The Oxford Experience – A Summer School

The Oxford Experience – A Summer School

Christ Church College, Oxford, England.

I enjoyed my work as a lawyer. I loved the law. Retirement had never been high on my list of desirable lifetime experiences. I was quite shocked when it became apparent that at some point I should consider a life after law.

In part, my horror at the thought of retirement, came from my observations of life after retirement. Admittedly, I did not have a very large group to observe, but it seemed to me that retirement was akin to entering “god’s” waiting room. Apparent relevance deprivation seemed to be a very real concern.

So, how to deal with this inevitable progression of my life? I spent a couple of years before retirement researching possible life after retirement activities which would provide intellectual stimulation, adventure, excitement and fun.

I love travel, and had travelled a lot. I was always interested in ancient history. I enjoyed photography – on an extremely amateur level. Archaeology, also on an extremely amateur level, sounded like a good fit, as I had over the years visited many archaeological sites in Europe and Asia, and enjoyed learning about ancient civilisations.

My research yielded several interesting possibilities to take my interest in archaeology further, one of which was “The Oxford Experience” consisting of a week long summer class in numerous topics at Oxford University in England. Advertised as offering “authentic experiences of life at world famous universities” it sounded like fun, with a little learning thrown in for good measure.

I enrolled in “Archaeology of Medieval Palaces” at Christ Church College, Oxford, and booked a single student room in the Meadows residential building at Christ Church.

Having completed the pre-reading, I arrived at Christ College on the appointed day, ready to learn and more than ready to enjoy the Oxford experience.

Entering the college through the main entrance, off St Algates into the Tom Quad, I felt as if I had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole into a whole new world. Tom Quad is flanked by the Tom Tower (a bell tower) at one end, and the entrances to Christ Church Cathedral and the dining hall opposite and to the right. A beautifully mowed splendid green lawn with a huge waterlily pond in the centre set off the buildings around the quad perfectly.

A porter took me to my room in the Meadows, despite my request to just provide directions, and I could find my own way. I loved the building, my room, and the view over the meadows.

The medieval palaces tutor was very engaging, interesting, knowledgable and fun. Each morning’s lectures provided the opportunity to learn a little, and to hear about the tutor’s experiences on various sites. He had been involved in excavations of the moat around the Tower of London. The findings were fascinating.

He had also been involved in the Windsor Castle restoration after the fire there in 1992. He related an incident, after the fire. He and his team were working on restoration projects, Elizabeth and Philip were strolling by – Philip was heard to say “oh, I say, what are those chaps doing” – as if “those chaps” were deaf.

Field trips to various archaeological sites bought the lectures to life. The first field trip was to Wolvesey Castle (old Bishops Palace, Winchester). The Bishops of Winchester were powerful and wealthy. They had several palaces, including one in London – a great advantage of wealth is to have one’s own abode in the places visited.

The ruins of the old Bishops Palace in Winchester date from around the 12th century. The history of the palace, its brief period of fortification as a castle, and the events which occurred at the old Bishops Palace, Winchester are worthy of a great deal more time and study – alas, an afternoon only scratched the surface.

We visited the most impressive Winchester Cathedral after exploring the old Bishops Palace. The cathedral is of Norman construction and was built from 1079 to 1532. It has an early Norman crypt, renaissance chapels and one of the longest gothic naves in Europe. I felt that I had some connection with Winchester cathedral – tenuous, but a connection nevertheless. My “sister” cousins were Winchesters. Quite obviously a connection!

A field trip to Bishops Waltham Palace, a medieval palace used by the Bishops and senior clergy of Winchester, as they travelled through their diocese, continued our practical studies.

Bishop’s Waltham Palace as built around 1135, and was a grand medieval palace and one of the finest residences of the Bishops of Winchester. It was destroyed in 1644. The ruins are impressive.

Academic, lite but interesting, was only a part of the Oxford experience. The fun parts provided a very small glimpse of the life of a privileged person attending Oxford.

Strawberries and champagne in the Cathedral Garden on a beautiful July evening, chatting to people from around the world, was a perfect way to end an afternoon.

