Just came across this picture from their trip to England in April.
at the science museum, via flickr
Just came across this picture from their trip to England in April.
at the science museum, via flickr
We're now back in Cambridge, after a long and pleasant couple days in the West of England. I really enjoyed it, both as a tourist, and in my capacity as Mr. Contemplative Computing.
We got to Bath on Thursday afternoon, and decided to walk to the hotel. This turned out to be a good move, because Bath is A Small Place. The train station is beautifully well-situated, not in the middle of things but on a street that takes you straight to Bath Abbey and the center of town; a block further is the Pulteney Bridge, and our hotel was just a couple blocks from there.
So if you want to go to the University or see some of the more out-of-the-way gardens you need a cab or bus, but much of what you want to see if within a few square blocks: the Roman baths, the Abbey, the Crescent, Circle, even the Saracens' Head (a pub where Charles Dickens lived, and which shows off Britain's proud history of multiculturalism).
After checking into the guest house, we went to the Abbey, and walked around the city. I couldn't help but notice that Bath Abbey is a fantastic, majestic space (though with terrible acoustics, apparently), and it literally overshadows the Latter-Day Saints church and Quaker meeting house nearby.
We then had dinner at a little Italian pizza place. After that it was a drink at the Coeur de Lion, which advertised itself as the smallest pub in Bath.
We stayed at a little place called the Edgar Townhouse, on Great Pulteney Street. We got put in a basement room, which turned out to be fine, though it was cozy. But the breakfast was good.
Friday we went to Bristol for my talk. Bristol is only about 15 minutes away on the train, and the Watershed and other restored stuff is maybe 20 minutes from Temple Meads.
The docks and shipyard, which had connected this part of Britain with the rest of the world, closed in the 1960s and 1970s, and so for a long time large parts of the city were derelict; they've now been revived, with the mix of science, media, Cal-Mex and Japanese cuisine, tax forgiveness, and startup space that are essential for such New City enterprises.
We saw a little of it, but after my talk headed back to Bath in time to go to the Roman Baths, which I found REALLY cool. For one thing, it's like two exhibit spaces in one: there are the original Roman baths, which have been the subject of some elaborate archaeological excavations, and the Victorian improvements, which involved things like carving new statues of Julius Caesar.
Like the medieval Stockholm museum, or the Turku museum, this one takes you through the archaeological site, rather than just presenting you with exhibits from the dig; it's a style of presentation that I really like.
What was odder was seeing large numbers of fellow visitors listening to audio tours. It was a bit zombie-like, though I'm sure there are things they learned that I didn't. I'll have to go back to my Pevsner series volume on Bath to get caught up.
After that we had dinner at the Crystal Palace, a pub and restaurant just down the street from the baths.
I'm glad we got to see Bath on Thursday and Friday, because Saturday it was packed. Like Cambridge, the crowds are mad, with tons of people in the pedestrian-only shopping mall, cueing up for the Roman Baths and Pump Room, and generally being everywhere. Nonetheless, we made the best of it.
We spent part of the morning at the Jane Austen Centre, a house converted into a museum for Jane Austen fans. Though these days, it's really devoted to that version of Jane Austen that's filtered through the movies; so much so that Austen herself (as well as all her other characters) are in danger of being upstaged by Mr. Darcy– in particular the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy. Actually, most of the museum is about Austen and Bath in her time; it's more the gift shop that has turned into the House of Firth. (The "I [Heart] Mr Darcy" bumper stickers and tote bags nearly sent my wife over the edge.)
Bath's relationship to Jane Austen is emblematic of the mix of honest and commercialism that at their best English historical sites manage to strike. The message can be reduced to, "Jane Austen reluctantly came to his city with her elderly parents, and over the next five years, endured the loss of her beloved father, the decline of her family's status, constant marginalization in a city obsessed with wealth and fashion, and a creative drought that represents an incalculable loss given her short life. Don't forget to visit the gift shop!"
