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.

Prehistoric Tombs And Viking Graffiti In Orkney, Scotland


There’s something about death.

Graveyards, war memorials, mummified monks, Purgatory Museums … if there’s dead people involved, I’m there. That’s why my 6-year-old son found himself crawling through prehistoric tombs with his dad on remote Scottish islands for his summer vacation.

He loved it, of course. He still has that wonderful sense of adventure children should keep into adulthood. Plus he wasn’t scared in the least. It’s hard to fear death when you assume it doesn’t apply to you. My wife is a bit claustrophobic and so is less into this sort of thing. She prefers stone circles, although she gamely explored the tombs with her crazy husband and son.

What appealed to him, and me, was the spooky, silent darkness of these prehistoric tombs and the strange texture of the stones. That’s why I love this photo by Paddy Patterson. It shows the Tomb of the Eagles on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay just off the north coast of Scotland. This image highlights the almost fleshy texture of the rock and the dank, dark interior.

Orkney is full of Neolithic tombs. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, Orkney was home to a flourishing Stone Age culture 5,000 years ago. These people buried their dead in large subterranean tombs with several side chambers that were reused over several generations. The Tomb of the Eagles was one of the biggest and gets its name from the many eagle bones found inside.

Our visit started at the museum nearby, where a docent passed around artifacts found at the site and showed us the skulls of the people buried there. Life was hard back then and those who survived childhood rarely made it past their 30s. One woman’s skull showed an abscess the size of marble. Strangely, it never got infected. Her teeth showed signs of wear consistent with chewing on leather, a crude but effective way of softening it up for use. Since the traditional method of curing leather required soaking it in urine, and urine is a natural disinfectant, perhaps her abscess never got infected because she was chewing on urine-soaked leather all day. The good old days? I think not.

%Gallery-161068%While the museum was great, I must admit I was a bit disappointed by the tomb itself. It was unprofessionally excavated by a local farmer who tore off the entire roof to get inside. Now it’s been covered with a concrete cap that reduces the whole effect. Hopefully someone will provide the funds to restore the roof someday.

A much smaller but almost perfectly preserved tomb is Cuween Hill on Orkney Mainland. Overlooking the road between Kirkwall and Finstown, it has a central chamber and four side chambers. My son and I had to crawl inside through a tiny entrance passage. When we got there, we found someone had lit candles at the entrances to each of the side chambers.

“Why did they do that?” my son asked.

“Because they’re respecting the ancestors,” I replied. “Leave them alone. We’re going to respect their respect.”

“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t burn yourself when you crawl over them.”

My son knows me well enough to know that a little bit of fire won’t stop me from exploring an ancient tomb.

What struck me about this tomb was how well it was made. There was no mortar; it was simply made from rectangular slabs of rock cleverly stacked atop one another to form arches, doorways and passages. A lot of care went into their final resting place.

Besides human remains, archaeologists discovered 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill, prompting witty locals to call it the “Tomb of the Beagles.” Another tomb had otter bones. Perhaps each group had their own communal tomb and totem animal.

Orkney’s most famous Neolithic tomb is Maeshowe. Built around 2700 B.C. within sight of two stone circles and at least two major settlements, it appeared as a massive artificial hill 30 meters (100 feet) around and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It was surrounded by a ditch and earthen embankment, something also found around many stone circles.

Entering through a long, low passageway, we soon were able to stand and admire a central chamber fashioned much the same way as Cuween Hill but on a much grander scale. The passageway was acted as more than an entrance. For a few days around the midwinter solstice, the setting sun shines through the passage and onto the back wall. If you don’t want to brave the Orkney winter, you can watch it on a webcam.

Maeshowe’s walls are covered in Viking graffiti. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, on Christmas Day 1153, a group of Vikings were making their way to a nearby port in order to sail off to the Crusades. A sudden storm blew up and the Vikings broke into the tomb to find shelter. To pass the time, they wrote runes on the walls. Most of these are prosaic, like “Tryggr carved these runes.” One fellow showed off by writing in two rare styles of Runic. Those who could read it were rewarded with the boast, “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the western ocean.”

Another hints at a buried treasure: “Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Lif the earl’s cook carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound,” signed “Simon Sirith.”

For a complete listing of the graffiti, check this link.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island!”

Living In Cairo’s City Of The Dead


Life can be hard in the developing world, as is shown in this video of a poor neighborhood in Cairo done by IRIN Films. The film doesn’t show your typical slum. This is the City of the Dead, a vast necropolis where poor people have moved in and set up homes and shops inside the tombs.

The capital of Egypt is a sprawling metropolis of some 12.5 million people. Actually, nobody is really sure how many people there are. Cairo has been a huge city for many centuries, and so its necropolis is also huge, some four miles long and filled with tightly packed tombs and mausoleums. The dead have been buried here since the 7th century A.D. Most tombs are simple buildings with little inside except a basic stone marker. Thus poor people can move in, put a lock on the door, and have a ready-made home.

Like with Cairo, nobody knows exactly how many people live in the City of the Dead. Some say half a million; some say ten times that number. They scrape out a living working odd jobs in the city or taking care of tombs for more wealthy Egyptians. A lucky few have saved enough money to set up small businesses serving the needs of their neighbors. A whole city of life has sprung up among the bones of the dead.

%Gallery-159771%Many locals say they like the neighborhood. There’s a chronic housing shortage in Cairo and people here can have a much bigger place than they could ever afford in more traditional neighborhoods. Also, they say people here are friendlier. Perhaps the proximity of death makes folks more aware of their behavior, or perhaps they feel they’re all in the same boat and are thus kinder to their neighbors.

There are downsides too. Living in the tombs is illegal, although the government hasn’t done anything about it, and infrastructure is minimal. Still, the people of the City of the Dead have created their own community where most people wouldn’t even consider living.

Several companies in Cairo offer tours of the City of the Dead. This allows the locals to make some money off the curious who come to see life in the tombs.

Check out the gallery for more images of this strange neighborhood.

Photo of the Day: Sudanese guide

I had never heard of the ancient Nubian tombs at El-Kurru, located in Sudan, until I saw today’s photo by Flickr user Mark Fischer. Mark took the photo above of his guide while wandering around exploring the site. I was immediately drawn to the man’s bemused posture and stoic glare. I wonder what he knows about this place? What stories could he tell us? You’ll just have to head to Sudan to find the answer…

Have any great photos to share from your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Archaeologists search for missing medieval king

archaeologists, King Magnus IIIArchaeologists love a good mystery, and some researchers in Sweden have themselves a big one.

Earlier this year a research team opened what they believed to be the tomb of King Magnus Ladulås, who ruled Sweden from 1275-90. Magnus was a popular king with the commoners and earned the nickname “Ladulås”, which means “lock the barn”, for his law giving peasants the right to refuse free food and lodging to traveling aristocracy and clergy.

When the team opened the tomb in Riddarholmen church in Stockholm, they found the remains of nine individuals. The bodies were subjected to carbon 14 dating and the archaeologists discovered they died sometime between 1430 and 1520.

The researchers already knew the tomb was later, built by King Johan III in 1573, and now it appears that Johan chose the wrong spot. Riddarholmen Church is the traditional burial spot for Swedish royalty. One would think they’d be more careful about marking the tombs.

So where is the missing king? The team is applying for permission to dig in another tomb at the same church, which also (supposedly) contains the remains of King Karl Knutsson. Perhaps they’ll find both kings. Or perhaps they’ll find another mystery.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.