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Posts tagged ‘History’

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Gardens of Eden

My post about the discovery of the secret garden of Peterhouse College in Cambridge will have left none of you in any doubt about my love for the gardens of Oxbridge. Be they less secret, the formal quads and extensive grounds of all the sprawling colleges are no less of a treat to behold. While my previous post concentrated on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, today I’m focusing in on the gardens which transform those places of learning into havens of tranquility. How life studying in these flower-filled Edens must differ from the smog-filled campus of my London university!

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As is evident from the photos I am sharing, we visited when the gardens of both Oxford and Cambridge were at their floral best. While my visit to Oxford was earlier in the year, and therefore decorated with the happy nodding heads of yellow daffodils and cautiously opening blossom, by the time of our April trip to Cambridge, tulips were abundant in a panoply of ravishingly colour, while blossom trees seemed to test the limits of their own staggering colour as they exploded in shades of arresting fuchsia pink.  Sloping green lawns, many alongside rivers and waterways, lushly demonstrate Britain’s great love of green and pleasant pastures, while extensive oaks and willow trees suggested through age that they had born witness to many a famous student passing through these grounds.

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The presence of students quietly working in most of these gardens is evidence of their importance in providing the perfect level of concentration and tranquility to aid study and well-being. I only hope that study gives way to an unbridled appreciation of these magnificent grounds once the books are closed.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Colleges in abundance

Oxford and Cambridge are university cities, and perhaps more than any other university cities in the world, their character and urban geography are dominated by their colleges. When I was young, it was always something of conundrum to get my head around: do Oxford and Cambridge have one respective university or many, and if the former, why are they split into so many smaller units? Yet those units, or colleges, are evidentially what make these universities so special, and famous. As a student applying for either university, the applicant applies for the prestige of the whole, but the particular specialism, history or atmosphere of the relevant college. And it is precisely that individual character belonging to each of Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges which makes strolling around them such a joy.

Cambridge colleges

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While Oxford feels like more of a living city beyond its colleges, Cambridge is very much a city which has grown around the confines of each respective college. This makes walking around the city almost maze-like, as you attempt to ascertain which passages are public and which privately college owned. Even in the colleges themselves, there is a clear hierarchy at work, as sections are cordoned off for the sole respective enjoyment of students, fellows and finally, the public. Yet even in the public parts, one gets a real and immediate sense of the very tangible history imbued by these colleges in all their ochre stonework and architectural mastery.

In both Oxford and Cambridge, I loved strolling around the colleges which dominate both cities. Collectively, they hold examples of almost every architectural style since the medieval period. Their gardens (for which a separate post will be shared) are stunningly cared for and places of the utmost tranquility. Their great dining halls ooze tradition and Hogwarts-esque formality, and their chapels are a veritable museum of exquisite stained glass and biblical artworks.

Oxford colleges

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I have not gone to the rather laborious task of labelling each of my photos in respect of their locations. Instead, I present something of a hodgepodge from each city. Amongst the Oxford photos are the colleges of Balliol, Christchurch, Trinity, Magdalen, Brasenose and New College. In Cambridge, you will see glimpses of Downing, Peterhouse, Sidney Sussex, Pembroke, Emmanuel and Corpus Christi amongst others. All combine to present these cities at their most beautiful and historical best – certainly worth visiting, even though, in some, an entry fee is very much a sign of more modern times.

A bit more of Cambridge

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Masterful Museums

Not all the nation’s artistic treasures are in London it seems. For Oxford and Cambridge play host to two of the most spectacular museums in the country. Both the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge hold stunning collections of art and antiquities which befit the learned character of their sponsor universities.

They are, in effect, like all the museums of London rolled into one, conveniently collected under one respective roof. Here, a plethora of ancient relics including treasures from ancient Syria, Egypt and Rome, sit alongside collections of art with a broad sweep across the ages, from Italian renaissance altarpieces to works by Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. They host temporary exhibitions so significant that they bring culture lovers from across the world to these alternative cultural capitals. And their collections are hosted in buildings so grand that they out-do some of the world’s most prominent palaces and museums.

