Sunday 3 March 2024

Inspiration from Morocco

 Yes, we’ve been off again. First time to Morocco, though it’s next door to our second country, Spain, and shares a couple of cities with it. Why Morocco? ‘Cause it’s supposed to be warm and sunny in the winter and it combines some familiarity (we lived next to Moroccans for some time) and has tempting mysteries.

We landed in Marrakesh and it was hot. I had booked a hotel for three days with the flight which was mysteriously called, Riad DAR 73. We caught a bus to a large square which turned out to be the main centre of the ‘red city’ and walked towards the hotel; it did not seem far and we had Google to guide us. But Google failed and three policemen in argumentative conference could not help. After many false trails we found the place down a very narrow alley strewn with rubbish and lined with collapsing houses. We could not believe it, this was supposed to be a five-star hotel with swimming pool, though I must say it had seemed quite a bargain. I ducked low to get through the door and looked around suspiciously, could this really be it. In fact, once inside it was not too bad, but certainly not five-star.­­­­

This was the beginning of our flirtation with Riads. They are large houses that have been converted into small hotels. They are located in the Medinas (the old walled part of city where no cars are allowed) down very narrow alleys. They are not at all impressive from the outside, but are often palatial inside: usually built around an atrium with the dining room on the ground floor. Our most impressive were in Fes, the original capital. There the Madaw had a large atrium decorated with multi-coloured small tiles in swirling patterns reaching right up to the top floor where our sumptuous room was similarly decorated, as was the shower room. Yes, we stayed in a small palace with an open rooftop above and sometimes had the whole place to ourselves.

We had taken the train to Fes so we could see a good deal of the country along the way. Once there I found the Medina claustrophobic and soon tired of the passive aggressive offers of help from potential guides. We travelled to the more modern capital of Rabat then drove to a large lake called Merja Gerga beside the Atlantic to study birds where I was particularly thrilled to observe spoonbills.

Morocco is not the place for those who like to take a drop, but we managed. The saving grace was often the hidden booze cellars of Carrefour supermarkets, but some restaurants catered for the needy.

Returning to Oxford at 4 a.m. on a freezing Sunday morning we walked through appalling scenes of drunkenness, debauchery and semi-nudity. And, out running the next day, I rather missed the friendly faces, the hand touched to the chest, the engaging nod, the knowing smile and the warm sun. Back to reality, the trip has given me an idea for a book, and that can’t be bad.

Saturday 13 January 2024

Only in Oxford: Free Will versus Determinism

 Did you freely decide to read this blog or was it simply inevitable? This free will argument engages my brain and has done for some time. Is everything pre-determined? Since our universe is determined by physical laws then given a fixed starting point everything must evolve according to those laws – that is determinism, we do not have free will. You did not decide to have eggs for breakfast this morning rather than cereal. You thought that you decided, but that thought was predetermined. When Jack the Ripper murdered all of those innocent people, it was not his fault, his actions were predetermined and not his responsibility!

I believe that we have free will and I can explain why. I believe that you can choose between eggs and cereal for breakfast and hence that we are responsible for our actions. Consequently, Jack the Ripper, if he had been found, should have faced the consequences.

Nevertheless, this very important issue needs exploration.That is why I decided to return to Oxford from Stow on the Wold in order to attend a lecture on it at St Margaret’s Institute which is quite near to our flat in North Oxford. The title was ‘Free will is not an illusion: biology against determinism’ and the speaker was Denis Noble. As usual I cut things fine, arriving about 3 minutes before the start. I was then faced, along with other disappointed attendees, by a large printed sign saying FULL UP. I was shocked. After all the lecture hall is large, it probably holds 70 or more, and the subject somewhat obscure. And so the title of this blog: “Only in Oxford”.

Undeterred, I returned to the flat and quickly found a video by Denis Noble on this self same subject. Watching it I quickly ascertained that this ancient, white haired, white browed academic believes that we do have free will - that our actions and thoughts are not predetermined. He bases his argument on the simple fact that the elementary stuff of which we are all made behaves randomly (Brownian movement, etc) and so nothing is predetermined.  I so agree.

