Is the British pub an endangered species?

British pubThe figures are in for 2011 and it’s more bad news for the British pub. An average of 14 a week shut down, and Oxfordshire alone lost 35 this past year.

The pub is an institution. More than just a place to drink real ale, it’s a place to see friends, get out of the house, do the pub quiz, and watch football.

My family and I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford, and while we aren’t big drinkers, the pub is one of our regular destinations. Our local is The Fir Tree, which has a great Sunday roast and friendly atmosphere. They even allow well-behaved children like my son.

When I’m in Oxford I’m usually researching in the Bodleian Library. After a few hours of poring over old manuscripts I need a break, so I head across the street to The White Horse, familiar to Inspector Morse fans as Morse’s favorite watering hole. Usually I bump into several other researchers there and The White Horse has been unofficially designated the Bodleian Library slack-off pub!

British pubs are an institution, now under threat from a number of factors. High beer taxes make a night out expensive, and cut-rate supermarket booze is drawing many drinkers away. Also, the demographic of many neighborhoods is changing, with some areas filling up with immigrants who don’t drink, or who at least don’t drink in public.

It’s a shame so many pubs are disappearing but I don’t really see how that trend is going to be reversed. The government isn’t about the lower taxes, and the economic crisis is making more people stay home. If you’re coming to this part of the world, however, make sure to visit some pubs. You’ll find a genial atmosphere, good drinks, historic buildings, and interesting local tales. The White Horse is more than 300 years old and during renovations a “witch’s broom” was found in the rafters. Nobody would touch it so it was boarded up and is still there. Other pubs have stories too, including ghosts, visits by royalty, and of course acting as backdrops to movies and TV.

So go drink at a pub. Saving a cultural icon has never been so much fun.

Photo courtesy flickr user calflier001.

Queens Lane, Oxford: a thousand years of history in a single street

Oxford, Queens Lane, England
Most of the time when we travel (or write about travel) we look at the big picture, yet sometimes a single place can sum up the history and character of a city. Queens Lane in Oxford is one of those places. A quiet backstreet linking the two more popular thoroughfares of High Street and Catte Street, it’s overlooked by most visitors. I use it when walking to work at the Bodleian library as a way to avoid the noise and crush of the crowd.

Entering from High Street, you have The Queen’s College on your left. This college was founded in 1341 and is designed in the Italian style by Hawksmoor, one of England’s greatest architects. Like all Oxford colleges it has its own customs and peculiarities. During Christmastide celebrations a boar’s head is carried from the kitchens to the High Table in the dining hall while the college choir sings an old tune. Legend has it that a student of the college was walking in the forest reading Aristotle when he was attacked by a wild boar. He stuck his book in the boar’s mouth and choked the boar to death!

Walking down Queens Lane you can see a gate to another college, St. Edmund Hall, to your right and the church tower of St. Peter’s-in-the-East ahead. St. Edmund is older than The Queen’s College by a couple of generations but the exact date of its founding is a mystery. Go through to gate to see a couple of quiet, ivy-covered quads. St. Peter’s is worth a visit too. This 12th century Norman church is built atop an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. It now serves as the college library and there’s a display of finds from an archaeological excavation into the Anglo-Saxon foundations.

In the churchyard is the grave of James Sadler, a pioneering balloonist who soared into the air over Oxford in 1784, the first Englishman to try a balloon after it had been invented by the French Montgolfier brothers only the year before. Ballooning was dangerous in those early days. Sadler twice landed in the sea and his own son was killed in a ballooning accident. Another time his balloon hit the ground, dragged him for two miles before he was knocked off, and then sailed away again without him. Amazingly, Sadler lived to 75 and died a natural death.

%Gallery-132119%Continuing along Queens Lane you take a right and the path turns into New College Lane. Yes, I cheated with the title of this post. Sue me. New College doesn’t look like much from here, only a heavy oak door under a medieval vault. Go inside and you’ll see one of the five most beautiful colleges of Oxford. New College Lane is narrow and enclosed with high walls turned black from the acid rain caused by Victorian coal smoke and modern car exhaust. The stone used here is very absorbent and pollution is literally eating away at the university.

Another zigzag takes us within sight of Catte Street, the Bodleian Library, and the crowds. Before plunging into the throng, you’ll see an unassuming little house on the right that was once the home of Sir Edmund Halley, graduate of The Queen’s College and the astronomer who proved comets return regularly. He also loved to party, and went on epic pub crawls with Russian Czar Peter the Great when he visited London. Their landlord complained that they tore all the doors off their hinges and shot holes through all the paintings. The house is now a college residence and is famous for its parties. A little room attached to the roof served as Halley’s observatory and it’s rumored that heavenly bodies can still be seen there on Saturday nights.

