We have had a stretch of the loveliest English days, the sky a bright cap of blue, the sun high overhead, a gentle wind whispering of autumn. The leaves have just begun to turn, but blackberries still hang heavy on the bushes along the river. They aren’t the mammoth, juicy berries of the Pacific Northwest. They’re small and compact, with a mellower taste, but we pick them just the same, filling empty plastic containers and stashing them in the refrigerator for breakfast. They are the perfect pairing with lemon yogurt.
Addison is still waiting, waiting, for entrance into high school, so we’ve been taking long walks along the Thames and through Port Meadow. One day we went in search of Godstow Abbey, which is all in ruins. On the way, we passed the Trout Inn, which sits right on the river and has an old wooden bridge that spans the water. We have not watched Inspector Morse, but we’re told that we must, because the Trout Inn is a great favorite of Morse himself. The abbey is just a shell, all grown over with weeds, but it was once a great nunnery and burial place of Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Many of the abbeys were torn down and destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII, as a way of breaking up the Catholic Church and wresting power and land back into the hands of the royalty. I believe that’s what happened at Godstow, but I’m not 100 percent sure.
In any case, the ruins are now famous because in the 1800s, Charles Dodson came up the river on a boat for a picnic on the abbey grounds. It was here, in the company of Alice Liddell and her two sisters, that he began to spin the tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which he wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll. We listened to the audiobook before we came to England. My only previous exposure to the story was the animated Disney movie, which, while we listened to the book, I began to realize was sort of a “good parts” version. We found the story ridiculous and nonsensical, which I think was the point, but we never quite latched on to the narrative. In any case, I’m glad we took the time to listen to it, because references are littered all over Oxford.
When Addison and I visited Godstow Abbey, we were the only ones inside the wall, and we were careful to thread our way around the clusters of stinging nettle, which is everywhere in England. Across the river, The Trout was bustling with guests, and several boats stood waiting in a queue to enter Godstow Lock. There are locks up and down the Thames, all self-operable, and we always find ourselves pausing to watch as the lock fills with water and the boats inside rise to the surface. We walked on a ways. Across the river, in the widest expanse of Port Meadow, an entire herd of cows came down to the water for a drink. It was such a peaceful site that we sat ourselves down on the opposite bank to watch them for several minutes.
On the meadow some mornings I can see geese flying above in V formation. I’m not sure where they migrate to—Africa perhaps, or Spain? Addison and I were by the river when we heard a whooshing sound, like a paddleboat. We looked upstream to see two swan, necks straight forward, flying low over the water, their wide white wings nearly skimming the surface. The sound was coming from their throats, a honking sort of breath. The swans here are queens of the river, unintimidated by cows or horses or teams of rowers. I find it best to give them a wide berth.
We took two great adventures last week, one to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the other to London on the train. I’ve been waiting for the crowds to die down, and it was worth the wait. It was a completely indulgent day in the world’s greatest city. We ate an exquisite lunch at Dishoom, ordering okra fries with three dipping sauces, a passionfruit sharbat, a succulent chicken ruby with garlic naan and rice, and chocolate pudding with chili ice cream for dessert. We are a family that never orders the extras. It’s always water to drink and main dishes only. There are just so many of us, and the bill adds up quickly. But on this day we splurged, and every bite was delicious and decadent and cherished. It was just so fun. We had second-row seats to Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre. I took Jackson years ago in New York City and we were blown away. This production was spectacular. We sat in the choir loft for an evening service at Westminster Abbey, all nestled into our separate wooden seats. We walked along the South Bank of the Thames to the Globe as the sun set and bought last-minute groundling tickets to “As You Like It.” The performance was close-captioned, and two of the actors were deaf. When they were on stage, everyone signed their parts. It was like nothing I had seen before. The actors did a great job of keeping the energy up, and the close captioning was actually quite helpful, since Shakespeare can be hard to follow. The Globe is such a fantastic venue, and I wanted Addison to have the experience of standing right in the middle of it all.
By Act II, I had pushed him to the edge of his limits, so we walked through the darkened London streets to the Tube station, then onto the train back to Oxford, arriving home past 11 p.m., filled with happy memories of a day well spent.
I’m looking at the forecast now, and it’s all rain, rain until the end of time. We are hoping Addison gets into school soon. He is keeping his chin up, devising tasks for himself every day—online calculus, several books and articles, weight lifting, running. But he’s more than eager to be among his peers, so we’re wishing for the best. Until then, rain and blackberries and brief spells of sunshine and the movement of the migrating animals as we all head toward the waning light of autumn.