Dining in the Great Hall, occasionally seated at the High table, provided a Henry VIII Tudor atmosphere. The Great Hall was completed in the 1520’s – a magnificent renaissance hall. The walls are lined with portraits of illustrious persons, predominantly white males. Wider diversification of portraiture would render the walls more interesting. A start was made in 2017. A portrait of Professor Judith Pallot has joined the boys on the walls – the first female Fellow to have her portrait hung in the Great Hall.

The Buttery, one of the student bars, was a nice spot to enjoy pre-dinner drinks. Rather an odd name for a bar I thought, given that there was no butter in sight. A Buttery had never featured in my Antipodean life. I discovered a Buttery has a significant history – store room in cellar, second storeroom to store and decant wine and ale (as opposed to a pantry storeroom, in which food was stored.)

The Master’s garden was a lovely place to stroll around, or to sit and read – one of those beautiful gardens which England excels in. The Cloister Garden was another beautiful space – a medieval style garden, containing medicinal plants, and a lavender lined lawn. There is a fountain, and a planter, containing an olive tree.

Having walked and cycled along many parts of the Thames Path over the years, through London from Greenwich to Richmond, and a little beyond, I could not leave Oxford without exploring the Thames Path at Oxford. I decided to walk from Oxford to Iffley. Come join me on a that walk.

I have travelled far and wide, several times a year, visiting archaeological sites in many countries and learning about the people, history and cultures past and present of the places visited.

I return from each adventure invigorated, and spend a lot of time reading and learning more about the places visited, and the history of those places, and writing about them.

I have to admit to a little soul searching early in retirement, to stave off the relevance deprivation feelings, but a reality check of my relevance bought the realisation that no one is particularly relevant in the big scheme of things, and everyone is relevant in one way or another.

Covid has been trying to nudge me into “God’s waiting room”, and has occasionally had me on the threshhold. It has been nearly three years since I have had an adventure, but god’s waiting room will have to wait. An adventure beckons.

Portugal – In Search of Ancestors – Part 2.

Portugal – In Search of Ancestors – Part 2.

Those of us whose ancestors emigrated to the new world in search of a better life generally have a very mixed ancestry.

My ancestors were predominantly from Ireland. I also have English, Scottish and Portugese ancestry. Searching for them, and travelling to the places they came from and researching what their lives may have been like, has been most enjoyable. Particularly the travel.

The Portugese ancestors are elusive.

I have been unable to verify where in Portugal my great grandfather, Antonio Joseph Thomas came from. One branch of the family say he was from Portalegre. A person bearing the same name as my great grandfather, was naturalized on 16 June 1886, in Auckland. That Antonio is stated as having been born in the Azores. His occupation at that time was a painter.

My great grandfather’s occupation was stated on his marriage certificate as a Labourer. At the time of my grandmother’s birth he was recorded as a painter, on her marriage certificate a house painter, and his death certificate recorded his occupation as a retired painter. His death certificate also recorded the name of his father as Antonio Joseph Thomas.

Antonio Joseph Thomas (Tomaz) is a very common name in Portugal, and sifting through the records available is as difficult as tracking down the numerous Irish ancestors who carried the same name as hundreds of Irish non ancestors.

Antonio was 16 when he came to New Zealand. He was said to have been a seaman who jumped ship in Auckland.  There are a lot of records of a seaman named Antonio Thomas, who worked on coastal cargo boats around Australia, before and after his arrival in New Zealand.

My great grandfather married my great grandmother, Matilda, in Auckland in 1880. The marriage record does not record his place of birth. Portugal was noted as his place of birth on my grandmother’s birth certificate, and on Antonio’s death certificate. So – Portalegre or the Azores.

My visits to Portugal have not been in an effort to trace ancestors. Not speaking or reading the language makes that impossible. Rather, it was to experience a part of the world my ancestors had come from. I had always enjoyed the thought of having Portugese ancestry, and was interested in visiting places and seeing things my great grandfather may have visited and seen.

