Eccentric England: The Headington Shark

Headington Shark
Henry Flower

Once again, I’m back in Oxford for my annual summer working holiday. I love this place. This quintessentially English city offers beautiful colleges, the world’s coolest museum, even the chance to bump into the Queen.

But all this pales in comparison to the sight of a giant shark crashing into a roof.

The Oxford suburb of Headington is a bit dull, so local resident Bill Heine at 2 New High Street decided to commission sculptor John Buckley to create a 25-foot shark to adorn his roof. It was put up on August 9, 1986, the 41st anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. As Heine explained, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation … It is saying something about CND, nuclear power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.”

The clipboard Nazis in the local council were not amused. They tried to have it removed as a pubic hazard. When their engineer said it was perfectly safe, they tried various other excuses. Much legal wrangling ensued.

Decades later, the naysayers are all gone and the shark is still there. It’s a much-loved local landmark, a modern folly. I see it every time I come in on the bus from London and enjoy pointing it out to newcomers. There’s even a Headington Shark Appreciation Society on Facebook with more than a thousand members. So if you’re coming to Oxford, pop on over and see the Headington Shark.

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]

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 coolest museum in the world

museum, Pitt Rivers museum
Oxford is full of things to see such as medieval colleges and a lovely stretch of the Thames. Of course, you can find similar sights in other parts of England, although not in such a dense concentration that makes Oxford a perfect day trip from London. The one thing Oxford has that is truly unique is the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The Pitt Rivers is laid out the way museums used to be: cabinets packed with artifacts and the walls and even the ceiling adorned with totem poles, statues, shields, spears, and canoes. Even when it opened in the 1880s it was a bit different from other museums, though. Instead of the displays being organized by region and period, they’re organized by use. For example, one case has fire-making equipment, ranging from simple wooden tools used by Australian Aborigines to matches from 19th century Europe to rather dangerous-looking lighters from a hundred years ago.

The collection started with a donation in 1884 of 20,000 objects collected by anthropologist Lt.-Gen. Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers. He was interested in how different cultures solved the same problems, such as lighting a fire, creating currency, or dealing with the dead. The collection has now grown to half a million artifacts from pretty much every culture and time period.

You name it, they have it. Egyptian mummy? Check. Inuit snow goggles? Check. Witch in a bottle? Check. Helmet made from a blowfish? Check. They even have a nice collection of shrunken heads.

%Gallery-131982%My five-year-old son loves this place. All kids love this place. In fact, it regularly gets chosen as Britain’s favorite museum. At the door they give you a flashlight so you can shine it into the dimly lit cases and pretend to be an explorer. Under the cases are drawers you can open to reveal more stuff.

It never ends. We’ve been in there dozens of times and each time we discover something new. A guard who has been working there for ten years told me the same thing. My kid has never gotten bored at the Pitt Rivers and often asks to go there when we’re in Oxford. Unlike in a lot of museums, you hear more kids complaining that they’re leaving than that they’re going in.

And if that doesn’t make it the coolest museum in the world, I don’t know what does.

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.