Oxford, July 2013

Getting a bit of an aerial overview of Oxford - why not?

Originally the idea was to do a glider flight in Bicester, a small town a bit north-east of Oxford. There is a fairly large glider club operating from an ex-RAF airfield there and they were offering trial flights.

I did do a glider flight in glider flight in California more than a decade ago, but that was an airtow and I've never experienced a winch launch, so it seemed like something interesting to do.

But that didn't quite work out due to bad weather in the preceding months.

Which had little to do with the actual flying conditions on the Sunday I went there, but with the backlog of glider flights. The glider club is working with an 'unusual experiences' company that sells coupons for glider flights (often given as birthday presents). As the weather in May and June was mostly not that suitable for flying, they couldn't honour as many coupons as originally expected, so there was a bit of a waiting list of people who had already paid, making them a hesitant to add yet another customer to that list.

So how about a flight in a motor glider? It seems that most people who buy a flight (either for themselves or as a gift) prefer the 'pure' experience of gliding, so there weren't that many bookings for a motor glider flight. And, as motor gliders are less dependent on weather conditions, my chance of being able to fly on that specific Sunday (as I didn't have any alternate dates available) was better anyway.

So while I wouldn't experience a winch launch, there would be a better chance to see Oxford from above (glider flights are usually a bit more dependent on the wind on where they can go and what will be seen) and a better chance of getting airborne at all.

Booking a motor glider flight turned out to be a good decision.

When I arrived at the airfield, the flying weather was kind of unsuitable for glider flights. There wasn't that much uplift and the clouds were hanging fairly low (at about a thousand meters), so glider flights would be just that - being winched or lifted up a bit and then gliding down again. No thermals to get to higher altitudes and even if there had been some, maximum altitude would still have been limited by the cloud layer.

In fact, there were a number of gliders standing at the airfield, since there was a competition planned that day and everyone was waiting for more favourable flying condition.

But then, that didn't matter for a motor glider.

So I met the pilot, went to the plane, a Scheibe SF-25C Falke (being slightly surprised that it had side-by-side seating instead of sitting in front of each other), got my basic security instruction (which amounted to "grab the shoulder belts your hands on take-off, so that in case it gets bumpy you don't try to hold on to the control stick by reflex") and we taxied onto the airfield (basically a large meadow) and off we went.

Scheibe SF-25C Falke

At first I didn't even realize that we were about to start.

I had seen pictures of the airfield (and air-field is quite appropriate here) and there were clearly visible lines in the grass, so I assumed they would be the "landing strips" and we would use one of them for taking off.

But it turned out that (given enough space) you just turn the motor glider into the wind and get going.

The "landing strips" were in fact more like "starting strips" and a result of the positioning of the winches. Every time a glider is winched up, it'll leave some marks in the grass. But unless you are winched, you start (and, in any case, land) wherever it suits you.

Bicester airfield Bicester airfield Bicester airfield

We soon were in the air and headed for Oxford. (Given that the flight lasts 40 minutes and you can skip all the circling around for gaining altitude with a motor glider, the range of the flight is fairly predictable and from Bicester there are essentially to choices - fly over Oxford or have a look at the Silverstone circuit. As I was spending the rest of the week in Oxford, I opted to go there.)

After we were safely in the air and the plane pointed roughly in the direction of Oxford, I got a quick flight lesson (fairly much limited to "That is the control stick - move sideward for left/right, forward for down/faster, towards you for up/slower. Don't bother with the rudder pedals.") and I had control of the plane.

Flying a motor glider

I'm not sure whether there any fiscal reasons behind it, but the flight I had booked was a "trial lesson", so it included some actual flying of the glider.

Flying a motor glider

I have no idea what the rules in England are, but I know that there are cases where enthusiast clubs aren't allowed to do 'sightseeing flights' as they are a touristic activity and they need to be registered (and/or billed) as a touristic operator, which might be incompatible with the charter of the club. But as a flight enthusiast club, they can promote their hobby, so giving flight lessons is an acceptable activity that falls under their charter (and, incidentally, allows them to be in the tax bracket for clubs and not in that for commercial enterprises). But I don't know whether that was the reason for the flight being a 'trial lesson' instead of a 'sightseeing flight' or whether it's just more interesting thing to be able to fly the plane yourself instead of being chauffeured around.

The view from the cockpit was fairly good. I had expected to see mostly sky, with the ground view being blocked by the plane itself, but on level flight the horizon was a good bit above the nose of the glider.

View from the cockpit

But while the view was technically good (though visibility was, well, not that great), there was surprisingly little opportunity for sightseeing. If, like me, you don't really know what you're doing , you're paying attention to lots of trivial stuff (like airspeed, where the horizon is, where the plane is pointing, whether there is anything strange going on), so there is little chance to just enjoy the view.

