Cambridge Year

Monday, April 23, 2007

Travelling with Alya

This vacation, instead of going back to the US I decided to have people visit me instead. I had quite a busy schedule: first, Tom arrived and stayed for two weeks.
For the second week of his visit (during which he was busy running the British Informatics Olympiad) Alya came. After both Tom and Alya left (around the 2nd of April) I had a couple of days to myself after which I went to London to meet Mama and El'ka. After five days in London we all came back to Cambridge for another couple of days. On the morning of the 12th Mama and El'ka left; that evening, Katya arrived. We hung out at Cambridge for a day before heading up north to Yorkshire for six days before coming back to Cambridge. And now I have my room and my time all to myself again... and I'm finally blogging about this vacation.

When Tom arrived we had no plans for what we were going to do. Since around the New Year we kept discussing how we needed to make plans so that we didn't end up just sitting around Cambridge, not going anywhere and not doing anything. After many discussions about how we needed to think of something we both wanted to do, and actually work out how much time we had and what Tom needed to do in Cambridge... we did nothing. Tom came and we hung out in my room and cooked and watched TV. We visited his mom's house and his dad's house (and I finally got to meet his brothers). I also finally saw a thatched roof! They're very funny: they're dark brown and they're much longer than usual roofs so it always looks like they're sliding down around the windows. They're also apparently very expensive because they can only be replaced by certified thatchers, and as thatchers are very rare right now waiting lists tend to be about two years long. (I wonder what you're supposed to do if the roof collapses because of a storm or something? Put a tarp up?) But these roofs are hard to get rid of because some of the houses aren't strong enough to support a non-thatched roof, and also because historical societies and such try to preserve them. (It seems more trouble than it's worth, but what do I know?)

Then Alya came. Alya was actually motivated enough to make plans! and follow them! Which was amazing and wonderful and finally got me out of Cambridge. We went on a three stage journey. First, Alya and Tom and I all headed out to Oxford, where we stayed at a friend of Tom's. (She gave me and Tom her bed, and let me tell you I've never slept in a more comfortable bed. It was a little too soft, but it was still just amazing! I'm not really sure what it was about it that made it so absolutely comfortable, but I have to say that if I had a bed like that in my room I would be very happy indeed.) Oxford is very pretty, although very different from Cambridge. It's first of all a university build inside a city (instead of a city build around a university) so it's a lot more active than Cambridge. The style of buildings is also very different: it's a lot more Gothic, especially in the number of little fir-tree things on the tops of buildings:

It also has a lot of gargoyles. They're all over the places: on drain pipes, around windows, in random corners. It's like someone had all of these spare gargoyles lying around and he brought them to Oxford and just put them up all over the place.

The river is also very different. In Cambridge, the Cam seems to be more of a park than anything else: there are a lot of gardens around it, and it winds it's merry way around the colleges as if it really doesn't have anything much to do. In Oxford, however, the river is the Thames and it acts as if it knows its business. It's a river and it knows it; it's a lot like the Charles.

Oxford also has a lot of random things in it, like a building surrounded by rather scary heads

and random statues of people playing instruments on a roof.

I also really like this picture, although I think it wants cropping:

I took it at Balliol College, and the effect (in real life) was just amazing. You came out of this very dark arch, and at the end these leaves were just blazing. I wish I could have taken a better picture, because in real life it just took my breath away.

On the first day in Oxford we just walked around and looked at colleges. Because Tom's friend was with us guiding us we managed to go around to lots of different colleges and never get lost or use a map (which was nice). We also had a drink at a pub next to the Thames (and no, I didn't drink, I had tea) where we saw some people recording some kind of news show on a boat that was being rowed around the bridge. It didn't make much sense, but was very silly and amusing. That night we had dinner at a restaurant called The Nosebag (and isn't that a great name?) which was pretty good. The restaurant had several entrees, but the main attraction were the salads, which were many and varied; one of the things you could order was three different kinds of salad with no main course. After dinner we went back to Tom's friend's house and had tea, and then went to bed.

