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.

It’s “Open Door” weekend at Oxford

“Open Door” weekend at Oxford means just that: All those doors you have been peeking through are thrown open for free visits to the colleges, the Town Hall, the castle and on and on.

Carving at the Lincoln College chapel.
Carving at the Lincoln College chapel.

For us, that meant 6.6 miles of walking and visits to Exeter, Lincoln, Queen’s and Magdalen Colleges with a quick walk through Mansfield College on the way home.

Stained glass detail: Jonah and the whale.
Stained glass detail: Jonah and the whale.

Maybe it’s because it was the first one we visited, but the chapel at Exeter (in video above) stood out to me as the most ornate and beautiful. Stained glass, arched ceiling, wonderful wood carvings and music playing, which helped set the mood. Choral Evensong on Tuesdays and Fridays is open to the public until term starts on Oct. 10. Then, a docent told us, all is chaos.

The Lincoln College quad. Stay off the grass is the rule at all the colleges, but what a wonderful spot for croquet.
The Lincoln College quad. Stay off the grass is the rule at all the colleges, but what a wonderful spot for croquet.

Next stop, Lincoln College, and who should pop up from my childhood but old chums Charles and John Wesley, founders of Methodism. They were undergraduates at Christ Church College, and John became a fellow at Lincoln College later. From the brochure, “The Wesleys’ Oxford:” “It was at Oxford that their group was first called ‘Methodists’ because of their ‘methodical’ approach to Christianity . . . they attended chapel frequently, met for prayer and bible study and visited the prisons and the workhouse.”

They headed for America in 1735, and my boyhood image of the two of them was on horseback, bent over reading the Bible on their way to the next place to preach. No idea if this had any truth to it, but it suited my fancy. They came back to England in 1738, had an evangelical conversion that, the brochure says, “fired them for their lives in the service of God.”

The Upper Library at Queens College, purported to be one of the best rooms at Oxford.
The Upper Library at Queens College, purported to be one of the best rooms at Oxford.

On to Queens College where the Upper Library is packed with books, including a first folio of Shakespeare’s works, a globe that has the Pacific Northwest marked as “Nova Albion” and an orrery, a mechanical device that when cranked shows the positions of the Sun and planets. Trouble is, only two people are allowed to crank it, and one of them, the Queen Mother, is dead. That leaves a professor in one of the scientific fields, and he was not on duty today.

Ornery with the orrery at Queens College.
Ornery with the orrery at Queens College.

Magdalen College has its doors open every day, but today was free. So we wandered the grounds there, visited the chapel, walked along the college deer park and checked out the Riverside Cafe, which overlooks a punting concessionaire where boats were in chaos today. Looking forward to poling down the Cherwell on another sunny day, but I can see that steering a boat with something more appropriate for pole vaulting might not be an easy task. Several of the boats below the cafe were bow to bow and making little progress up or down the river. Just wait til I get out there and do my Mike Fink imitation (I think Mike transported the Wesley brothers when horses gave out. Could have that wrong though).

Wandered home, put up our feet and ate leftovers. Didn’t add a favorite pub today. Probably because of the Wesley influence.

What could be more English: flowers, a red phone box, ancient walls inside Magdalen College at Oxford.
What could be more English: flowers, a red phone box, ancient walls inside Magdalen College at Oxford.