Monday, July 4, 2011

2011 Tour - Day 10: Oxford

We had breakfast with our generous host families, and they brought us back to The Dragon School for a kickoff of the day’s activities. In sharing stories about our host homes, we learned that some families choose to live in Oxford so their children can attend The Dragon School. It has been a privilege to experience the inside of such a preeminent institution of learning.

Lavender is in peak bloom everywhere we go, and it smells heavenly. One host family explained that lavender is planted intentionally to reach out over the sidewalk. When you pass by, brushing against the plant releases the sweet aroma even more so.

We were joined by Freddie Simon, a 16-year-old student at nearby St. Edward’s Oxford, a co-ed boarding school where he just finished exams. Freddie led our large group on a 30-minute walk to visit Christ Church in downtown Oxford. During our walk we had the opportunity to learn about Freddie’s background and what led him to us. He is one of four or five boys from outside Oxford, where his family has a farm growing rapeseed, wheat, and barley. When he was younger, he auditioned and was accepted as a tenor to sing in the Christ Church Cathedral boys’ choir. This required years of dedication to daily practice and worship services five days a week. His current school, St. Edward’s, has a community service program that brought him to us as a guide.

Along our walk we had a passers-by view of the town of Oxford. Oxford was first built where oxen crossed, or forded, a river to get to the site. Hence, the town was named Oxford. This place is home to world-renowned Oxford University, which is scattered throughout town rather than contained in an American-style campus. There are 46 distinct colleges within Oxford University, and they are interspersed with parks, residential neighborhoods, and shops. Each college has its own buildings, greens, faculty, and traditions. The oldest college was established in the 13th century, which is incredible! Oxford University tuition currently runs 3000 pounds a year, and next year the tuition will reportedly jump to 9000 pounds per year. Scholarships are available for rowing, rugby, singing, organ, and academics.

Jim Godfrey, a Verger at the church, gave us an informative and entertaining talk about Christ Church. As a college, Christ Church was established in the 16th century. The cathedral was built prior to that in the 12th century and is among the oldest buildings in Oxford. It is the only church in the world to be both a cathedral and a college chapel. The bell tower was built in 1682 by none other than the familiar Sir Christopher Wren. The all-male choir for the church is comprised of lay people who are professional musicians and choral scholars who are chosen through an audition process. Freddie, our walking guide, spent many, many days singing in this beautiful church. John and Charles Wesley not only studied here for three years, but the Wesley brothers were ordained at Christ Church Cathedral.

Jim told us interesting stories about Christ Church. Oxford is 1¼ degrees west of Greenwich where time was standardized in 1852. Each degree of longitudinal separation adds one minute of difference in time. Rather than using the same time as Greenwich, Christ Church uses the technically more accurate value of GMT plus five minutes. Therefore, the daily choral service starts at 6:05, not 6:00.

The famous children’s story Alice in Wonderland was written by Charles Dodgson (published as Lewis Carroll) in Oxford in 1862, ten years after time was standardized. Remember the White Rabbit character? With a time difference of five minutes past GMT, everyone in Oxford is always late for a very important date!

There in the choir stalls of Christ Church Cathedral, our youth sang “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments” under Cameron’s direction. In this setting, it was a privilege to hear them sing so beautifully. The spiritual message of their anthem was palpable sitting in this historic and gorgeous cathedral.

Jim directed us next to visit a wide stone staircase that was used in the filming of Harry Potter. The stairs led to a Great Hall that was the inspiration to build the movie set for the “sorting hat” sequence in the first film where Harry is assigned to the House of Gryffindor. Our youth lingered on the staircase and took a great while strolling through the Great Hall. With friends or solo, this was the most photographed spot on tour so far!

We were given money for lunch and a couple hours of free time in Oxford. Many people took the opportunity to shop for souvenirs, thinking of loved ones at home. Primark, River Island, and Alice in Wonderland Shop were just a few of the store names on shopping bags that came back to the buses. A couple of groups made a bee-line for University Church of St. Mary the Virgin to climb 127 narrow, twisting stone stairs of the 14th century bell tower. The view from the top of the Oxford spires and colleges on this clear, sunny day was breathtaking. Another worthwhile climb was the Saxon Tower at St. Michael at the North Gate, built in 1040 and Oxford’s oldest building – wow!

The buses took us to visit a school named SS. Philip and James’ Church of England Aided Primary School. The locals call it Phil & Jim. Allison Hall, the Assistant Headteacher, held an assembly of 100+ students ages 8-11 to hear our choir sing. Walt introduced the singing of a portion from our tour program that would most appeal to this younger audience. The children were attentive and interested and, most of all, adorable! The students ended the assembly with three cheers for our youth, “Hip, hip, hooray!” followed by refreshments and mingling.

After dinner in The Dragon School cafeteria, we prepared for an evening concert at nearby St. Andrew’s Church. In chatting with Andy and Jules, who are on the church staff, we learned that Andy was at Phil & Jim earlier this day as well! He paid them a visit to promote the church Holiday Club, which is the equivalent to our Vacation Bible School. What a small world!

St. Andrew’s Church was the venue for the last concert on our England tour. The youth were excited, knowing there was no reason to hold back on voices or playing. The church has beautiful arches and a ½ dome over the altar, making for incredible acoustics. An amazing feast of music was served up this evening. The choir had a full, robust sound. Special recognition goes to our soloists for the Mass – Madeline Waters, Katherine Williams, Dylan Howe, and Dan Krotz. Friends and family are rightfully proud of them! The Yorkshire Ballad flowed with clarity from the chorus and strings. Robert Williams played the French horn brighter than ever in the horn concerto. Sleepers Awake was romantic and playful. Ross Thompson’s trumpet solo on One Faith, One Hope, One Lord was amazing. Omnia Sol was a standout favorite once again. Cameron directed If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments, and he sang a gorgeous solo for Bright Morning Stars. What a talent! God Be with You ‘Til We Meet Again was compelling and heartfelt, and arranger Steve Kalnoske should be extremely proud. Lastly, Matthew Fitzsimmons, Jessie Boulden, and Ross Thompson, backed by the orchestra, played the lively Bugler’s Holiday as the final number to a grand concert series.

Walt and Peggy, we wish you a Happy Anniversary this day! Hopefully you will have many good and lasting memories of this special day.

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