If you don’t get invited to a private party in Halley’s old place, you can squeeze down a narrow alley and visit the Turf Tavern, a fine old pub. The oldest part of the building dates to the 17th century but there may have been an alehouse here centuries before that. The management claims that this was where Bill Clinton, then a student at Oxford, “didn’t inhale” marijuana. Yeah, sure you didn’t.

The exit of New College Lane takes you under the Bridge of Sighs, which connects two buildings of Hertford College. It’s said to be an imitation of a bridge in Venice of the same name. One local rumor says that when it was built in 1914, the building on one side still didn’t have plumbing while the other did. Since students weren’t allowed to leave their college after hours and usually had a quick pint or three before being locked in, it was a bad deal to be stuck all night in a building with no toilets. The Bridge of Sighs offered a way for students to hurry to the bathroom in the next building without breaking the rules, thus giving a whole other meaning to its name.

The five most beautiful colleges of Oxford

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England and makes a great day trip from London. What makes Oxford unique is its famous university with more than two dozen colleges. While each has its own distinct character, they tend to all be similarly laid out with one or more quads and a chapel. Here are five of the best.

Magdalen College
Founded in 1456, this college’s soaring Gothic tower on High Street is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline. When this was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War, lookouts kept watch from the top for Cromwell’s troops and even kept a supply of rocks up there to drop on them! Today it’s more peaceful and every May Day morning a choir sings from the top in one of Oxford’s most popular traditions. Behind the tower is a large cloister surrounded by a covered arcade with Gothic windows. Passing beyond this you come to a bridge over a stream and a pleasant walk alongside a meadow where deer nibble at wildflowers or laze under the shade of trees in summer.

New College
Despite the name, New College is one of the university’s oldest, having been founded in 1386. Nobody knows how it got its name, although the greater mystery is why it kept it. Like Magdalen College, there’s a large cloister and two attractive quads. The gardens are especially interesting because one of the walls is actually the medieval city wall, built in the twelfth century. The garden, with its lush flowerbeds, medieval wall, and carefully tended lawn, is one of Oxford’s best.

%Gallery-131852%Keble College
Founded in 1868, Keble College departs from the Gothic style of most other colleges and is ornately Victorian with its bright red brick and ornate facades. The chapel looks almost Byzantine with its glowing gold mosaics. This makes for a real contrast from the other colleges and after you’ve seen two or three, come here to see something different. Keble College is overlooked by the majority of tourists so you’ll find it less crowded and more tranquil.

Merton College
This college is one of the university’s oldest, being founded in 1274. It’s also one of the best preserved and much of what you see dates back to the Middle Ages. At the front gate you walk under a 15th century carving of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and enter a quad of similar date with walls covered in ivy. The chapel here is my personal favorite, with an ornate rose window, lots of original medieval stained glass, and an altar painting attributed to Tintoretto. Check out the tombs of various Oxford scholars, including one from 1525 with a globe attached showing the world as it was then known. Two kings lived at Merton College. Charles I made it his home after he got kicked out of London during the English Civil War. Charles II lived here for a time to escape the Plague. Located on a quiet back street, it’s still a peaceful refuge today and not nearly as visited as Magdalen, Christ Church, or New Colleges.

Christ Church College
Founded by Cardinal Wolsey at the bidding of Henry VIII in 1532, Christ Church is famous for Old Tom, a tall tower that like the Great Tower at Magdalen College adds a special touch to the city’s skyline. The front quad has a statue of Mercury in the middle of a waterlily pond. Be sure to see the cathedral with its grand stained glass windows and high vaulted Gothic ceiling. From the gardens you can walk into Christ Church Meadow, a broad expanse of open greenery leading to the River Isis, the local name for the Thames. On a sunny day you shouldn’t miss it!

London day trip: Oxford

Oxford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe because of its eclectic shopping, crazy nightlife, and world-class museums and galleries. It can get a bit tiring and stressful, though. For those who want to get out of the Smoke and see a bit more of England, Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip.

Getting there
The best way to get to Oxford from London is the Oxford Tube, which has regular bus service from various points in London up to four times an hour. There’s train service from Paddington station too, although it’s more expensive. There are also direct buses from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

What to see
Oxford is famous for its university, one of the oldest in Europe. The Gothic and Victorian architecture of its more than two dozen colleges give Oxford much of its charm. Most are open to the public and feature beautiful quads with ivy-covered walls, and medieval chapels with stained glass and soaring roofs. Be sure to take a guided tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the largest in the world and home to some ornate medieval interiors. In the photo above courtesy Tejvanphotos, you can see the ornate Radcliffe Camera, one of the library buildings where I do research in the summer. If you see a guy in a Gadling t-shirt buried in a pile of books on medieval history, take him out for a pint.

