Shakespeare Slept Here: Hidden Old Room In Oxford Once Hosted The Bard

ShakespeareBehind an eighteenth-century facade in downtown Oxford, just above a clothing shop, is a bedroom that was once used by William Shakespeare.

It was part of the Crown Tavern, owned by Shakespeare’s friend John Davenant. The Bard frequently stopped in Oxford on his trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. A nearby courtyard may have hosted his troupe’s performances.

Known as the Painted Room, it’s been remarkably preserved since Elizabethan times and still has hand-painted wall decoration from the late 16th century. This rare artwork survived thanks to oak paneling installed in the following century, and was only rediscovered in 1927.

Part of the decoration includes a religious text:
“And last of thi rest be thou
Gods servante for that hold I best / In the mornynge earlye
Serve god devoutlye
Feare god above allthynge. . .”

This week the Oxford Preservation Trust is offering guided tours of the Painted Room. If you can’t make it, BBC has posted a video tour of the room, led by some silly guy in an anachronistic tricorne hat. The Trust is also working on making the rooms permanently available to the public.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Bumping Into Queen Elizabeth II In Oxford

Queen Elizabeth IIIt’s not every day that you bump into Queen Elizabeth II on your way to work.

Walking from my house to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to research my next book, I noticed a large crowd and dozens of cops outside Christ Church College. It turned out the Queen was coming to take part in an old English tradition – giving away Maundy Money.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, and since the Middle Ages, English monarchs have been giving away money on this day. Since the 17th century this has taken the form of a special issue of coins and the tradition developed to give them to old people who have shown good service to the Church and community. The monarchs used to wash people’s feet too, but that ended with James II.

I joined the crowd lining the street and waited for the Queen and Royal Consort, Prince Philip. I hadn’t seen them since taking part in the Field of Remembrance ceremony at Westminster back in 2000 and so I was looking forward to seeing them again. We really haven’t been keeping in touch as much as we should. Perhaps I should friend them on Facebook.

The crowd was a mixture of tourists and locals, some waving flags sold by an old man who hurried from one side of the street to the other, completely ignoring the cops who were trying to clear the way.

The royal motorcade soon appeared with her and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in the back of a beautiful old Rolls Royce. A great cheer rose up from the crowd and everyone waved. The Queen looked her usual regal and relaxed self and gave her trademark wrist-only wave. She didn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. Prince Philip gave a more enthusiastic wave but I couldn’t help noticing he was beginning to show the burden of his 91 years.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that this is the first time in almost 400 years that the ceremony has taken place in Oxford, so I was incredibly lucky to stumble on it. It’s one of those coincidences that always make up the highlights of any trip.

Tradition holds that the monarch rewards a number of people equal to her age, and so the Queen gave coins to 87 worthy people at Christ Church Cathedral in the college. Soon after the ceremony she headed out of town. Sadly, she didn’t have time to stop for a pint with me. Maybe next time. Long Live The Queen!

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. It was one of those "I really should have brought my camera" days]

Hiking A Roman Road In England

Roman
At first glance this looks like a muddy field with an Australian contract lawyer walking away into the middle distance. Look again, though, and you’ll notice something strange. Why is there no substantial vegetation in a big straight swath through this field?

The answer is that it’s a Roman road. Only a few inches below the soil are the original stones laid down 2,000 years ago when this was the Roman province of Britannia. This is one of many Roman roads crisscrossing the land from its southern shore all the way up to Hadrian’s Wall on the border with Scotland.

This photo shows a portion of the Roman Way, a 174-mile walk along three Roman roads in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire. We walked the 22.5-mile (36-kilometer) stretch between Dorchester and Alchester.

I had visited Dorchester and its medieval abbey three years ago while hiking along the Thames Path and was happy to revisit the rare medieval wall paintings and the historic High Street lined with 17th century coaching inns. This main road running through town is actually part of the Roman road.

We followed it north and were soon out into the countryside, passing through fields and between hedgerows that were bringing forth delicious blackberries. In many spots the Roman road is clearly visible as a bank raised slightly above the surrounding land. Like in Dorchester, at times it’s still used as a road and we had to detour to keep on trails.