Later I watched a TED talk by an enthusiastic young determinism believer. He was very convincing of course. But, at the end of his talk, he advised us that we must not use this determinism as an excuse for irresponsible action! We must, he advised us, try to do the right thing and by our actions persuade others to do so too. Silly man. If everything is predetermined there can be no persuading since that assumes the possibility of changing the future and determinism determines that the future is already determined! What do you think?

Saturday 6 January 2024

Christmas past and present, plus tunnels


Last year, 2022, Margaret and I spent Christmas in Adelaide with out youngest son and his family, and I swam, twice, on the day itself in the shark-infested Great Australian Bight which I suppose is part of the Indian Ocean. We celebrated the New Year with our granddaughter in her New Zealander husband’s birthplace of Mount Maunganui where I played with my first great grandson and swam in the tumultuous Bay of Plenty. Chinese New Year saw us with my eldest son’s family showered with fireworks on the high mountainside peach plantation of his father-in-law in aboriginal Taiwan. Clearly, that year set a very high water mark for this one, 2023.

This year we spent most of the two weeks around Christmas on our own in either Stow on the Wold or Oxford. I did not swim and the weather was cold and mostly dreary. Yet it was great. We attended a wonderful carol concert in the beautiful surrounding of Keble College, Oxford. Then, on another evening we were the singers ourselves, singing traditional carols for charity with my fellow guides at the Broad Street Christmas Market. This was followed by a bit of a pub tour ending up at the Rose and Crown, one of our locals. Then off to Stow where we had two excellent musical nights in the Talbot on the main square. It’s recently been taken over by the lead singer of that internationally famous group, Aliens Don’t Ring Doorbells. On Christmas Eve he did most of the singing while his troop of young ladies from Spain paraded prettily to his dulcet tones and we were applauded for our dancing, well Margaret really.

The Christmas was all nicely finished off by a visit from our two grandchildren from London, accompanied by that same great grandson, now a busy and adventurous one and half year old. Then finally, on New Year’s Eve we wandered down to our other local in Oxford, The Harcourt Arms which is well known for its music. There, a large man called Jack bashed away at his electronic organ playing any song on request, even mine: The Wild Rover. At about eleven the doors burst open and in poured our favourite group, the Spirolites and things then went wild for the last hour of 2023 and a bit of 2024.

Next year? Who knows?

Back to normality. I’ve just launched a new video. I’ve made a couple on the tunnels of Oxford and they have proven popular so I thought I would mop up with some others I know of. There’s something about these subterranean places especially in a city like Oxford, you know. This one’s called More Secret Tunnels of Oxford – have a look.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Worcester College opens the doors – and the gardens

Worcester College has always been rather inaccessible during my career as a guide but, under the new Provost David Isaac, it has opened up; more than that it is actually welcoming. I have always admired this college and it is “in my patch” of Oxford. Though not so great when viewed form the outside, inside it is wonderful: a hidden jewel and so green.

Emma Goodrum, the college archivist gave us guides from the Oxford Guild an excellent and informative tour and I thought then that I must add it to my Most Beautiful Colleges of Oxford series on Youtube. And I have. Take a look here.


Wednesday 27 September 2023

Spain again 2023


It’s nearly the end of September and we’ve been back in our casa (house) in La Fresneda for a week or so. The 1,000 plus miles it takes to get here in the motor caravan had its usual up and downs starting with a good last UK night in Blake’s our usual pub in Dover – with live music. We made a dash to the east above Paris using the boring but fast toll roads reaching Reims, the first place we ever stayed at in our previous motor caravan, then spending a nice night in nearby Epernay drinking Belgian beer rather than its main product: champagne.

We then passed through the middle of France joining the gloriously toll free (mostly) A20 with a couple of overnight stops at St Floret sur Cher (see the chateau) and Cazeres. The latter is a town near Toulouse where we had a few drinks with a well travelled man originally from South Africa and the landlord of the pub who was from Spain. The Bistrot de Olive didn’t serve food so the landlord sold us the makings of dinner but that’s another story.

Then over the glorious Pyrenees via Pont de Suerte and a long drive to our village where we dined on tapas at our local pub Bar la Plaza. As usual things have changed in the village somewhat. This time the place was overrun by motorcyclists and we found that many of the empty houses are now doing Airbnb. Our own house was difficult to enter (jammed doors again) but otherwise fine and is looking rather nice with the climbing rose and serpentine grape vine that we have established on its main wall.

