Newbury & London

I finished my time in Oxford with one day off for sightseeing, and treated myself to a concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. The student orchestra was playing Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and the second movement is amazing live, especially in an English Grade I listed building where the only way to be invited in is for a graduation ceremony. I was on my way to London to study wine, with a slight detour to Newbury.


inside the Sheldonian theatre

Newbury is kind of a out-of-the-way place, where few stop, but most have heard of. There’s a surprising little ex-pat community there, and I managed to find one Portugese couchsurfer to host me. I met a wine dealer in Oxford from Majestic cellars in Newbury who was registered in the same wine program; I was going to London to cram years of sommelier knowledge into five days. There would be a two-and-a-half hour exam at the end of the week and I hadn’t started studying, so we planned to share our knowledge and complete a few mock exams.

My Portugese couchsurfer was an excellent partner for drinking wine, and whiskies, and I learned plenty about wine and wine hangovers. Newbury itself was a small, quaint little town on a river, with more second-hand shops than cafes and restaurants combined; you only had to chose if you wanted to support the Red Cross, helicopters for kids, or OXFAM in your shop choice. I noticed more teenage mothers than I’ve noticed anywhere else; most had bad teeth and were slightly overweight, but they all got on very well.

The West London Wine School in Fulham offers WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 courses, and usually the Level 3 is taken over six or twelve weeks of evening courses. They also offer Level 3 in five, eight hour days, if you can commit to forty or sixty hours of pre-course study. They send you a text and work book that would take at least that long to finish – which I only received in time to read the first three chapters – and then a wine specialist speaks at you, reciting textbook knowledge like it was his childhood memories.


tasting the best of Italy & Chile, and comparing Bordeaux reds

Our teacher was Jimmy, a young, VW van traveler, who had personally been to most of Europe’s best wine regions and vineyards. He knew the soil types and wine makers names of each little French appellation, and made all the students feel as unprepared as we were. The exam included two blind tastings, which I think I passed, but the essay-written part of the exam wasn’t even as difficult as the multiple choice questions. One question gave the name Graciano, and asked if it was a Spanish white, Spanish red, or Portugese red or white wine grape – it wasn’t even like you could deduce from process of linguistic elimination (it’s a Spanish red grape FYI).

I stayed with my Lawyer friend Becky, who worked ridiculous hours but managed to wine test in the evenings with me. We had some Picpoul de Pinet white wine, Bordeaux reds, Rioja rose, and sparkling cava, improving our ability to taste and discuss the effects of wine. After forty hours of tasting dozens of wines and learning the minute details of over a hundred of grape varietals, vineyard management, wine making, tasting and food pairing, I wasn’t ever quite sober enough to analyse my own progress… but I hope I passed.

Holed up in Oxford

I want to write a book. Correction, I am trying to write a book, and the only way it seems possible is to be in a cold, grey, expensive British town somewhere where I know nobody. I know one guy actually, but he’s a penguinologist researcher on site in Antarctica until February, so he agreed to let me squat his house and punish myself in isolation while writing some hundreds of pages about me. It is as boring as it sounds, but some people (like myself) May want to read it one day.


Cornmarket Street, Oxford

I arrived January 18th, and didn’t leave the house for the first week, except for one grocery shop. The only non-book writing things I did were: take a bath, watch one Tarantino movie, and drink red wine. But it wasn’t so bad, January in Oxford… not compared to Reykjavik at least.


Oxford’s famous Covered Market

There are leaves on the trees and the parks still have green grass. Birds chirp every morning and when the sun does show its face for a moment, it actually gives warmth. The grocery shopping here is a fraction of what things cost in Reykjavik, but mostly I’m here because there’s noone to call or meet for coffee, and noone showing up to distract me. I feel like I’m becoming a crazy cat lady without the cats.


Malmaison, former prison turned Boutique Hotel

The wonderful thing about writing a 60,000 word book is it makes a 500 word blog seem like a piece of cake. But after a very productive week I decided to go to them if they wouldn’t come to me (people, not cats), so a weekend trip to Bristol is underway. A couple of days away from my computer screen should do me good, and I’ll finally hear the sound of my own voice when I speak to another human again. Can’t wait.

A Penguin Beach in London? Yes.

A happy black-footed penguin dives in the new London Zoo beach pool

I heard about a guy whose research is on European Penguin genetics, and my natural response was “which European penguins?” But it just so happens that there are enough domesticated penguins in zoos around Europe that their genetic history and breeding requires a lot of monitoring. Penguin adults are swapped to avoid inbreeding, chicks are bred in incubators, and penguin population dynamics and species spread is totally controlled by people like him and other scientists.

Learn how you can adopt Ricky at

The London Zoo has a pretty large penguin roster, and they just recently opened their new penguin exhibit – the first penguin beach in England! They have Blackfooted penguins (aka the African penguin), Humboldts, Macaroni penguins, and one lonely rock-hopper penguin named Ricky who enjoys pruning friendly people.

During the exhibit launch, speeches focused on the seriousness of climate change and depleting fish stocks, since these result in catastrophic consequences for penguin breeding and survival. No average person in England or elsewhere might understand the importance of eating and living sustainably, but the carbon footprint of the entire western world is the root of both problems. Penguin populations worldwide are depleting, and as global warming melts the pack ice in Antarctica, penguins are losing their nautral habitat, the rich fishing waters, and even the ability to breed.

a mixture of penguins chillin on the beach

At the zoo, penguins are fed all their meals and receive medical attention and antibiotics whenever necessary, so even though many want to see these penguins in the wild exhibiting natural behavior, I’d say theyre pretty damn happy to stay. These penguins have now been domesticated for  generations, so living in the wild might be impossible for them anyway;  the point of the Penguin Beach and other zoo-kept colonies of penguins is to allow us to better understand them and let people, who know nothing about them or Antartica, be more aware of issues surrounding them, and perhaps fall in love with penguins enough to help make a difference.

I have family in London I meant to see but with a 2 day delay on my trip (thanks Grimsvotn), my entire London experience was centered around penguins. I stayed with 2 friends that I met last year in Antarctica, a penguin zookeeper and a Dr. Penguinologist (his actual title), and also squeezed in some time with a fellow globetrotter who travels the world surfing and photographing it (find him on facebook – Murray Ash Photography). I spent a couple days in quaint little Oxford, saw a lot of beautiful things and heard some angelic sounds like a baroque trio and organ recital in 300 year old churches, but didn’t learn nearly as much there as I did in my one day at the zoo.

the Bodleian Library in Radcliffe Square, Oxford

Hopefully my adoration of penguins has come across clearly in this blog, and if you ever get the chance to cuddle one at the zoo, swim with one in Galapagos, and walk through a million of them in Antarctica, I guarantee you’ll be a sucker for penguins too. Now Im off to South Africa for more jackass penguin loving, not called jackasses because they’re rude (no such thing as a mean penguin) but because they howl like very cute, tuxedo-dressed donkeys.

Interesting Links:

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