Oxford’s Ashmolean

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It is on those buildings, and not the collections themselves, that this smaller set of photographs concentrates. Both buildings share a common theme, with ostentatiously grand classical facades imposing themselves upon the visitor with an immediate magnificence. Designed by Charles Cockerell in the 19th century, the yellow stone and marble mix of Oxdord’s Ashmoleon harmonise with the yellow colleges scattered about the city, but stands out for its unapologetic Palladion grandeur in amongst buildings fashioned out of medieval Britian.

The Fitzwilliam building was designed along similar lines, coincidentally with the contribution of the same architect, Charles Cockerell. It is whiter, grander almost from the outside, but here the real treasure is within – in an entrance hall of startling beauty, laced with gold, mosaic, stained glass and marble statutory, designed by Edward Middleton Barry and screaming with Victorian splendour. How can one choose between these two magnificent spectacles?

Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam

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My photos focus on that Fitzwilliam interior, and on the yellow-stone exterior of the Ashmoleon (the latter view being conveniently enjoyed from the windows of my hotel room!). To see the magnificent collections contained within… you must visit, as soon as you can!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Punting Pleasures

While the archetypal image of Oxford and Cambridge may be a gown-donned student, mortar-board on head, rushing around on a bicycle with a book under the arm, another is the slightly more tranquil pursuit of punting. Whether it be on the calm, narrow bends of the River Cam in Cambridge, or on the tranquil and bucolic waters of the River Cherwell in Oxford, punting in either city is the ideal way to experience their charms from a unique and consistently stunning viewpoint.

Punting in Oxford

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Much like taking a trip in a gondola in Venice, floating around on a punt is truly unique. Because the punt is traditionally a flat-bottomed boat designed for use in small rivers and shallow waters (hence the ability of the punter to steer the punt forwards by propelling a pole against the river bed), passengers enjoy the experience of lying back almost at the same level as the waters which immediately surround the punt, giving one the impression of skimming the surface of the water much like the ducks and swans which will invariably swim alongside you.

As these photos show, punting in either city is both a popular and a beautiful experience. Though in so far as the cities compete, I must give Oxford the gold medal in this race. For in Oxford I was able to punt relatively cheaply and with the tranquil luxury of having very few people around. By contrast, in Cambridge the cost was so exorbitant – and based on being ferried around in a shared punt with at least half a dozen others – that I decided to give punting a miss. One should never be made to punt with strangers. And probably just as well we gave it a miss, given the frequent collisions we bore witness to as the punts came around the narrow bends near St. John’s.

Punting in Cambridge

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But whether it be in Oxford, in Cambridge or in both, if you have the opportunity to indulge in a little punting, I urge you to do so. It’s so rare these days to have the chance to truly unwind, and watch the world around you from the unique and somniferous perspective of water.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Paradise at Peterhouse

I continue my Oxbridge season with a focus in on one of the cities in particular, and on one of its colleges to be exact: Peterhouse College in Cambrige. The colleges of Cambridge are many, mighty and almost universally magnificent, and on our recent visit we spent  two days utterly engrossed in just a few of these historical gems. It would be hard to pick a favourite, such is the mix of architecture they offer, the grandeur of their halls and chapels, and the cosiness of the gardens and quads they all inevitably exhibit. However, one college which really struck me like a charmed arrow of Cupid was Peterhouse. This impact was not so much because of the college buildings (which were, by the way, quite stunning); but because of its gardens.

We caught a glimpse of the Peterhouse garden from inside the grand Fitzwilliam museum. We had just been having a look at the museum’s impressive collection of art, including impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Sisley and Whistler. It was perhaps with those paintings imprinted on my mind’s eye that, when through the filter of a blind I saw a paradise garden of wild flowers and picnicking students through a series of windows forming a backdrop to the museum’s collection of antiquities, I naturally assumed that the view was some kind of manmade projection of a painting. It was only when I blinked again that I realised that the garden was real, and we set about trying to find it.