The next day started off very slowly. (It was actually faster than the first day, when it took us three hours to finally get out my room, but it seemed slower because we had less to do. And yes, it was partially my fault.) Alya and I wanted to go around to museums and Tom's friend had invited us all to lunch. By the time we got to Oxford and found maps of the city it was already time to meet for lunch. (Tom needed to do BIO stuff so he stayed back and simply joined us for lunch.) After a very long lunch (with conversation and figuring out where lunch actually was it took two hours) Alya and I headed to the Oxford Natural History museum and Tom headed to the physics department where he was going to be allowed to use a computer (to do BIO stuff, again; he said that he only had an hour's worth of work to do but we all know how that ends up).

The Natural History museum was more meta-interesting than actually interesting. The displays in it were not very well organized; or, rather, they were organized a little too well. There were displays of dozens of shells, each labelled with its species, and huge arrays of fossils and plants and stuffed animals and minerals. The main problem was that there was no story to be told; the museum was like one giant encyclopedia with no index. There was lots of interesting information but no way to find anything specific or to know why the information we had was related. Actually, the most interesting display that I found was a case containing the Dodo bird that Charles Dodgson would tell Alice stories about. (This case was well-labelled and explained... pretty much the only case that was.)

The building that the museum was in was very interesting, though. It's a Victorian building that was designed for the museum. The main room had columns around it, and each column had some kind of plant around the base and the top. Some of it was pretty normal: lots of pretty leaves and flowers that looked like they belonged on columns. Some, however, seemed very out of place: there were columns with thistles, and corn, and wheat. It was very strange. There were also statues of various scientists and mathematicians around the main room, although the selection and the order was a little bit strange. They had Euclid right next to Liebnitz, for example, and Newton across the room from both of them. The entire museum was very... Victorian ... full to bursting and overdecorated and overdone. (They also had stuffed animals that you could pet... which was disturbing.)

Out the back of the National History museum was the Pitt-Rivers museum. This was a very very strange museum. It would actually be a cool place to spent half an hour or so after classes, but as a tourist visit it's definitely strange. Imagine a very dim warehouse, filled with display cases (with very small aisles between them). Each display case is filled to bursting with things, each of which is labelled (by hand) with what it is and where it's from. The display cases are organized with themes like "Objects with People on Them", "Objects with Animals on Them", and "Objects Whose Form Changed With Time." So a human skull would be in the same display case as a portrait, and a porcelain mug from the 18th century would be in the same display case as an ancient vase. It was very very strange. (And very dim.) It felt a lot like a very old pawn shop, and I would not have been surprised to see an old hunched man emerge from behind some display case and offer me something. (They also have a thing that asks for donations that has wooden puppets in it that salute you when you put money in it. Given that the wooden puppets have glowing eyes and that it's in a very dark corner of the room I found the effect more frightening than charming.)

After the museums closed Alya and I called Tom. It had been about two hours, but he still had another fifteen minutes so of work to do. So we went and walked around a park near the museums and talked. After about an hour of this we decided we were hungry, so we went to try and find a place to have a snack. But, of course, (it being six o'clock and all) the only places open were pubs, where people still smoke, so Alya and I didn't really want to go and eat in one of those. So we wandered for a bit until about ten minutes later (and a bit over an hour after we'd called him) Tom finally met up with us and we started looking for a place to eat dinner. We were recommended a pub called the Royal Oak (which actually had decent burgers) where we ate and Alya and Tom had beer. (I had Sprite.) Then we went home and slept.

The next day we separated. Tom went back to Cambridge to slowly kill himself by slaving away at the BIO, while Alya and I proceeded on to Bath. Bath, like every other city in this country, is built on a river

but it's main attraction are the hot springs. Around these there are ruins of a Roman bath, as well as a "pump room" in which you can have a glass of the spa water. (Why anyone would want to do this is beyond me... that water is some of the worst-tasting water I'd ever had.) The Roman baths look like this

where the second level is at what is currently street level. The interesting thing is that only the bottom part of the construction is Roman. Everything above the (pretty obvious) line in the wall was built in the 19th century to make it look vaguely like something that might be a Roman bath. (Of course, the pool originally had a roof but who cares about that?) When you pay to enter the baths you're given an audioguide which tells you fascinating things like that you're looking at "2000 years of history." Which of course you're not; you're looking at something 2000 years old and something 100 years old, but nothing in the intervening years touched what you're seeing (as it was buried)... so how is it 2000 years of history?

