Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stratford, Oxford, and Warwickshire in between

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to leave London and see a bit of the English countryside. The Irishman's work colleague got married at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, outside of the city of Coventry, and the Irishman asked me to accompany him as his date. I gladly accepted and we made a 3-day weekend of it, stopping in Stratford-upon-Avon on the way up, and Oxford on the way back.

The weather for this adventure was gorgeous, sunny and warm, and we set off Friday morning in fine spirits. It really is true that the minute you leave London, England is rolling hills dotted with cows and sheep – it just takes you about 2 hours to actually get out of the city. Traffic is horrendous and London is so sprawling that you can't tell if where you are is city or suburb. The only way I could tell is when I stopped seeing rows of houses one on top of another.

It took us a bit of time to get to Stratford-upon-Avon, and upon arrival we were confronted with tour buses, tourists, and construction. We decided ahead of time that we weren't going to be going to every single historic house that might have housed Shakespeare, or one of his relations, at one time or another. Instead, we went to his church, saw his grave and his birth and death records, and then wandered around the pretty town on our way to a pub on the Avon River. The town itself was gearing up for a festival, so there were rides, games, and fried food trucks lining the streets - a bit too American for this expat looking for the quintessential English village.

After a shandy in the sun at the Dirty Duck pub, we headed to the hotel to check in. The drive up the lane to the hotel more than made up for the festival in Stratford, because Coombe Abbey is AMAZING. We walked into a lobby that looked like a medieval palace, with dark wood alcoves, old books, and candles burning brightly. Our room was painted deep red, with a raised four poster canopy bed, velvet cushioned sofa, and clawfooted bathtub. I was so excited and kept saying "we don't have this s**t in America!"

Coombe Abbey, being the classy establishment that it is (and also, I suspect, inundated by rowdy footballers and WAGs), has a suggested dress code of "no trainers and jeans". So the Irishman and I decided to hunt down some dinner off the premises, in our casual clothes. We took a quick drive through Coventry, which has the reputation of being the ugliest city in England - it was the center of the country's automobile manufacturing prior to World War II ("The War"), when it was bombed to smithereens by the Germans and subsequently rebuilt in a boring, poured-concrete kind-of-way - and quickly decided that we'd do better outside of the city center. We found a nice country pub called The Bull on the outskirts of the city, just down the road from the hotel, and had a really nice dinner of the traditional English variety.

Saturday was the wedding, my first English wedding, and all I can say is that they really know how to drag it out. We went to bed around midnight, and been at that thing for 12 straight hours. It was a lovely affair, complete with an excruciatingly long Best Man's Speech and several toasts.

We woke Sunday with sore heads, and walked off our hangovers with a lovely stroll through the grounds surrounding the hotel. The hotel was a former monastery, converted into a stately home by a private family and over the years the land was acquired by Coventry to create a public-use parkland. So we walked the fields surrounding the now-hotel like one ought to on a Sunday in England, enjoying the sun and fresh air. Invigorated, we decided to make one last stop in Oxford on our way back to London.

Oxford was amazing - ancient buildings, scholarly traditions, high-street chain stores, and hipster youth all rolled into one. We only spent about 2 hours wandering through town, so I will definitely go back; Oxford is home to several of the museums that I studied in graduate school - the Ashmolean, the Pitt-Rivers - and I want to actually go into some of the school buildings. It reminds me of an older, more built up Princeton, NJ - my own pre-collegiate stomping ground.

Alas our lovely Midlands weekend had to end, so JP and I wrapped it up with a comforting curry at our favorite Indian restaurant, Zaffrani. We couldn't have had a better weekend, and I was really not pleased to have it end. At least (of course!) I took pictures, and you can see them here.

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