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]

Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

British Brewery Campaigning To Save Traditional Pubs

pubs
I’ve talked before here on Gadling about how British pubs are in danger. In 2011, an average of 14 per week shut down, and the trend is continuing. This is due to a number of factors, including the economic downturn, competition from cheap supermarket alcohol and ever-increasing taxes.

Now Wychwood Brewery has started an online petition to “Stop the Beer Duty Escalator.” Taxes on beer go up annually at 2 percent above the rate of inflation. The petition says this adds “considerably more pressure on the British pub, the cornerstone of many of our communities” and asks for this practice to stop.

“Going to the pub is a core British tradition and so is enjoying great beer,” the petition states. In a company statement, Wychwood Brewery said, “Imagine a world without pubs. Imagine communities with no heart. Imagine thousands of livelihoods affected.”

While this sounds like exaggeration, anyone who has lived in the UK for any length of time knows that it isn’t. Pubs really are a cornerstone to the national culture. The majority of people are regular pub goers, either for a quick pint of real ale or to watch a game or to enjoy a Sunday roast. They’re also a great way for tourists to experience the country and meet locals. The withering of that culture is reducing quality of life. I spend every Easter and summer in Oxford and every year I see prices go up and pubs close. It’s depressing.

Wychwood is aiming for 100,000 signatures, which will force the petition to be heard in the House of Commons. So far they have 27,517. If you’re a resident of the UK, I say sign this petition. You’ll be fighting for one of the nation’s cultural institutions and helping independent businesses.

[Photo courtesy Andrès Moreno]

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.

A rural ride through Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire, Coxwell
Yesterday was my birthday, and now that I’m halfway to 84 I figured the best way to spend it was with other decaying leftovers from ages past. I mean medieval buildings, not my travel companions.

Oxfordshire offers plenty of hikes, historic buildings, and good restaurants. To celebrate my increasing decrepitude, some friends drove my wife and I from Oxford to the nearby village of Great Coxwell to see a rare survival from the Middle Ages–the Great Coxwell Barn. While there’s no shortage of medieval churches and castles still standing in England, there aren’t many well-preserved medieval barns. This one was owned by the Cistercian Beaulieu Abbey and was built around 1300 AD. It was part of a grange (farm) owned by the abbey and worked by lay brothers and servants. The barn stored the produce of the grange as well as the tithe of the parish farmers.

The exterior looks remarkably churchlike, while the interior is a vast open space with a slate roof supported by an impressive system of wooden posts, beams and rafters, all connected by pegs or slots and tabs. Metal was expensive back then, and not a single nail was used in the construction of this massive roof.

%Gallery-130852%Great Coxwell also has a small church that’s about a hundred years older than the barn. It’s just up the hill in the middle of a churchyard filled with moss-covered gravestones that centuries of weathering have pushed over into crazy angles. Just the thing to see on your birthday! On a happier note the churchyard is a managed wildlife area with a colorful variety of wildflowers. These folks are pushing up more than just daisies.

The church has been much restored but has some interesting early inscriptions and a tiny winding passageway behind the pulpit that I could barely squeeze into. Sadly it led around a single turn and straight into a wall made of rubble and mortar. My mind conjured up all sorts of legends and ghostly walled-up monks, but the more likely explanation for this barrier is that it’s to keep nosy visitors from going up the steps.

For lunch we visited The White Hart in Fyfield. This restaurant/pub (called a “gastropub” over here) is in the old Hospital of St. John the Baptist, built in the mid-to-late 1400s. The “hospital” was actually an almshouse, housing five poor people as well as a priest whose job it was to say masses for the benefactor. We ate in the main hall beneath old wooden beams. Beyond the bar was a huge medieval fireplace.

The food was as good as the atmosphere. Many of the ingredients are locally sourced, some from as close as their own garden. I had the slow-roasted belly of Kelmscott pork, apple, celeriac puree, carrots, crackling, and cider jus. Utterly delicious. For dessert I had a roast peach with raspberry sorbet, topped with a spider’s web of spun sugary something. Sorry, I’m not a foodie writer, just trust me that it was good. My companions’ meals looked equally good and we washed it down with real ale from the Loose Cannon Brewery from nearby Abingdon.

Not a bad way to grow older!

The number 66 bus runs regularly between Oxford and Fyfield. This bus stops at Faringdon, where you can take the number 61 to Great Coxwell.