Sunday, February 19, 2023

Cambridge and Oxford

 Our first “day” (including an overnight flight) started with a drive from Blacksburg to the BWI airport. We shuttled a third vehicle for Tanner and Livi (coming directly from Northstar’s trip to the Dominican Republic), and made it with plenty of time to spare. However, after we got to the gate and went to go get dinner, we had our first scare with missing a flight. Despite what both the gate and the boarding pass said, there was an announcement over the public address system that the doors would be closing fifteen minutes earlier than scheduled. We hurriedly boarded the plane as we arrived at the gate, and Keren and Abbie came running down the concourse as the agent announced the doors would be closing in 60 seconds. As we later discovered, the doors wouldn’t have really closed at that point, the gate agents were just trying to motivate people to board the plane.

Departing BWI

Despite that experience, our first flight on Play was perhaps the best flight that several of us had ever been on. This was mostly because the flight was roughly half empty, and, after takeoff, we all redistributed into the empty rows with lots of legroom. Joe managed to get an entire row to himself, laid down across the seats, and promptly went to sleep. An elderly gentleman bumped into his foot that was hanging out in the aisle at one point, shot him a dirty look, and continued to the bathroom. The flight attendants, on the other hand, brushed past him without even batting an eye.

Meanwhile, the whole plane was learning all about James and Sophie, two other passengers from England in the row with John who were talking loudly about their experiences in the US. Maybe we Americans wouldn’t be the loud ones after all, I thought (spoiler: we were). At one point, Adam even saw the Northern lights while we were over the Atlantic Ocean. Given he was the only one in our group who missed seeing them in Alaska, I was particularly excited for him.

Arrival in Iceland

We had a relatively short layover in Iceland, where it happened to be snowing a little bit (foreshadowing), and then continued on the same plane to Stansted, just outside of London. The Stansted airport had certainly seen better days, and they sent us through a maze of hallways, trams, and outdoor passages in order to deliver us to immigration. Despite taking a redeye, we had decided to hit the ground running when we got to Stansted, so we went straight to the rental car place to acquire our transportation.

Rental bus

Our rental car of choice was a nine passenger minibus. The rental car agent asked Joe, “Do you know you’ve rented a bus?” Yes, yes we do. The rental car company provided a helpful bracelet reminding Joe to “Drive on the Left” and we all piled in. After one or two false starts drifting towards the wrong side of the parking lot and adjusting to having all the extra width of the vehicle to the left instead of the right, Joe quickly started to get the hang of it. The speed limits in the UK are still in MPH, so that was helpful, but there are a ton of traffic circles to navigate. Joe and I started to develop a system where I provided direction with hand motions for which exit to take from the traffic circle. Little did I know, some of our passengers were imitating these the whole time behind me.

Front seat, best seat

We stopped for breakfast at a place called “The Coffee Shop” (which reminded me of Wikiteria at the VTCRC in Blacksburg) and had our first traditional English breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms. There were two older ladies running the whole shop who humored our misunderstanding of their “white or granary” inquiry (for the type of toast). We were hungry, and it was delicious.

The first stop of the day was in Cambridge. Unfortunately, we discovered that a lot of the museums in Cambridge (and Oxford) are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we spent our time walking around the city. First, we went into the The Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs. This was our first stop on Adam’s architecture tour of England. I asked Sam what he thought the gates between the narthex and the sanctuary were for. “Perhaps to prevent a run on the sacraments,” he speculated. We walked through Downing College, by King’s College (partially under construction), and visited Great St. Mary's, the University Church. We found some phone booths to take pictures in at Cambridge Market Square, and we also made a quick stop at the Lion Yard mall to exchange money, pick up a SIM card for Sam, and visit the RaspberryPi store.
Notice anything different here?

Next, we headed to Oxford. There isn’t much parking available in Oxford, so instead of parking on the outskirts of town and riding the bus in, we parked in the Westgate mall parking garage. This parking garage was a little short, but we estimated the height of our bus to be roughly equivalent to one Adam (2 meters) tall. The height limit was 1.95 meters, but we figured there would be margin, and everyone held their breath as we scooted under the signs and light fixtures. From the roof of the mall, we had a beautiful view of Oxford spread out in front of us. We walked over to Bonn Square to visit my friend Emily, who is serving at New Road Baptist Church in Oxford. Emily told us a little bit about the history and ministry of the church, then we went out to find somewhere for dinner. Given that the Eagle and Child (the Inkling’s favorite pub) was closed for renovations, we decided to try the Lamb and Flag, another favorite of Lewis’s. Unfortunately, they were very full and apparently didn’t serve food.

Navigating the parking garage

At this point, I knew we were in trouble because it had been quite a few hours since our earlier brunch. One principle I have discovered on these trips is that groups are a whole lot less likely to mutiny on a full stomach, but when the hangriness kicks in, all bets are off. I knew we were at a critical juncture, and if we didn’t find somewhere to eat soon, I might not survive the night. We eventually settled on a restaurant called Turtle Bay that was able to seat all ten of us, but when one of the staff told us it could be a 40 minute or more wait for food I almost stood everyone up and took them to the Five Guys location around the corner.


After a delicious dinner, we walked to Broad Street and came down High Street. We saw Blackwell’s Bookshop, several colleges of Oxford, and the Radcliffe Camera, as well as the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where Lewis preached his “Weight of Glory” sermon. We then parted ways with Emily and headed to our AirBnB in Iver, England.

When we arrived at the AirBnB, we had a difficult time finding the gate, and, subsequently, getting into it and back out of it to go grocery shopping. Here, I think it is appropriate to apply the concept of the “standard idiot” that my roommate Tim and I developed. There exists in the world a standard idiot, to which all general use systems or processes should be designed to accommodate. My working assumption was that, collectively, our group’s intelligence rises above that of a standard idiot. If our group had a difficult time figure out how something should work, imagine the confusion of your standard idiot when he encounters it.

Regardless, after we got the gate figured out, Joe, Theo, Sam, and I went on a late night grocery store run so that we would have breakfast food in the morning. The self check out was also a fiasco, with multiple errors due to the basket not being in the right place, scanning duplicate items, and picking up items before the transaction was complete. We eventually got it figured out, though, got back to the house and crashed. Come to think of it, maybe in our sleep deprived states we had fallen to the level of substandard idiots.

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