Inside the baths there are several rooms filled with little columns of tiles

which were there to hold up the floor. Between these columns was hot air which would warm the floor. (Pretty cool, huh?) They also had these absolutely crazy TVs which showed videos of how the baths "used to be"... which pretty much meant stupid CGI displays with people wearing togas edited in. It was one of the stupidest touristy things I'd ever seen in my life. They did have some pretty silly signs, though:

Bath also has an abbey

which is much more impressive from the outside than from the inside, largely because they only really let people see half of it. The city itself is pretty, although it has a few very disturbing streets. There is a lot of construction in it which was built to increase the amount of housing as quickly as possible, so there are places where all of the buildings are identical. In particular, it has the Circus (a circular street with identical townhouses arranged in three 120 degree arcs, built in 1754)

and Regents Crescent, built around the same time.

The strange effect these streets have is that when you look at Bath from a hill (like the one our hostel was on) it looks like it has a very nasty smile. Alya and I never really figured out which streets form the smile, but we decided we definitely wouldn't want to meet a person with this smile.

And, obviously, everything in Bath closes before 6. On our first day (when we wandered around all of these places) we were so bored by 7 that when we ran across a movie theater we went in and watched the first movie that seemed to have decent reviews. (In order to find reviews we actually called Alya's boyfriend Mike in the US and made him look the movies up on Rotten Tomatoes. We'd woken him up from a nap and he wasn't too happy about it.) The movie was Amazing Grace, and while it has a very obvious political agenda and doesn't want to explore any of the interesting parts of the main characters it's not a bad movie. It's prettily filmed and has very clever dialogue. (It also seems to have a moral that you're going to fail at everything if you don't have a wife, but as soon as you get one everything's going to be OK.)

The next day, Alya and I went to Wells. (Well, actually, first we walked around a bit and went to the Abbey (which we'd missed the previous day) and had tea at Sally Lynn's tea house (which has very good buns) and almost missed our bus to Wells, but that stuff wasn't important.) Wells is a very small town which is mostly notable because it's where the area's Bishop lives, and because it has some wells which produce 40 gallons of water a second. It has a very pretty cathedral

(which was apparently originally painted red and blue, for some reason), the Bishop's residence (which looks very old but has some very modern art around it),

the wells

and a street of identical cottages built in 1348 for clergy to live in. The chimneys were actually added much later, in around 1460.

I also found a yarn store and bought some UK alpaca that I want to make a wrap out of (so that I'll have some purely British knitting to remember this by). The yarn store was amazing. I haven't been able to find a good yarn store here yet, and when I looked into this one it didn't look like much, either. It had one big table of yarn, some yarn around the walls and a counter near the back. I went back to ask the owner whether he had anything from England and when I looked left I saw a HUGE space filled with yarn. I was so stunned I couldn't say anything for a couple of minutes... I think the owner thought I was a little crazy. When he showed me the alpaca I told him that "touching alpaca makes me happy" and he laughed. Then, when I made Alya touch it and she said "yeah, ok..." he turned to her and said "You don't knit much, do you?" It was like coming back to the US, where people who sell yarn actually know something about it... (Which is very strange in itself, since you'd think that England (which has sheep all over and is home to Rowan yarn) would have people who knit... but it doesn't seem to.)

After walking around Wells for a bit Alya and I sat down to have more tea... and promptly almost missed our bus back to Bath. (This would have been very bad, since it was the last bus of the day and we weren't sure how to get back without it.) Of course, when we got back to Bath everything was closed and there was, once again, nothing to do. We wandered around looking for the movie theater for some time (hampered by the fact that we really weren't sure exactly where it was, and by our map, which only had about half of the streets drawn, and only half of those labelled), and by the time we found it there was nothing playing that we wanted to see. So we wandered back to the hostel, had tea and talked, and got in to bed early. (Silly country... who's ever heard of a place where a major movie theater with eight screens doesn't play anything after 7?)

