1 September 2008

Oxford - London - Portsmouth

All good things come to an end eventually. And so I leave the Heavenly paradise of Chinese friendship and cuisine (!) and hit the road to Oxford. My departure has been (happily) delayed by good company and food for several days... Today, on the day of my departure a light rain drizzles the whole morning: a good excuse to stay another day. But then again, I have already used precisely the same excuse for the last three days...
At noon, after countless cuppa (tea w/w milk) I decide to wait no longer and mount the panniers and set off.
Minutes later - I am not even out of Birmingham - the drizzle turns into a full grown downpour. Surprise... this is still England! But my spirit is light and I don't mind. Being on the road for the first day after a break is always easy. My thoughts wander off to future locations and the air that I breathe always feels lighter and fresher and I smile despite all possible hardship. I love this trip. What's a bit of rain when you will be enjoying the beaches of France in a few days time?!

I manage to find the marked cyclepath (No 5) to Oxford and follow it. I have no doubt that the British organisation "Sustrans", who is in charge of developing and marking the cyclepaths, have only best intentions. They would never want to lead a cyclist into a maze of roadsigns or forest paths. Yet they do just that every couple of kilometers.
First there is a teaser of a little stretch of beautiful, traffic free singletrack (see picture above). Then one of the blue roadmarks is missing or overgrown by the lush vegetation what makes me run straight into a fence, an industrial quarter, a motorway or...

... a mudbath.
Hurray! When I was about 10 years old, my parents took my brother and me to a pottery workshop. While my parents manufactured blue tiles for our kitchen wall, we kids did all kind of things with the wet dirt that we found there (I remember that my masterpiece was a little penguin that still stands on one of my mothers shelves today; catching dust, except with the part of the beak that broke off). Great fun. but the clay they gave us in the pottery workshop wasn't half as sticky as the mudbath that I encountered north of Oxford. While I try to find my way through the mud (in the far distance I can see a little sign with an arrow pointing to the left) my tyres clog up and so do the brakes, the chain, the shifting, the rims, my shoes, lower legs, upper legs, hands - short - everything.
The mud is so slimy and deep that it is very tiresome to push my bike. Its tyres leave deep canyons in the sticky grey mass. In the mud next to my canyoans I can make out marks from other cycle tyres. So there have been people here with bicycles before me. I am determined to continue. Finally, after 15 minutes of sweating and swearing I stand in front of the little roadsign with the arrow. It says: "public footpath".

Thank buddha nobody is around to witness this. I am so enchanted that even after my little hissy fit I still feel like murdering someone barehanded. Surely if it says "Sustrans" on his namecard. I must have lost the bloody path again somewhere. Somewhere? Somewhere BEFORE the mudbath! I look left and right. 8 foot high fences. There is no way getting through. I have to go back. Once more - through the mud.
Today, "Sustrans" surely qualifies for my favorite four letter word. From here I keep strictly to the main road to Oxford. Traffic is my best friend.

For the eye, Oxford is a very preasant city. Everything is very neat (except my appearance - dried mud up my legs and all over my arms. Little brown sprinkles in my face...) Colleges and museums everywhere! Marc, the lovely porter of Trinity College lets me park my bike in the entrance area while I visit the Museum of the History of Science on the opposite side of the road.

He also invites me to have a look at the college. I am impressed my the beauty and serenity of the buildings. More even of the perfection that goes into the space between: the famous English gardening. I have always wanted to know how they manage to trim their greens in that manecure kind of way. The secret is made of stainless steel and called "Buffalo 34". It has so many handles and switches that I wonder if the operator requires a license for it. Well, with or without license, (s)he definitely requires a whole lot of trust from the director of the college - fucking up that green surely inflicts the death sentence! (I witnessed how a tourist briefly stepped on the grass - the chief surgeon of the medical college needed 4 hours and 6 sets of sutures to attach his head back onto the neck...)

Completed in 1683, the Museum of the History of Science claims to be the world's first purpose built museum. It features an impressive collection of scientific instruments that were used for astronomical, chemical and physics experiements: laboratory apparatuses, early microscopes, a giant lobestone (magnet), first compasses, astrolobes (instruments to determine the position of the stars), telescopes, etc.

In the basement of the building there are several ancient "barometers" - instruments to measure the pressure of the air (see first picture of this post). By recording the development of the air pressure, scientists are able to predict the development of the weather. I have to smile when i think that a scale with "Rain", "Much Rain" and "Stormy" would have been fully sufficient for Great Britain. I mean, honsetly, did anyone ever witness "Very Dry" weather here?

On the ground floor I find different models of the universe. Their cages, beams and cogs are entirely made of shiny brass. They display our solar system either with the earth or the sun at its center! Back in the 17th century, the museum and its contents was used to conduct experiments and hold lectures. Strange to imagine that, back then, scientists were confronted with serious health hazards by supporting either the one or the other idea of what moves around what. Thinking about the world and the universe I realize that I still didn't finish the little front plate that decorates my bike since my departure in Tromso. So I look for a toy store and borrough some paint...