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Like all promises of paradise, this one was not an easy find. A walk around the museum’s perimeter met with several dead ends against frustratingly impenetrable high brick walls. Then when we entered the grounds of Peterhouse next door, we were met only with a couple of small carefully manicured courtyards. It was only when, at the dark end of a small corridor, we saw an old wooden door, that our curiosity was peaked, and we tried the old antique latch appended to the timbers. The door opened, and like the entrance onto a fairy-tale, a magical, golden light seeped through. Ducking to pass through the 5ft (or lower) door, like Alice walking into her Wonderland having grown big on “eat me” treats, we came across a winding path which led, as if by magic, to that very same floral paradise we had glimpsed from the museum. We had found our paradise garden.

These photos don’t do justice to the true ensnaring wonder of that place, although they go some way to express the extent of floral wonder which met us in that sun-filled Elysium. Long grasses, wild flowers, bees and butterflies created a scene straight from a nursery rhyme. And just in case we suspected that we had somehow become lost in the pages of that same otherworldly tale, small smatterings of students sat within the grass, revising and chatting quietly before us, as though to prove that the place was real. It was like a painted Arcadia, a land where only happiness could pervade.

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Sadly the passing of time meant that we had to leave this heavenly place soon after discovering it. But now we know where to find it, our return will be all the sweeter…if, of course, it turns out that this wonderland was real after all, and not just a figment of our wildest imagination.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Oxford-v-Cambridge: Gargoyles and Gothic

The Daily Norm has been off air of late. The Norms have been busy blobbing their gelatinous way through the winter, and I have been doing likewise, although hopefully with less blob and more muscle (I live in hope). Finally the months of darkness seem to have come to an end, as I start to enjoy my home in hours of daylight, and gradually strip off multiple layers of scarfs and other winter accoutrements. While the onset of Summer means that an exciting array of travels are due, I have been exercising something of the fashionable “Staycation” of late, starting with two of England’s most attractive and famous cities… Oxford and Cambridge.

Renowned of course for hosting two of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, the cities of Oxford and Cambridge (collectively labelled with the epithet “Oxbridge”) tend to engender a staunch form of loyalty for one city over the other. Whether it be because of a family connection, their own studies, a historical reason or a traditional choice in the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, partiality for either of the cities can lead to strong emotions and the kind of alacrity held by football fans for their club. I must admit that I have tended to waver in my favouritism. While my Sister has connections with Oxford, I have found myself almost subconsciously  drawn to the light blues of Cambridge. So with the weather at its Spring time best as Winter faded away from these Isles, I took the opportunity to explore both cities afresh, to settle my preference once and for all.

Oxford Gargoyles

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Both stays have enabled me to conclude one thing for definite: that Oxford and Cambridge, so rich in historical significance and architectural splendour, are true beauties to behold. With their predominantly yellow stone and wealth of architectural styles dominating their respective cities with barely a modern intervention to spoil them, the university buildings of both cities are stunning. Seen against blue skies, they create a vision of very English magnificence, but also import a range of styles from Italian baroque to Palladian Neo-classicim.

Cambridge Gothic

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In the first of a series of posts in which I aim to share my photographs of Oxbridge, I am starting with a look at some of the Medieval and Gothic features which characterise both cities. These photos in turn concentrate on some of the lovable creatures which are most dominant in Oxford especially – the gargoyles, features which the recent tragic fire at Paris’ Notre Dame remind us are treasures of a bygone age, which should be admired and never missed, despite their characteristic timidity, hidden among the eaves, the roofs and the windows of buildings which easily overshadow them.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Folio // Jerez > Sherry Streets and Shady Squares

My second Folio presents Jerez, city of squares and fountains, cobbled streets and cosy quaint cafes. Few visitors to the city would deny that it is perfectly picturesque. Jerez conveys so much of what we tourists have come to think of as the archetype Spanish city that I wonder how it came to be that Jerez falls under the shadow of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. Such is the result of a region whose cities are each, in their own way, a spectacle. It’s like when you have an art gallery with walls crammed floor to ceiling with gems – there are so many masterpieces there, that you miss out on most in order to concentrate on just one or two.

