Sunday, November 15, 2009

UK4: Sunday palace

At 6.50am, my alarm chimes me awake. Based on past performance, the guys will need a wake-up call to be ready for church. I hasten into my clothes, grab my suitcase, and walk over to the house. The note in the hall reads approximately, “Rosemarie, we’re tired and decided to sleep in and not go out this morning. Trust us, we’ll be up in time.”

Ok, they don’t use those words, but I’m disappointed they aren’t going to take in a high church service in England. And I am up an hour early. I start cooking bacon under the oven grill and soak day-old bread for French toast. Then I walk to Tesco about a mile away: we are out of milk and juice. Tesco is closed and no hours are posted, so I pop into a nearby corner shop and add bread to the list. The clerk wants $1 to use my VISA card, so I pay cash. Balancing a bag with few litres of mango juice in one hand and another bag of bread and milk in the other, I start for home. Somewhere I turn too soon and end up a half-mile south of our flat. Quirky streets! Thinking about the bacon simmering on low and the finicky fire alarm in the kitchen speeds me along.

No response as I unlock the flat. The men are dead to this world. I leave a note that the French toast is stowed in the fridge and I’m going to 9am church.

On the end of the block is Greyfriars Franciscan friary with its chapel, St Edmund and St Frideswide. It’s old: the order started in 1230. The congregation is about the same size as where we attend at home – 50-60 people. The age spread is wider here, ranging from babies to the elderly. Two friars in brown robes with white rope belts sit across the aisle. They look like they might be in their late 20s or early 30s. Just before service starts, an old man with asthma or emphysema wheezes his way into his bench. Every breath sounds labored and pain-filled.

As we sing a hymn to a tune I know, a small procession of men and one woman in white and grass-green robes marches up the center and climbs four marble stairs to take their places on the altar. The subject in the readings and the homily is Christ's return and the end of the world, “appropriate as we finish the religious calendar year next week” (-the vicar). “When Christ returns, God will care about only one thing--if we have been merciful to others, cared for the poor, and in this way have done his work.”

Ok, he loses me right there. If God considered my entire lifetime of good works (not that I’ve actually spent my life so well or so deliberately), I still wouldn’t be good enough to satisfy his righteousness. He would have to overlook every sin, which would make him an unjust God. Instead, scriptures say he paid for my sins and then forgave me the debt he had purchased. Any good works I do can merely reflect my gratitude and submission to him. That's not the story I'm hearing here.

I’ve been at enough services to know to curtsey to the cross before I enter my row, and I don’t mind signing the Holy Trinity with a cross either. But this service feels exclusively Roman Catholic and I would feel dishonest if I participated in the Eucharist. I abstain. When we are done and file out, the vicar shakes my hand and one person gives me a quick smile. The others clump in groups to chat with friends as I slip out the door.

I move the rest of my luggage into the house, tucking it behind the lounge door until the cleaning crew comes through later in the morning. At 11am, Tom decides to take a shower after sitting on the sofa for a half hour. His stomach is upset so he can’t eat. The others consume their French toast, bacon, and mango juice. I cover Tom's portion and put it in the fridge.

Meantime both fellows on Team B get ready to take the coach back to London Heathrow. They have written a nice thank you note to the landlady. I explain the written instructions I left for where / when to catch the bus and why they should leave with time to spare rather than catching the last possible bus from Oxford to Heathrow. I show Cal the bus ticket lying on the table beside the instructions, and encourage him not to stop to buy presents for family on his way to the bus. “No time. Better to be at the airport with time to spare than purchasing a new flight. Buy your gifts at Heathrow.”

Before we go our separate ways, Cal leads the group in prayer for travelers and explorers alike. I don’t hear back from them today. Hopefully they made it back to Seattle safely.

Instead of 10.30am, we leave Oxford at noon. Ned’s feet are too sore to walk to bus station on the north side of town. He remarks, “I wish we had known the bus routes so we could have taken the bus into the city instead of taxis. It would have been more cost-efficient!” (So they did take taxis rather than walking. Sigh.) The fellows completely zoned out the landlady’s sign on the middle of the lounge coffee table, with phone numbers and bus routes.

I am determined that the students not only see the colleges but also take in some of the culture to enrich their worldview. They will have a fabulous memory, even if this excursion doesn’t seem fun at the time of persuasion. We'll allow one splurge on this trip since they have been careful to eat at home mornings and watched their expenses when eating out.

We catch the #3 bus to the Gloucester Green station and hop the #S3 to Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, a mere eight miles from Oxford. The Palace became a World Heritage site in 1987 because of its 2100 beautifully landscaped acres and stunning building. The current occupant, the 11th Duke of Marlborough, advertises his ancestral family home (completed in 1620) as “the most beautiful palace in Britain.” It runs in spectacular competition with Queen Elizabeth II’s Buckingham Palace in London.

