Thursday, July 23, 2009

'Enery the Eighth, I Am...

I, like millions of other people fascinated with the English monarchy system, have always enjoyed reading about Henry VIII. He was a pretty interesting guy, and that whole six wives thing was definitely eyebrow raising. Not to mention he catalyzed a religious war in England because he wanted a male heir so bad.

Last Saturday, a friend and I went to Hampton Court Palace. While Cardinal Wolsey (Henry VIII's main advisor in the Catherine of Aragon period) was the one who built it, it was eventually inhabited by the king himself once Wolsey had been demoted. It was here that Anne Boleyn stayed (wife #2), here that Jane Seymour (wife #3) gave birth to the child that would later be known as King Edward VI, and here that Henry married Kathryn Parr (wife #6).

Hampton Court Palace

We were once again lucky to experience a piece of history on a beautiful day, and we took our time investigating the different sections. Oddly enough it was the historical re-enactments that interested me the most. Several character actors were playing the different parts in the marriage of Henry VIII to Kathryn Parr. The man playing Henry was excellent and I even had the opportunity to help him cheat at a game of cards with Thomas Seymour (his third wife's brother and the former flame of Parr herself (and her husband after Henry died)). I also really liked the special exhibit they had on the six wives.

Thomas and Henry, Playing Cards

The Ancient and the Modern

I have often wished that I could go to these places, not just as a tourist, but to sit and read in the gardens. Most of the palaces in England have amazing green spaces, and I feel remiss that I have not had more time to sit in them and just soak in the beauty of these tremendous parks.

We took a boat cruise along the Thames home (around 3 hours). It wasn't as picturesque as the earlier parts of the day since it became much colder and rained a little, but I still enjoyed looking at the crowded banks and imagining a royal barge going much the same route 500 or so years ago.

As for this week, history has been on the backburner as I finish my class responsibilities. Yesterday was the last day of classes, so today we went to see a play (The Monster Under the Bed) at the Polka Theatre and soon we will be meeting up at a pub for our last meal together.

I came home alone today after the theatre, and the one thought that struck me as I was riding an escalator in one of the tube stations was that this place is as familiar to me now as Roanoke. England has become another home to me. England. Who would have imagined....

London By Boat

Monday, July 20, 2009

Final Countdown

Last week in London! I cannot fathom that I have been in England for over three weeks. My brain just cannot process it. All the sights--the lakes, the hills, the small townships, they all have blended in my mind and I feel like I experienced them in a dream instead of with my own feet, eyes, and hands.

I have had more of a chance to relax in the past few days, but I have also been lulled into a lame duck period where my head is already on vacation back in the states. Three plus weeks of thinking about literature, discussing literature and writing about literature has turned my grey matter into mush. However, I still have one last rewrite to do of my short story, and it needs to happen in the next 24 hours. Hopefully I will rise to the challenge.

I still need to recount my last week or so in London. A week ago Tuesday, we hit all the Winnie the Pooh sites and saw what inspired A.A. Milne to write his stories. Like many of the early 20th century writers, his story is not necessarily a happy one. Just as Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was barred from having a relationship with the Liddell family after having been such a big part of their lives growing up, just as J.M. Barrie was to become sometimes too involved in the Davies boys' lives and create conflict with at least two of his adopted sons, so too did Christopher Robin, Milne's son, have issues with his father for making him famous through his works. Knowing that Peter Pan's namesake may have committed suicide as a result of a long history of depression that was partially catalyzed by his adopted father's famous story changes the work. But the work is so good; I don't want it to be marred by the truth of its writer and his family. Thus, when I'm playing poohsticks on a small bridge in the woods or watching my professor climb the famous tree in the 100 Aker Wood (sic), I tend to block out the history of the place because the power of those stories has in some ways balanced the pain and suffering that sometimes accompanied their initial publication.

On Wednesday, we went to Egmont Press and met with the heads of their editorial staff. Each year at Hollins, we have an opportunity to interact with people in the "business." My first year we met an agent at HarperCollins, the next we met a literary agent, and now we have actually visited a publishing company itself. This company happens to publish my creative writing teacher's work, so she hooked us up with a great afternoon of lectures and discussion on the children's publishing industry. I always find these meet-ups a little soul crushing because you do start to realize how slim your chances are of becoming published, but they are very nice about it and still try to encourage you to keep at it and see if you have what it takes.