The huerto continues to be invaded by armoured weeds, but we have a mini harvest of little apples and big bunches of grapes are hanging from the almond tree (no almonds though). Very few olives in the grove but that’s OK, we don’t know what to with them these days anyway. The caseta still has water ingress which is beginning to rot the beams but mostly OK. I blame the builder for water problems and have told him (me) that he must try to fix it (again) this time.

It is very hot and I am less inclined to work in the heat nowadays: spending more time in the house and in the motor caravan where I am trying to get the new fridge I fitted before our trip to function. Happy days.

Friday 15 September 2023

Refrigerators and everything you need to know about Oxford University


Just off on another trip to our village of La Fresneda in Spain after the long and frustrating task of fitting a new refrigerator to the old motor caravan. Not an easy job, it works off the camper’s battery, plug in mains, or gas. At this moment it does not work with any of them, so that’s not good.

Meanwhile I have been working hard to finish my latest video before I go and have just launched it. Its title is: Everything you need to know about Oxford University: The brief guide. Some task, and some claim. Everything? Well of course not. Anyone who does know everything about this arcane, yet adaptable institution is probably incapable of explaining it to anyone except themselves. But I’ve had a go and with the help of some good and knowledgeable friends it’s finished and viewable on Youtube. Have a look.

The next blog will probably be from Spain, there were many of those in the past.

Friday 1 September 2023

Walking the Cotswold Way pursued by a golfing trolley

I like to take long walks occasionally and I do not like the idea of paying for overnight accommodation, porterage and such, so I wild camp and carry everything on my back. But it’s heavy and seems to become heavier as the days progress. That’s why for some years now I have been incubating this idea of pulling my camping gear behind me rather than hefting it on my back. I tried various solutions without success. Then I made a lucky find. Someone in a rather rich area near my flat in Oxford had thrown away a used golfing trolley. I adapted it and this contraption with the luggage bag or box (a slightly modified modern grass box from an electric mower) plus flexibly attached and also modified haversack became known to me as the trolley. Now I could carry a much bigger tent and have a go at a walk I have often fancied: the Cotswold Way.

So, at the end of August in 2023, I struggled onto a very busy train from Oxford with my trolley and travelled to Bath, the southern end of the Way. It seemed to take forever extricating myself from the city but I did it and ended that first day in a camping spot beyond a rusty gate just to the north of Hinton near a massive manure heap and a wood. As I erected the tent a car parked in the rusty gate entranceway! I could not believe it. Who could it be? The owners of the field? Officers of the Stop Wild Camping Brigade? Lovers? Everything was already wet from the rain soaked grass so I had no choice but to continue making camp. By the time I’d finished it was almost dark, so I took my torch to the gate and waved it about a bit. A light came on in the car and the driver’s window was lowered. A youngish woman said, “Sorry, is this your gate?”

“Not exactly”, I replied as she quickly reversed and sped off, away from Hinton. I walked in the other direction in the near darkness to Hinton’s only pub, the Bull. It had beer, but no food so I dined on salted peanuts. No breakfast the next day either as I towed the trolley alongside the M4 then crossed it to the village of Tormarton. Its pub had closed down, so on again to Old Sodbury where in a pub called The Dog I had a much needed sausage, egg and chips.

By this time I had developed a hatred of styles, kissing gates and all of the things that blocked my way along the Cotswold Way: they are not made for walkers with trolleys. However, that night I made it to Hawkesbury Upton where lay my perfect pub: the Beaufort Arms. Perfect with one exception, the otherwise friendly landlord did not provide tasters of the real ales he purveyed. “You can buy a half or a pint,” he told me bluntly – and he had good reason for his rule. Had a good dinner of faggots and mash then returned to my camp in a corner of the local football field.

Hygiene when wild camping is always a problem, but I did manage a refreshing wash down the next day in a very cold stream. I then sweated my way up Wortley Hill, which overlooks Wotton under Edge. But there was a reward for my efforts: the first good views of the Severn Valley with that wide river shimmering in the distance beside my ancestral home: Berkeley.