After that, we went to the Assembly Rooms and the Fashion Museum. The Assembly Rooms are a great space, featured in several scenes in Persuasion (there really is NO escaping Jane Austen here– I recognized several places from the movies, and the fact that the Rooms are on Bennett Street cannot but raise an eyebrow).
The Fashion Museum is fascinating, though perhaps for me not quite in the ways the creators meant. It's one of those museums where the curatorial and research work are not hidden away but are worked into the exhibits, which is something I always appreciate. (It's used to incredible and often devastating effect in the Jewish Museum in Vienna.) And while I'm not hugely knowledgeable about fashion, though I'm not as dismissive about it as I used to be, I did find it educational.
I'm pretty sure the designers did not intend to invoke postmodern / dystopian anime, but in the exhibit on wedding gowns (thank you so much, Kate Middleton), I was seized by the memory of the cyborg factory shootout scene in Ghost in the Shell 2, and for the life of me could not get it out of my mind.
Being around historical exhibits doesn't usually make me want to be armed, but this did.
So it was an excellent time, but it's also nice to be back in Cambridge.
Monday, we got up early to take the kids to the airport. The bus ride from Cambridge to Heathrow is over two hours, so naturally my son fell back asleep during the ride. Which was fine.
on the way to heathrow, via flickr
After we got them checked in and through security, Heather and I went into London. Not that I haven’t been able to keep busy in Cambridge, of course, but we were in the area.
At Heather’s suggestion we went to Covent Garden, where I’d never been before, and we wandered around the flea markets for a bit.
covent garden, via flickr
I picked up an old hip flask– I’ve always wanted one– but mainly just took in the scene.
type cases in covent garden, via flickr
After that, we made our way to Piccadilly Square and then Burlington Arcade. For me, Piccadilly is a kind of default stop: it’s the very first place I went when I first came to London in 1989. I got off the plane and got through customs, got on the Tube, got off at Piccadilly, and went straight to the Royal Astronomical Society. So the area still has a kind of nostalgic pull for me.
We took a quick stroll through Burlington House, but then took a stroll down Burlington Arcade, which I just love.
burlington arcade, via flickr
I’ve never bought anything there– everything is absurdly expensive, and the stores that have that prohibitive, formidable exclusiveness that keeps the likes of me on the outside looking in– but it’s a great place to walk around and look.
store window, via flickr
After that, it was a quick dinner, and off to see The Rivals, which was fun. Then it was back to Cambridge, and back to work.
Today we went to Ely, which is about 15 minutes from Cambridge by train. It’s a much smaller town, but has one of the most impressive cathedrals in Britain. (Heather’s account of the visit is already up, and she has several pictures.) Since we went to evensong at King’s College chapel– which is one of the most remarkable examples of English Perpendicular architecture– it was interesting to compare them.
We biked from our house to the train station, finally found a space in the bike parking area (which is nuts), and after many minutes in line, bought tickets. This was the first time I was using the electronic ticket kiosk and my local chip-and-pin card, and with a large line behind me, I just wanted to get through the transaction as quickly as possible; as a result, I bought two one-way tickets, but at least they were to the right place.
The train ride is short but pleasant, and there’s a walk from the train station to the cathedral that is generally unobjectionable but not amazing. However, there was a horse along the way.
We stopped for a Cornish pasty before going in the cathedral, then spent the next several hours immersed in late medieval ecclesiastical architecture. The high point, literally and figuratively, was the tour of the Octagon and Lantern, an unusual feature of the cathedral added in the 1300s. The tour first takes you up onto the roof, which is pretty cool.
The tour involves a lot of narrow staircases.
You can view the stained glass up close. A lot of it is actually Victorian rather than medieval– between the Reformation, Civil War, and 500 years’ time, much of the original was lost by the time the Victorians rediscovered the art and restored the stained glass.
Getting close to it is really great.
Next you ascend to the level with the painted panels. While it looks like it’s made of stone and metal, most of the Octagon is actually wood, covered in lead.
They open up the panels on the octagon, so you could look across….
