Monday, 23 June 2014

The King's Arms, Oxford

Very few people that actually live in Oxford will be unaware of this place - it sorts of squats broodingly on the corner of Holywell Street,  with the crowds thronging the pavement benches either side of the main door. When I was a student I spent far too much time in the place (I'm sure between us we must have paid the landlord's wages several times over), but then, after graduation, it rather fell back down the list of priorities.

Back in the late 2000s, I suppose what it did well was to jam in as many students as possible and fleece them very effectively. It was also the pub most tolerant in the city centre to the blowing of hunting horns, throwing of paper aeroplanes, and the general cavorting of the Oxford student at his most obnoxious.

The other day I went in there and discovered that it has had something of a refit - the worst of the wall stains have gone, and the mirror over the fireplace in the office has finally been replaced, getting on for 10 years after the Bullingdon managed to break it. But the refurb has been pretty tastefully done (to the usual pub-refit-by-numbers template), all slate coloured wall paint and exposed brickwork behind the bar. I must admit that when I heard the builders were coming in a couple of weeks ago I was most worried about the future of the back bar and office but, apart from the removal of several layers of grime, and the collected tobacco residue of a couple of centuries from the ceiling, it's actually emerged relatively unscathed as a cleaner brighter version of its old self. Worth a look.

The beer is Young's, so it's about as good as can be expected. Tribute remains on as a permanent guest (which it has been since I started going in there in 2006) which is good as there's only so much Special you would want to drink in your life. The menu is much smaller than it used to be, but seems to be a bit tighter. Although no stranger to the tourist dollar the kitchen seems to have raised its sights a little higher than the bowls of chili which were the staple in former years. I had a pretty decent venison and chestnut suet pudding, which actually appeared to contain some meat and wasn't quite the level of ping food I'd been expecting.

There's a wave of gentrification sweeping through Oxford's pubs at the moment. The Goose at Gloucester Green, which used to be an utter dive, has been reincarnated as the much more upmarket Red Lion, the Gloucester Arms as the White Rabbit is doing excellent food, and the regenerated St Aldates Tavern is a small-plate revelation. The knock on from this is that some of the more established pubs (whether gastro or drinker) are really having to raise their game, and it looks like Youngs are at long last getting wise to it.

The KA is what it is, it's just now a much better version of what it is. I don't think I'll leave it another couple of years before I go again.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Binsey Treacle Well

In the post on Port Meadow, I mentioned the Binsey Treacle Well.  This led to an interesting conversation in the Rusty Bicycle, as to what a treacle well is, and why they haven't heard of it.  Turns out everyone knows the story of Rosamund the Fair and Henry II at Godstow Nunnery (I love Oxford), so we'll park that one for a while, and concentrate on the black stuff.

I remember when I first heard of the well my thoughts immediately turned to visions of The Goodies, in the episode where they open a clotted cream mine in Cornwall.  Surely, in Binsey, I was going to be confronted by a gushing torrent of thick gunge, like the outfall from some Asiatic factory with dubious health and safety practices.  Sadly, the reality is it's a damp hole in the ground - there isn't even a lion's mouth for the fluid to come out of.   However, the background is only slightly less prosaic than my over-active imagination.

Lewis Carroll of course has a treacle well in Alice in Wonderland, so I'm in good company, but this is "treacle" in its medieval usage of balm, or unguent.  Essentially, it's a spring with purported healing powers which miraculously sprang forth in response to the prayers of St Frideswide. Oxford, of course, is a city of odd saints - Ebbe, Frideswide, Aldate, etc.  The city patron is the second of these, Frideswide, who was once the subject of one of the finest, shortest sermons I've ever heard.

Picture the scene; a dessicated church in the centre of Oxford, Mattins drawing to a close on St Frideswide's Day and an equally dessicated vicar mouting the pulpit.  The thin, crackly reed of his voice begins:

"Very little is known of St Frideswide. She lived. And, we may infer from her canonisation, she was good. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen."

Anyway, I digress. Referring to Westwood and Simpson's Lore of the Land, we discover that Frideswide had established a religious community in Oxford in about 700AD, under the protection of her father, who was the local potentate.  On her father's death, a chap called Algar of Leicester decided it would be rather a good scheme to be married to Frideswide, so pitched up and offered to do the decent thing.  Upon being rebuffed he decided that kidnap was the next best option, and essentially made a lunge for her, whereupon our city's patron took to her heels Tam Lin style and made a run for it.

Crashing through the swamps to the west of the city, she ended up on the then island of Beltona (modern Binsey) where she found sanctuary, had a bit of a pray, and brought forth the healing waters.  Following Frideswide's death, the well at Binsey became an important site of pilgrimage - at one point there were over 20 hostels at Seacourt (now a glamorous park and ride destination) to cope with the throng.  It was all a bit like the ghats in Calcutta (on a smaller and noticeably less Indian scale, obviously), with people coming to avail themselves of the miraculous cure.

Post reformation, it all went rather quiet, until in 1874 the local vicar decided to do a bit of "restoration." As with most things the Victorians touched, this bears about as much relation to what had been there before as the Olympic Park in London does to the pre-blitz East End. Now, it's slightly off the beaten track, but it's worth a look, if you ever find yourself in The Perch with  20 minutes to kill.  You can cheat, and used google to find out what you're supposed to be looking for, but I'm not going to put up a picture, so you can do a bit of proper exploring if you want!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Save Port Meadow

Let's get very local for a minute.  For those of you unfamiliar with Oxford, Port Meadow is an area of common land to the north west of the city centre, which runs from the village of Wolvercote down the Woodstock road to the suburb of Jericho.  Horses and cattle graze on it, the Thames runs through it, and there are a host of small things to go and look at - the Treacle Well at Binsey, for example, or the nunnery at Godstow, from where Rosamund Clifford sallied out to be courted by Henry II.

It's a green lung for the north of the city.  When I lived in Jericho it was basically my back garden - we picnicked on it, swam in the river on hot summer evenings after work, or drifted up to the Trout at Wolvercote or the Perch at Binsey to spend the day with the newspapers.

But one of the chief attractions has always been the views of Oxford.  They're not as spectacular as those from South Park, or Boar's Hill, but there was a panorama of the dreaming spires - the Tower of the Winds, PhilJim, St Barnabas, St Mary the Virgin, the Rad Cam, the Engineering Science Building (the last one may be a joke).

Jericho, however, is full.  What had once been a small densely populated district of workers in the prinitng house of the OUP decayed to the extent that it was nearly demolished in the 1960s.  Students brought it back to life, and then refugees from London arrived to raise their children.  It's all got a bit glitzy, and pricey.  The City Council, wanting to reduce some of the pressure on the housing stock in Oxford, has mandated both Oxford University and Brookes to reduce the numbers of their students living in private rented accommodation in the city.

Which brings us to Roger Dudman Way.  The university has erected a number of accommodation blocks along the railway line and canal from the west end of Walton Well Road.  In some ways, this is exactly what is needed - getting large numbers of students out of the private sector and freeing up housing for local people.  Unfortunately it's also obliterated the views from Port Meadow, and raidcally changed the character of that end of Oxford.  Debate rages in the local press (this is Oxford, city of lost causes and green ink), about how far what has been built reflects accurately what the city council was shown in the drawings, but the fact remains that somewhere along the line someone has got it wrong.

There's a petition live now to call the whole thing in and get it altered.  No one wants the blocks demolished, but the top two stories could, and arguably ought, to be removed.

you can sign it here:

Friday, 8 March 2013

Gone to Earth

Powell and Pressburger made what to my mind are some of the greatest films of all time - not just greatest British films, but films full stop.  In a glorious run from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp through the The Red Shoes they showcased virtuoso direction, cinematography, and a grasp of the importance of place in their filmaking.

One of the things they did very well was evoking a sense of nature, most notably to the common viewer in I Know Where I'm Going, but it absolutely haunts all their work.  If you watch Powell's much earlier solo venture The Edge of World it quickly becomes clear that the island itself is the star, and the people crossing it of no more real importance than the sheep or the eagles.  It's about impermanence, more than anything, and the sense that sometimes you just have to give up on what you're doing, even at the expense of your life (whether physically, as you cling to the top of a sheer waterfall hundreds of feet above the rocks below; or more spiritually, turning your back on a way of life that has been core to your community for generations.  It must have taken real guts to write the sort of letter to your laird that begged for a steamer to evacuate your village.

