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Posts tagged ‘University’

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


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


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


© 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


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


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


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


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.


© 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.


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.


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


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


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.

Bologna: La Dotta – Learned city where the profane is sacred, and the sacred is mundane.

As far as outward appearances go, Bologna holds its own amongst the crowd. For beautiful buildings, magnificent public monuments, fading Renaissance elegance and vast central piazzas, Bologna is undaunted by its more celebrated rival cities of Florence, Milan and Rome. But behind the facade, in mind, Bologna is quite different. In Rome, for example, the dominant influence of the church, and in particular of the Vatican looming close by, is evident all around. You only need to turn a corner to find another vast church, stuffed to saturation full of the most exquisite baroque sculpture, euphoric painted ceilings, depicting heaven and hell with startling realism and artistic virtuosity, gold-dripping altars, elaborate side chapels, and 100% fresco coverage throughout. In Florence, the green, pink and white marble covered Duomo and its baptistry dominates the city’s central piazza, while just around the corner, the equally stunning Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella dominate their own respective squares.

In Bologna, by contrast, there is a sense that the church plays second fiddle. True, the Piazza Maggiore is at least partially dominated by the looming presence of the Basilica San Petronio, but its vast marble facade has been left unfinished, as though the Bolognese started the expensive task of covering the brown bricks with marble, only to decide that the money could be better spent on other things. Meanwhile, on the inside, the church has a vast gothic interior, rising almost endlessly into the sky, yet compared with other Italian cathedrals, this interior is stark and austere, exhibiting the same lack of embellishment as is all too obvious on the exterior.

San Petronio’s unfinished exterior

And its impressive but austere gothic interior

In Bologna too is the iconic church of Santo Stefano, which is actually comprised of a hodge-bodge of some 8 older churches all linked together. However the rather plain brick-facade of this church is easily dominated by the stunning collonades of the neighbouring buildings, and all of the guide books of Bologna refer not to the beauty of the church, but of the square itself, with its fine Merchant mansions, shopping arcades and perfectly-proportioned palazzos.

Overshadowed: Santo Stefano

That’s not to say that the Bolognese are a population of heathens, rejecting the church and pursuing a life of hedonistic profanity and over-indulgence. The Basilica of San Petronio is, in fact, a mere shadow of its original design, which was intended to be a vast religious temple when designs were drawn up in the 16th century, but which were promptly interrupted by the Vatican who feared that the resulting cathedral would overshadow St Peter’s in Rome. As it is, the cathedral is the 15th biggest in the world. While the intention was there, you can’t help but notice that in spirit, Bologna’s priorities lie elsewhere. For the second of Bologna’s three renowned epithets is La Dotta: the Learned, and the great prevailing buttress of Bologna’s cultural foundation is intellect and learning – and you can see it all around.

A happy Bologna graduate on her graduation day

For starters, Bologna boasts what is said to be Europe’s oldest University, going back some 900 years, and the vivacious influence of the city’s still-thriving university population can be seen all around. On our first morning in the city, we wandered into the university district, just north of the central leaning towers, and there we found a district which was markedly alive with a thriving cafe culture, with campuses and libraries and a predominant feeling of youth and exploration. There, the elegant porticos of the southern city had been replaced by vast graffiti murals, protesting against austerity, opposed to Gaddafi and debating other modern polemics in technicoloured spray-paint. Instead of frescos, here the walls were covered with posters promulgating student presidential campaigns, advertising rooms to rent and promoting concerts and lectures. And instead of tourists, here the students dominated, and in fact on our visit were in the midst of a great summer graduation, for which the macabre mortar-board was replaced with a garland made from olive leaves and ribbon.