Our last major event last week was to see Rowan Atkinson in a production of Oliver! (exclamation mark is in the title). For those of you who don't recognize the name, you may know him as Mr. Bean. Funny, funny stuff. Not exactly Charles Dicken's Fagin, but he kept us in stitches, and the whole production was a great example of well-executed set design. The pieces flowed so well together, and the kids were adorable. Some of my classmates have been living in the theatre while we've been here. One classmate has seen three plays on top of the three we've gone to for class. I would love to see a performance at the Globe or see an original musical on the London stage, but the tickets are incredibly expensive and there are some things I would like to wait and experience with Bryan.

Technically we had a free weekend after the Oliver! performance. I did enjoy myself on Saturday, but the other two days were a mixture of work and play. I have visited the National Portrait Gallery and Harrods, so I have done some Londony things on my own. Harrods is a frightening place. It's beautiful but I have never been in the vicinity of luxury clothing before. There are some worlds where I will never belong and I can add that department store to the list. I'll stick with Macy's.

The one thing that was on my mind all day today was the fact that Franklin Academy opened its doors to its students this morning. If any of my new students have ventured this way, hello! I will definitely be back on Monday, and I will try to refrain from showing you all 1000 pictures of countryside and ancient buildings. Maybe just 800 or so....

The Sacred Spot in the 100 Aker Wood

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Catching Up

I do find it amusing that now that I have regular internet access and my own room, I'm having a harder time writing blog entries. We just saw so many beautiful things while touring Central and Northern England, and now that we're in London we're all in crunch mode. We only have one more full week of scheduled work, and then I have a day and a half on top of that before departure.

So to recap, we got here on Saturday. Saw the digs, got very happy, bought some groceries and settled in to start response papers and the like. I had a very tough time with my Peter and Wendy one and rewrote it around 5 times so that was a two day affair. However, in the midst of writing short essays, I had a very eventful Sunday.

We started with a trip to "famous" London and attended church at Westminster Abbey. Yes, that place where they crown kings/queens and bury poets. The service was mostly sung, and we got to hear the official choir which is made up of young boys and middle aged men. It was beautiful. Hearing those voices in that space was a very spiritual experience.

Then we encountered a big of a snag on leaving because there was a 10K going on right outside. We were on the Big Ben/Parliament/Westminster side of the street and across was the tube station that we needed to use to get home. The race was funny because I had a serious Hot Fuzz flashback since everyone was racing for their own charities (rather than for one like at home). We saw chickens and a Spider-Man (who stopped to take a picture of Big Ben, very odd), and a man wearing a dress. On our way to the next tube station, we saw the London Movieum and they had a movie/television car show going on outside. We saw the DeLorean and the Ghostbusters' ambulance and the General Lee. Very random but very fun. Finally we returned home and went to Kensington Gardens, where J.M. Barrie initially met up with the Davies family. Our tour guide was in costume, so we got a few stares. The gardens are very large, but it was a sunny day and some very patient people let us all get a solo picture with the Pan.

We then saw a production of Peter Pan in a large circus tent in the back of the gardens. Very high tech and very well performed. I saw Peter Pan performed a few years ago, but this time it was completely different because they did a lot more flying and all the actors were adults. After all that, we went home and crashed. It was a very full day.

Compared with all that fun, Monday was a bit of a bore. We went to our third library (the British Library) and had a workshop on how to use their resources. I have some issues with this particular library because they went through all this information on how to use their stuff but they have made it very difficult for us to get the readers' passes we need to actually retrieve things. We did get to see some original work including a 2nd edition of The Hobbit (the first with the watercolors we saw at the Bodley), one of Lewis Carroll's journals (the one where he described the boat trip with the Liddell girls), and some of Charlotte Bronte's works. After that we went to another library (University College London). There we did get library cards and the full tour but they close at 6PM. Not very convenient. All of these road blocks prompted our critical teacher to completely rework our last few assignments, so we all started to breath a little easier after that because we are not going to be able to get much research done while we're here.

I'll save Tuesday through Thursday for tomorrow. Suffice to say, I am really enjoying London but also wishing I was back by the lake. There are a lot of people in this city right now. A lot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


It's been a few days and they have been wonderfully eventful. I will try to recount my adventures in another day or two when I have caught my breath. The stress of 2.5 weeks of traveling and writing is starting to show itself in the bags under my eyes and my inability to walk two feet without tripping over something.

