To learn a little more English history, look it up

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.

Random thoughts, from Regents’ roses to powerful plays

Regents Park in London.
Flowers were still in full glory at London’s Regent’s Park in mid-September.

By Kathy

We’ve just said farewell to our good friends Trish Espedal and John Sims, having had a great time together exploring, eating, discovering and eating some more. We’ve been busy enough to keep me off the keyboard til today, so I’m playing catch-up with a few random observations. To wit:

Roses in Queen's Circle in Regents Park.
In Queen Mary’s Gardens, “Singing in the Rain” roses.

The Wednesday before Trish and John arrived, I had my first day alone — to wander around London while John toured the town of Rugby. I began with a stroll through Regent’s Park in the heart of the city. It was amazing that, despite the constant cacophony that is London, I could walk just a few yards into this lovely park of 395 acres and feel serenity. Black swans gliding on a peaceful pond; willows gently weeping; birds chirping and cooing; curved benches under wooden arbors arranged in graceful arcs. And roses. Thousands upon thousands of roses in Queen Mary’s Garden. One more beautiful than the next, in every color and size, practically as far as you could see. I didn’t want to leave.

This gardener has a very green thumb.
Just inside the gate at Regent’s Park, a topiary gardener with a very green thumb.

But after a restful ramble of more than two hours, I was off to sleuth out the location of the Sherlock Holmes Museum — at 221b Baker St., of course. It was easy to spot, given the crowd of enthusiasts standing outside waiting to get in. The museum is really an old home, outfitted just as it might have been if Sherlock were really there. As visitors prowl through four floors of rooms set with period furniture, they’re treated to displays of everything from pistols and antique prints to the tools of the detective’s trade and wax figures posed in scenes from his famous cases. I was mostly on a mission to find a trinket for my brother (a Sherlock aficionado) — and that was more than easy to do!

Blustery weather turned to a torrential downpour that lasted the rest of the day. By the time I met John, I was soaked to the skin. I’d taken refuge in a great tapas bar for as long as I thought decent, and trolled through Selfridge’s and H&M long enough to buy some dry socks and warm up a bit. But I was worried. John and I had tickets to see “Kinky Boots” that evening, and I was still wet from the knees down. But once we were in our seats, I had on my new socks, and the lights dimmed, all was well. The performance was, by turns, hilarious and outrageous, pointed and poignant (I sobbed through the pretty much the entire singing of “I’m not my father’s son”). Theater doesn’t get much better than it is here.

It was equally fine a week later in Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon. “Henry V” was on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and it was a treat to see it so well-acted, from the foppish Dauphin’s pratlings to the earnest king’s stirring “band of brothers” speech on the eve of battle. It was a fitting end to a day spent mostly at Bletchley Park, where, centuries later, the British waged a different war, laboring in anonymity to unravel the ultra-sophisticated military messaging systems of Hitler’s Germany. The work, recently highlighted in the book/movie “The Imitation Game,” is thoroughly explained through various media, including interactive games and recorded interviews with those who were there.

While the movie focused on the tragic story of Alan Turing, the exhibit takes a sweeping view of the whole enterprise. We see and hear stories of the painstaking work done not only by the nation’s brightest minds but also by ordinary folks: folks like the women who listened for hours on end to the tapping of Morse code, translating it to pages and pages of seemingly meaningless letter combinations that were then decoded by other teams. All worked for hours on end in dark, cramped, often cold huts, most not having any real idea what they were doing, and all under strict orders to keep silent about their activities — even to those in other huts.

I wonder if, in these fractious, more cynical, some would say selfish times, so many would sacrifice so much for so long — trusting their government’s word that it was being done for the greater good.

Trish and Kathy in front of our hotel in Brighton.
Trish and Kathy in front of our hotel in Brighton. This one’s for you Lynn!

Brighton, England: Fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun

Brighton looked like Party Town UK this past weekend with two Rugby World Cup games, the Fiery Food Festival, the Costume Games and the well-timed Japan Festival.

A Japan rugby fan on a Brighton street.
A Japan rugby fan on a Brighton street.

The sun shone bright, the Japan rugby team pulled off the biggest rugby upset ever — at Brighton Community Stadium no less — and many costumed people showed up as their alter egos or maybe just as their fun-loving selves. And there was dancing, dancing in the streets.

Many hen and stag parties for prospective brides and grooms, and there was a bit of drinking. OK, there was a lot of drinking.

Our hotel was next to the famous Brighton Pier with its carnival rides, arcades and foods worthy of any state-fair midway.

If all the World Cup venues can deliver this kind of weather and this kind of atmosphere, the next six weeks are going to be fun, fun, fun til Delta takes our luggage away — and us with it.

The Foreign Legion, or an approximation of it, showed up at our hotel bar.
The Foreign Legion, or an approximation of it, showed up at our hotel bar.

USA, land of pretend world championships

Hard to argue with the summary of the USA rugby effort in The London Times Rugby World Cup guide this past Thursday.

The world, it said, has been waiting forever for the game in America to “harness the big hitters brought up on American football and handlers coming in from basketball.” Then United States rugby could challenge anyone.

But in the meantime, The Times said, this RWC is most likely to “make America realize that sport does not start and end with pretend world championships in American football and baseball.”

The U.S. challenge to get some positive notice on the world rugby stage starts in a few hours as the Eagles take on Samoa at Brighton Stadium.

Not sure how much notice a win will bring, given this question raised by an English fan I talked to yesterday: “How does it feel to be an underdog to a country with a population of less than 200,000?”

But a loss would once again keep the world on hold waiting for the U.S. to answer.

Another USA opponent welcomed

Japan World Cup team attends welcoming ceremony at Brighton Dome.  (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for ER2015)
Japan World Cup team attends welcoming ceremony at Brighton Dome.
(Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for ER2015)

The Japan team has arrived in England and been welcomed at the Brighton Dome.

Japan has a tough opening in the tournament, facing South Africa on Sept. 19 at the Brighton Community Stadium. Japan and the USA Eagles meet on October 11 in Gloucester, the last game in pool play for both. Don’t want to jinx either of them, but I’d bet one or both will be trying to dodge a 0-4 record for World Cup play.

The rest of Pool B will present hefty challenges to both Japan and the United States: South Africa, Scotland and Samoa.

The U.S. team plays Samoa on Sunday, Sept. 20; Scotland on Sept. 27; South Africa on Oct. 7 and finishes with Japan on Oct. 11.

Got word on Facebook from USA forwards coach Justin Fitzpatrick that the team was in the air (in O’Hare in Chicago, actually) and headed this way.

From the England Rugby 2015 news release about the welcome ceremony for Japan, there is no mention of the team performing Kabuki theater or anything else. Maybe the pressure is off the U.S. to perform song and dance in response to “World in Union” on Sunday. Hope the team gets over jet lag faster than we did or they may be best suited to performing “Leave me, loathsome light” from Handel’s opera Semele.