fruit.

It is interesting to see that in the past two years the Radcliffe Infirmary has been abandoned totally. And for now it is all boarded up– the rumor is that it is likely to be torn down for relentless housing and business development. At St Giles, I found a small, intensely iridescent fragment of glass with very good color. Another little piece of the wider mosaic.

Sunday August 17th

Frankly, after an early morning walk, then I spent much of the day reading and writing and scribbling notes. And sleeping a lot. It is difficult to imagine just how burnt out I feel from the several seasons at the job at home. I am beginning to decompress. A little. The life looks considerably different from the outside a bit. Joss has had church stuff to do at St. Annes. Which is fine.

I had a vague and passing dream last night of planting many many acorns– quite a labor of it. Planted an entire forest, here and there, in the churchyard at St Giles. But in the dream I was very sad because I knew that it would not be a very tall forest by the time that I had to pass on and leave! Too much time at St Giles! Not a sad dream, really– but still notable as to where the subconscious parts of my head are. Momento mori.

I eventually availed myself of a tub bath, and a kind of long afternoon nap– I seem really exhausted. Even though there is a whole lot going on in my head. I have not gotten along very well with Joss’s cel phone—I hate to admit that Ive never really used one to this point– and it does things that I dont expect– It quivers when it gets messages and things– but, of course, they are messages for Joss. So I try to leave them alone. But then it turns out that Joss has texted and left me a message, and I missed it, by about 30 seconds– and then I couldnt get back to it– Eventually, the other room-mate, Keith comes in, and I ask him to help me navigate the labyrinth of where text messages go to be stored. (It has to be dialed into, and a code provided, and then manually, the phone number of the phone).

Anyhow, the message is to meet up with Joss at King’s Arms by the Sheldonian Theater at 7:15 p.m.– I know where that is, have eaten there before and so I guess that I can find it ok… I had kind of forgotten about the King’s Arms. That is where the gravy for the steaks is thick and dark as chocolate sauce– haha.

The weather was pretty today, cooler now, in the evening, and damp. After dinner Joss and I attended an evening of Chopin by Gibbon at the Oxford Music Hall. Extraordinary– and I think a bunch of Carl Klein, in distant days. Much interesting is a selection of 3 Alcan pieces—oh, and an absolutely stunning do of the whole Death March ensemble. Late pizza afterwards, and talking with Joss about his writing of novels. I find it interesting that Joss has all of Oxford, and a thousand stories around him– but what he is actually trying to write is a middle eastern spy novel.

Monday August 18, 2008

Today turned out to be very busy and very good– this is literally the first day that I have felt much of any vitality creeping back in. In early morning I walked down along the old Canal– looked and photographed the long thin canal boats– and got a first glimpse of the Canal Basin, with its locks and moorings.

Then, up from the canal is the rest of Jericho– The Oxford University Press… the many little commercial streets. Both Keith and Joss had suggested that I seek out a little hidden graveyard by the name of St. Sepulcher. Which I found with almost a creepy amount of ease. Seemed a whole lot like it was right there where I had put it…. In the 19th Century it was an abandoned farmstead, then all used for burials during the mid-century Cholera epidemics. Now it is left half wild, as wild park and green-space. I took a LOT of photos here among the Yew trees and brambles.

Bought the two big glass vases at the Import/consignment store. These are marbled swirly, heavy glass vases in Murano style that came from the estate of one of the deans of one of the Oxford Colleges. Located a shipping store, and left them there for packing and I will pick them up tomorrow to send to my mom in Ulysses PA. Then I located an email cafe shop– and caught up on email a bit, for the first time. Spent a couple of hours online, feeding in quarters–(pounds and pences, actually…) Emailed to Dave Scaer, to Isaac and to Virginia. And several others. All of this seems to ground me somewhat– so that I dont go floating off down the canal to more existential reveries. I have now found several more tea and lunch spots that are scattered in this part of the city. Nite: took my dinner as another steak and gravy at the Kings Arms on Broad Street. Is good and enjoyable. Watched the moon come up.