%Gallery-164134%The landscape is dotted with little villages. One of the first we came to as we headed north towards Oxford was Toot Baldon, where a Norman church and its overgrown graveyard of mouldering stones provides a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. Shadows of clouds made dark blots on patchwork fields while a murder of crows circled above a distant hedgerow.

We came upon another church, built in the 12th century, a couple of villages further on at Horspath. The sun shone through the brilliant stained glass to illuminate the interior with a kaleidoscope of colors. Not far beyond, we walked up onto a wooded ridge called Shotover. This was a forest in Saxon times and later became a royal hunting ground.

At the crest of the ridge we followed a clearly visible road, but it wasn’t the Roman one. Instead it was the London-Oxford coaching road and was considered a dangerous stretch. The thickets on either side of the road were infested with highwaymen who would relieve travelers of their hard-earned shillings and guineas. The highwaymen were a polite bunch and generally bid their victims a pleasant good night before riding off with their money.

From Shotover we got another fine view, this time to the north and west, where we saw the fringes of southern Oxford and a pair of hills called Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, named after a lady of the local manor from the 17th century. Heading down the slope at the far end of Shotover, we entered the C.S. Lewis Nature reserve, a bit of wild land with a pond that are said to have inspired the famous author to invent Narnia. His house is nearby.

Within a few minutes we were at Oxford Park and Ride, mainly used for commuters but also a good starting-off point for both legs of this hike. Heading north from there ran the second part of our trail. For a time it skirted the eastern edge of town but soon we were walking through fields and past centuries-old thatched farmhouses. After a long stretch we came to Beckley, where we took shelter from a sudden downpour in the Abingdon Arms, a local pub. A pint later, we ventured out to visit the local church, yet another Norman structure. This one rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries and decorated inside with paintings of Biblical scenes.

Beyond Beckley lies Otmoor, a large fenland and nature reserve. A nearby Ministry of Defense shooting range keeps anyone from thinking of building on it! There was no shooting the day we went and ll wee heard was birdsong back by deep silence. There are several blinds scattered about for people interested in birdwatching. The rain made this part of the hike very squishy. Anyone hiking in the UK should definitely wear good water-resistant boots.

Not far from here some locals discovered the wooden pilings of a Roman bridge, and we saw more Roman remains stuck in the wall of the church at Merton, where the builders mixed local stone with Roman tiles scavenged from the nearby Roman fort of Alchester. The church is dedicated to St. Swithun, whose remains were moved here from the cathedral at Winchester in 971. His spirit disapproved of the move and caused it to rain for 40 days.

Some more plodding through mud and rain (thankfully not of the 40-day kind) brought us to Bicester, once a Roman town and now engulfed in a shopping center. This jarring intrusion of the modern world into a historical hike killed the atmosphere and we quickly caught a bus back to Oxford where we could enjoy a celebratory whiskey.

For a guidebook we used “The Roman Way” by Elaine Steane. The directions are clear and are aided by strips of Ordnance Survey maps for the areas the path passes through. There are also some notes on the history and nature of the region, although you’ll probably want to do some more background reading before heading out. To include everything of interest would have required a book that would be too heavy to carry!

A Drive Through Rural Oxfordshire And Buckinghamshire

Oxfordshire
England is so much more than its cities.

Most itineraries take in London and one or two more: Oxford or Cambridge, Brighton or Bath. While I love all these places, and live part time in Oxford, it’s the countryside that I truly enjoy. Glimpsed from the motorway it makes a pretty backdrop, but get off onto the country lanes and you’ll find villages filled with history, old inns with great beer, and amazing stretches of natural space.

Oxfordshire is one of my favorite parts of England. While it’s more built upon than the northern counties it is rich in antiquarian landmarks. Yesterday my wife and I set out to explore them with the same two friends who took us out on our last rural ride through Oxfordshire. While I have a ton of work to do this week and next, I can never pass up the offer of a road trip through England.

I thought I knew Oxford University inside and out, but our first stop proved me wrong when we arrived at the university’s Harcourt Arboretum a few miles outside town. Peacocks strutted amid a forest of trees gathered from all around the world. I can’t say I’m a big arboretum goer, and while I prefer natural forests to artificial ones, I did enjoy it. The sight of power lines and the distant hum of the motorway did nothing to reduce the feeling of calm that settled on me. Thoughts of my book deadline and the thousand other things on my to-do list disappeared.

