This was always going to be the most intense day of the trip. We would have the morning in Oxford, travel back to London in the afternoon, and catch a train to York in the early evening. But we know Oxford well and we knew what we wanted to do.
Breakfast at Browns Cafe (est. 1924) in the Covered Market was a proper fry up. I had forgotten about the epicurean delicacy that is fried bread. It is a treat for once in a while, but not an everyday thing.
I woke finding that I could no longer resist the temptation to get Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (with special edition tote bag and notebook!) and I popped back into Blackwell’s buy a copy despite it being a big heavy hardback. Over the next few days, this will prove to be a sound, if sometimes spooky, purchase.
One of my favourite museums anywhere is the Ashmolean. For Daniel Defoe, it was one of the ‘other curious things’ to be admired in Oxford. It had been refurbished since my last visit and I was keen to see the changes. I liked the new layout: it was easy to navigate and full of all the treasures I remembered. I have always been fond of the gallery dedicated to the foundation and early years of the museum. It’s not an exactly edifying story of Elias Ashmole and his role in acquiring the collection, but the early museum’s contents are fascinating. The Ashmolean is not a huge museum so we were able to wander through a good deal of it, enjoy a refreshment in the cafe, and visit the gift shop in good time to take in two exhibitions at the nearby Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries.
‘Talking Maps‘ showcased some of the Bodleian’s 1.5 million maps. ‘Daniel Meadows: Now and Then‘ featured photographs of people taken in the 1970s and found by Meadows again in the 1990s and re-photographed. The Bodleian now holds Meadows’ photographic archive and the exhibition was in celebration of that acquisition. Short films explained how some of the 1970s photographs came to be – Meadows travelled the country in a double decker bus that served as his home, dark room, and portable gallery – and how he found his subjects again 25 years later.
Back on the Oxford Tube, I started reading The Secret Commonwealth and soon realised that where Lyra meets a friend for breakfast at the beginning of the story was none other than version of Browns Cafe that is in her other Oxford.
The trip back to London was fine, but the next few hours of the trip and the journey to York were not. Our good luck with smooth travels had run out.
Aware that most of our trip so far had been spent on visiting places of old. we decided to try somewhere new. I won’t name the place, but it’s a new development near King’s Cross. The architecture was interesting and we hoped it would be a good place to wait for our train. It wasn’t. No coffee shop, no pub, just expensive restaurants, over-priced shops, and a wine bar. We plumped for the wine bar. It was obvious that we were travellers passing through: bags, casual dress, and a heightened awareness of time all providing the clues. We were not the sophisticated and elegant dream customers the place wanted so service was offhand, yet we had to provide a ‘discretionary’ tip.
We returned to Kings Cross station to find chaos. Trains were not running on time and the one for York before ours had been cancelled. I fought my may into M&S to get some sandwiches for us to eat on the way and was bashed about as if in a scrum. (I am quite short so maybe they couldn’t see me? Unlikely, as I’m also quite wide.)
When the train was announced as ‘arrived’, a surge hit the barriers. I was tripped and pushed repeatedly on the way to and through the gate. You would think people had never travelled by train before or had a train cancelled! Seat reservations were to be honoured as much as possible and we had them. Not only that, we needed them. What I haven’t mentioned about the trip so far is that we were both having various problems with sore knees and standing all the way was not going to be an option. In fact, it may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the reasons we walked so much over the previous days was avoiding stairs, climbing onto buses, or riding crowded lifts where we might be jostled.
Of course, once we finally got to our seats we found a woman in one of them and her stuff in the other. She actually had a reservation elsewhere on the train, but had chosen our seats instead. She tried to make a scene by saying that reservations were invalid, but the glares of our fellow passengers soon silenced her and off she eventually went.
Some things are actually better in 2020 – that train would not be able to run now with the amount of passengers it collected. The press of people in the booking hall and the shop would not be allowed now.
York was busy because the races there were happening, but we had stayed at our hotel before and knew the way to the Georgian House. We put our bags down with relief and had a quiet evening in with the sandwiches from M&S.
I read more of The Secret Commonwealth and learned of ceremonies involving silver dishes and rose water.