But the spirit of learning extended beyond the university. In the Piazza Maggiore we past a group of ordinary locals, energetically debating the state of the economy, some berating the influx of immigrants, others bemoaning the lack of jobs, and the rare few wishing Berlusconi was back in power. The debate went round and round, and views differed widely, but it was wonderful to see these people, vocalising their views, no matter how extreme, in a jocular environment, rather than building up resentment as is so often the case in reserved England. Meanwhile, around the Piazza, a wide range of impressive museums demonstrates Bologna’s thirst for global culture, art and history: We visited the beautiful archeological museum, where a courtyard stuffed full of Roman relics was an awesome sight, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna, where sadly the most famous works – a Giotto altarpiece and a Raphael had been hidden away owing to the double-bill of earthquakes which hit the Emilia-Romagna region in the last year.

The archeological museum

It would be unfair however to dismiss Bologna’s religious heritage all together. Seek and ye shall find, or so they say, and when you head away from the major Piazzas, there are some religious gems still to be found. The church of Santa Maria della Vita for example was quite a sight to behold. Tucked away in a side street off the Piazza Maggiore, a small door led to an interior which simply took my breath away. You can see from these photos why without further description. Also held in the church were the equally enthralling terracotta sculptures by Niccolo dell’Arca of the dead Christ and surrounding mourners. The sculptures exuded incredible dramatic pathos, the expressions of grief and torment of the figures intensified by the realism of their dramatic facial details.

Santa Maria della Vita

The Niccolo dell’Arca sculptures (protected from earthquakes, hence all the ugly wood)

Meanwhile, head out beyond the city, following the world’s longest continuous arcade (4km long, comprising an ominous 666 arches) from the centre of the city and at its end you will find the stunning sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, perched atop a hill, glowing orange, looking over the city for which it was appointed ultimate guardian.

San Luca

The uphill end of the world’s longest continuous arcade (we took the trenino rather than suffer those steps…)

So at the end of it all, Bologna, with its fiercely independent spirit and pursuit of intellectualisation and cultural superiority has captured a perfect balance. It has not sacrificed religious influence, nor morality, but it has cast the perfect equilibrium between moral precedent and intellectual and cultural freedom. In that respect Bologna has perfected a model which must surely be envied throughout the world.

All photos are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. 

Madrid-Salamanca Part III: A frog, an astronaut, and a very cold ice cream

The souvenir shops of Salamanca are full to the brim with little green frogs, largely horrendously bastardised tacky creations with google eyes and a “thumbs up” gesture, frogs donning mortar boards, others wearing baseball caps. You get the picture. So what are all these frogs in aid of? It has nothing to do with the city playing host to a frog-friendly wetland habitat (the river is more likely to play host to the many fag ends and other detritus left over from the revels of Salamanca’s students who regularly gather on its banks in weed-smoking masses). Rather, the humble frog has become the symbol of the city owing to the very inconspicuous inclusion of a tiny carved frog in the stunning plateresque facade of the University. So inconspicuous in fact is the frog that it has long since become the subject of a traditional hunt for any student or visitor to the university: He who finds the frog will, tradition dictates, be lucky. Predictably the tradition has been repeated in every tourist patter, and large groups of tourists are frequently to be found staring up at the sensationally complex facade with strained faces.

The frog is in here somewhere - can you find it?

The astronaut on the Catedral Nueva

I found the frog straight away. The problem is, I had already visited the university shop, where its location was at least partially given away by the multitude of frog postcards sold therein. Not to mention the fact that all the Japanese tourists were pointing in one direction, which kind of gave the game away. I’m nonetheless hopeful that my quick witted discovery, based on deductions stemmed from postcard clues and the careful observation of tourist behaviour, will lead to luck of some sort. Or perhaps it just emphasises a point I have often made: you make your own luck in life. Well, you may as well try it out – I’ve included a photo above of the general area of the frog (thus giving you a head start) – see if you can find it! You never know what luck it may give you.