Soon we were off to something I know a bit more about – medieval history. Passing down narrow country lanes flanked by hedges and old, lichen-covered stone walls, we came to the village of Ewelme (pronounced “you elm”). Like many English villages, nobody knows just how old this cluster of thatched-roof relics and Victorian trophy homes is. Ewelme became prominent in the middle of the 15th century when Alice, wife of the Duke of Suffolk and granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, built a church, school and almshouses here.

The church is one of those magnificent little houses of worship you find all over England, such as in Dorchester or Binsey. Like with most of my visits to rural churches, we had it to ourselves, and we wandered at leisure admiring the heraldic carvings, fragments of original stained glass, and the alabaster tomb of Alice herself. The tomb is a bit grim even by tombish standards. In addition to carving her lying in state with her hands clasped in prayer in true medieval piety, the sculptor added a second image of Alice at the base showing her decayed and rotting. This was supposed to be a reminder of the way of all flesh. The creepiness still works six centuries on.

%Gallery-163241%Through a narrow doorway and down a flight of steps we entered a small cloister surrounded by 13 little houses. The charity that Alice set up is still in operation and needy people from the parish still live in houses paid for by Alice’s original donation. They are snug, tidy little homes and worlds apart from the grim concrete monoliths many of England’s poor live in.

The third building is a school that’s said to hold the record for the oldest continually operating school in the country, according to whoever it is who keeps track of such things. Sadly it was shut up for the summer, so we were left studying the worn medieval carvings on the wooden door and wondering what lay on the other side.

Suddenly this peaceful village scene was interrupted by the roar of jet engines. Seven red fighters shot overhead, trailing colored smoke. They were the Red Arrows, putting on a show at the nearby RAF airfield. They banked and looped and resisted all attempts at a decent photograph. After a while I stopped trying and simply watched. As we retired to a nearby pub for lunch (fish and chips and real ale, what else?) the Red Arrows were replaced by noisy relics from World War II that flew so low we could see the pilots. It was good to know the pub was safe from the Luftwaffe.

One-and-a-half pints and 50000 calories later, we headed out through more winding little lanes past curious cows and old cottages to neighboring Buckinghamshire, where we climbed a steep hill to Brill, a village that has one of the region’s oldest surviving mills. The mill has been standing here since the 1680s and while it no longer makes flour, it offers a fine backdrop from which to look out at the surrounding countryside.

The hill itself is pitted and gouged with steep clefts. Brick makers in centuries past dug out great chunks of the terrain in search of clay. This provided a great opportunity for a group of local boys. One half of the crowd tried to kick a football over to their friends on the other side. Each attempt ended with the ball plummeting into the pit and one poor kid scrambling down to get it. They weren’t deterred, though. I got the feeling that whoever managed to kick a football over that crevasse would become a village legend, his boyish exploits repeated and exaggerated for generations at the local pub until he took on the legendary stature of a Robin Hood or King Arthur. Or maybe he’d just impress the local girls. Either way, they kept trying.

A day spent away from the cities reveals England at its best. So if you’re in this or any other part of the country, it would be worth your while to rent a car and see the lesser-known rural sights. Just be careful driving on the left.

Bee Gees Getting Blue Plaque While Monty Python Passed Over

blue plaqueAny traveler in the UK is familiar with the Blue Plaques. The plaques mark the spot of a famous event or building, or where a famous person has lived, worked, or died.

English Heritage has recently announced that due to government budget cuts, half of the shortlist for new plaques will be canceled, with such big names as Beatles manager Brian Epstein and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman missing out, the BBC reports.

Some forty other prominent people have received the go-ahead, including comedian Peter Sellers and actor David Niven.

Blue plaques help bring context to a walk through UK cities and towns. A stroll through London can show you where Dickens worked in a sweatshop as a child, Marx researched “Das Kapital” and Jimi Hendrix spent his last days.

Other organizations put up similar plaques. The Heritage Foundation and Thame Town Council have announced they’ll unveil a blue plaque for Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb at his home in Oxfordshire. Near my house in Oxford is this blue plaque honoring Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first mile under four minutes. He helped carry the Olympic torch this year.

It’s a shame some people won’t get blue plaques, but at least they didn’t give one to L. Ron Hubbard.