I first visited Lisbon some years ago when I was working in London. I had booked a hotel by Eduardo VII park. When I gave the taxi driver at the airport the address he indicated that was a very bad choice. I should not, under any circumstances, set foot in that park, as it was a very seedy part of Lisbon. I should take a taxi wherever I wished to go. His taxi of course.

I thought the park was a very pleasant place, and my first explorations of Lisbon were on foot, and through the park.

Antonio would not have seen The Castelo de Sao Jorge as it is now. The ramparts remained in ruins after an earthquake in 1755. What I saw was a result of a complete renovation began in 1938.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon.

The views over Lisbon and the Tagus River from the Castelo are magnificent. Perhaps Antonio enjoyed the view from the ruined ramparts.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao Jorge

Antonio would have seen the triumphal arch on the north side of the Praca do Comercio.

Triumphal arch.

I did take a taxi to Belem. Not my airport taxi, and not because I was scared. With only three days in Lisbon, I needed to move about as quickly as possible.

Lisbon’s shipyards and docks were situated in Belem in the estuary of the Tagus River. The early Portugese explorers set out from these shipyards in the 15th-16th century. Antonio was a seaman. Did he embark on a ship in Belem when he left Portugal? If he did, he would have seen the Torre de Belem, completed in 1519. It was built as a fortress which guarded the estuary. It is a gem of a building, with openwork balconies and North African inspired watchtowers.

The Monument of the Discoveries was built at Belem to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, who died in 1460. The eastern side of the monument has statues of Portugese great explorers, and the western side has statues of of those people who empowered the 15th century age of discovery.

Of those explorers commemorated on the eastern side of the monument, I knew about Vasco da Gama who had discovered the sea route to India, Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the world and Bartolomeu Dias, the first to navigate the Cape of Good Hope. Perhaps my Portugese ancestry is responsible for my restless spirit and need to travel.

St Jeronimos Monastery in Belem was commissioned by Manuel 1 in 1501. It was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s voyage, and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the success of the voyage. Vasco da Gama is entombed in the monastery. The monastery is a symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. It is a most pleasing confection of a building. Antonio would have been aware of this monastery if he had embarked from Portugal at Belem, but I doubt if he would have appreciated the architecture.

I love gargoyles. St Jeronimo has some wonderful examples.

I came across the Gulbenkian Museum quite by accident. It is situated north east of the supposedly dangerous Eduardo VII Park. What started as an accident turned into a magical experience. Think classical art including Egyptian, Greco Roman, Mesopotamian, Eastern Islamic, Armenian and Far eastern art, and so much more.

The museum is set in a park, and contains the private collection of an Armenian oil Magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian. The collection is outstanding.

I did not have enough time on this visit to spend much time in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, but I did manage to see Hieronymus Bosch’s “Temptations of St Anthony” triptych. Hieronymous Bosch is one of my all time favourite artists, and St Anthony was wonderfully gruesome.

There is an abundance of blokes on top of poles in Lisbon. There may have been a woman somewhere, but I didn’t see one.

I visited Portugal again a couple of years ago, this time with KT. I enjoyed revisiting Lisbon, and experienced a different Lisbon. KT was happy to accompany me on trawls of those parts of Lisbon which Antonio may have seen. She was also interested in the food and wine, and so I enjoyed much better dining and drinking experiences, although custard tarts are not up there on my list of favourites.

I had been very keen to visit Sintra. Lord Byron visited in 1809, and referred to Sintra in Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and Glen”. I wanted to see that glorious Eden.

KT and I caught a train to Sintra. We took so long to locate the correct railway station that by the time we got to Sintra it was nearly lunch time. Sharing the sites with the multitudes meant that the queues for entry to the palaces were were up to an hour long.

We headed to the Palacio Nacional da Pena which is situated in the hills of the Serra de Sintra. This palace is a fantastical colourful extravagance. It has domes, towers and a drawbridge. It is very brightly painted, yellow here, red there. It sits on a rocky outcrop, where once a castle stood.

The palace has an entrance guarded by a magnificent mythical gargoyle. Elaborate stone carvings and beautiful tiles add to the fantasyland feel of the palace.

