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Angels are definitely on high in the Cardiff Castle banqueting hall.
Angels are definitely on high in the Cardiff Castle banqueting hall.

by Kathy

An old, sexist joke relates the tale of the long-married couple who’ve just finished a round of perfunctory sex. The wife, lying back in the “afterglow,” stares thoughtfully up at the ceiling and declares, “Beige. I think we should paint the ceiling beige.”

Or, maybe she and he should move to England and seek to make life a little more interesting. Surely the ceilings would be more interesting. The variety, the artistry, the engineering and sheer work of it all are enough to hold your attention for a lot longer than an afternoon delight or two.

So, the ceilings: We’ve visited more than a half-dozen of Oxford’s colleges now, plus an array of castles, cathedrals, abbeys and assorted other grand spaces in which the ceilings alone have been worth the price of admission. I’ll mention just a few:

The massive carved masterpiece of Cardiff Castle’s Banqueting Hall is one of my most recent favorites. Giant beams are supported on elegant pillars that spread out like so many Egyptian fans to help support all that weight up top. Here, the weight is wood. A heavenly host of angels hovers along the grand central arch, drawing your view through overlapping rows of intricate smaller arches carved within it. Forget the feast on the table! For once I might be inclined to enjoy the feast for the eyes more than the food.

Simply stately, that's Bath Abbey.
Simply lovely, that’s Bath Abbey.

For a different kind of feast on high, throw your head way, way back to take in the upper reaches of Bath Abbey. This ceiling gives new definition to the meaning of soaring. Here you’ll find more of those practical-as-they-are-lovely fanned pillars (this time supporting stone). They’re all over the country. But Bath’s are so high, so elegant in their simplicity. And of course they form the perfect arching anchor for the equally ubiquitous stained-glass windows. Still, they thrill.

Oxford Divinity School: And you think you have too many bosses? This place has 455.
Oxford Divinity School: And you think you have too many bosses? This place has 455.

Others worth a sore neck:

The Oxford Divinity School, ensconced on the grounds of the Bodleian Library, is rightly called “a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture.” Completed in 1488, it has been used for teaching, lectures and student exams  — as well as the ballroom set in one of the Harry Potter films. University literature says the vaulted ceiling includes 455 “bosses,” the carved knobs where the joints of the vaulting ribs intersect.

The ceiling at Queen's College Chapel.
The ceiling at Queen’s College Chapel.

During Open Colleges Day in September, we had a chance to visit The Queen’s College Upper Library, closed to tourists most of the time. The library, which dates to the late 17th century, is a reading room for students. Items from the college’s large collection of rare books (about 100,000 of them) are often on display here. The ceiling’s fine plaster-work was carefully cleaned and the flat surfaces repainted in 2013-2014.

The plaster-work in the college’s chapel is even more elaborate, including a gilt ring of flowers and foliage around a glowing painting of The Ascension.

And at Exeter College, where J.R.R. Tolkien studied, the striking timber arches towering over the long tables in the dining hall help create the stately, time-honored atmosphere of this impressive room, which dates from 1618.

The Exeter Dining Hall hosts lavish banquets and other events.
The Exeter Dining Hall hosts lavish banquets and other events.

Sadly, I have no pictures of the grandest ceiling of all — the one in the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Talk about lavish! The “pleasure palace” of King George IV, it takes the cake — and eats it, along with the 70 or so other dishes that would have been served when the gluttonous, adulterous king was showing off for his pals in the 1820s. The ceiling is a vast dome covered in colorful, intricate inlaid patterns all drawing the viewer into the central feature: a 3-dimensional arrangement of palm fronds from which emerges a huge, writhing dragon, red tongue flicking, silver claws extending and, from them, a spectacular 30-foot-tall crystal chandelier. The opulence of this ceiling and this room is really too much to comprehend. This is one you have to see in person to believe.

The exterior of Brighton's Royal Pavilion gives some clue to the magical magnificence inside.
The exterior of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion gives some clue to the magical magnificence inside.

It’s serendipity that makes the travel world go round

As any traveler knows, it’s the serendipity that gets you the bonus points for a trip. The cathedrals, museums, guided walks on the itinerary are all very nice, but the surprises are what makes a trip extra special and memorable.

Take our trip to Bath Abbey. We were in this English spa city 33 years ago, and this time we decided to skip the baths, the Jane Austin center and the visit to the crescents in favor of concentrating on the abbey, which we could not remember visiting on the decades-old 1982 trip.

Yes, it’s a beautiful church building and does not qualify for a term Bruce came up with: YAC (Yet Another Cathedral). But the surprises within and without were what made the visit special.

Start with the engraved stone on the side of the abbey commemorating the death of Sir Isaac Pitman, 1813-1897. Here’s what it said about him: “his aims were steadfast, his mind original, his work prodigious, the achievement world-wide.” So who was he? The engraving described him as the inventor of Pitman’s shorthand, and a docent said there have been many questions about why the engraving isn’t in shorthand. The docent went on to say that Pitman established a phonetic alphabet.

So a small surprise, but of interest to someone who has spent his life in print and always wished he had learned shorthand.

Sue Symon's diptych representing the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Sue Symon’s diptych representing Christ walking on water.

The bigger surprise inside the abbey was the enjoyment we took from a display of diptychs along the sides of the church. These are double panels with script on the left and an illustrated interpretation of the text on the right. The diptychs at the abbey were created by Sue Symons and are done in needlepoint, gathered cloth, stitching and illuminated calligraphy. While my favorite interpretation of the Gospels comes from Lord Buckley, I appreciated this work as beautiful creations.

Stepping outside, more pleasant surprises, including the woman (in the video above) singing a piece from Verdi’s opera La Traviata.

We added some change to her open instrument case and walked on around to the front of the abbey, which is next to the baths, and there was the best human statue I have ever seen. These have become common in many busy spots around the world, people standing rigidly still, often portraying famous individuals or real statues, the Statue of Liberty, for instance. But this one was the first that I actually took for a real inanimate object. Never saw him (Kathy thought it was a woman) move, his/her coat tails never fluttered and his/her bicycle never teetered (it did have a kick stand). I wondered how he/she must feel at the end of the day. Stiff? Wanting to work the willies out?

One more pleasant surprise before we left Bath and continued on to Cardiff.

Kathy makes a contribution to the best human statue ever.
Kathy makes a contribution to the best human statue ever.