August 11, 2010

Departure and the sights of Oxford



The plane lands at terminal 4 and I'm off! I make a rail transfer to terminal 5 and arrive at stop 10 just in time to knock on a closing Oxford coach ('The Airline') door. I meet a flustered driver who takes a good amount of time expressing just how lucky I was that he was running late. The bus ride goes quickly as I log into the bus WiFi and chat to an Oxford student at Linacre College who is doing his doctorate in engineering. He gave me some advice on where to go and what to do and then we parted at the Queens Lane stop. After some general wandering in all the wrong directions (the attractions are quite distracting) I eventually found my way to the Oxford University Club where I could leave my luggage prior to check in later in the day.


Prior to leaving Perth, one of the things I needed to remember to do was to cancel my monthly mobile contract and change it to a long term prepaid plan. Having left my mode of mobile communication behind, I was keen to reconnect myself. This was one of the first tasks I set out to complete in Oxford. I strolled down the main street first, heading toward the main shopping complex where I had scouted a CarPhoneWarehouse on Google maps beforehand. I ended up taking the 10 Pound "Text and Web" Pay & Go plan with no contract. This gives me 300 texts and 500MB of mobile internet to use as I please. At the time, the shop computer system had packed up and died so I went for a little walk down the isle of the shopping centre...

I wondered into Primark. Like a Target on crack, they stocked jeans for 10 Pounds had heaps of people crowding the checkouts and just generally massively discounted all essentials. A must visit when I get to UCL later on.

Once I got this little matter of housekeeping out of the way, I could begin the process of touristing up the town. I signed up for an Oxford walking tour at the information office which gave me an excellent introduction to the lay of the land, the general formation of the colleges and their foundation history. Unfortunately it was raining this whole time. Despite having quite a sturdy jacket, I still felt thoroughly wet at the end of the tour and indeed the end of the day. Of course this could all be dispelled by a simple orange hot chocolate (at Chocolatry) in the covered markets, allowing for a rekindling of warmth and a general sense of dryness. This weather will certainly take some getting used to. Only a week ago was I swimming in the ocean in winter, feeling warmer than I was in the rain on a midsummer day in Oxford.

While walking through the grounds of Balliol, Jesus, Corpus Christi Colleges and around the Bodlian library, the Radcliffe Camera and the University Chapel one certainly began to get an idea of the sort of heritage involved here.

After arriving at the University Club late in the afternoon, I thought I'd head out to catch a baroque concert I had seen advertised earlier at the Exeter college chapel. After grabbing a pub lasagne from the The White Horse (very tasty with lean meat and a nice side of salad) and a 'half' of a local cider, I made my way to the College to join the line with the other eager concert goers. We slowly made our way to the wonderfully ornate chapel where a very nice concert awaited (on a Tuesday night?). Included in this experience was a vocal quintet for Vivaldi's Gloria, a baroque Oboe and Trumpet and a chancel organ. The baroque trumpet was very well played in the first half and a very well blended vocal quintet had a chance to do some a Capella music too before everyone joined for the Vivaldi Gloria in the second half. With such a small group, the sound wasn't really aggressive enough nor as encompassing as the piece really demands but none the less the quality was welcomed and it made for a nice introduction to the local concert circuit.

My second day in Oxford began with something to commemorate my arrival in England. A hearty fry up awaited me at the breakfast table downstairs, complete with sausage and scrambled egg, marking a true embrace of the English culture.

On the way through to my first planned stop in the day begin New College; I stopped at Harris Manchester College, checking out their grounds and chapel. The chapel was empty so I called up a score of ‘Songs of Travel’ on my mobile and had a little rehearsal in the luxurious acoustic.

Following a full circumnavigation of New College, finding that I was closed at the time, I found my way to Hertford College, having a look around until the doors of New College opened up. The size and scale of the carved marble saints lining the high alter wall made for quite a dwarfing feeling.

I moved on to my next hit for the day being Christ Church, the largest College in Oxford. While strolling through the voluptuous gardens of the college, I sat by the Thames, eating my banana from lunch with two geese and a swarm of ducklings swarming around me idly looking for snacks in the grass. After a relaxing nap, I moved on to Magdalen College since the Christ Church dining hall was closed.

Magdalen College is another one of the oldest colleges in Oxford and has a rich choral tradition. Entering the chapel, I saw a notice about formal auditions to the choir, signed by Daniel Hyde. Daniel Hyde was my very first vocal tutor while I was still a treble probationer at St George’s. It is amazing to come to the country where all of my choral mentors have originated from and/or live now.

By a remarkable stroke of luck, while casually ambling around the Magdalen grounds, I came to stumble into Lawrence, a boy in the year below me at school in music and swimming. We met a couple of months earlier where I learned from him that he would be going on exchange in America. Turns out he was visiting family near Oxford and would be leaving for the US soon after. We decided to combine forces for the rest of the day, exploring some of the other surrounding colleges such as Trinity, Exeter, Jesus, Lincoln, Brasenoose, All Souls, Oriel and Nuford before ending up at Christ Church.

There was a substantial wait to get into the college but this was certainly the largest and most regal of those in Oxford. We walked through the ‘Harry Potter’ dining hall and then out to the enormous main quad and the cathedral. The artistry of the vaulted roof and stain glass windows was fantastic.

After this extensive day of college crawling, I made my way back to the University Club via the Oxford Castle and this nice little camera shop where I had a play with the Sony NEX-5, testing out the sweep panorama and some of the other fun features. I collected my baggage and hauled it over to Merton College where my choral adventure was ready to begin.

We met in the front quad of the college where the boys were directed to Queens College and the girls and organists were directed to their rooms in Merton College. I met some more of the participants as we caught others up on the way to the college. My room is in Drawda Hall, through a maze of small corridors and low doorways. The room has a third floor outlook onto High street with a small sink and very useful data point (for internet). Once everyone arrived at the colleges, we were called to Merton Chapel for an introduction to the staff and then following dinner in the Merton dining hall, a full rehearsal before bed.

So begins my year in Britain, with ample soaking in cultural history and a strong reintroduction into a fine music tradition in which I will be participating in throughout the year. Already I have been bewildered and amazed having only spent a fraction of my stay. I am sure there is much to come.

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