A long trek then to North Nibley Monument with its even more panoramic views and onwards to Dursley where I drank in the Old Spot, lost my boots, and had great difficulty finding a wild camping site. Next and last day I made it to Stroud in my sandals and took a three bus trip to Stow on the Wold having completed about half of the Cotswold Way’s one hundred odd miles. There I parked my trolley in the garage ready for an assault on the other half of that beautiful, but challenging footpath.

(This is a much abbreviated version of my notes. If you want the whole story email me.)

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Religion and Climate Change


I’ve not written many blogs this year and I’ve not been to many lectures. What’s happening to me?

Well, I am spending a lot of time writing my next book and I also devote many hours to making videos for my Rob’s Oxford channel. But tonight I did go to a lecture, actually more like a debate, at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History just round the corner from where I live.

It was titled “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?” Not a very exciting topic for many, I thought, but I do have an interest in this topic through the field we have been re-wilding for some years at Stow. Anyway I could not have been more wrong, it was exciting and the main lecture theatre was packed to the gods, literally. Probably 200 people there and the place was abuzz even before the debate started. If I had done my usual 'just in time act' I wouldn’t have got a seat!

The speakers were Allan Savory, listed as a founder and leading proponent of Holistic Management and George Monbiot, simply described as a prominent critic, but generally known as a writer specialising in environmental and political activism.

Why did I put religion in the title of this blog?  Well, I do not think I have ever witnessed such passion and division at a lecture in Oxford before this one. And the zeal of the supporters for each point of view certainly smacked of religiosity. It extended to applause and hooting, yet hooting, at times

So what was it all about? Actually I wasn’t quite sure. I certainly did not understand what the holistic man supported. Lacking only the surplice, he talked like a vicar, a passionate one. He lived in Africa but had spent the last two  years in the USA. He had been a military man and seemed to think that military thinking was the only way forward for dealing with climate change. He did not seem to address the title of the debate.

Monbiot was much clearer. He knew that grazing animals and big corporations were the problem and rewilding together with vegetarianism or even veganism the solution. He was more explicit, more passionate and strongly challenged Allan Savory to address the topic under discussion.

At it simplest I think the Monbiot camp favoured banning grazing animals and Savory favoured biodiversity but I may have oversimplified. The audience seemed to know what was what and divided almost equally into the camps, I think.

Savory had the last word by reading a statement which sounded like a sermon and ended with the repeated statement that “we have to look after each other”. Amen.

Meanwhile the sheep in the next field are attacking my rewilded hedge. Should I let then in? Not likely.

Thursday 4 May 2023

A day in life of an Oxford tour guide.

 Here you can read about three very different Oxford tours and then get a link to my latest video,  a pub one and just the place to go after these three tours.

Tour 1 Chaos

Four mature guides, including myself, were waiting for a party of eighty people on a company jolly to Oxford from a far eastern country which will remain nameless to protect the innocent. They arrived at the visitor centre of the college of Christchurch and the first requirement was - you’ve guessed it – toilets. That took a while. Then they had to be lined up in four different groups, single file, for the distribution of audio-visual guides – the staff members at the visitor centre are quite draconian about this. That too took a while. In fact half an hour had passed fruitlessly by before I could take my group into the college through the Meadow Gate. Inside they fiddled haplessly with their multiple language audio-visual guides attempting to begin the tour – many failed and I helped as best I could. I would much prefer to guide them round this top tourist spot myself, but the college no longer allows us to do so.

Their group leader was enthusiastic, but spoke little English. Nevertheless he managed to convey to me that the full tour was far too complicated so I suggested that we just visit the dining hall (he called it the Harry Potter dining hall) and the cathedral. So, we joined the slow moving queue on the famous (Harry Potter) access stairs then wormed our way slowly around the even more famous dining hall while they filled their phones with images of it all.

The next port of call was the visually striking Tom Quad, where more images were captured and the group scattered before we could herd them into the cathedral. Once inside I had just one follower – the group leader – he had lost the entire group.

Somehow we got most of them together in order to leave the college and as we left they dispersed. I explained as best that I could that it was now my role as the guide to take them to a number of interesting sites in the city. Their leader smiled tolerantly whilst continuing to send them off, unaccompanied, with instructions to meet at McDonalds at 4pm. Soon he was the only person left – so I went home. An unwanted and useless guide.