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Determined that Jerez would be our focus on this occasion, we lost no time in exploring its consistently beautiful alleys and avenues. Cluttered with sherry-barrel bar tables, cafe umbrellas seeking in vain to keep out the heat, souvenir shops spilling onto sidewalks exhibiting polka dots aplenty, Jerez is nevertheless a city whose every facet appears to be perfectly ordered and camera ready. Building facades do not just crack – they age gracefully like a fading Hollywood star, while alongside them, sprawling palm tree leaves fan languidly and frame each image with their tropical elegance. In wide avenues, shops give way to wrought iron benches and potted flowers, while lamp posts twist and curve with avant garde excellence, and fountains compete with one another, sploshing and splashing their way across the city’s grandest squares.

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Jerez is a city built largely in beige. It is not terribly green, but instead its attraction translates from the sunny disposition of its golden facades and ancient marble finishings. Wandering from one square to the next, you will stumble across colonnades befitting the Florentine Renaissance, and extravagant Catholic iconography worthy of Rome. All this will run alongside the simplest of neighbourhood tapas bars, where flamenco guitarists play emotionally in the corner over lunch. Tired, lazy, but elegant in its languor, Jerez in the summer is a city which reflects its own sunshine; a place whose excesses of daytime heat are transmitted into the passion of its dance and music by night, and in the deep amber sparkle of its Sherry at all hours.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Folio // Jerez > El Alcázar y su entorno

In putting together something of a Folio of images which capture the spirit of Jerez de la Frontera – the city of our current focus of The Daily Norm – I struggled to limit these to a single post. For lovers of Spain (like me), and in particular the visceral, emotionally impactful region of Andalucia (especially me), Jerez is a true exemplar. With its sherry bars, flamenco tablas, white washed houses and cobbled streets filled with barrel bar tables, grand fountains and grander women fanning themselves in the balmy shadows, a single shot from Jerez could be a postcard image for the whole region. So with the need to split my Folio in two, this first selection focuses in on the Alcázar and its surroundings. 

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Any Andalucian city worth its salt will have an Alcázar or similar memorial to the region’s spectacular Moorish past. Rising in the 11th century, the Alcázar of Jerez bears all of the hallmarks of the time of Al Andaluz, with its horseshoe arches, trickling floor-level fountains, and a garden shaded with citrus trees and perfumed by jasmine. As per the intention of its Moorish creators, the gardens of these Arabic palaces are always the highlight of any visit, inviting the visitor into a slice of paradise on earth. Yet even this garden could not entice us in the 40+ degrees heat which coincided with our visit. No comfort could be found in the shade of those poor burning orange trees. We sought solace instead in the cavernous ancient baths with their blissfully darkened interiors and cool stone walls. 

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Heat aside, there is no doubting the beauty of Jerez’s Alcázar. Being relatively simple in design and largely rebuilt, it is no match for the glories of Granada’s Alhambra, but it resonates with a similar atmosphere of tranquility and meticulous balance. Beyond its fortress walls, the ancient city unfolds, and intoned in the same butterscotch colours, Jerez’s great gothic Cathedral rises spectacularly into ever-blue skies, while just beyond, against a landscape of patchwork fields and windmills, the great weather vane of the nearby Gonzalez Byass bodegas tells of another fortress for the modern age, built of row upon row of French and American oak barrels, containing that priceless nectar: sherry. 