Or take pictures.

So when we reached Oxford, I asked the pilot to take over again, so I could take a number of pictures and look at Oxford from above.

Oxford from above Oxford from above Oxford from above
Oxford from above Oxford from above Oxford from above

As basic orientation - the building with the grey dome (about center in the first picture, middle left in the second) is Radcliffe Camera, the building with the large inner square and the circular path in it (visible in the last four pictures) belongs to Christ Church College and the smaller square next to it, with the four-leaf clover look, also belongs to Christ Church College.

Then it was back to Bicester again. We tried to do a little detour to see an interesting villa on the way back (I don't quite recall what was interesting about it - something about it formerly being in France and then dismantled and moved to Oxfordshire, but I was too focused on flying the glider to really pay attention), but we were running late, so we didn't quite make it there and turned directly towards Bicester again, where the pilot took the controls again and landed the glider.

Flight path

A couple of days later, I was doing a very 'English' activity (and even there it's primarily an Oxford/Cambridge thing) - punting.

Punting in Oxford Punting in Oxford Punting in Oxford

It's a fairly leisurely activity (yes, punting races do exist, but then snail races exist as well) and the only thrill is whether anyone falls in (which rarely happens) and it's a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon in Oxford.

And as this was turned into a quite 'traditional English' day, it seemed like a good idea to finish the evening with a pint or two at "The Eagle and Child" pub in Oxford.

Paintings in The Eagle and Child

A somewhat less leisurely activity then came at the end of the week.

I had seen an outdoor kart track while doing the motor glider flight and it turned out to have a slightly odd history.

Now a kart track...

It used to be a greyhound racing track (greyhound as in the dog breed, not the busses), but dog racing ended there the previous December and the inner part of the track is now a kart track.

But most of the greyhound racing related things still exist - the spectator stands, the grandstand restaurant, the dog paddocks, the oval sand track, even the "winner's podium", although all of them are now in a state of decay.

Track and spectator stands Spectator stands Winners podium
Dog Paddock Grandstand restaurant view

Driving around the track was fun. I had booked half an hour of karting for a Friday morning. And even though the weather was great, there wasn't much going on at the track. There was a small family group planning to have a go, but since it would take some time to get them all into overalls and go through a security briefing, they decided to just let me go first and then go on the track once I was finished. So I had the track all to myself for half an hour. (And afterwards the family had the track for their exclusive use for half an hour, so everyone was happy - though probably not the track owners, who presumably prefer a fully booked track all the time...)

Oxford karting Oxford karting

Having the track to myself was fun, but ultimately unproductive. (Not a problem, though. I was there just for having fun.) It is nice to have only the track to worry about and try to get a 'feel' for the track and work on getting the right approach for the curves and to improve from lap to lap.

But the trouble is the lack of immediate feedback.

I had the feeling that I was driving constant rounds, with slight improvements from lap to lap, usually (and also aware when I didn't hit a corner the way I intended too and the lap would be a bit slower).

And the print-out of the lap times that I got at the end confirmed that.

Though the frustrating bit was that I was optimizing the wrong 'line'. While my lap times were fairly constant and slightly improving over time (with an odd exception here and there), the fastest lap I did was within the first ten laps, there I just drove around and tried to get to know the track. So whatever I was doing there was obviously better than what I had been trying to do when I tried to optimize my driving.

Some on-track timing might have helped a bit, but even then it would be hard to tell which bit of driving increases and decreases lap times. It would probably be cool to have some in-helmet display of your kart during the previous best round, so you can try to drive different lines and then see whether that helps or hurts. While that would still be slightly costly, it is getting just into the range that a kart track could actually afford...

After the karting, I went to London for the weekend.

Not much to tell there - I considered visiting 'The Shard' and enjoy the view from there, but at 25 quid for just visiting the viewing platform, it didn't seem to be worth it. (Even the London Eye is cheaper. And you get to ride a stylish Ferris Wheel. And it's closer to attractions.)

The Shard

So I just walked around some curiously empty streets.

Triathlon possibly going on Triathlon possibly going on

The reason wasn't any bomb scare, but there was the London Triathlon going on. I'm not sure whether I was there too early or too late, but when I was there, there weren't any spectators and very few (if at all) athletes - I did see one or two people rushing by quickly on bikes, but I couldn't say whether they were part of the competitions or just some sort of 'advance' group to check whether there were any problems on the route.

As there was not much to be seen, I crossed the Thames and visited Tate Modern instead.

Chimney of Tate Modern

Unfortunately the Turbine Hall (the most impressive space of Tate Modern) was closed, so it was just a 'normal' museum and not an impressive place by itself.

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