Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oxford blues

Throughout our travels of the past two years, Sam and I have been amazed at how few hiccups we've encountered. True, we spend a lot of time researching and planning beforehand, but especially considering our trips to places where infrastructure is minimal and unpredictable (e.g. Jordan, Nepal), we have truly been blessed with smooth sailing. But no matter how responsible of a planner or how street-smart you are, more travel brings greater odds that you will eventually hit a snag or two. And on our most recent trip to England, our time came due.

In normal fashion, we had a jam-packed itinerary, trying to experience as much of the place as we could in a four day period. It was day 2, and we had a full day of sight-seeing, including a guided tour of Parliament, a visit to Saint Paul's Cathedral, and a quick jaunt across the Millennium Bridge for a glimpse of the Tate Modern Museum, before catching a 2:21 pm train to Oxford (we had pre-purchased tickets online for a really good price). Piece of cake. 

Enter stage right: Shannon's low blood sugar requiring immediate sustenance. We had just arrived at Saint Paul's Cathedral when my stomach began to growl and I realized that a fainting couch would be in order unless I could feed myself asap. Unfortunately, a lunch spot was a detail of the day that Sam the trusty tour guide had failed to research (big mistake). So, we spent the next 20 minutes wandering the streets of the financial district looking for an open establishment. Finally, realizing nothing in the neighborhood was open on Saturdays, we went back to where we started, a chain sandwich shop just outside the underground that we had snobbishly rejected on our first circuit. It was our only hope, so we bought pre-packaged sandwiches and scarfed them down. 

Re-energized, albeit a bit disgusted by our meal, we made our way back to St. Paul's Cathedral, where we (of course) found a dozen open restaurants within paces of the front entrance. We had simply turned the wrong way out of the Underground. Ah well, moving on. We had eaten our way through our Cathedral-touring time, so we snapped a few pictures of the exterior and main hall inside and then moved on toward the Millennium Bridge. By the time we made it across to the Tate Museum, we realized we only had enough time to make a pit stop and then immediately turn back around in order to make our train. 

View of Saint Paul's Cathedral from across the Millennium Bridge

Soon we were on the Tube again, where we plotted the best route to the train station. We had just enough time to make the transfers across town. And then...hiccup! The subway stopped, and a polite voice came over the loudspeaker informing us that all service was suspended for the afternoon, that we'd have to go above ground and take a bus to our destination. Of course, we didn't know how the bus system worked, so instead we ran up the stairs and violently waved down a cab. We told the driver we had 14 minutes to make it to the train station, and to step on it! Which he did, until we hit a traffic jam and came to a complete stand still. With five minutes left to catch our train, the driver sheepishly advised that we get out and run the rest of the way, that it was just over the bridge and around the corner. 

There is a reason that I am not a runner. I have short little legs, and years of cheerleading, gymnastics and dance during my teens left me with rickety joints and shin splints. But long and lean Sam immediately bolted off like a gazelle; there was nothing I could do but follow. I didn't want to be the reason we missed our train! So I ran. Across the bridge. Around the corner. Where I realized the station was a lot farther than the cabbie had let on. I could barely see Sam by now, so I clutched my purse under my arm and gave it all I had. 

Finally, I burst into the station, lungs burning, and found Sam retrieving our pre-paid tickets from the kiosk. It took a minute for them to print, during which time I caught my breath, and then we tore off again into the crowd to find the right track. And there it was. Track 1. Empty. The digital clock directly above it flashing in huge red font - 2:22. We missed it by one minute.

Okay, well, surely they'll just let us get on the next one. We were still hopeful. We waited in line at customer service, and then I gave my best sob story to the Indian gentleman working behind the glass. But apparently the tickets we bought online were non-transferable and now useless. I persuaded him to bend the rules just this once, but the man was immune to my feminine whiles. The best he could do was sell us new tickets for 25 pounds a piece! (The ones we bought online were 6 pounds each.) Our afternoon trip to Oxford would now start an hour later and altogether cost us over 100 US dollars. So much for frugality.

By the time we got to Oxford, it was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and the light was already beginning to fade. We walked into town from the train station and were taking our first pictures of the main square when it happened. Our camera, the one that has captured nearly every picture on this blog, that has been with us to see the Great Wall, the Pyramids, and Mount Everest, sputtered a few last mechanical breaths, and died. And I don't mean the battery died; it was fully charged. It was the hardware itself. It had simply given all it could give.

So, here we were in the middle of one of the most picturesque and intellectually stimulating towns we've ever visited, with nothing but our memories to record it. But die-hard bloggers that we are, we were determined to keep documenting, and spent our first 30 minutes in Oxford at Curry's Electronics inside a bland shopping mall, hastily purchasing the least expensive digital camera we could find, which will hopefully explain why all pictures posted for the foreseeable future are slightly distorted and look like they were taken in 1995. 

Back on the streets of Oxford, it was now after 5 pm, and all the campuses and shops were closed. We spent our remaining three hours wandering, taking photos of exterior walls and locked gates, and ducking into more than one pub to warm up. It wasn't one of our more successful outings, but we did see some beautiful scenery and even had a pint in C.S. Lewis's old haunt, Eagle & Child.

Recounting it now, I am aware that missing a train and losing a camera, while inconvenient, doesn't exactly constitute a travel horror story. Have a better one you want to share? Leave a comment!


  1. While your assessment is correct, that this is not a horror story, it is still disappointing when you have these expectations for such a grand place and they aren't met! I would have cried about the camera. I love that you have such a smile in the picture towards the end, Shannon. And at least you have the memories! And take a protein bar along next time! :) (You cannot imagine how often we get in the car and I hear between one and three people say,"I'm hungry!" or "I'm thirsty!" You would think that I would know by now to have an extra food-and-drink bag handy and ready to go all the time!)

  2. Glad you made it despite missing your train. Sorry you had to buy another camera. Be thankful it was only a missed train and broken camera and not something worse.