However, how can I be tired or unhappy when I get to enjoy a dorm suite after weeks of bunk beds and noisy hostels?

How can I be overwhelmed when I get to see Big Ben on a sunny Sunday morning?

How can I be anything but elated when I get to watch a chicken run a 10K after church at Westminster Abbey?

'Nuf said.

Christopher Robin's Favorite Tree

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cities and Walls

I said goodbye to the lake last night as I read a little from The Amber Spyglass. That part of England is my England. We're in a city again, and I already miss the hills. Our hostel (which is nice but very basic) is on the same street as the Pizza Hut and Burger King. London will probably be more attractive since we're staying in a local college, but I still want to make that sidetrip to Wales if at all possible. The city I'll be visiting is on the Irish Sea and I think it will be a nice goodbye to this wonderful island. We'll see.

Today we went to class, ate our last meal in Ambleside at the classroom tables, and then got on a bus for Hadrian's Wall. The trip was uneventful but the views were spectacular. I can't quite do justice to what we saw, sitting in that bus with large windows, looking down and seeing that we were on the edge of a cliff that dove down into a rocky valley dotted with sheep. It was absolutely breathtaking. Some of the articles we read before we got here suggested that the England described in a lot of popular novels no longer exists. It does in the Lake District. It absolutely does.

We ended up at a Roman Military Museum. The Latin teacher in me came out immediately. It was a little cheesy and I definitely have been to better exhibits, but I still had fun looking at all the Roman artifacts and learning more about Hadrian's Wall itself.

Then we went to the wall and it was a great experience in a different way than I had planned. What was fun was being on there with my friends and taking silly photos and thinking about how imposing it used to be. Unfortunately, as is the case with most Roman ruins, there isn't much left but we had a great moment, sitting on the edge, looking out on the hills and thinking about the divide between the civilized world and the barbarian one. On a side note, there were some crazy sheep on the walk up. They kept making these death rattle noises. Very creepy.

Afterwards, we drove into Newcastle and got settled into our new digs. The hostel has free wi-fi....yay! However our room has two bunk beds and a fun house mirror (my legs have never been so tall!). And no more full English breakfasts. I'm back to peanut butter bread and apples. However, it will probably be a good thing for my heart because I've eaten a lot of hash browns these past two weeks.

Most of us went to an Irish pub tonight (well, a place that called itself an Irish pub) and had dinner. I went for something somewhat authentic--a chicken and mushroom crock pot dish that was super awesome. All my favorite things--chicken, mushrooms, mashed potatoes and cheese. Again, may need to improve the food intake soon.

Now we're relaxing and this old French man keeps trying to talk to us and we don't understand a thing he is saying. I think we got across that we're students studying literature, but I'm not sure. I will probably try to get some writing done tonight. I'm doing well with my critical class, but the creative juices are not flowing. We are traveling so much and have yet to find a place where we can be on a computer and snuggle down. Unfortunately I am not a handwritten manuscript kind of gal so the computer is a necessary tool in all extensive writing exercises. I even use it in class for our small exercises. I know London will provide regular library access and hopefully some comfy chairs and then all my problems will be solved. In the meantime, I'll try to get a page or two written tonight and maybe I'll feel like I've accomplished something.

The Girls on the Wall

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Footsteps of the Past

One of the hardest concepts to absorb during this trip is that a lot of the places we have visited were in habited by the authors we love. Our time in the Lake District has certainly exemplified that since we have visited the Brontes, William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, and Arthur Ransome’s old stomping grounds. Visiting the homes of the first three listed there was especially intriguing. Admittedly you are never quite walking the same floors or the same paths as them since the floors have been refurbished over time and the ground has certainly eroded and changed over time. But you can’t help but go numb when you hear the words, “Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson walked here.”

I certainly don’t feel that the creative abilities of these authors have soaked into my skin as I have looked at their letters, run my fingers over their furniture or sat in their chairs. But it is amazing how much work has gone into preserving their heritages, and the diverse range of individuals who make pilgrimages to their homes. I think it truly puts into perspective how powerful beautiful writing can be and the impact it can have on the world for generations to come.