I could not imagine that Antonio would have visited the palace. From what I have heard of him, even if he had, he would have had no appreciation for the art and architecture.

Our late arrival, and the hoards of people resulted in not having the time to explore other fabulous palaces, but we did see some of them whilst driving out to the coast. Monserrate was one of these.

The Palace of Monserrate.

KT and I caught a train from Lisbon to Porto. The lift up to the platform was very slow. I don’t do slow if there is an alternative. The escalator beckoned. While sailing regally up the escalator, suitcase safely tucked beside me, the suitcase decided it would prefer to stay in Lisbon, though not on its own. It flipped backwards and knocked me down with it. What followed was a most spectacular backflip. Two backward rolls later, I end up sailing feet first up the escalator. KT had the grace not to laugh at the sight of Gma coming up the escalator feet first.

Bleeding profusely, I arrive on the platform, with people flocking around suggesting calling an ambulance. The injuries were minor and I was not planning on missing the train to Porto.

Our hotel in Porto had been alerted to the arrival of the wounded Gma. An upgraded room was a great consolation prize.

If Antonio had visited Porto, there is much of Porto that he would recognise today. The riverside district, medieval Ribeira with its cobbled narrow streets would not have looked much different.

The Cais da Ribeira, with its bustling restaurants and bars is a perfect place to stroll along, eat or sit with a drink, watch the river traffic and observe people. The raised embankment which facilitates the riverfront promenade, would post date Antonio, so he would not have experienced the leisurely stroll KT and I had. I suspect he never experienced an icy cold gin and tonic in his life, let alone in Porto.

Gin and Tonic on the Cais da Ribeira, Porto.

I love ceramic tiles. I have been collecting them on my travels for years. Portugal produces blue and white tiles like I have never encountered. Porto is a tile lover’s heaven.

The Igreja do Carmo was built between 1756 and 1768 in the Rococo Baroque Style. It is adorned with blue azulejos tiles. The tiles pay tribute to “our lady” and tell the story of the church’s foundation.

The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is a church built in 1739, but the azulejo tiles were only added in 1932. The tiles represent the life of St Ildefonso.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, Porto.

Portugal is known for its catholic culture. It is doubtful that Antonio was a catholic. His children from his relationship with my great grandmother, Matilda were not catholic.

Igreja Sao Francisco is a gothic style church with an opulent baroque interior, which appears to be covered in gold, due to the gilded wooden carvings. A particularly gruesome carving of the Martyrs of Morocco took my eye. Heads were being severed from the unfortunate martyrs bodies. Those already severed were rolling about at the feet of those yet to lose their heads.

One of the altarpieces represents the family tree of Jesus, showing his descent from the Kings of Judah and Israel. At the top of the tree is Jesus, with Mary and Joseph. The 12 Kings of Judah are connected through the branches. Jesse of Bethlehem is reclining at the foot of the tree.

Igreja Sao Francisco was deconsecrated in the 19th century. It has been said that the opulence of the interior became a bit of an embarrassment to an order who take a vow of poverty.

The narrow cobbled streets, churches, shops, merchants houses and cellars for storing port along the banks of the Douro river would have looked very much the same to Antonio as they did to me. Only the Dom Luis 1 bridge, which was completed in 1886 was built after his departure from Portugal.

I enjoyed looking at the graffiti around Porto. I wonder if there was a version of modern graffiti around in Antonio’s days.

Antonio, by all accounts, was not a very nice man. He deserted my great grandmother and their 8 living children in around 1900. He failed to comply with a court order requiring him to support my great grandmother, Matilda, for which he received a three month suspended jail sentence. He had several more children from another relationship. His descendants from that relationship say he was born in Portalegre, Portugal. They also say that he returned to Portugal in order to obtain money which was his share of of his father’s property in Portugal. If this is so, he may well have been in parts of Portugal I visited.

I am inclined to believe that the descendants of Antonio’s second family would know more about him than I do. They would have known him for longer than his first family knew him, and he may have shared more details of his life with them. They also may well have a different view of his character.

As more records become available, I may find out more about Antonio. I certainly plan to visit Portugal again, even if I do not.