Being a seat of learning, Oxford also has several good museums. Three of the best are the Pitt-Rivers for its ethnographic collection, the Ashmolean for its ancient artifacts, and the Museum of the History of Science. The River Thames passes through town and is locally called the Isis. There’s a pleasant riverside walk you can do, or you can strike out on the water by going punting. The best way to get orientated to Oxford is to go on one of the many tours. There are regular walking tours, bicycle tours, charity fundraising tours run by Oxfam, and ghost tours.

%Gallery-131760%Eating and Drinking
Oxford is filled with restaurants, many of them rather disappointing. Here are some of the better ones. The Grand Cafe is on the site of England’s first coffeehouse, built in 1650. Today it serves Continental cuisine in a refined atmosphere. The Vaults and Garden Cafe under the Church of St. Mary serves up healthy food and good coffee under the medieval vaults that give it its name. Chiang Mai Kitchen serves excellent Thai food. High tea at the Randolph Hotel is an Oxford tradition. For a more diverse selection, head down Cowley Road for a variety of Arab, Indian, Caribbean, and Slavic restaurants.

If you like English pubs, you’ll feel right at home here. The White Horse on Broad Street is popular with visitors as well as scholars who flee the Bodleian for a mid-afternoon pint. The Turf just off Queen’s Lane is another popular spot and has outside seating. The Eagle and Child on Saint Giles is famous for being the drinking spot of the Inklings, a writers’ group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Hiking
Oxford makes a great base for hikes to nearby villages and ancient monuments. You can walk along the Thames Path to Abingdon, visit the Rollright Stones (a stone circle), see a folly, and hike England’s oldest road–the Ridgeway.

Staying Overnight
With so much to do, you might want to stay overnight. Unfortunately Oxford is filled with mediocre or just plain bad B&Bs and hotels, and they’re all overpriced. I’ve found only two I would recommend. The Ethos Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood and an easy walk into town. Some rooms come with a kitchenette so you can stock up food and save a bit of money. The Mercure Oxford Eastgate Hotel is utterly lacking in atmosphere but it’s right in the middle of the action on High Street. Living on a writer’s wages I’ve not tried the luxurious Randolph but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

When to go
If at all possible avoid going in the summer, when Oxford is crammed with tourists and English-language students. The autumn is nice with the ivy changing color, and the spring is fine too. Winter isn’t as bad as you might think. Yes, it’s gold and gray, but the university hosts a lot of cultural life such as concerts and lectures during term time.

Ghost Forest brings attention to rainforest threat


A Ghost Forest is stalking Europe.

Giant trees from Ghana have appeared in Copenhagen, Trafalgar Square in London, and now Oxford. It’s called the Ghost Forest Art Project, and it’s an innovative way to bring the plight of the world’s rainforests to public attention.

Artist Angela Palmer wanted to share her concern with the public about tropical rainforests, which are disappearing fast. An area the size of a football pitch vanishes every four seconds, and most are never replaced. Not only does this reduce biodiversity and nature’s way of absorbing atmospheric carbon, but it leads to soil erosion and long-term economic problems. Since Europe is a major consumer of rainforest wood, and there are no rainforests in Europe, Palmer decided to bring the rainforest to Europe.

She hauled a collection of stumps from the commercially logged Suhuma forest in western Ghana all the way to Europe. Ghana lost 90 percent of its forest due to overlogging before the government got serious about conservation. Now the remaining forest is being logged in a sustainable manner under strict supervision. The stumps mostly fell due to storms, but three were actually logged. To offset the carbon footprint of shipping these behemoths hundreds of miles, Palmer contributed to a project that distributes efficient stoves to Ghanaian villages. These stoves use less wood than traditional stoves and reduce the need for cutting.

First stop was Copenhagen, just in time for last year’s UN Climate Change conference. This was followed by a visit to Trafalgar Square before the trees were installed in front of Oxford University’s famous Museum of Natural History. A fitting display for 2010, which is the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity. Next year will be the Year of Forests.

I’ve seen this exhibit in person and I have to say the stumps are truly awe inspiring. Their sheer size, and the realization that they were once alive, made me think about our place in this world. My four-year-old was impressed too, and I hope that some of these giant trees will still be standing when he’s my age.


Image Courtesy Ghost Forest.

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