At this stage in my life of travels I have come to rely on Fodor’s as my dependable travel book. I know what to expect from Fodor’s: good thorough explanations of both sights and eateries, plenty of mini-maps broken down into the applicable burroughs and neighborhoods, and enticing pictures that prepare the traveler for the highlights of a new adventure. I also know what I don’t like about Fodor’s: the choppy organization that focuses on sights, places to stay, and where to eat in specific sections that causes the traveler to flip back and forth in sections when looking for a place to eat after seeing one of the sights. From my first exposure to Fodor’s I found this an annoyance, but after using their books on several different trips I have come to understand their unorthodox organizational format.
I found myself in England for the first time in my life during the first week and a half of this past March. Of course you might say that this trip seemed quite sudden after my most recent trip to Iceland in January of this same year, however this UK trip was a last minute add-on to my life’s adventures only planned after my wife had accepted a short-term two month assignment for her work in Oxford. She had left the first week of February, only a week after she had returned from Iceland and I luckily had a 11 days off from work at the start of March to head out to visit her to break up our time apart. She had had chosen the very extensive Fodor’s England travel book to permit her some opportunity to travel through the country during her weekends and she did have the opportunity to see Cambridge, take several trips to London, and head up to Edinburgh Scotland for a long weekend. With my short trip I only got to see London and Oxford, in addition to a weekend trip to Belgium with my wife (but more on that later).
I had arrived on Saturday morning and my wife and I spent the weekend in London to explore and enjoy the dining in the big city before heading into the quiet college town of Oxford for her work week. I’ll be honest and say that before this trip I never had much interest in London or any of the UK; of course there is plenty of history to explore but the country just didn’t have enough of an exotic appeal to draw me to on my own accord. However, now having spent some time there I must admit that I was completely enamored by London’s charms. The city is highly organized with nearly eight million people hardly ever bumping elbows. I never waited more than 3 minutes for a subway, the pathways through the city and the underground tunnels were always clearly directed, and all the museums were free. Of course London is a metropolis with big city costs, and it didn’t help that the dollar is weak compared to the pound, but despite the high cost of moving around and eating, I felt that for what I spent my money on, it was well worth the slight pain to my pocketbook.
As we normally do in our travels, we packed in quite a bit in a small amount of time. Just in the first weekend we went to the Tower of London where we saw the medieval castle and prison torture chambers as well as the crown jewels, we walked along the Thames to Westminster Abbey, walked through Piccadilly Circus, went to the British Natural History Museum, and sampled several nice pubs and restaurants. All of our attractions and eateries were directed by our Fodor’s guide (and my wife’s several experiences in London during this trip and in from her younger years). For a quick weekend it was a lovely time and the only rain I saw I began to fall only as we began our travel to Oxford late Sunday night.
The next two days I explored Europe’s oldest college town of Oxford. My wife’s apartment was located just on the edge of the town center within a stones throw across the river from the thousand-year-old Oxford castle. At my wife’s suggestion I took the guided walking tour (our Fodor’s guide made no mention of it) and was thankful to get a good introduction to the city’s many colleges and libraries. Oxford is truly a quaint and beautiful place and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Blackwell’s Bookstore and the many pubs that dotted the streets. I overheard people talk about their student’s latest book on the shelves of the bookstore and pub conversations were more academic than intoxicated. The second day I explored the Ashmolean Museum’s collection of ancient world artifacts as well as the Oxford Science Museum where I got to see early medical equipment including the first microscopes and surgical hacksaws.
I enjoyed Oxford a lot, but after two full days on my own I felt that I saw what I could see and took a day trip on my own to London. My goal was to see the Tate Modern and, if I had time, the British Museum. I did manage to head out early enough and see both as well as have a lovely lunch in the Borough Market. The Tate had an impressive collection, but my thirst for modern art has been satiated many years ago and I found that I moved through the museum quickly enough to spend the afternoon at the British Museum and was I ever glad that I did.
From the moment I walked into the Egyptian hall of the BM I was awestruck at the museum’s impressive collection. The day prior I had been impressed by the Ashmolean museum’s presentation of a reconstructed Egyptian tomb and display of an opened mummy’s sarcophagi, but little did the Ashmolean prepare me for the immensity of the British Museum’s awe inspiring collection that included massive busts of Egyptian statues, a spectacularly rebuilt original ancient Grecian temple and a pair of enormous Assyrian temple guard statues, just to name a small sample of the museum’s collection. I found myself lost in the museum for hours, in awe at the history of the world and mankind’s accomplishments and failings through the millennia all on display under one roof all due to the spoils of the British Empire’s once extensive impact on the commerce of the world. For a museum titled the British Museum it is really a museum of the world collected by Britain’s empire and is a testament of the country’s significance and power in our world’s history. In reflection of the mummified remains presented in front of me in the museum I thought to myself how the once powerful pharaohs have actually achieved the true immortality they believed in for their legacy continues on through our long-standing recognition and awe towards ancient Egypt’s impact upon the many cycles of civilization. The British Empire was distinct from ancient Egypt and yet its impact is just as historically significant and this was all on display through the museum’s vast representation of the artifacts that kindled the enlightenment.
London and Oxford aren’t only a series of museums and pubs, but in my short time there I did tend to focus on these two gathering places of culture and libation. Of course this trip wasn’t all sightseeing and adventure, most of it was intent on visiting my lovely wife and spending valuable time with her during her work trip, which tended to include some needed relaxation. However, I did manage to fit in quite a bit and gain a renewed interest and appreciation for the British culture and lifestyle.