Tuesday August 19th, 2008

So today is more of the Canal. And also of the New Battle of Jericho– over the old Castle Mill Boatyard. It is the canal basin maintenance center and essentially old docking facility. Now the developers want to raze the entire thing, and build a large block of Moussellini style housing blocks there, backed up against the old canal… And this is how you lose your concentricity! Making the old boat maintenance yard disappear forever. I walked specifically to it to look it over– It is, of course, a treasure– it is a beautiful little site– brick and pavers– and a leveraged boat lift.

I don’t know if it will make any difference at all, but this afternoon I have emailed a whole slew of observations and comments– including the local heritage entities– as well as the NY, PA, VA canal boat societies– just in case any outside voices might have any positive effect on the public feedback portion of this fight. For the would-be saviours of the old yard.

Spent early morning with hot tea at the crypt at St Mary the Virgin– but then did a tea house again in the afternoon, at Gastos deli in Jericho itself. Met one Albert Qyqualla from Kosovo. He has been working at the tea shop, which is the same one that his brother worked at after coming into the country. He and I turn out to have a long conversation, as he is also a bit lost in the world– I am in favor of him actually talking to the OT– the Computer science departments are actually looking/advertising for people just now– I was reading about it yesterday– and that with s few classes in English– and Albert would be on his way. He is quite capable, and knows a lot more battlefield computer coding and maintenance that I ever will… I tell him some course of strategy.

Through the evening I finish reading “Fatal Revenant” which is one of the books in the last chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. Actually, this book—which I found in a used book stall, is sort of a mess– moved way beyond Thomas Covenant– who is but a recalled spectre in this later volume. It was Ann Templin, back at Penn State who introduced me to the Chronicles of the4 Unbeliever. I know that wont ring any bells with most of you reading THESE far-flung chronicles of mine. But Ann was a mechanical engineer who was graduating the season that I was a freshman. She is likely the girl who I “should” have married– except that she didn’t. And then later she died of an aggressive and persistent Cancer. She introduced me to Thomas Covenant– and she and I used to talk about Oxford Town. I suppose that if Anne were here, that we would probably brave a punting boat, here at 45 and middle age– and float along the Cherwell. It is interesting to think what she would say to know that I am here. Even if it happens to be here somewhat alone! Has some bearing on my mood, here in this British “Land.”

Wednesday August 20, 2008

Another day of exploring. Got an email back from Isaac. It sounds like he will be able to join me briefly in London next week, which I admit, makes me quite happy. Isaac was with me here in 2006, when I gave my Beyond Darwin lecture. We had done the Middle Eastern Hookah restaurant, that hearkens back to the entire Alice in Wonderland story– (we didnt actually do the hookahs– just ate) So I do a lunch of lamb there today, just to celebrate Isaac’s friendship.

I did get 200 pounds more cash today at the Barkley Bank. Still, in truth I am not spending much more than I would normally at home– this trip will not wind up being as expensive this time as I had thought.

I did the whole of the Museum of the History of Oxford most of today. Again, took a pretty good number of photos. This is located in the old town hall. And the displays are well-thoughtful, and outline the shape and form of the town from the beginning…. Here is the knucklebone pavement– here is the burning of witches. And the burning of Martyrs on Broad Street. Here is why the colleges have walls and gates.. here are the canals– here are the recessions and depressions. Here is the Saxon tower, and the older Oxford castle. Here are the mounds with their English Oak trees.

Here is poor old Giles Covington– the englishman’s skeleton in his box– hanged in 1791, but saved by the flaying knife of “Dr. Pegge” who had his bones mounted.

“There only remains now for me to do justice to myself, by solemnly and truly declaring, in the presence of Almighty God, my entire innocence of the transaction for which I now suffer.”

Here is the complete little interior from a house in Jericho– with its little coal stove and cast iron grate– its little Romney gypsy pans, its little shelf clock with the requisite view of high street– Except there is something of an iron here– because it is an Ithaca clock from upstate New York!

Here are the stained glass window lights, with their three oxen crossing the ford… and the three hands on the shield…. I am reminded just how little glass was ever made at Oxford itself. I am guessing that much of this was because there was no local coal worth burning– and the glass sand would also have been mighty poor. Any supplies would really, likely have had to have been brought in by canal.

