Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Of Bicester Village

It will probably not come as a surprise to any of you when I say that I like shopping. A lot. I must also admit that am also fairly picky about the people I shop with -- they need to share similar tastes, want to go into the same sort of places, be able to tell me the truth about whether something suits me (and to be able to take it when I return the favour), and have a shopping rhythm that works with mine (i.e. see stopping for frequent coffee breaks as a necessary part of the day). This might sound a little harsh, but believe me, I've learned the hard way. Good shopping companions are like gold dust, but luckily one of my friends here in Oxford is a kindred spirit, and today she and I spent a very happy time at Bicester Village, a shopping discount outlet which sells both designer and high end high street clothes at often massive discounts.

The clothes are usually surplus from the past season(s), but some of the shops do stock the latest lines, and I've found some amazing bargains there in the past. I was thrilled to be able to pick up this Diane von Furstenberg dress when I was there this summer, for example:

Today, Bicester was very festive, even in the drizzle, with Christmas music playing in several of the shops, and pretty lights and decorations all over. Even Porridge, as this chap is apparently known, was getting into the spirit of things:

In the morning, I introduced my friend to one of my favourite designers, Anne Fontaine. I was first taken to one of her shops by skirmishofwit, and have since become utterly addicted to her beautiful designs. Anne Fontaine produces stunning white and black shirts and blouses (although each collection also has an accent colour -- in the shop today it was a divine dark purple), and has more recently branched out into accessories, coats, and dresses. You can glimpse one of the latter in this unfortunately rather dark shot of the window display:

Another friend whom I introduced to Anne Fontaine last year bought one of her coats when we visited Bicester in the summer, and I must say I'm wildly envious. But the tops of hers I own are some of the favourite pieces in my wardrobe, and I always get complimented on them whenever I wear them. This is one I picked up at one of the Paris branches a couple of years ago, teamed with one of my well-loved pencil skirts:

I reserve it for special occasions (this was taken at the drinks before a lavish end of year dinner at New College eighteen months ago) -- as you can see from this close-up, it isn't the type of top you'd wear to pop to buy a pint of milk, but it adds a deliciously decadent edge to any big event:

This isn't a brilliant shot of another favourite, but you can see enough of the gorgeous pattern to see why I like it so much. It was one of the first ones I bought...

Although neither my friend nor I bought anything there today, we still enjoyed browsing through the racks, breathing in the delicious fragrance which perfumes all the Anne Fontaine stores (I bought a spritzer of her home spray when I was there in the summer: lovely). After pottering around a few of the other stores, we decided the time had come for lunch. Luckily there is a branch of the always reliable Carluccio's at Bicester, so we headed there.

I opted for a delicious and warming lasagna, my friend for a yummy looking Swiss chard and pork soup, and we both finished off with a delectable Cioccolata Fiorentina:

After this, we felt ready to hit the shops once more, and enjoyed ourselves immensely among the likes of Max Mara and Valentino. We particularly liked oohing and aahing over the stunning ballgowns in the latter...

... while I also fell utterly in love with this bag while we were in there, but even at sale price it was beyond the reach of the contents of my current purse:

At the end of the afternoon, we caught the bus home (Bicester is conveniently -- and dangerously -- only a twenty minute ride away from Oxford), both empty-handed (I know! The shock!) but happily exhausted after a very enjoyable day. We're definitely going to be trying our luck there again next year, for, as Sir W said in his 1600 essay 'Of Entertainment',

'I have a purse, and a life',

and what better place than Bicester to use them!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Of The Little Bookroom

A couple of days ago, Merenia left me a comment recommending a website that I might like: The Little Bookroom. Like it I did, so much so that I wanted to share it with everyone else. The Little Bookroom produces guidebooks to destinations in the USA and in Europe, as well as notecards, journals, and more. The guidebooks have a particular focus on everything related to art, culture, gastronomy and couture, so you can see they are right up my street! They also happen to be the most divinely presented guidebooks I've ever come across, as you'll be able to see, since I haven't been able to resist uploading some of the gorgeous covers.