Finally, we went up onto the roof. During clear weather, it afford a terrific view of the Fens, but it was pretty cloudy today; still, it was impressive, and very cold.
After that we walked around town a bit, and inevitably arrived at the best bookstore in Ely, and possibly the world: Topping & Co.
It’s an unexpected find– a wonderful three-story, crowded bookstore, with an excellent staff who know what they’re doing.
Not only did they have a couple books I wanted, they offer their patrons pots of tea or coffee, which is not only very welcome on cold days, but it also increases the odds that people will buy stuff.
It worked on me, but they’re books for work, so it was all right.
Today’s adventure is London, and the British Museum and Bloomsbury.
mayhem, via flickr
After spending much of the day doing laundry and working on an NSF proposal (boy, those people are picky), I got on the bike and went into town– all of three blocks. As soon as I hit the Magdalen Bridge, I ran into a solid wall of tourists.
My first though was, “Who the Hell are all these visitors?” but of course I’m not really in a position to complain. My bike may have huge wicker basket, but I’m hardly a local yet.
Granted, the winter term (Lent, as it’s called here) starts next week, so things might be more than usually busy with students returning to town, but it struck me that there were a lot of visitors. The place was jammed.
crowded street, via flickr
It makes me think that my vague ideas of taking weekend trip to London or other places makes a lot of sense….
Eventually I gave up on riding, parked my bike, and walked around.
the obligatory picture of bicycles, via flickr
The market was active– I’ve always returned from the lab after the market had already closed– so I spent a little time wandering around there.
cambridge market, via flickr
I hadn’t realized it, but there are actually a number of farmer’s stalls, so I think I’ll be visiting again.
cambridge market, via flickr
After that, I rode down Free School Lane, past the Cavendish, and turned on Peterhouse Street.
mystery archway, via flickr
As I was passing an archway, my eye caught something weird. A whale skeleton.
museum of zoology, via flickr
Turns out the University Museum of Zoology is kind of wedged in the middle of a court made by the Cavendish and various other buildings, and it has a finback whale skeleton. But it’s not inside the building; it’s protected by the elements from an overhang, but it just visible from the street.
finback whale skeleton, via flickr
One of the things I love about walking around London (especially at night), Cambridge and Oxford is that they richly reward wandering: they tend not to have the gigantic vistas of Paris (or even Budapest along the Danube or the couple major avenues), but it seems like something interesting or charming is always around some nearby corner, and it’s just a matter of finding it.
It’s almost always true, but sometimes it’s kind of ridiculous.
o hai, via flickr
After that, I biked over to Christ’s Pieces, then to Sainsbury’s for dinner (yet more roasted chicken!), then home. There’s still more NSF work to do, and then tomorrow I have to work on a talk I’m giving on Monday.
christ’s pieces, via flickr
I’ve finished my first week (or set of weekdays) here, and I’m now pretty much set up with everything for the next three months. Friday morning I went to the bike store, bought a helmet, a couple tools, and things that flash, so now I can bike around reasonably safely.
Riding on the left side of the road turns out to be easier than I expected, especially when other cars or cyclists are around. The example of other practitioners serves as a reminder of what I ought to be doing, and of course when the practitioners are buses or cars, you want to stay out of their way.
I paid the first of what will doubtless be many trips to Heffers, one of the big bookstores in town, to stock up on philosophy books. After years of avoiding philosophy in favor of sociology– my graduate program was pretty militantly anti-philosophical, a way of differentiating itself from what its founders saw as the excessive influence of philosophy on the history of science– I’m now having to catch up. But what better place than here to read about Wittgenstein, the philosophy of mind, and arguments about embodied cognition?
the menu at gardies, via flickr
I then wandered over to the Gardenia, or Gardies, a kebab place in town. It turns out to have something of a storied past, and it can become quite a madhouse late at night, but the food was pretty good.