Tour 2 The donor and family

Many people give money to Oxford University and its colleges. The most recent big ones are: the Blavatnik School of Government, Reuben College and the nascent Schwartzman Centre for the Humanities. Many other philanthropic gifts have been provided and donors seem keen to oblige.

This tour had been arranged by the University and I was the guide. My role was to show the potential donor (PD) around the central buildings, explain the way the University and Colleges interwork and so on – the usual stuff. The group consisted of the PD and wife, their two teenage sons and a younger daughter, an Oxford graduate who worked for the PD and a young lady who worked for the University and who had the resources ready to pay for any entry fees.

I was a little nervous, this was not my usual group by any means, and people with huge amounts of money can often be egotistical and demanding. This PD was not; in fact he was quite pleasant, fairly knowledgeable and engaged. After him my main worry was the Oxford graduate.  How dare I, having finished school at the age of sixteen, explain the intricacies of the top University in the world when he had just recently been though the mill? In fact he was delightful, telling me in an aside that he had not yet experienced the graduation ceremony. Then there was the PD’s wife, she was not happy and her face portrayed that. I have no idea why she was not happy, but she contributed little to the proceeding and did not sour them. Then there were the two lads. They were at the age where showing interest in something said or shown by a person of my age would be devastatingly embarrassing and they mostly avoided eye contact. The daughter was rather sweet, and responded well to my asides about the locations used in the Harry Potter films. I believe the high point of the tour, the thing which really grabbed their attention was the long list of past donors which is displayed within the Clarendon Building passageway.

The tour done, the PD took me aside and said that on the basis of my tour he had decided to donate a huge sum of cash to the University and then requested a visiting card from me. I hasten to add that only the final part of that sentence in true. But he seemed happy enough and walked off with his minders to a busy day where he would see more of the university and its colleges than a humble tour guide ever would. 

Tour 3 The American Indians

This was a tour that had all the hallmarks of failure. It was in my diary as a group of Indians arriving at a certain time date and place who had prepaid for a visit to New College. Well, first the booking had two different dates, second the group were American not Indian and third the college was closed on the day of the tour! I thought the second date the most likely but went along to the meeting place on the first just in case. Just as well, there, at the Martyr’s Memorial I was approached by Bob and his eight or so companions. They were my sort of age and enthusiastic about Oxford, though they had very limited time to spend with me.

I whizzed them round to St John’s College which was open and free to enter and there gave my potted version of what a college does in the Oxford scheme of things and then what was left for the University to do. They were hungry for details. The questions kept a ‘coming and I did have all the answers for them. They particularly liked the chapel and the magnificent Canterbury Quad. After that we ventured into the city proper where we shared the wonder of the Divinity School, the Sheldonian Theatre and Old Schools Quad followed by the majesty of Radcliffe Square and its dominating Camera.

They appreciated the whole thing so much and my delivery was much enhanced by their obvious appreciation. There was talk of return trips and a general ambience of a good experience shared. I cycled home a happy man and a contented tour guide.

That was quite a day. As you know my other thing is making videos for my YouTube channel: Rob’s Oxford. Here’s the latest, fresh out of the “studio”.  It’s about the Harcourt Arms, one my and Margaret’s favourite pubs. We go along most Sunday’s for its excellent open mike night – and beer.

Saturday 15 April 2023

Back from the world trip and straight into a pub


Now settled back in England after the world tour and spending some of my time making my notes and recollections into a book of sorts. Don’t know whether it will be published at all but I am enjoying revisiting all of the places that we visited in this way – have just left Hawaii and arrived in Tasmania. I expect that I will finish it later in the year.

Also have resurrected and added to one of my favourite tours: Literary Oxford. I‘ve given it a quite a few times now for Bodleian Tours and the Oxford Literature Festival and it’s been great. It covers ten or so colleges detailing the work of authors and poets from them plus a visit to the Divinity School which has the first library of the University (outside of the church) above it.

Meanwhile I have been working on another video and this one has been a great pleasure since it is based in a pub and, unlike my earlier Pubs of Oxford videos which were mostly done during lockdown, this one captures the family who run the Rose and Crown telling me what they do there. And, what is more, it’s my local (or at least one of them).

It’s a great little pub, very traditional and very welcoming. Have a look. Here’s the link.