Merenia particularly recommended this shoppers' guide to Florence, and oh! - I wish I'd had it with me when I visited that lovely city a couple of years ago (although I must admit I did pretty well in the shops even without it, partly thanks to this very nice little guide, which I picked up at the wonderful Daunt Books). The cover is so evocative of the richness and beauty of Florence, and makes me doubly eager to go back, just so I have an excuse to buy this book:

I am hoping to visit Paris again in the new year, and when I do, I think I'll find it hard to resist buying at least one of these guides beforehand. I could read this to discover the best places to enjoy something scrumptious in the afternoon...

... scan this to find out where to get a great glass (or bottle) of wine ...

... and I can make sure I'm doing all of this whilst dressed with perfect taste if I read this and find out just where Paris's chicest women buy their clothes:

If I'd known about this before I went to New York earlier this year, I'd definitely have popped it into my hand luggage to read on the flight over:

But the good thing is that the guides cover the UK too, so I can explore London with fresh eyes after reading this...

... and find some new places to tempt my tastebuds without upsetting my bank balance with this:

For any Janeites out there, this would make a perfect gift when Christmas comes around...

... while these notecards would also make a wonderful present, although I think I'd be much more likely to keep them to myself:

At the moment, The Little Bookroom is offering a 20% 'Holiday Discount', and I for one will be taking advantage of that all too soon. Thanks again, Merenia, for pointing me in the direction of a place which will, as Sir W said in his 1600 essay 'Of Advice', allow me to

'distill the whole world'.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Of Leaving the Library

I am writing this in Duke Humfrey's, in which I have spent nearly twelve hours (don't worry, I did squeeze in a 45 minute break for lunch), finishing off a nearly 20,000 word chapter draft for my supervisor.

My fingers feel as if they're about to drop off, and my shoulders are killing me, but I have a wonderful feeling of jubilation at having completed the draft, nevertheless. I am off now to pick up some takeaway (no chance I'm cooking after this!), and sink gratefully into bed. Sir W may have said in his 1600 essay 'Of Sleepe' that

'Fame neuer knew a perpetuall Bedpresser',

but when it's well-deserved (and sometimes when it's not) a bit of bedpressing is a wonderful thing!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Of Blowing The Cobwebs Away

I am writing this snuggled up under a blanket with a nice cup of tea, warming myself up, as I have just got in from a blustery afternoon's walk. A friend and I decided to brave the weather and so, boots on, umbrellas in hand, we set off towards Iffley lock, which you can see in rather nicer weather here (annoyingly I forgot to take my camera today):

We met outside Christ Church Meadows, and cut across those to Folly Bridge, before striking out along the Thames towpath, surrounded by fields on one side and college boats full of rowers out training on the other... Luckily the latter petered out as we got deeper into the countryside!

Iffley itself is a pretty village just on the outskirts of Oxford, and we were able to catch a glimpse of its beautiful church, St Mary's (built in 1170), across the water.

Someday I'll have to wander round the village itself, and have a look inside the church. Today, however, we were being rather less high-minded, as our destination was a yummy pub lunch at the Isis Farmhouse:

Although it had stopped raining, we were still glad to get inside the pub, which I had never been to before. My friend had warned me that it was a little unusual, and he was right, in as much as there were only three things on the menu (plus the gourmet baked beans on toast and homemade cakes and scones they always serve!), but luckily the choices of soup, lentil stew, or Moroccan style chicken casserole all sounded lovely. We both plumped for the chicken casserole, which was indeed delicious: a generous serving of couscous and chicken, mixed together with olives, lemon, various spices and served with still-warm bread to dip into the juices. Mmm! Coupled with a glass of wine, it was perfect for a pick-me-up before going back outside. Fortified by our meal, we decided to carry on walking for a little longer, passing the two pretty bridges next to the lock, the second of which is based on the famous Mathematical Bridge at Queen's College, Cambridge:

We almost made it to Sandford, the next village along the Thames, but decided we'd better turn back before the winter evening drew in. Next summer, perhaps!