Oxford seems in this great state of turmoil/state of flux. Which my perception seems to be, has been going on for a thousand of years.

I took photos at the Glouster Green market, but I confess, I didnt find anything that I really wanted to buy. On email I got a cc of an email about an envi pep review– which is intended to happen while I am away on sabbatical. That little move, by someone….. might just cost me my job– who does a program review when the director is on sabbatical? I can think of one.

Friday August 22, 2008

The Stones of Oxford are sacred. Just the weekend yet to go, and I am winding down.

This morning I continued yesterdays jaunt to mail stuff– and to find the old orchard at Worcester, as I did yesterday afternoon (it rained on me)–and some of the town’s stained glass– I have a little brocure that tells me where some of it is hidden. Again with tea at the crypt shop, and later at Gastros Deli at Jericho. The Worcester chapel, with its arts and crafts windows. Again, now I have it all to myself. The present, highly colored interior was done by William Burges in the mid 1860s. The glass windows were by a young 22 year old by the name of Henry Holiday. Oscar Wild is supposed to have referred to this chapel as “simple and decorative—and the windows very artistic.”

I would assume that he was being facetious about the interior– but getting to know the windows for myself, on that point I have to agree. The myriad colors in the wings of the angels are enough to make these scenes memorable enough.

Now, finally was St. Michael’s at the North Gate– near to the Saxon Tower of 1040. This was the first time that I had made my entrance here. It turns out that I never did get to see the bits from the 1200s…. at least not that I could discern– there are some relict window parts from various ages, including the Lily window from the 1500s. And the other windows are impressive.

But here, at least, finally is a great huge Michael with wings and a sword– I have seen a dozen different photos of this window, which earns its place. And there is an even huger, more modern mounted Michael in Purple and green with a stunning huge dragon. The dragon has amazing purple wings.

In the evening I have made out careful post cards to mary and the kids, to belva, Todd Burgess, and secretary Leonard Treat at Liberty Lodge 505 in Port Allegany.

Saturday August 23, 2008

Close enough now for me to begin to be a little nervous about travel plans again. And a little bit as to my next moves in life and career– just where was it that I actually left off back in that other life back in the states. Really, the question of “who I am” –of that there is really not so much doubt… The question I should be asking, as always, is what should I be doing next with myself. I am reminded of the fortune-cookie fortune I have in my day book– the one that says “you will do well not to expect too much from others. Haha!

There is some large question whether Roanoke will remain even a little bit viable for very long. Other than the fact that I am becoming a bit bored of it. Maybe the outside review will stir up some excitement. Maybe I will be elsewhere sooner rather than later.

I have packed my dinner plates from Exeter and Magdelene—I wonder if we will get through US customs with these! So this morning I checked email– and then took the remains of my multi-grain bread—and the last bits of my Oxford Cheese Company cheeses—and went to feed the ducks at my spot on the Cherwell at Christchurch meadow.

Just wound up giving most of my bread to a little girl with her grandmother who was fascinated with the ducks– particularly one little brown one who had such very nice manners.

I got to watch someone fall in off one of the punting boats. A spectacular, up-in-the-air kind of falling in! Luckily the afternoon is fairly warm. The park here is mostly all sycamore/plane trees. With the occasional english oak, some copper beech, and horse-chestnut. I have, in other parts of the city, even seen a true american chestnut or two. And both Atlas and Deodar cedars. But, other than the one on high street– which looks like an elm, although it is suspiciously and famously a sycamore (?)– other than that, we dont see any other elms or their ilk… I will need to go past there and actually look at it more closely.

Apparently there used to be walkways and avenues of them, but they have succumbed to Dutch elm disease. They seem to have mostly stayed away from them since.

I’ve now paid the five pounds to go into the Christchurch Hall and Cathedral. I believe it is the only one to charge– but then again, there is also a line outside, and down the block– so I suppose it makes sense. And they seem fairly wise in their pricing. Now, the usual story here is all about Lewis Carrol and Alice in Wonderland. But I notice that this time there is an increasingly large percentage of the history devoted now to Harry Potter– and indeed, much of the filming was done on the grounds here. I imagine that that is more what the majority of the crowd has come seeking here now.