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Folio // Cádiz > Idiosyncratic sea-ringed city

Every Spanish city has something unique in its character. In Seville, the essence of Andalucian vivacity pervades the air along with the sweet perfume of bitter oranges. In Barcelona, the hard lines of a modern city are massaged by the curves of art nouveau and the mosaics of Gaudi. Madrid is the regal, historical heart of a truly Spanish peninsula, while Bilbao feels altogether colder, more industrial but uniquely avant-garde. Cádiz is another of those highly individual urban spaces. It is at once truly Andaluz, with bursts of flamenco music sporadically enchanting the airwaves, and dry heat wafting up from pavements of hard stone and marble, but at the same time it feels different, hardened by an important maritime history, isolated by its solitary geography at the end of a narrow sand isthmus, eroded by winds, battered by foreign invasions.

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There is a definite laziness about the city, especially in the summer. Squares sheltered by trees and attracting cafes alongside fountains are vital resting places for a population baked by soaring temperatures and battered by winds meeting from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. But there is a defiance too – long narrow streets, with houses almost touching across the road, crowd in upon one another as though protecting the population from yet another invasion. Sometimes walking there it seemed like the streets would go on, unceasingly, for hundreds of metres, before they finally broke out into a pleasant leafy square or opened up onto the impressive facade of a church or historical mansion. 

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Cádiz for me did not feel truly Spanish. Of course it exhibited elements of Andalucia, sharing characteristics of nearby Malaga, and other coastal towns. But Cadiz also exhibited a certain aloofness, an unwillingness to embrace, but to greet with a colder yet still welcome smile, as visitors are invited to unpeel the multiple layers of history in one of Europe’s longest occupied cities in order to find the true spirit of Cádiz beneath them all. 

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 5 – Spinalonga, The Island of No Return

As my last few posts have hopefully demonstrated, the bay of Mirabello in Eastern Crete is every bit as beautiful as the name suggests. And yet its coastline, fractured by little spin-offs of mini mountain islands tracing the coast yet a water’s breadth apart, holds a darker, more ugly secret: Spinalonga. The name sounds like the setting for a fairy tale – a spindle perhaps, upon whose thorny point a princess pricks her finger. But this is no fairy island. It is a place which, up until as recently as 1957, was an island cut off from the mainland not just by sea but by law and stigma: it was the home of Crete’s leper colony, an exile for those afflicted with history’s most devastating illness.

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Those of you who have read Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel, The Island, will already know about Spinalonga. Once a fortified stronghold created by the Venetian occupiers of Crete and later taken over by the Ottomans, it was put to use as an island on which to keep leper suffers forcibly separated from the rest of society. Once diagnosed as having the condition, suffers would be flagrantly torn from their families and shipped off to the island. Few would ever leave it.

As Hislop describes, as the decades went on, Spinalonga went from an utterly savage backwater completely devoid of civilisation to a thriving little town in its own right fit with electricity, shops, a theatre, even a hairdresser. And when the discovery of a cure for leprosy meant that the island was finally abandoned in 1957, all of that civilisation was forsaken to the elements. It was in that state of utmost dilapidation that we found Spinalonga when we took a boat from nearby Eloundia to visit this most dejected of locations.

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Barren, sun-roasted and rocky, the island on one side was little more than a fortified wall with stark cactus-filled cliffs. However turn landwards and amongst the rubble you could start to see the ghosts of former houses, their shutters half hanging on rusty hinges and their contents long since pillaged. Stone staircases were collapsed under the weight of fallen rubble and punctuated by weeds; the bare bones of wooden beams indicated where once a roof had stood. There is no doubting the feeling of melancholia and claustrophobia which pervades this small tumbledown space, yet few could deny the beauty which was also visible in the stark contrast between rubble and ramshackle, and the stunning turquoise seas which surround the island, and cut it off from the rest of the world.

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We left Spinalonga utterly captivated by the historical significance and emotional impact of the leper island. You cannot escape the sadness which permeates the very fabric of this island of imprisonment and social rebuff. Yet across the Cretan winds, uplifted by the deep ultramarine blue of the island’s surroundings, there is the smallest hint of hope – for Spinalonga’s desertion indicated mankind’s dominance over a disease which had ravaged millions since the beginning of time. And that is surely a cause for celebration.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.