This afternoon's trip was just what I needed to blow away a few cobwebs, and it was fun to discover somewhere new in Oxford, and to feel so countrified so short a distance from town (it took us about 45 minutes to walk to the pub from the town centre). I'll definitely be doing more of this in the future; who knows, perhaps even The Walking Boots will come into their own once again...! Only, of course, if there's a nice pub to warm oneself up in at the end of the trip. On which subject, I leave you today with the charming opening sentence of Sir W's 1600 essay 'Of Alehouses':

'I Write this in an Alehouse, into which I am driuen by night, which would not giue me leaue to finde out an honester harbour. I am without any Company but Inke and Paper, and them I vse in stead of talking to my selfe'.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Of Wallpaper and Caravans

I recently read this interesting interview on Yell Softly with Lisa Borgnes Giramonti of the entrancing blog A Bloomsbury Life. The entire interview has sent me scurrying to various parts of the internet: to find out more about the books Lisa recommends, or check out particular designers. But I was particularly intrigued to find out more about the 'Genuine Fake Bookcase' wallpaper by Deborah Bowness which Lisa has in her dining room. I'd rather line my walls with real books, but I still couldn't resist a closer look at this, so I hurried off to the Bowness site immediately:

This then sparked another journey, as I clicked to find out where one can buy the wallpaper in the UK (ok, so I haven't got a house to decorate, and won't have for some considerable time, but that doesn't stop my domestic fantasies), and was delighted to find that her London distributer is the quaintly named Caravan, a shop in London's Shoreditch. The reason for my delight was that I had actually stumbled across the shop itself whilst wandering around in East London some time ago, had loved its range of eccentric, lovely homeware and gift ideas, and had then promptly forgotten about. So to be reminded of its existence was a boon indeed, especially as Christmas is coming up and they have an online shop...

The Bowness wallpaper -- both the bookcases and other designs -- they have on offer is beautiful indeed, but at £150 a strip, even if I did have a place of my own, I might have to reign in my temptations...

Happily, though, there are plenty of other, rather more affordable but equally tempting bits and pieces on offer in their online store, so I thought I'd share a few of my favourites here.

As I've mentioned on other occasions, I love a nice cup of tea, and when that tea is of the loose leaf variety, I think this would be a particularly pretty tea strainer to use:

Rose tea strainer, £12.50

To accompany my morning pot of tea, I might decide to have a boiled egg, complete, of course, with soldiers to dip into it, in which case this would a perfect addition to my table:

Egg and soldiers set, £18

Always an accessories girl, my eye was naturally caught by these cute little handbags, which could hold photos or equally function as name settings at a dinner party:

Handbag card holders, £18

Finally, I always love to have candles around, so these angel wing decorations would be a great festive twist for any candlelit meal:

Candle wings, £4.95 - £8.95

These would all, I think, make rather nice Christmas gifts. Once again, however, now I must leave these frivolities behind and betake myself back to the library. I have a wine tasting this evening and some friends and I are meeting for sushi first (yum!), so I must stop thinking of Christmas presents and give Sir W & Co. my full attention for the time being. For as Sir W rather somberly pointed out in his 1600 essay 'Of Behaviour', compared to the purchase of trinkets, however lovely,

'The gifts of the minde are not so easily obtained, these you must purchase with paine, and difficulty; and great reason, for it were pitty such preciousnesse might be had for the taking'.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Of Giselle

Last night I went to the ballet for the first time in many years, and was swept up into a different, magical world. A friend and I went to see the English National Ballet's production of Giselle at the New Theatre in Oxford, and were both completely blown away. I've been wanting to go to the ballet for ages, and have particularly hankered after seeing Giselle, probably partly due to the influence of the dreams of Lorna Hill's heroines in her Sadlers Wells books, for whom either Giselle or Odette/Odile (Swan Lake) is the ultimate ambition.

I think I was particularly fortunate in that my reintroduction to the world of ballet was with such a good company, and such an excellent production. The evening began with a 'curtain raiser' by some of the men of the company, in a new piece called Men Y Men, which was performed to music by Rachmaninov. The eight male dancers were topless, with black tights, and against a dark backdrop at times it seemed that only their torsos were visible, weaving and leaping through the air in a mesmerising series of moves. It was exciting, and an excellent prelude to whet our appetites for what was to come.

Giselle was first performed in 1841, but it has lost none of its power to move and entrance its audience. The sets and costumes here were incredible, both in the first act based around Giselle's cottage:

and in the second act, in which the eerie chill of the woods around Giselle's grave was conjured up brilliantly through mysterious lighting and billowing mists, a perfect backdrop for the bewitching gauziness of the beautiful and deadly Wilis:

The effect was utterly captivating. The dancer playing Giselle alternates, and last night it was the Japanese dancer Erina Takahashi,

who was superb: as the shy, then love-struck Giselle of the beginning, courted by Albrecht (an excellent Dmitri Gruzdyev)...