The palace entry arches are at least a quarter mile walk from the entry gates. We queue with cars for tickets at the ticket booth plopped between lanes midway up the drive. The porters let us in at student rates, accepting my alumni giveaway as proof of student relations (a credit-card sized magnifier). Then we stand in line again to upgrade to a free annual pass, an official card with photo ID and a year of enjoyment ahead. Tom is thinking of studying at Oxford in spring, so I thought of him when I read the offer. The card makes a good souvenir whether or not we get back to Blenheim within the year. The staff upgrade us from “student” to “adult” on the pass.

We begin by confirming reservations (high tea at 3.30pm) in the India Room. The palace has been decorated for Christmas, but we are too late for the chef's  Christmas pudding cooking demonstration. We only have time to walk through the buildings and some of the gardens.

“If I had known it was a World Heritage site, I would have wanted to go sooner,” Tom says. Yes, me too!

Ned states on the way into the palace that he doesn’t like tours, museums, or buildings and doesn’t care about things in them. “Seen one castle, you’ve seen them all. I've seen one before.” He just wants cultural information as background for a book he is writing. I gently point out that culture might be reflected in buildings.

The guys rush ahead on our walk-through of the State Rooms (public areas), and I don’t find them again until teatime. Ned takes an audio-visual tour through the family wing (Blenheim Palace, the untold story) and walks to one of the gardens. His poor feet are killing him. He has only one pair of dress shoes along.

Tom, though initially overawed by the grandeur, finds peace and relaxation in the palace’s stunning setting. I wander through two tours and several gardens before arriving at the India Room for tea. We face a window view of marquee tents, sitting surrounded by Zuber panoramic wallpaper on the interior walls and arched ceiling. Some Zuber paper costs $200/running foot, so I can’t imagine what the room cost. Some unkind soul has punched through and torn the paper in several places, so a protective plastic shield lines the wall, covering the paper at table level.

The India Room serves Twining tea…bags. “We’re working on offering tea leaves,” says our server. That's right, I remember that remark from our visit three years ago. The men choose White Tea (steep 2 minutes, light and subtle) while I have Earl Grey tea (steep 4 minutes).

The silver tray holds three tiers of tasty treats. We begin with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry preserves. Next, we nibble four kinds of finger-sized sandwiches – watercress and cream cheese, thinly sliced ham, cucumber slices, and smoked salmon. Ned gags on the unaccustomed soft texture of the salmon on whole wheat bread. Minor snafu - the rest is delicious.

Upon arrival, Tom wolfed down a sandwich from the cafe, so he’s not very hungry. We do our best to finish by sampling five kinds of cakes and a fruitcake specialty made in the palace. Yum. We have goodies left over.

“I’ll probably eat them at 1am tonight,” says Tom, carrying the takeaway boxes for us.

Both of the guys are taken with the tea. “Where can we find this in Seattle?” they ask. One reflects, “Tea like this would make a great date.” As hoped, they enjoyed and responded to the air of refinement and celebration in the Churchill High Tea.

Twilight glistens off the man-made lake as we walk the quarter-mile to the gates. The iron bars are locked so we turn back up the driveway to find another route of escape.

Tom warns other pedestrians headed the same way, “If you’re planning to go out this way, the gates are locked!” Before long we have a flock of tourists in our wake, hapless like ourselves. When we spot a man with a dog headed down a path, we follow him through the deepening dusk into the village of Woodstock. (One of my favorite memories of the last trip was getting lost on the palace grounds in the dark on our "shortcut" to town. I remember smiling with delight into the inky night, listening to the students shouting and laughing as we stumbled our way along a mile or more of uneven paving winding through the black forest, until we reached Woodstock.)

We stand at the bus stop in the quaint town for almost a half hour, waiting for the S3 double-decker back to the bus terminal in Oxford. Alexa from Mexico chats with us at the stop: she's studying English in preparation for a career in engineering back home. Ned falls fast asleep on the ride, while Tom peers out the window for a glimpse of the college he hopes to attend.

After alighting in Oxford, we muddle our way to a traffic island in the main street and wait another 20 minutes to catch the bus home. The “correct” bus stops at the bus stop. The driver opens the door to say he isn’t going our way and there will be another bus along in 10 minutes. A nun in full hood and black wimple exclaims, "Oh, that's my bus!" but the driver ignores Tom's knocks on the door to catch his attention.

“Do they get to customize their routes?” Tom asks as the bus speeds off. Maybe so!

When the next bus comes, we droop into the seats. An old lady with a cane imperiously demands that Ned vacate, "a priority seat, please!" The driver drops us almost across the street from our door. It feels like midnight, but is only 8pm when we reach our door.

The fellows head straight to their room. I unpack, make peppermint tea, and claim a bathroom, though the guys express surprise that I don’t want to share in the same “whatever is open” system they used so far. Ha, not likely! I was thoroughly inoculated against that particular selfless sharing by my three brothers and three sons.

Though the teams did poorly in the final rounds of Oxford, one of the debate alumni writes a FB encouragement to say if the last trip’s pattern holds true, the team may do very well in Cambridge. Listening to their dissection of this week’s tournament is interesting: they make good observations and are ready to step up the next round in Cambridge. I’ll be there to cheer them on next weekend, regardless.

Tom's working online when I make a last trip out of my room at 11pm. I wonder if he'll be tired in the morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment