13 October 2009--The Corinium Museum doesn't open until 10:00, so I take a walk to see the Roman amphitheatre
on the edge of town. I'm thinking of a stone ruin, so I'm a little disappointed at first to find a large grassy bowl. With
preconceptions banished, though, I find it an evocative spot.
I learn a lot in the museum. The Roman city, an important administrative center, was pretty much abandoned after the Romans withdrew from the British Isles, and the medieval city grew on its ruins. Thus there is little visible above ground of the earlier town. But there was a lot buried, much now in the museum. I'm especially impressed with the number and quality of mosaic floors.
One thing that is visible is a small stretch of the old Roman city wall, at the far end of the medieval abbey grounds. That's more than remains of the abbey itself, thoroughly dismantled during the Reformation.
It's 1:30 before I leave for Oxford. I'm anxious to get there, as I need to find a room and settle in before tonight's concert. Nevertheless, I choose to go via Swindon, in hopes of getting a look at the Uffington White Horse. Soon enough I find myself making a long detour to see it up close. I'm increasingly agitated, not only because I'm using up precious time, but because I know the horse is better viewed from a distance, and yet I can't even catch a glimpse of it through the roadside foliage. Eventually I come to a parking lot, and begin the half-mile walk to the Horse itself. When I get to it at last, it's something of a letdown--it's really impossible to see properly when you're right on it, and the charm of its impressionistic strokes is lost. Really, the only way to see it coherently is from the air, a bit odd considering that it dates from the Bronze Age. What were those people thinking?
I get to Oxford between 3:30 and 4:00, and park in an underground garage in the center of town. It's pay-and-display; I have no coins, the smallest bill I have is a £10 note, and the machine makes no change. I have no time to fool around, so £10 for parking it is. The tourist office finds me a room in the Summertown neighborhood, which is near the concert venue. I pay £60, the most I've ever paid for a room, for a virtual closet. It's a clean and reasonably comfortable closet, but still. This is the price for abandoning Banbury...but I'm not unhappy. Summertown is a nice area, and if I have some misgivings as I approach the Dew Drop Inn, the one pub along the street, they are dispelled when I go inside. The Charlie Daniels/Lynyrd Skynyrd crowd I'm imagining is not here. Timothy Taylor's Landlord is.
I am here to see the Unthanks, a Northumbrian band fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. Their music is rooted in the traditional, but they have a uniquely dark and atmospheric take on it, and the new ten-piece line-up fills out their melancholy sound. It's a wonderful, sad, dreamy show, capped by the hopeless desperation of the title track from their recent album, Here's the Tender Coming, about the press gangs come to take their men off to war. (There is unfortunately no photography permitted.)
After, I get to chat with the sisters in the foyer. They are as cheerful and upbeat as their music is sad and contemplative (not that there weren't some lively moments). I tell Rachel that I saw them last year at home, just before traveling to the UK, and this year in Oxford, just before going home. It seems like a pair of very broadly spaced bookends. "Becky, this gentleman saw us in Northampton," Rachel tells her sister. Becky looks blank for a moment. "Massachusetts," I elaborate. "Oh of course!" she giggles. "I couldn't remember ever playing Northampton [England]."
I'm disappointed to find the Dew Drop closing up at 11:00, but it's as well. I head back to my closet. I'm making very good progress on that bottle of Highland Park.