Monday, 20 June 2016

Yet another Reunion come and gone in a flash

Once a year, if we can make it, we go for a few days to stay in a venue selected by one of my ex colleagues, to a reunion. We were all a part of a training team that worked for the same company, many for more than two decades. When the company finally self-destructed and everyone was made redundant, we had a farewell party and it has now become something of a tradition. There are about fourteen or fifteen of us plus spouses who attend most years, but not everyone can make every year. This year it was Oxford, which is not far from where we live and was organised to run from Monday to Wednesday evening. It was arranged that we would stop the first night at one hotel, move to another closer to Oxford for the last two nights, visit Blenheim Palace on day one and then do the tourist thing in Oxford for the second day, with an optional visit to a farm shop and Falconry centre for those who would be passing close on their way home.
Once again the best laid plans…

Just before we were ready to start thinking about getting packed, a letter arrived from the Hospital. My final post operation visit was to be on Tuesday at 9:45. Knowing how difficult it can be to get appointments changed within a useful time scale, we accepted. Also knowing how difficult it is to actually get into our overworked hospital during busy times, we did not want to have to get up before dawn in order to drive through all the rush hour traffic from the Hotel near Oxford to the Great Western Hospital. So we decide it would be more sensible to spend Monday with everyone at the hotel and then drive home that evening and return the following morning.
We cancelled our hotel booking for Monday and told this year’s organiser B that we would meet them on Tuesday at Blenheim Palace as soon as we could get back from the hospital. Because B had arranged a group booking, he had to buy our tickets and arrange for them to be ready for us to collect as soon as we arrived.
More work for him, but it worked out and we were able to find them easily enough.

Because some of our group come from as far away as Scotland, Not everyone can make it to Oxford before evening, so Monday would have people arriving at different times.  B had arranged lunch at a nearby pub where some of the more local group would be meeting and then we would all head for the nearby hotel for the evening event.   One of our group has been very ill for some time and cannot get out a great deal and he has not been able to attend many of the reunions over the last few years. Because it was coming up to his fortieth wedding anniversary and because he lives near Oxford this venue was chosen without his knowledge so that he could be surprised by us all turning up.  It worked well and he was duly astounded to find about ten of us there to take him out for lunch and that evening yet another meal at the hotel and overnight accommodation for him and his wife.
This all worked fine and we had a good meal at the Black Sheep pub and then moved on to the Manor Hotel.

This is a very grand place that can trace its history back over more than one thousand years. It was a stately home and besides being interestingly built up over a number of centuries it is full of unusual rooms, corridors, changing levels and has fabulous grounds surrounding it.

The dining room we ate in, all wood panelling and a Minstrel's gallery

The meal was… what can I say… very modern… and their bill for vegetables must be quite small, but the meat was delicious.
Some of the grounds behind the hotel

After the meal, we drove home and the next day arrived at the hospital early, expecting a long queue to get in, but were pleased to find that it was just three or four cars and there were, unusually, plenty of parking spaces.
On leaving about an hour later, the situation was very different and cars were queueing right back to the dual carriageway. A good job our appointment was earlier.
Not knowing beforehand if I could drive after the appointment, should I have had drops that widen the pupils, TBH had driven. I did not, so we went home and swapped cars. I then drove us off to Woodstock the Cotswold village where you will find Blenheim Palace.

As lunch time was nearing, we were approaching Burford where we thought it would be a good idea to stop for a light meal, since we would be arriving just after the time our group would have just finished eating. There were three choices. We could go to the garden centre where they have a reasonable restaurant, drive into Burford High Street and find a café TBH knew there, but risk not finding any parking, or go to one of the few remaining Little Chef restaurants. In the end we decided the Little Chef would be fastest. Wrong! The service was glacial.

Only two other customers were present and despite this it took forever. We were getting to the point of getting up and leaving just before we were asked to order. If the phrase ‘Two soups’ rings any bells for waitress service, then you may understand a little of what it was like. If not follow this link. Two Soups. We did not order soup however, and the meal arrived intact and when our order finally did arrive it was possibly the best club sandwich I have ever had in the UK.