The Lake District has also been the intermission in our trip between the cities that bookend our studies. We did our time in Oxford and we will be in London on Saturday and spend the last two weeks there. There are definitely some perks to returning to the city—regular wi-fi access, individual rooms, easier access to grocery stores. But I think I will quickly begin to wish I was back here where you are surrounded by beautiful hills, gorgeous lakes, and you are serenaded to sleep by the quiet baaing of the sheep outside your window.

Tomorrow we will retrace the boundaries of the Roman Empire and go visit Hadrian’s Wall. As a soon to be full-time English teacher, there is some irony that this was the year I went back to Rome, and now will see Emperor Hadrian’s Wall for the first time.

A quick look at the sites from open two-story buses and walks along the hills:

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting My Sea Legs

When I was a pre-teen, I went to sailing camp. We had several within an hour’s drive of New Bern, and I had asked if I could go away to sleep-away camp since so many of my friends did something similar each summer. So I went to Camp Don Lee, the more affordable of the two camps near my house. The fact that it was a sailing camp was by no means the draw. I just wanted to experience that archetypal adventure of so many people my age.

What followed was a testament to my awkward adolescence. I didn’t mesh with the cool kids because, well, I usually don’t. I spent many hours dreading the high dive (I did eventually overcome this fear). I tipped over a canoe, partly because of my own ineptness and partly because I hated the girl who was in the boat with me. And, finally, I rammed my little sail boat into a local yacht and ripped my sail. I was Camp Don Lee’s worst nightmare.

So today I came full circle when I accompanied an experienced sailor and Robin on a trip around Lake Windermere in Ambleside, England. Robin really wanted to do it because she is presenting on Swallows and Amazons later this week and thought it would be good research (most of the sailing terms in the book went over all our heads). I just wanted to get in a boat since we have a lake so conveniently close.

I actually had a lot of fun. Our instructor, Gary, was one of those philosopher boat men that you think only exist in Hemingway stories. He called me “Michele, ma belle” after the Beatles song and described me as “practical” (he nailed that one, for sure). He was extremely sarcastic and occasionally broke off into random tangents about life and finding one’s passion. I feel privileged to have met him because I definitely think there was a little of my dad in him.

The sailing itself went well too. I took to the tiller pretty well and was starting to anticipate the wind by the time we neared the dock. We also visited the boat house of an old castle along the shore that a rich doctor had built for himself and his new wife in the late 1800s. According to Gary, the man’s new wife decided (on their wedding night when she got her “present”) that she didn’t like it, so they never lived in it. The English call such projects “folly.” That is not an unfamiliar word to Americans, but the English use it quite often to describe frivolous and expensive projects that the rich do for impractical reasons.

I loved being on the water in a non-motorized boat. There were no sounds in our direct vicinity except for the murmur of the wind against the sail and the occasional splash as our boat glided across the water. I’m not going to run out and get my captain’s license tomorrow but I can add sailing to the list of outdoor activities that I enjoy.

I know I’m a different person than I was at Camp Don Lee so many years ago. I have the benefits of experience, the scars from various tragedies, the laugh lines from happy times, and the increased brain function that comes from trying to decipher Chip Sullivan’s feelings toward your written work. I have, in short, grown up. Not so much that I can’t discuss the merits of the Disney film Emperor’s New Groove with a favorite student, but I am certainly an adult. There are times, like today, when I am completely content with the adult that I have become.

Some Assorted Pictures

Our wonderful sailboat.

Sunset on the hills of Haworth, England.

Bad photography thanks to "back woods" English ladies.

Outside of Haworth Hostel.

The evil ride at Cadbury World. Scary stuff.

My bed (lower one) at the Oxford Hostel.

The stairs (so many stairs!) at the Oxford Hostel.

A dog that smiles in Haworth, England.

The Bronte Parsonage, almost as it was....

The hostel stairs in Haworth, England.

The boat dock of a rather young castle in Ambleside, England.

The yachts lining a dock in Ambleside, England.

A pretty bridge at the Oxford Botanical Gardens.

Me and the man himself, Philip Pullman.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

English Countryside (Finally)

When one thinks of England, one usually channels Jane Austen movies. Lots of grass-covered hills, wind-swept moors, and ancient stone buildings with nothing around them for miles. I finally found that part of England yesterday. We drove away from Oxford and suddenly there were stone walls for miles, perfectly square fields and sheep grazing in the grass.