Ice cream cone on the facade of the Catedral Nueva

Sensing the potential profitability out of all this froggy fuss, the neighbouring cathedral has not allowed itself to be outdone. Within its equally complex facade, some cheeky renovators recently added an astronaut floating in amongst the pre-existing baroque foliage, as well as a mythical wolf like creature grasping an ice cream cone. I adore both additions, and love the humour which has been so readily embraced by the Cathedral authorities. Can you imagine a similar attempt by restorers of an ancient building in England? English Heritage would be all over them with threats and protestations quicker than an ice cream could melt. The only trouble is, you can spot the renovated pieces of sandstone quickly enough, and thus finding this cheeky twosome amidst the older, more eroded stonework can be done with a degree of ease. This does not detract from their charm however, and unlike the frog, they’re big enough, and sufficiently unweathered enough, to actually appreciate!

Whatever their contents, there is no escaping the stunningly elaborate and incredibly detailed building facades which literally choke the streets of Salamanca with their excessive virtuosity. These “plateresque” facades, so called because they are overtly elaborate, thus resembling silver work or “plata”, are synonymous with 15th and 16th century baroque architecture in Spain, but are all the more stunningly executed in Salamanca in the local Villamayor sandstone, the like of which enabled the stonemason to carve with even more precision, but which also gives a glimmering golden glow to the finished product.

Looking up at the facade of the Catedral Nueva

Facade of the Convento de San Esteban

Cloisters in the Convento de San Esteban

Asides from the breathtaking examples of stonemasonry covering the cathedral and the university facade, another standout example is to be found on the facade of the Convento de San Esteban, our next destination. The facade is nothing short of extraordinary, rising like an altar over the southeastern corner of the city, depicting the stoning of San Esteban (St Stephen) as its central motif. The detail of the work is mind blowing – I just hope that it survives the sustained attack of natural erosion upon its delicate forms.

Past this beautiful facade and into the convent, we found an equally stunning Gothic-Renaissance cloister, a space of such tranquility that, with the sun streaming through the long gothic windows and only the sound of quiet birdsong emanating from the carefully tendered gardens, one finds the ability to think and reflect more clearly than ever before. This cloister was like a place of epiphany. I fell almost trancelike into uninhibited introspection as I walked around the cloister and around the magnificent adjoining church, feeling my mind, body and soul slowing to a different pace of life, all the buzz of city life left behind, and my eased spirit released into the tranquil empyrean all around me. It was pretty difficult to leave I can tell you. I felt bad that we had only paid €2 to get in. It seemed an insanely small amount of money for the benefit we had received in return, especially compared with the university, where a €12 admission fee was charged to look around a few dark old classrooms and a library which you can’t enter but are forced to view from behind heavily protective perspex.

Cloisters in the Convento de San Esteban

Back into Salamanca, yet more architectural gems lay in wait – like the Casa de las Conchas, one of the city’s most endearing buildings, named after the several hundred scallop shells which cling to its facade and are even wrought in iron onto the front door. Surely this house had to have inspired Salvador Dali when he went about designing his theatre-museum in Figueres? It is thought that the shell symbolism stems from the shell symbol of the ancient Order of Santiago, of which the house’s original owner, Dr Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, was an evidentially proud member. It certainly makes for a novel site in amongst the more complex facades which otherwise dominate Salamanca’s old town.

Casa de las Conchas

With the sun starting to fade and Salamanca taking on that familiar peachy hue, we took the opportunity to gaze at the architectural splendours from afar – walking over Salamanca’s ancient Roman bridge to the other side of the river. Not only were we greeted by the picture-postcard view of the city, we also found a guilty pleasure – an empty children’s playground and a pair of swings. We couldn’t resist squeezing our adult bottoms into those swings and setting off into the air, a feeling of unadulterated childlike pleasure in an adult world, memories of our youth flooding back as the wind swished past us and our stomachs lurched as the swinging motion took hold.

Frogs, astronauts, ice creams and swings – in a city where imposing and austere church buildings dominate, there is still an ascendant feeling of fun, a feeling augmented by the city’s thriving student population which breathes youth and vitality into the arteries of this historical monument to Spain’s rich architectural, educational and religious heritage.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.