After Oxford I make my way to the south of England. My plan is to take a ferry from Portsmouth to France (Le Havre or St.Malo). I don't want to bother cycling into the big traffic chaos of London (I had been there during a cycling trip in 1996) so I stop in Reading for a day and take the commuter train to Paddington Station.

I am never sure what it is that makes me like this giant city. However, fact is: I love being in London. The architecture, the bustling traffic, the hordes of tourists, Chinatown, Hyde Park, the whole circus about the Royals and the change of guards...

This time I came particularily to visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. But how to get from Paddington to Greenwich?

When I was a child I often played a board game called "Scotland Yard", some sort of hide and seek between Mr.X and the London cops.

Mr.X uses different forms of transport to escape his followers. But he has to appear in intervals to let Scotland Yard know his position. He also has to unveil what transport he uses when. The cops use all the information to encircle the probable future locations...

I remember that a fast and effective way to shake off your hunters was the use of the boat services on the thames river (it had its cost, though - the charge was one of the "black tickets" - and you only had two of those for the whole game).

A fast and effective way to get from one end of town to the other? Here we go!

They don't actually charge "Black tickets" for it. They give you a 1/3 discount when you produce a valid day travel card. Good enough to enjoy a light breeze during the 40 minute cruise and see Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Tate Modern and so forth from a new angle :)

A visit to the Royal Observatory is a great experience! (If one has sufficient time, I highly recommend to also visit the Maritime Museum next door.) It is possible to enter the old working rooms and living quarters of the Astronomer Royal and his team. The position was established in 1675 by King Charles II and the first Astronomer Royal (John Flamsteed) started to observe the movement of the heavenly objects with state of the art technology.
A major problem at that time period was the determination of Longitude. It was already possible to determine Latitude of any given position by measuring the angle of the sun over the horizon at noon (zenith). So seafarers would be able to know how may degrees north or south their ship sailed in relation to the equator (the calculations could take up to 4 hours time!). Nevertheless, no matter how much efford they would have given into trying: it was impossible for them to determine their Longitude (the position West or East) because they lacked a method of comparing their local time to a given time on land.
Today, a simple GPS gives you within seconds a very precise position ( Latitude, Longitude: e.g. 34 degrees 20' 15" N, 59 degrees 09' 47" E). With this technology, nowadays, amateurs are able to navigate a sailboat around the world. Then, knowing the exact position of a ship had immense economical and military importance. A high price money was put forth for the person who solved the Longitude problem.
The astronomical society (with their Authority being the Astronomer Royal in Greenwich) figured that there was a way of finding Longitude by looking at the star constellations and the movement of the moon. But they lacked reliable long term data about the positions of the stars. So the team of the Astronomer Royal observed and catalogized those constellations over several decades. Basically every single night!!! Thus they lived and worked in the same space, which is the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
The person who then actually solved the Longitude problem was someone entirely different. It was a simple watchmaker called John Harrison. He used to build Tower clocks that were driven by long pendulums. But pendulums do not work reliable on a ship that moves and rolls with the waves. A pendulum clock would not keep time sufficiently accurate on board a ship to determine the Longitude with the required precision. During his life, Harrision build 5 clocks that were intented to be used aboard ships. They are on display in the Royal Observatory. And they are most impressive objects. The first 3 models don't actually resemble watches but rather look like time-warp-machines. Lots of movable parts. All made of brass. Beams in all directions, coil springs, weights, countless cogs. The first one weighs something like 75 pounds.
Imagine, for the completion of one of the clocks (I think it was the second one) Harrison needed 20 years!!! 20 years. I could ride around the world three times...
However, Harrision was never entirely happy with his designs until he created his famous H4 (Harrision model 4). He used a totally new concept and the size and complexity reduced drastically (see picture). This watch H4 was the solution to the Longitude problem. Now, a navigator at sea could compare the time on board his ship (noon is the moment that the sun is in the zenith) to the time in a distant place (e.g. Greenwich). The time difference would represent teh angle between his position and the position of Greenwich. Therefore Greenwich was made the location of the Prime Meridian and all calculations (also those of today's GPS) are calculated from this Meridian at GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

How did captains know the exact Greenwich Meantime? Well, they just sailed their ships up the Thames river to Greenwich. On top of the Royal Observatory is a pole with the red Time Ball. Every day at 12:55 the ball goes up and drops at precisely 13:00. They set the watch and off they sail to their foreign lands...
By chance I arrive in Greenwich just a couple of minutes to one. So I actually manage to be there when the famous Time Ball rises and drops. A very nostalgic moment. In times of mass produced Chinese quarz watches it is hard to believe how this little red ball had once such immense importance.
(For those who are interested in this subject or want to make sense of my above mess: there is a fantastic book about the history of the Longitude Problem called "Longitude" that reads like a crime.)

After my visit to London I return to Reading and from there continue my trip to the harbour of Portsmouth. I decide to take a ferry to St.Malo in Brittany, France. Since I need to wait a day for the ferry I buy another day saver pass and return to London. This time it is Tate Modern, where I meet for a coffee with my friend Stine-Mari that I know from Tromso. With modern transportation the world is really just a village...

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