We went to Sarehole Mill first where Tolkien grew up. He didn't have a very easy childhood. His father died in S. Africa (where he was born) when he was taking a trip to England, and his mother also died from complications with diabetes when he was still quite young. He lived with an unhappy aunt, in various boarding homes under a certain priest's guardianship, and finally on his own in Oxford. Despite the hardship, Tolkien had quite the playground to enjoy as a child and the thick forests, green bogs, fierce fords, and tall buildings that surrounded his early home may certainly have played a part in his later works. There was even a pair of tall towers in town that may have influenced him when he was writing a certain trilogy....

However, it's all conjecture, and I, nor the tour guide, can really say for certain what influenced him and what didn't, but he grew up in an area that was certainly reminiscent of the Middle Earth he created in his novels.

We then traveled to Birmingham where we visited the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. Free chocolate. Good. Really lame rides through psycho chocolate-man town. Not so good. We enjoyed the historical portions but some of it was down-right creepy. And not Gene Wilder creepy because that would have been OK. Unfortunately you don't really get to see much of the manufactoring first hand, and I felt really sorry for the factory workers who have to watch people walk past them all day. Then the Cadabra ride. Oh man. My fellow riders and I were supposed to make funny faces when they did the automatic picture at the end. However, I WAS THE ONLY ONE WHO DID IT. The picture that resulted is one of the most frightening images of me I have encountered, and I spent the next fifteen minutes bent over laughing. I look like a troll. I can't even post it on here because if someone who didn't like me got their hands on it, I would probably see it again...perhaps in a less flattering setting. Sorry, folks. If you want to see it, I might have to get you to sign a waver or something.

We then took a really long bus ride to Haworth. However, that's when we really got to see the hills of England. Gorgeous! If I could live in England, I would definitely want to live near Haworth. Our hostel was the best yet; it looked like an ancient boarding house with a huge, grand staircase, stained glass windows everywhere, and a English charm that made us swoon. Robin and I took a really long walk up one of the adjacent hills and we met two lovely English women. We tried to get them to take a picture of us but they were not familiar with digital cameras and they had the hardest time figuring out how to use mine. One woman finally got a picture, but she did it just as Robin was smacking her forehead in amusement (it was a great day for pictures). The other woman took over and took a picture with my right side cut off. Failed effort but a great story.

We had a late night pizza with our main professor, Julie, and talked about marriage and literature and England. It was nice and apparently entertaining because a fellow guest was in the room and commented on how "interesting" our conversation was as he was going to bed. At least he was honest about listening in. I guess.

In the morning we went to Haworth proper and saw the Bronte parsonage where the entire Bronte troop grew up. Sometimes I marvel at how one family can have so much talent. The Sedaris' are all really funny and peculiar. The Williams sisters dominate the tennis world. And the Brontes could all magically write amazing novels (or paint amazing pictures or both). Their story is a tragic one and it was interesting to walk the fields nearby, see the couch where Emily (of Wuthering Heights fame) died, and see the rooms where their famous works were created. The town itself should be renamed Bronteworth because almost every establishment is named after the family or the books (they apparently had a Jane Hair salon once upon a time). However, it was very picturesque and I would love to see it again some day.

Finally one more bus ride and now we're in Ambleside, England. To my left is Lake Windermere and a host of sailboats. It rained on and off today, but, no matter the weather, the sky was a beautiful mixture of blues and grays and greens. I can see why English people vacation here (including Philip Pullman). Tomorrow Robin and I will rent some sort of boat and paddle around during our first free day. In the meantime, I have to write something for class and continue reading for my paper. We may be traveling the countryside and enjoying ourselves immensely, but we are still doing quite a bit of work.

Tomorrow I'll just post pictures so you can get a better idea of what's going on. Our room is up a maze of stairwells and I left my camera upstairs. And that is where it will stay until tomorrow.