The next day we went on to Salisbury. The main point of this was to see Stonehenge (which is a pretty short bus ride from Salisbury) and also Avebury, which is another stone circle (around an entire village) but which is much less touristy than Stonehenge. There was no place to leave things at the train station but we were directed to a pub down the road which took our bags. (It was kinda sketchy, but our only other option seemed to be to take everything with us or to walk all the way to our hostel and back, and we didn't really want to do either of these things.) Then after a 40 minute bus ride or so we arrived at... Stonehenge!

Actually, it wasn't that impressive. Given the huge number of people wandering around, the fact that you weren't allowed anywhere close to the stones, and the fact that the wind was so strong that Alya's guidebook actually joked about how the stones still stand "despite" the wind it was slightly disappointing. Added to that the fact that I've seen pictures of this for the last 15 years... it was kind of cool, but nothing special.

Then we went on to Avebury. This was a much longer bus ride, with a 45 minute change in some place whose name I can't remember anymore. Alya and I went and bought doughnuts, which are like American doughnuts only with no hole and made into a custard sandwich. A little weird, a little messy, but not bad. (I still prefer Krispy Kreme, though.) The ride on the bus there was cool, though, because we sat on the second story of a two-story bus (right above the driver) so we had a wonderful view of the countryside. It's absolutely beautiful... I think I'd be happy just driving around there all day. There are hills and fields (and lots of sheep and thatched roofs) and it was all very... English. I was also very impressed by the driver, who managed not to hit anything on these tiny twisty roads WHILE DRIVING A DOUBLE-DECKER BUS.

Avebury's stone circle is pretty cool, mostly because you can actually get close to the stones and sit down next to them.

(Alya and I decided that they were put up so that you could have a picnic despite the horrible wind. Some of the stones were placed exactly so that two people could sit behind them and not really feel the wind.) The pub in Avebury advertizes itself as the "only pub in the world inside an ancient stone circle", which was pretty funny. They also charge 3 pounds for tea, which is less funny. (Also, it started raining right as Alya and I needed to go out and wait for the bus, which wasn't funny at all.) But it was a good day, and there were lots of pretty hills and sheep.

Of course, Salisbury ended up being even more dead after 6 than Bath. We went around to the cathedral

both before it closed and after dark. It has a very well-preserved copy of the Magna Carta (mostly well-preserved because it was misfiled for about 200 years) which is in a room protected by the following sign:

After dark we went to the cathedral to see how it's lit up and we made big shadows of people up on the walls until a security guy came by and glared us and we decided that we should leave. It turns out that Salisbury's town center can be walked around in about 20 minutes and that there is nothing interesting to see there... so we ended up just going back to the hostel and hanging out there. There were some gothy people hanging out and playing something that looked like D&D (which was pretty funny) and we got Indian takeout which ended up being very sweet... we weren't sure if it was just a bad place, or whether Indian food is always so sweet here.

The next day it was time to leave. Alya caught a bus to Heathrow, and I backtracked our route back to Cambridge. (It turned out about 25 pounds cheaper that way... for no easily discernable reason.) In the train between Salisbury and Bath I saw a white horse drawn on a hill and it took me about 10 minutes to decide that I wasn't hallucinating... because what would a horse be doing on a hill? But the girl next to me said no, it's always been there, it's dug out of the mountainside and they're all over the place. Nobody really knows why.

And that was the end of my first week of journeying. (Well, I'm leaving out the bus from Oxford to Cambridge which was 45 minutes late (which, for a bus that's supposed to leave every half hour is impressive) and which stalled 15 minutes outside of Cambridge, but that stuff isn't interesting.) I was very glad to get back and hang out with Tom some more and just relax and not move. Kind of like I'm glad now. =)