The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.

Walkie talkies work everywhere – Road trip tip

Walkie talkies use radio waves to communicate directly with each other, unlike cell phones, which rely on a cell phone tower as a go-between.

People on road trips often end up in rural areas where cell phones are useless. A couple of inexpensive walkie talkies can help your group stay in touch, as well as keep the kids entertained.

Bonus tip: Walkie talkies also work on cruise ships!

Jet circles Zamboanga airport waiting for missing air traffic controllers

Unlike our very own Kent Wien, I never trained to be a pilot, but even without those years of training, I can’t imagine it is very comforting to get close to your destination airport and find an unstaffed air traffic control tower.

This is exactly what happened when a jet carrying 156 passengers arrived in the airspace of Zamboanga airport in the Philippines, after a flight from the nation’s capital.

Instead of hearing the familiar commands from the tower telling them they were cleared to land, the Philippine Airlines flight crew heard nothing. It took 30 minutes of circling around the airport for someone to finally make their way to the tower and permit the jet to land.

Of the 5 controllers who were supposed to be on duty that morning, 2 were missing, 2 were late and one was on an approved day off, but their approval note did not make it to the airport administrator. Talk about a total breakdown of communications.

The excuse the remaining 4 controllers presented was that public transport was hard to find the day after Christmas, but officials say the controllers may still have been a little too much in “party mode”. I’m sure that is comforting to hear if you were in the air around Zamboanga that morning.

The newspaper article claims the controllers were fired, but Philippine officials merely say the 5 are currently suspended pending an investigation.

(Via: Sydney Morning Herald)

Other tales from the skies
Amazing and insane stories from a real-life flight attendant and co-pilot

Eiffel tower to undergo $267 million makeover

The days of standing in line to enter the Eiffel Tower may be numbered as a $267 million, 10-year plan has been unveiled that will give better and easier access to visitors. Built in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was designed for 500,000 people, today the structure attracts about 7 million visitors a year.

At some point in the future you will be able to reserve a 30-minute slot online, the restaurant will be bigger and cheaper, and there will be a new champagne bar on the third floor. With these changes, they hope to attract not only a larger tourist crowd but also Parisians, and of course increase the Tower’s profit levels too.

Lines to visit tourist hotspots are a major annoyance these days so it’s cool that steps are being taken to cut line-time. The Alhambra and the Tower of London are some of the other places that have done a great job giving people the option of pre-booking their visit online.

Leaning Tower of Pisa gets trumped

When we think of leaning buildings, it’s pretty obvious where our minds go — to Italy, where the Leaning Tower of Pisa has been making photos look off-kilter for years. But the Leaning Tower of Pisa is no longer the structure with the most pronounced lean — The Guinness Book of World Records has confirmed that a 13th-century church tower in the village of Suurhusen in Germany is the tower that leans the most.

The German tower leans 5.19 degrees, whereas the tower in Pisa only leans a paltry 3.97 degrees. The German tower is still in use, and gives out guided tours in order to raise money for the building’s upkeep.

(Via Neatorama)