By the way, the weather finally broke and it's been extremely pleasant the past two days. I am one very lucky girl.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Dream Come True

Today my favorite author answered all my questions. He told us about his work, what he likes to read, and what he thinks his books mean. He said many brilliant things, and I wish I could quote him because no one can put it like he can, but there are two things that I think are worth paraphrasing. He said that children can read anything if they like something about it. No matter how complicated His Dark Materials has become over time, he says that children will still read it because they love Lyra and that anything important to Lyra will naturally be important to them. He said that he would give a 10-year-old a quantum mechanics book if he thought he/she would have even the slightest interest in it. He also said that the most important thing we can do for children is read nursery rhymes to them. He said that sitting a child in one’s lap and reading those beautiful poems to them will help them love language long before they enter a classroom. By igniting that love in them at a young age, we will be that much closer to getting them to read once they are too big for our laps.

It was exactly what we all wanted. He was charming and intelligent and very generous in his responses. We got some insights into his world and sharing that beautiful tea room with him for two hours was the experience of a lifetime. Also, he brought his personal alethiometer. The one he had a jeweler make for him. We got to play with it.

We capped the evening with a trip to the Botanic Gardens where Lyra and Will would “meet” in their separate Oxfords once a year to remember their love for one another. Erin, Carly and I were walking around and we saw Tolkien’s favorite tree (which we noticed before we even knew what it was because it was just that cool).

We then passed by a bench and I made the comment that it was the perfect bench for the book because it was a little tucked away and looking out on a portion of a water garden. I even said, “I could see thinking about someone I love in a space like this.” We continued on our way and later realized that we couldn’t find the right bench. After consulting our maps, we realized it was the bench we had talked about earlier. Good choice, Mr. Pullman!

Overall, it was a great last day in Oxford. We had an amazing time here and saw sights related to Wind in the Willows, Harry Potter, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and His Dark Materials. We spoke to an inspiring modern author, drank tea on the grass next to a world famous Regatta, and saw Tolkien’s personal illustrations for The Hobbit. If my trip was ending tomorrow, I would be satisfied.

Tomorrow we go to Haworth and will see some Tolkien sites. Then we’ll go to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory and channel Roald Dahl for a few hours. We’ll be traveling by bus and lugging our lovely luggage around with us (which for me has grown slightly), but we’re all ready for a change of scenery. And weather (fingers crossed).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sculling Along the River

Tonight I sat by the Thames and read from The Subtle Knife. I think it’s a fitting way to spend the evening before I meet the man himself—Philip Pullman. All of my classmates are excited to meet him, and I’m sure I’m not that much more excited than they are, but I may be a little. After all, I have been a fan of Pullman’s since I first read The Golden Compass. He was the first modern writer to really pull me in, and we share a lot of the same philosophies, which makes the connection that much stronger.

I’ll hopefully pull (ha, ha) myself together tomorrow and sound reasonable in my questioning. We’ll see….

As for today, we started with a wonderful lecture by Peter Hunt (British children’s lit. guru) on Alice and Wind in the Willows. He is one of those darling British men who mumbles under his breath and spouts brilliance every five seconds. It was a great experience, and he accompanied us on the next phase of our journey which was to travel to Henley on the Thames and experience our first Regatta.

Apparently, as a part of the British “seasons,” aristocrats travel to Henley at the beginning of July for a five-day regatta that features 4 and 8-person rowing teams from all over the world. The men wear their college blazers that can be all shades of the rainbow and some even have lovely vertical stripes. The women dress up and wear little flying things on their heads. We were a little out of our element and it was blazing hot, but we got through it and had tea in one of the tents. I did try the hot tea, with one sugar cube and some milk; I, unsurprisingly, did not like it. I did also have some tea sandwiches and my first scone. Was not expecting it to be like a biscuit. However, the cream and fruit inside were much better than a Bo’ Berry. I also tried Pimms which is a famous English beverage that tastes like orange soda.

We made it through tea and ventured inside a rare bookstore which had a 1st edition of The Hobbit for a mere 45,000 pounds (around $75,000). We also saw a 1st edition of Peter and Wendy and some original artwork from The Wind in the Willows. It was a neat surprise.

Then we caught the train, and I went for my little reading excursion. The Thames portions near my hostel are interesting. There is graffiti all along the walls of the townhomes on the river but the bank is covered in wildflowers. The bench I sat on was surrounded by trash and cigarette remains, but in front of me were two adult swans, two young swans, and a dozen ducks of various colorings. I did a little bird watching and saw a duck eat out of an elderly man’s hand on the bench next to me. All that nature and all that destruction in one small place. That is Oxford in a nutshell. There is so much beauty here but so much commercialization. You have to learn to watch the swans and ignore the trash.