... then convincingly and heart-breakingly driven into madness by his betrayal, before finally emerging as the etherial wraith of the second act, moving so lightly across the stage that it seemed as if she could truly be a ghost, as she strove to save her lover from his intended fate at the hands of the Wilis -- the unquiet spirits of jilted brides who take revenge by forcing men to dance unto the death.

My friend and I emerged from the theatre on a real high, having been completely enchanted by the beauty and emotion we had witnessed. I for one intend to make this the first of many more balletic experiences!

It was a truly magical evening, and was indeed, to use Sir W's phrase from his 1601 essay 'Of Conceit':

'a fancie well disposed'.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Of A Lovely Weekend

My friend's party at the weekend was a lot of fun. We enjoyed some pre-dinner drinks at her house, where we were greeted by an unexpected guest, with whom, as you can see, I rather fell in love:

Doesn't he look real?! Unfortunately he was a bit to big for me to slip into my handbag and steal off with... We followed this with an excellent meal at Jaipur on the Cowley Road. This was a new discovery for me, and one I'm very pleased to have made. The staff were friendly, the ambiance warm and welcoming, and the food both delicious and beautifully presented:

They even brought my friend a little extra something when they found out it was her birthday:

I can particularly recommend the Mixed Starter and the Chicken Shaslick, while the spinach rice is also well worth trying. I've found out that they offer free home delivery on orders within six miles of the restaurant, so I think I'll be trying that out one evening when cooking seems like too much effort!

After the meal, we made our way down the Cowley Road to Cafe Coco. I'd been here for brunch and lunch before (both lovely. The full English breakfast is truly excellent, and is one of the few places I've found in Oxford where it includes black pudding, which gets it a definite thumbs up from me). I'd never tried it in the evening, however, so I was particularly pleased to be able to test out their cocktail range, especially as certain cocktails are only £3.95 between 10pm and closing (at 1am).

Cafe Coco is owned by the same people as one of my very favourite Oxford haunts, The Grand Cafe, which also offers cheap cocktails every evening, so I was pleased to find that the ones at Cafe Coco were just as good. It's a fun place with a lively atmosphere, not to mention some rather interesting pieces of art:

When I came to Cafe Coco for brunch with a friend last year, I was sitting in a chair facing away from the clown in the bath, when suddenly my friend went a little pale and told me to turn around. I did so, only to see a rush of ice cubes pour out of the little gold pipe above the clown, *into the bath*. Apparently it's where they keep their ice. I was quite happy to finish my cup of tea, but my friend had a slightly harder job enjoying his iced water after that ... he said he couldn't quite enjoy it after thinking of it swimming around next to a naked clown mannequin. Fair enough, I suppose, but the bizarre sculptures certainly add to the atmosphere!

Sunday dawned bright and (not so) early, and we indulged ourselves with a reviving meal at the wonderful Edamame -- another absolute favourite which will some day merit a post to itself. After I'd waved goodbye to my friends, I then went on a Mission. And this time, I succeeded: I have New Boots!

I was *very* happy to find these at Marks & Spencer, exceedingly well priced (I fell in love with a pair at Sassi the other day, but they were £300, and my love has limits...) and also extraordinarily comfortable. The heel is sturdy enough to stand a good chance against the cobbles, whilst also looking nice with a skirt. They may not be perfect, but they are certainly a welcome addition to my wardrobe.

I pottered round the shops a little more in the afternoon, and was pleased to find a great new dress for the end of term Christmas dinner and party at College, which is coming up in early December. I wanted something a bit different, and I think this dress from French Connection fits the bill:

It is a little more risque perhaps than my usual choices, with the sheer front and carefully placed sequins (!), but it's fun and frivolous and perfect for getting into the Christmas spirit. And sometimes it's good to have a change. To tone it down a little, I'm going to pair it with black tights and a pair of black patent high heels like these...

... and look forward to dancing the night away. I'll make sure to tell you all about it!

For now, I'm off to get myself some lunch, and then I must stop thinking of frivolous matters for the time being and get back to the library. Or, as Sir W put it in his 1600 essay 'Of Fame':

'I will from henceforth follow Vertue silently in my study'.