After that I biked around for a while– having a bicycle makes exploring vastly, vastly easier and more interesting than just going around on foot– and then wound up at a pub near my house. I don’t drink much normally, so a week in which I’ve had anything on three nights is very rare; I don’t think I’ll try to keep up such a pace, though one never really knows. Cider is actually pretty damn good.
dinner at gardies, via flickr
The one unexpected bad thing was that the top to my Mont Blanc pen got smashed– it fell out of my pocket, and got run over. The rest of the pen is fine– it got stuck in my pocket and the ink ran on my pants, but otherwise it’s all right. Which is good, because I just had the body replaced last year.
I’m willing to think of this as the one bit of misfortune that balances out all the good things. After worrying about not being able to get a bank account, and being concerned about the kids’ adjusting without me (they seem to be doing all right), this is small stuff. But it raises the question: I got the pen as a graduation present, and had the body replaced after it got damaged; now, with a new cap, will it be the same pen? Maybe one of these philosophy books will tell me.
Biking around town tonight, it looks to me that on Friday night downtown Cambridge is abandoned by everyone but men with foreign accents, and women who think that miniskirts are winter wear. Apparently it’s possible to listen to Amy Winehouse‘s “Fuck Me Pumps” as an etiquette guide, not as the sad song it is.
Though the ability to walk in high heels on cobblestones, while drunk– that takes talent.
After a decent (and resonably-timed) night’s sleep, I had my first full day at the Lab, uninterrupted by 3-hour detours to the bank, visits to the cellphone store, etc. Until today, I’d been around, but not really present: physically there, and certainly interested in everything, but no able to spend enough time in a day to really start engaging with the place and people.
And it was a good day to actually be all there, because there was an all-lab demo of various things people were working on. Suffice it to say, some of my colleagues are doing things I’ll never really understand; on the other, a heartening number are working on things that I think are really fascinating (whether I completely get them or not). And I’m starting to meet more people, none of whom seem to be from the same country, but most of whom are named either Richard or Alex, or something very exotic. Quite a place.
Other parts of my life are getting set up, or falling into place. As a reward for my doggedness in the face of bureaucratic obstacles, my ATM card arrived today, with the critical chip and pin technology (American credit and debit cards still use magnetic stripes, and apparently a different standard of chip and pin, so a growing number of Americans are finding themselves unable to use the credit cards here, a situation that of course we find unendurable). So now I can actually get paid, and do my part to prop up England’s economy. I’m also going to have a national health number and membership in the national savings scheme, a development I find kind of surreal.
I also got set up at the gym. There’s a health club in my neighborhood that has a deal with Microsoft Research, so for the cost of a really good dinner (and maybe a drink) I’m getting a three-month membership there. The upside is that the machines are by and large familiar (Precor and Cybex seem to rule the world, and if you’ve seen one Pilates ball you’ve seen them all); the downside is that it’s part of the local community college, and has all the charm of one of a set of A Clockwork Orange– that stripped-down uninspired Modernism that Orwell would have rebelled against. “You want to know the future, Winston? Picture a mop, disinfecting the tile of a public shower. Forever.” However, it’s also something of a magnet for American expatriates, though there’s a suspicious enthusiasm for the rowing machines. Inevitable local influence, I guess.
I also had my first dealing with the local Apple store: yesterday afternoon, after successfully finishing the paperwork to get my bank account (hooray!), my Macbook failed to turn on (boo!). I immediately scheduled a genius bar appointment, and went down before dinner. Turned out the Nvidia graphics card had died, and of course I’ve had this machine far too long for it to be in warranty. However, it also turned out that this is a known problem (in fact, Nvidia just announced a class action settlement about it), and they had the replacement chip in stock… so what I imagined would be an expensive, time-consuming problem turned out to be one that they dealt with in a couple hours, for free. Just a wonderful experience. Maybe it’s not so bad here, after all.
I couldn’t resist celebrating having just dodged a £720 bullet, so I went back to the Eagle for dinner. I sat under a picture of John Milton that, for all I know, could have been drawn from life: Milton arrived at Cambridge when the Eagle was about 100 years old, after all.
What a place.