Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Oxford Weekend (rescheduled)

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Happily it didn't snow this last weekend - so we made it to Oxford at last! We stayed with Nathan's awesome friend, Greg, who has moved there recently with his job. He has a great first floor flat in Summertown - in North Oxford. He has a huge window in his lounge that looks out onto a lovely garden and just beyond a College garden complete with deer (statues) We had a very nice stroll into Oxford - it is a city with no car parks so you can't go in the car. Could explain why there are so many bikes everywhere!

As it was lunchtime when we got there we headed straight for Mission Burrito - which is one of Nathan's favourite places. I had a delicious burrito filled with shredded pork, lettuce, rice and soured cream. They have a wide range of fillings and many sauces and salsas from mild to blazing hot. Something a bit different. While we ate we lamented the lack of one of these places anywhere near us. Do you think Stoke would be ready for something like this?? They do look a bit like  oatcakes - hehehe!

Awesome skeletons too!
Greg was keen to take us to the Pitt Rivers Museum - so that was where we headed to next. First we made a bit of a detour to the History of Science Museum - where we saw the very first penicillin culture in it's glass jar. All a bit dried up now - but still very impressive. Also many very early examples of astronomical instruments and measuring devices. The earliest examples were Islamic - as it was very important for them to know which direction Mecca lay so they invented many beautiful  mathematical instruments. Considering they were made in the 7th Century they were surprisingly small and intricate.

The first actual penicillin!
Having visited the Ashmolean Museum last time I was there with its pristine glass cases and wide open spaces with light everywhere I was quite unprepared for what we found when we entered the Pitt Rivers. The place is just rammed full of weird and wonderful things, packed into cases and cabinets all close together. There's hardly room to move! It was amazing! The cabinet full of shrunken heads was very impressive - in the section entitled "How to Humiliate Your Enemy" it explained how the skull was removed and the rest of the head boiled and dried until it shrank - then a smaller animal skull was inserted - to make the classic shrunken head which could then be displayed as a trophy - or warning! (Don't try this at home!)

I also loved the case full of jewellery made especially to "ward off the evil eye" - it was particularly sparkly and ornate - to catch the eye - so it didn't dwell on you. There was also a comprehensive set of tattooing tools and equipment and many outfits from all over the world. Pitt River was an archaeologist and anthropologist and was interested in the evolution of technology. He just collected so many random things from his explorations. A fascinating place - if you ever get chance have a look!

Astrolabes and other wonders
All this culture made us pretty thirsty - and ready for a sit down so we headed back to Summertown through one of the University parks and popped into Greg's local pub - the Rose and Crown. It is such an old-fashioned proper pub - first mentioned in 1867. It had real ales galore, wonderfully uneven floors and small rooms where you can get cosy by the fire. We intended to have an afternoon drink then move on elsewhere for food later. But we got so comfy on our corner table and the lady behind the bar remembered out round when we asked for the same again and the food smelled so good that we decided to stay put. Nathan and Greg were drinking a local Oxford breweries bitter called Scholar - and by the end of the evening they were certainly having intellectual conversations! :-)

I enjoyed the honey-glazed chicken and the chunky chips and the men had proper home-made burgers (Only fools eat horses!)

It was a lovely evening and we headed back via the local corner off-licence with more beer and chocolate. We continued the evening with a game of "Skanky Bones" - a name that Greg has given to something that he learned to play in Mongolia. Looking it up - it seems as if it is called Shagai - have a look at the link to see a photo of the bones and their positions. (I think I'd call it The Game of Bones...) :-)

Beautiful Orrery at the History of Science
Basically many games are played in Mongolia with the ankle bones of goat and sheep. These have four different positions - each of which equates to an animal. When you throw them down they can land in 4 ways - if the pointy bits are up they are goats, if down sheep, if  the side with the hollow is up - camels and if flat horses. It sounds complicated - and it does take a few minutes to get used to which is which. In the game we played, Greg tossed all the bones onto the table, Then when it was your turn you had to flick one of them and hit one in the exact same position. For example a sheep flicked at a sheep. It you managed to hit it - without touching or moving any other bone then you got to keep the one you hit - providing you remembered to pick it up with the other hand - not the one you flicked with.

It was actually quite fun - and we were getting into quite well. In fact Nathan won! It was quite hard to see which was which - but Greg had played it by candlelight with old Mongolian women who were experts! He bought a set while he was there - which came in a lovely embroidered red pouch. I think it is really ingenious to invent such a skilful game with something like animal bones. Actually there are examples of Shagai in the Pitt Rivers!

The next morning we went out for breakfast to Taylors Deli - had a very sustaining bacon and egg baguette. it was supposed to be a bap - but they'd run out! Then Greg took us on a bracing walk through the University Park - down by the River Cherwell. It's where he goes for his runs. Once we got back to the flat we had a drink and then prepared to head home. Before we left, however, Greg showed us his photos from his holiday in North Korea. He had long wanted to go there and got his visa last April. He had to go as part of a tightly controlled group. On entering the country they had their mobile phones taken off them and they didn't get them back until they left nine days later.

Mission Burrito - seems popular!
They had guides who went everywhere with them and they were only allowed to take photos when they were told it was okay to do so. He was lucky that they were there while there was some celebration to celebrate the birthday of one of the Kim family, They got to see a little of it - although most of the time they were kept well away from it. If they took a photo of a statue of Kim Il Sung they had to make sure it got all for him in - if they missed off the head or feet - or if someone was stood in front of him then the photo had to be deleted. All the time they were there their guides were making notes about what they did and said. Greg actually said that when they got back to China they all felt a sense of freedom and relief! Quite telling, I think.

Pitt Rivers Museum - full of craziness!
It did sound like a fascinating place and he thinks that he will never go to anywhere so "different" ever again. It has a completely different economic  model - they don't have shops at all. They have food and other things given to them from various distribution points. Of course he was only allowed in and around Pyongyang - the capital, where the elite live. The people he saw looked happy and well-fed and healthy. Who knows how the majority of the people live.

All very fascinating. I don't know where he will go for his next holiday!
Anyway sadly we had to leave to return to Staffordshire. Still I have the rest of the week off...

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