We eventually arrived at Blenheim Palace and located the desk that held our tickets and were able to join up with some of the group who were still eating in the small restaurant adjacent to the ticket desk.

Joined up again with a part of our group, we wandered around and looked at the sights and marvelled at everything like true tourists until I could walk no more and so we found a seat and watched the view from one of the gardens until I was able to continue.

Now and again we would encounter some others from our group as we ambled about, but we each went our separate ways until we had seen enough and TBH and I decided to go and check in at the Hawkwell House Hotel.
This was a bit more urban than the last and in a residential area on the edge of Oxford. It was nothing quite as special as the Manor but was comfortable and served good food. More importantly in a busy town like Oxford, it was also on a bus route into town. Since we are all ancient enough to carry a bus pass, this was the best means of getting into town.

The next day we set off for town in the company of a few of the rest of the crowd and bussed ourselves into the centre of Oxford. B had purchased tickets for the Oxford Hop-on-hop-off bus tour for all of us and the weather, still holding out, meant that we could take a tour on the top of an open top bus. The forecast had been for localised rain showers, but not until afternoon.

On top of the Hop-on-hop-off tour bus

Oxford is of course, famous for all its colleges which form the Oxford University and many famous names can be found on blue plaques all around the place. There are two tours, the City Tour, which takes you throughout the central parts of town and the Meadows Tour that goes a bit further afield. We took the City Tour with two of our friends, J&A, from the crowd. On the tour busses you are given a set of headphones and you can plug them into a socket by your seat and listen to a recorded soundtrack that tells you about the places of interest and some of the history of Oxford as you drive and bounce past each point of interest. Yes, bounce. I think that the bus lane passes over the most ancient of gutters that could be found in any urban area in England. We were jolted and thrown all over the place as the bus found every pot hole and broken cobble that ordinary drivers are free to avoid. Apart from that the tour was informative and showed me things I did not know about Oxford.

 In the summer months, Oxford is always packed out by coachloads of tourists from other parts of the globe who walk around in great mobs all speaking in foreign*. In an attempt to keep together and so not get lost, these groups of people have a tendency to move in a phalanx, similar to an charging Roman legion, taking all the room on the narrow pavements and you are well advised to keep away and so avoid being run into or sideswiped by their rucksacks.
 *Foreign being the language all other people speak who come from foreign lands. 

When we were close to the Bodleian Library, the bus stopped and we decided to hop-off and have a look around. Since TBH and I know the centre of Oxford fairly well, the others were happy to follow us and we managed to escape from the great hordes of coach trippers and found the area around the
Bodleian remarkably free of tourists, for a while, and we were able to wander around into the Library grounds without being pushed and shoved about by the invading hordes.

One of the curious heads outside the Bodleian Library
Not a tourist in sight

After looking around the library book shop, J&A wanted to go for a stroll along Rose Cottage Walk and we set off across some more open areas to find the footpath, but when we arrived, the access gate was locked, so we wandered back into the busier parts of Oxford.

Examinations in progress, so no entry
After a short discussion, it was decided that instead of hopping back on the tour bus, we could visit the Ashmolean Museum, which was not too far away and so, we fought our way through the invaders and headed for the museum. After a while, I suggested that it may be wise to eat lunch before hitting the museum, since I felt by then that I would probably just sit out the tour around the museum because I was already thoroughly pooped.
I had not been doing quite so much walking recently, having been convalescing from my two eye operations for a total of about ten weeks and was somewhat out of condition. The others agreed and then we started looking for a suitable eatery. In the end we ended up in one of the major stores that had a restaurant which we all knew would provide something familiar and reasonable for a lunch time snack. J was a bit disgruntled, having come to look at the fabled Oxford only to end up in a mundane place he could visit any time back home, but we were not the only ones to have gravitated to this store’s restaurant because we found D&B eating there too.
Rested, fed and watered, we went on to the Museum and wandered around the parts of it that particularly interested us until I once again threw in the towel.

In the entrance there was a light source in the ceiling creating moving patterns on the floor

TBH and I decided to resume the bus tour and armed with our headphones hopped-on the next bus and went all around the rest of the tour. Before long, sitting in the top deck, we felt a few spots of wet on our arms and decided that the top deck was not so attractive after all, despite the great view you got from there, so went below. We were soon followed by the other slightly damper passengers who had been slower in recognising the need to retreat. This was followed by a small waterfall down the stairs.
The rain came down like doom for a while and when we returned to the part of town where our bus had brought us from the hotel, we hopped-off and stood in the slightly lesser rain waiting for a number 3 to take us back to the hotel. The rain eased off a lot while we waited so we did not get too wet and looking around I realised there was not a single invading horde to be seen anywhere, the streets were deserted. The big mystery was, where had they all gone?
The shops had already been quite crowded before it started to rain and there seemed to be no room before the rain started, but suddenly there were no people on the street at all. Did they all go back to their coaches? Or did they have a secret bolt hole? You would expect to see archways and doorways crammed with faces looking out to see if the rain had stopped, but nothing looked overcrowded and I found their sudden disappearance uncanny.
Ironically, once our number 3 bus got out of the centre of Oxford, the pavements were completely dry. A rotten trick of the weather to only rain where the tourists wanted to be.
Back at the hotel, I collapsed onto the bed and dozed, whilst TBH went downstairs to the lobby and read a magazine in a comfortable armchair. Soon she was joined by other adventurers who had returned from Oxford in various states of dampness and eventually I went downstairs to join them and we all chatted until it was time to go to the Greyhound pub where B had booked a meal.

This was a place outside Oxford on the A420 near Abingdon that I had driven past often, but only visited once before when on a business trip to Austin Rover, many years ago when it was still a British owned manufacturer.
The meal was excellent but I made the mistake of ordering the cheese board for afters without reading the small print. Owing to having lived with a condition which prevented me sleeping if I ate anything sweet late at night, and lately having been diagnosed with type II diabetes, I do not eat anything with sugar in it anymore, so decided the cheese board would do to top up on, or as Tolkien’s Hobbits say, fill in the corners.
What I had failed to notice on my hasty perusal of the menu was that in the small print, it said suitable for sharing. So when a huge wooden board piled with all manner of cheeses and fruit was placed in front of me, there was something of a reaction from the rest of the group. Anyway, the pub staff were kind enough to provide a large doggy bag and my next three lunches were sorted.

The next morning was general going home for most of the crowd and for some of us, there was the option of visiting Millets Farm on the way home. Only J&A and ourselves decided to give it a try and we wended our way there. Millets Farm is a large area with a garden centre that sells all those things gardens need, mostly plants, but also scented candles, books, clothes, all manner of gizmos, bird food, bird feeders and statues of young nubile ladies intended to stand around in your garden, looking far too scantily clad for British weather. Maybe that is why there are usually clothes concessions in amongst all the other odds and ends that garden centres sell.
There is also a ‘Farm Shop’. This does not, as suggested by the title, sell farms, but a small range of farm produce, such as eggs, fresh meat and vegetables. But most of the stock will be top of the range, and therefore high priced, food, such as cakes, allegedly ‘homemade’, crisps, wine, beer and all kinds of pickles and preserves, which individually cost about twice what I was paid per week when I first started work.
At the far end of this complex is Millets Farm Falconry where they give exhibitions with various carefully trained birds. They have a surprisingly wide range of different birds, including, eagles, owls, vultures and a range of other smaller birds of prey and you can visit all their enclosures, like a miniature zoo. 

We decided, along with J&A, to go to the falconry flying exhibition scheduled for late morning. We were the only four people there but the show went ahead and the guy was entertaining and informative and produced a great display. One bird was of a species I have never seen before, a Striated Caracara from the Falklands that was highly intelligent. It was given a series of tasks to find its food and it went about it with precision, turning over flower pots and even opening a dustbin to get to the food the trainer had hidden for it.
The Striated Caracara carrying out its tricks

It only flew when food was in the offing, and walked back to its enclosure with its handler

A Gyr hybrid Falcon
 After that we went our separate ways and it was all over for another year.

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