Where the wheels slightly come off the wagon though is with the postwar Gone to Earth.  It's beautifully shot up on the Stiperstones, and around Much Wenlock.  There are some marvellous trademark Powell and Pressburger set pieces  - the full immersion baptism in the river, and the slow procession of the traction engine to the village show are as good as anything you will see in any of their other pictures.  They even managed to convincingly portray foxhunting (albeit with what look like beagles).  A common complaint of the connoisseur in everything from Brideshead Revisited to Downton Abbey is that the hunting is all wrong.  But there's none of that artificial blowing the hounds along to the horn and the start of the whip - these hounds are flying, right out ahead.  As an historical record it's marvellous.

I think the real weakness is the plot.  Gone to Earth is an adaptation from Mary Webb's novel, rather than a Pressburger screenplay, and to be quite honest it shows.  There's not much to be going on with here, it's basically Catherine Cookson avant la lettre and pretty thin gruel at that (with a slightly dubious rape/sexual assault plot thread). Jennifer Jones is not really leading lady material in this (and her accent is frankly risible - Long Mynd by way of Savannah maybe?), and the two leading men aren't given much to do except snarl (David Farrar) or pretty much stand around and invite people to walk over you (Cyril Cusack). Some of the supporting players are much better - Sybil Thorndike is solid as ever, and there's a great little cameo by the young George Cole.

It's a wonder there's any film to see at all in some ways.  David O Selznick (probably seeing the rushes and thinking "what in God's name have I just financed?") mauled it terribly so that by the time it went on general release in the US there was only something like 20 minutes of the original film left in it.  However, it was restored and re-surfaced at some point in the 1980s, permitting critical re-examination. This time around, the overriding opinion was more positive, but it has still sunk below the surface again - I had to buy a South Korean import....

So, what are we to make of Gone to Earth? Slender plot, variable acting certainly; but the ambition and skill of P&P manages to shine through regardless.  It's a love letter to rural England, and Shropshire in particular - and it deserves to be more widely viewed.  If I was trying to win new converts to the Powell and Pressburger shrine, there's no way on God's green earth that I would start them off on this film.  But, if you can get hold of it, and you've got an hour or two to spare, then do watch it. It wasn't quite the last of England, but it was very nearly the last of Powell and Pressburger.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

London Welsh - part 2

5 point deduction, 5 points suspended and a £15,000 fine.  The judgement on the RFU's website makes pretty grim reading....  Inevitably, Welsh are appealing.  Watch this space.

London Welsh

No, not the rugby club of that name playing in Oxford - although I'm sure I'll write something when the RFU get their act together and publish their findings from the recent disciplinary hearing....

This morning I had to go up to London for a meeting.  Just occasionally, despite my better judgment, it's unavoidable.  The train back to Oxford was delayed, and while I was hanging aroungd on the Lawn at Paddington station I was slightly surprised to see the distinctive form of a Festiniog Railway locomotive on platform 9.  Princess, identical twin to Prince - Britain's oldest working steam engine in regular traffic - and built at George England's Hatcham Ironworks in 1863.  The Festiniog had 5, all to the same basic design:

Prince and Palmerston are still in service, Little Giant was cut up in the early 20th century, and Welsh Pony used to stand in the middle of a flowerbed in Porthmadog - I fell off it multiple times between the ages of 8 and 13....  I believe Welsh Pony has now been rescued and is being cosmetically restored for a slightly more dignified fate.

The last time I saw Princess was on display in the Station restaurant in Porthmadog in about 1990 - she's been rescued from there and tarted up a bit for the 150th anniversary of the Festiniog Railway (and her own 150th birthday this year).  If you happen to find yourself at a loose end in Paddington, she's there until 6 weeks after St David's Day.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Behind the silence

Normal service has been slightly knocked sideways by a particularly busy period at work, and it's going to stay busy for a week or so as I pinball around Europe. But there are questions on the horizon which need a bit of investigation;

What do we think of UKIP, in the light of last week's Eastleigh by-election?

How, exactly, did Gone to Earth end up the way it did, given its Powell and Pressburger pedigree?

Army 20:20 - what does it mean for us?

In part answer of the last, first, the 7th Armoured Brigade is a number - making it an infantry brigade is not the end of the world for heaven's sake!

Watch this space....