The Norman keep of the Cardiff Castle certainly looks forbidding enough in the accompanying picture, but the photo alone cannot convey the sheer brutality of the gale force winds, freezing temperatures and driving snow squalls that accompanied The D&O Diary’s recent visit to Wales. According to the somewhat dramatic local press coverage, the winds blowing across Britain last week traveled there all the way from Siberia and did in fact cover coastal areas in a blanket of snow. More of the same is due this week. You don’t go to Britain in March for the weather.
Indeed, when I told one of my neighbors back home – who previously lived in England for many years – that I intended to visit Cardiff, her reaction was “Why on earth would you do that?” My answer, which she found entirely insufficient, was that I have always wanted to hear the Welsh language spoken aloud. As it turned out though, actually hearing the language spoken proved more elusive than I had hoped. None of the regulars at the Cardiff pubs we visited could demonstrate much Welsh language proficiency. I later learned that Welch is actually spoken by fewer than 20% of the residents of Wales. In the end, I had to be content with a local language replay telecast of a Welsh Premier League soccer game between Bangor City and Airbus UK Broughton, which certainly involved enough double consonants and daunting diphthongs to satisfy any reasonable requirements. (Bangor City won, two-nil.)
Though Cardiff has suffered for decades as a declining industrial town, recent concentrated investments in the city center and along the waterfront have made it an interesting place to visit. (Or at least it would be at a time when it was not so blitheringly cold.) Cardiff is just a two-hour train ride from Paddington Station in London, and it does present the opportunity to visit what is in effect and in practice a foreign country, with its own culture, language, capital and flag. The River Taff makes its way through parklands in the city center and the Castle battlements afford an agreeable view of the mountains beyond.
An afternoon meal at Pettigrew’s Tea Rooms adjacent to the Castle grounds – consisting of a teahouse version of Ploughman’s Lunch and a nice pot of tea – was a pleasure. And a pint of locally brewed Brains beer at The Goat Major pub on High Street helped chase away the ill effects of the bitter wind. Just the same, the barkeep at The Old Arcade pub just down the street, after we had answered her question about what we were doing in Cardiff, observed that “There’s nothing on in Cardiff, I’m going to Los Angeles for my vacation.”
The ancient university town of Oxford is only a little over an hour from Cardiff by rail. Oxford has a compact city center with a rich history and is full of beautiful antique buildings. The central city streets are lined with gothic façades, and seemingly modest doorways open to breathtakingly beautiful courtyards and quadrangles. Oxford University has no central campus. Instead there are 38 colleges scattered through town. Several of the college campuses include huge meadows and manicured gardens. The grounds of Magdalene College (pronounced, for some reason, “maud-lin”) encompass an extensive tree-lined stretch of the River Cherwell. Each of the colleges includes living quarters for the scholars, classroom and teaching space, a chapel and a dining facility.
The oldest of the college buildings date from the 12th Century, although the city’s educational tradition supposedly extends even further back than that. Many of the college buildings in the central town area date from the Tudor and Stuart eras with extensive renovations in the late Victorian era. Though the historical buildings give the town a museum feel, the fact is that all of the ancient buildings are still in use for their original educational purposes. Our visit fell between academic terms, but we also saw many students studying, working and bicycling through the city’s narrow streets.
Every street and building has a story – that modest doorway is where Bill Clinton stayed while at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, this room is where Queen Henrietta Maria stayed during the English Civil War, this window opens to the room where J.R.R. Tolkien lived. Many of the colleges have famous graduates– for example, Oscar Wilde, King George VII and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer attended Magdalene College. Christ Church College counts thirteen British Prime Ministers among its alums. Fictional characters are associated with many of the colleges. Lord Peter Wimsey of the Dorothy Sayers detective novels attended Balliol College. Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, attended Hertford College, and his friend Sebastian Flyte attended Christ Church College. Hilary Mantel’s recent Booker Prize winning historical novel Wolf Hall opens with Cardinal Wolsey scheming to confiscate abbey lands and treasuries in order to establish what ultimately became Christ Church College. Many of the Hogwarts scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed at Christ Church.
The highlight of our Oxford visit was the Evensong service at the cathedral at Christ Church College. We entered the cathedral as the setting sun illuminated the central quadrangle, including the central fountain with its statue of Mercury (where, according to tradition, entering students at the college are said to be “dipped in mercury”). As darkness gathered, the beautiful music from the choral service filed the church’s massive vaulted sanctuary.
Filled with inspiration, we retreated after the service to The Bear pub, which claims to have been serving pints to town and gown since the twelfth century. We wound up sitting with a family from Chile, in wonder at the frigid temperatures during what is their summer season. There are a number of worthy pubs in town — Tolkien first read portions of the Lord of the Rings to his friends, including C.S. Lewis, at the Lamb and Flag pub, adjacent to St. John’s College. The Port Mahon Pub, which is across the river from the central town, has a wood-burning fire-place and an excellent menu of grilled foods.
From Oxford, we returned to London, barely an hour away by train. Although our London itinerary included shows and concerts, the centerpiece of our visit was a tour of legal London. Our first stop at The Old Bailey criminal courts served up a murder case worthy of Horace Rumpole. Ten men sat in the dock, accused of the December 2011 murder of Danny O’Shea. On the morning we attended, the defense attorneys were arguing, based on previously introduced evidence, over what charges could be presented to the jury. It appears that on the night of the incident, the defendants (or at least some of them) had gathered with the intent of retrieving a cell phone that had been stolen the prior week from one of the defendants. Poor Danny O’Shea had not been involved with the phone theft and appears to have been killed by mistake. O’Shea died of a knife wound, but it is unclear who wielded the knife. The defendants were all charged with conspiracy to commit murder or in the alternative to commit grievous bodily harm. The defense arguments focused largely on the question whether the conspiracy to commit murder charge could be presented to the jury. The charge requires proof of awareness of the presence of a lethal weapon at the crime scene, which each defendant’s counsel argued had not been presented with respect to their client.
We found the defense arguments absolutely brilliant. We were, however, surprised and appalled by the scope and extent of the cell phone location evidence, which had been assembled to minutely track the defendants’ movements the night of O’Shea’s death. The cell phone data co-located the defendants’ cell phones in the vicinity of the crime scene with minute to minute precision. CCTV video also provided corroborating evidence. Rumpole meets Big Brother.
In the afternoon, we visited the Royal Courts of Justice and watched arguments in a civil proceeding brought by an immigration detainee against the Home Secretary alleging that his detention had been based in part on the government’s confusion of him with another person and that government inattention had led to his confinement for unjustifiably long periods. Once again, the quality of the lawyering was impressive. It was also striking how in both of the proceedings, highly articulate attorneys were skillfully representing disadvantaged individuals. It would be very hard for anyone to come away from a view of the British legal system in action without being impressed. Though the wigs give the unmistakable impression that the barristers have chosen to adorn themselves with the pelt of a dead animal, the elevated level of discourse and the rituals of courtesy are striking.
Our tour of legal London also included a visit Lincoln’s Inn in Holborn, one of the four Inns of Court in London to which Barristers belong. All of the Inns offer interesting architecture in beautiful settings and interesting histories and traditions. The Inns are reminiscent of the colleges at Oxford University, with the difference that the Inns are dedicated exclusively to the barristers’ study and practice of law. Generally, access to the Inns is restricted, but we were able to take advantage of an open house — in which aspiring barristers could seek a pupillage (apprenticeship) position with barristers’ chambers (law offices) — to wander through the grounds and explore many of the buildings. Lincoln’s Inn is associated with Thomas More, who studied and taught there, and with John Donne. Margaret Thatcher is a member as well. The interior of the Reading Room at the Law Library at the University of Michigan (where I attended law school) bears a striking resemblance to the Great Hall at Lincoln’s Inn.
Adjacent to Lincoln’s Inn is Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the largest public square in London. On the north side of the square is one of London’s hidden jewels, the Sir John Soane Museum. The museum preserves Soane’s architecturally interesting home and its incredible collection. Soane was a successful architect best known for his design of the old Bank of England building. He filled his home with a diverse assortment of sculpture, paintings, and architectural ornaments and built into the structure a series of skylights and other features designed to highlight his collection. His paintings (including several Canalettos and the original of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress) are cleverly displayed in an ingenious series of hinged wall cabinets. The museum is a memorial to a certain admirable kind of British eccentricity.
We followed up our tour of London courts with a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, hoping to take advantage of the museum’s extended hours that evening. While we had merely intended to view some of the Museum’s exhibits, it turned out that the evening hours featured music and wine in the Museum’s central foyer. We also were fortunate enough to see a performance by the Pink Singers choir, which included a program of music ranging from madrigals to show tunes. After the choir concert, we capped the evening off with a detour to Harrods’s, where we sat at the Oyster Bar in the beautiful Food Court and enjoyed a light supper of smoked salmon and champagne. In other words, it was an evening just like any typical evening back home in Cleveland.
Our London sojourn happened to coincide with the championship game of the Six Nations rugby tournament, which was played back in Cardiff, where we had visited earlier in the week. We watched the game with a loud and raucous crowd at The Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane, which seemed like a good place to watch a sporting contest between teams from Wales and England. Wales dominated the game but it still remained close until about the 60th minute, when Wales quickly scored a succession of points to put the game out of reach. (Wales ultimately won 30-3). The swearing that ensued achieved almost biblical proportions. However, within minutes of the final whistle, good spirits were restored after everyone had refilled their glasses and then one of the disappointed fans managed to find a piano pushed against the wall and he led the crowd in a series of profane drinking songs.
Much the same spirit attended the rather water-logged St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Trafalgar Square the next day. The vile weather might quickly have subdued the overflow crowd, but fueled with Guinness and other refreshments, the crowd managed to achieve a festive mood (albeit with a rather ragged edge). The chilly rain ultimately drove us away, and our wanderings led us to a small, snug church not far from Westminster Cathedral, where we warmed our spirits and ourselves listening to an afternoon organ recital. We were only a few hundred yards away from the rain-soaked crowd in Trafalgar, but the soaring notes of Bach and Elgar lifted us almost impossibly far away.
A final highlight of the trip was an excursion to Greenwich, to see the observatory and to tour the recently restored Cutty Sark clipper ship, now suspended three meters off the found in a glass-walled dry dock, allowing visitors to walk beneath its metal-clad bottom. The National Maritime Museum, which is also located in Greenwich, is excellent and is a required destination for anyone curious about England’s great commercial seafaring history.
The top of the hill at Greenwich offers the unique opportunity to straddle the Prime Meridian. It also affords a great view across the Thames to the rather astonishing development at Canary Wharf, as well as upriver to the skyline of The City. From that vantage point, London’s vast size, rich history and complex diversity are unmistakable. Notwithstanding the wretched weather, London is and always will be an absolutely fantastic place. Cheers, London.