Christmas in the UK

snowy-mountainsAnn and I spent Christmas 2012 in the UK. We wanted to revive memories of former stays in Britain, but I had the nostalgic idea of revisiting London, and perhaps having a White Christmas. Snow, as it happened, did not eventuate. I had studied for my PhD in London at LSE under the supervision of Bernard Crick. Bernard went on to become a very distinguished academic and public figure. His biography of George Orwell was much acclaimed. We became life-long friends, and he visited us in Brisbane only a year or so before his death in 2008. Ann and I dropped in on LSE during our week in London. I hadn’t been to the great city for a decade or so and had never managed to visit LSE in my various trips there. So I found it staggeringly changed, modernised (wonderful new library) and expanded. I detected a notably more sociable and friendly atmosphere there now than in my days as a clueless colonial postgraduate student. The philosophy then was rather “work it out for yourselves”, whereas now there are all sorts of student support. I remember on arrival being sent in to Michael Oakeshott, a political philosopher of note and then head of LSE, a conservative in what had been a very leftish school (memories of Harold Laski and lots of Fabians). He immediately passed me on to Bernard, as he was the only one, I was told, doing anything remotely historical. I vacillated for months in choosing a topic, until frankly told to choose and get on with it, good advice. Bernard was very helpful in my getting my thesis published by Clarendon Press, Oxford.

There were many highlights in our week. They included a walk in rare sunshine across Tower Bridge, then finding St Hallows church, the oldest church in London, a beautiful if strangely hybrid church with its Georgian heart surrounded by remnants of previous ages. We revisited the British Museum. I had not been there since the renovations. They include a glass roof in its internal courtyard. In our usual nerdy way, we much enjoyed Room 50, with its excellent interpretation of early Roman and Anglo-Saxon hoards. Also, another day, the pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain, then a walk along the Embankment past the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square, with its statues of Lloyd George, Smuts, Churchill and other Prime Ministers; then to Mary Le Strand and the Cortauld Gallery at Somerset House (I have mixed feelings about its ice rink). The Victoria and Albert’s Hollywood Costume exhibition surprised us by its creativity and coverage.

Our main goal was to spend Christmas at Clare Hall, Cambridge, a college of which I am a Life Member. We travelled to Cambridge by rail, and stayed in a college guest flat at West Court, rather Spartan in the traditional college fashion, where it is thought visitors have nothing to do but study abstemiously. As we had no car, we spent a week of probably healthy long walks into Cambridge, via Burrell’s Walk and over the Cam (about 5 km); doing the usual sights – familiar to me from a number of study leaves – from Great St Mary’s, Michaelmas Hall, Lyon Yard, to the Fitzwilliam. We had vague hopes of listening to the King’s College choir on Christmas Day, but found it virtually booked up (if you didn’t want to queue from 9 till noon in inclement weather). So we settled for Candlelight Carol evensong at St Mary’s, which was quite wonderful.  We had Christmas lunch at Brown’s in Trumpington St, three courses of traditional fare with champagne cocktails and an Italian pinot noir. We spent our last day at King’s Lynn, a fascinating old seaport on the Wash, once main port for the old woollen trade with the Hanseatic League.

We drove to High Wycombe, so that we could spend a couple of days exploring the area where my family, the Crooks, had lived for centuries, before my branch of the family moved to Wales in the late nineteenth century, before emigrating to Australia in the 1920s, to escape the post-war slump in the Welsh mining industry. Some of Ann’s ancestors also came from the High Wycombe area. Among the places we visited were the charming little village of Wooburn (where Crook agricultural labourers used to live); Monk’s Risborough, a beautiful village with a lovely church, St Dunstan’s (where we discovered a grave of my ancestor John Crook); Aston Clinton, Weston Turville (where Ann’s relatives the Weedons came from); the Chilterns. Then we went on to the Cotswolds via Fairford, with its full collection of beautifully preserved medieval stained glass windows (only saved through the efforts of an influential supporter of Cromwell).We saw in the New Year of 2013 with an old friend at Chipping Campden. Being very gentry Tory country, we witnessed a local Hunt Procession. Chipping Norton nearby is the hunt centre and also the home of David Cameron (the Prime Minister). Our enjoyable trip ended with a nostalgic tour of Windsor Castle, impressively restored since the fire.

We are planning a trip to Japan around September this year (2013).

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