They have actually pulled a great deal of the old ivy off from the front wall of the Meadows-facing building, since I was here 2 years ago– It looks quite different. The (Harry Potter) fan vaulting and iron street lamps ARE very nice– as is the glass in the cathedral– although the camera batteries give out on me eventually.

5 p.m.

Grey sky and very mild– the weather is hanging over, and I have my umbrella at hand. I have wondered eventually over to the South University Park. This is essentially the arboretum tree walk sort of back behind the Science complex and the Natural History museum. This was the old town “Pleasure Grounds” in the 17, 18, 19th Centuries, and eventually 91 acres (now minus the several for new science buildings) was bought, officially landscaped, and kept for green-space.

I admit, I came here today really to look for/at the stand of redwood trees again on this trip. These are about 150 years old at this point– I was hoping for their sense of presence today, before I leave town. But I confess, that first, just now, I am instead sitting underneath a huge sycamore tree instead. This one has an odd, peculiar form– large trunk, high branches, but then the limbs all arch down to the ground at about 10 paces out from the trunk.

It makes me think of my friend, the Draper Meadow Sycamore, now deceased at Virginia Tech.

They say that the gravelly soil here is thin, over solid river gravels. But at least the water has got to be readily available! “Do not appear to have attained their full potential.” says a brochure, of the redwood trees specifically, and all of the trees here in general. It also says that there have been civic tree plantings here in 1865, 1888, 1920s, 1950s, 1977, and 1991. Once in a generation, it looks like. As to the younger trees, the brochure says: “While these have little impact on the landscape at present, they will ensure interest and pleasure for future generations of visitors.” So mote it be!

What could one do with the right 70 acres of ground?

The redwoods likely need about twice as many, at least! Any acre of redwoods in fact might be a nice legacy. Look at Wellington Park with just its one or two small trees. Or at the Natural History Museum, the same.

The American Tulip trees are a bit under-represented here. Or rather, their numbers are good, but they are far less happy. They will be wanting a little bit higher ground, I suspect, and would likely do better as a grove, where they can communicate with each other a little bit more.

The layout of this large patch of redwoods is interestingly “correct” if a bit close together for their sixe now already. There are some several glyptostroboides in among– and then merging outward– I assume that they were chosen as space holders until the Wellingtonias need the extra space. Some ginkgos here would not be a bad addition…. The only ginkgos I have seen so far are very young– and also look a little hesitant.

There is a long “Thorn-walk” with some 30 or more species or varieties of hawthorn. I know that I would change that quickly enough in my design to become a walkway of apple trees.

I like the pond here with its water lilies and its many exotic ducks. And the River Walk, with its good collection of sycamores, and iths many high-arched bridges for wandering. And its many, many punting boats. I think the several playing fields (today mostly filled with kites) are also excellent green space here, and part of the riparian. There are perhapos a shade too many of these, playing fields. But then again, this is working space– for public recreation. Better than cramped urban spaces– still there is a bit more field than forest in this plan. Not quite enough forest.

There are some fairly neat birds sharing this space today– look like small crows, but with white saddles, and a bit of white on their wings– intelligent sorts, and quick of eye. I should look them up.

I wonder, if, in urban planning of riparian space like this, if you could plan 1/3 grove around the ponds or lakes, 1/3 small grove and greens, and 1/3 older forest? Still potentially with a river walk and a wetted meadow…

Might be a good design inspiration to keep in mind for a riparian/floodplain somewhere.

So, I take my requisite photos of my Redwood trees– by luck, there was a kid hanging out in the branches. Which I tell him nicely, to remain right there and become a sense of scale for all of my photographs. He winds up looking successfully Tolkien-esque among the foliage.

In this evening I pack my satchel bag and get ready for the bus trek down to london, where I will meet up with Isaac first, and then will go off to Gower Street where I have left my Mom and her cousin Elvernon. Hopefully, then, they are intact, and then we all will tour London a bit, and do the British Museum in earnest.

That, however, will be a tale for yet another time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *