October 12, 2005

Thursday Sept 8, 2005
We woke up super-early on Thursday morning to catch a train from Paddington Station to Oxford. Paddington Station is a very impressive rail station - dozens of platforms scattered about - of the sort that our local Union Station can only aspire to be (if anyone out here ever took the train, that is). I misdirected us to a ticket line, where hopefully we could change our ticket vouchers for actual rail tickets, but we found, after waiting in line for fifteen minutes behind a group of chatty middle-aged and senior citizen women, that was unnecessary - the vouchers were our tickets.

We then had to figure out which freakin' train to take, because it seemed like there were a bazillion of them. We stopped shortly near an information booth, and the guy told us the number of some Platform, and that it was leaving in about five minutes. Fantastic! We made our way to the properly-numbered platform, boarded the stuffy train, took a few seats, and waited for take-off.

The train really piled up with morning commuters. Businessmen with newspapers, students with laptops. I sat directly across from an Asian lawyer who pulled out one of those cute-looking spooled paperwork-thingamabobs (Julie: Queen of Vocabulary) with the red ribbon tied around it to, presumably, look over a case. After a few stops in some small suburbs (including Slough!), we arrived at our destination.

Thankfully, the rail station in Oxford isn't too far from the City Centre. We arrived by around 9am, so it was still pretty sleepy around. We hadn't a clue where we were going, and had many hours until our 1:45pm tour of the MINI factory, so we ambled along some of the main streets until we found a nice little cafe (The Buttery) to have some much-needed breakfast and get our bearings.

eggs on toast

I ordered a hot chocolate, and eggs on toast. I imagine the breakfast would have been much better if hadn't sprinkled what I thought was pepper on the eggs (I still don't know what that green poweder was, but I definitely don't think it was regular pepper), and instead, maybe a bottle of ketchup would have been nice. But oh well. Just down the street and across from The Buttery was the Trinity College campus. It was a pound per person to take a little walking tour through selected areas of the quaint little campus. But it was worth it. The green lawns and limestone brick buildings made for some good photo ops, and it was so quiet and serene, just walking from here to there.
wandering the grounds of trinity college

After the journey through the Trinity College campus, we walked out, made a quick left, and found ourselves in front of Blackwell's Bookshop - a famous booksellers that Erik listed as a must-see. We went inside, and down some stairs, and up some stairs, and back out again. It was a bookstore... with lots of books.

We traveled down some small "streets" (alleyways is more fitting) and got ourselves back to one of the main roads, and then ended up in another bookshop - this one the Oxford University Press Bookshop. We walked in and traveled down to the surprisingly well-lit basement level, where Erik scouted the Classics section. He appeared to be in heaven, and I was just really happy to have a moment to rest my feet.

erik is excited!
erik geeking out

He selected a book for the buying and we left, trying to figure out which bus to take from where to get us to where we wanted to go. Once we pretty much figured out what to do, we stopped at the KFC on the main promenade there to have a bite to eat, knowing our chances to eat were going to be slim once we headed out to the factory. They has a chicken filet sandwich there, but they don't pronounce them as "fill-ay" - they pronounce it as "fill-et" - which I found to be the most disturbing alternate pronounciation I came across.

After a quick lunch, we darted over to find the number 10 bus that would take us clear across Creation (or, wait, just Oxford), out into the suburbs, to the very edge of civilization, and across the street from the BMW MINI Plant. We found that there were another pair of American travelers who were there for the tour as well, so we grouped with them to find our way to the entrance.

MINI Plant

We arrived to find a clearly-indicated tour entrance, a big MINI sign with a Chili Red Cooper bolted sideways to the wall about twenty feet up. The doors opened just after 1:30pm, where we were greeted by a member of staff and told to grab a pair of goggles, an earphone device, and a bright orange heavy-canvas coat. Erik and I had cool-looking vouchers for the tour that were actually ovalled-Union Jack stickers with the letters "OXO" printed on them. These were special for the MINI Vacation package we received, and I guess the vouchers were numbered according to when you booked. Erik and I were numbers 10 and 11 (such early-adopters!), and there was another couple there who, coincidentally, had vouchers numbered 12 and 13.
erik at the MINI plant

After about a half hour of waiting around, taking pictures of all the "famous" MINIs they had on display there (one of the Austin Powers MINIs, a couple of the new "Italian Job" MINIs), browsing through the merch, we were led into a small "theatre" to be introduced to our tour guide, be given instructions on the "installation" and use of our earphones (demonstrated aptly by our very own Erik Peterson), be told what we could and could NOT do (alas, no photos would be allowed beyond this point), and be shown a short video about the paint-factory, which, because it's a freakin' paint factory, we would not be allowed to view first-hand.

After the sleepy introduction, we were led to a MINI tour bus which took us all around the plant. We began at the area where all the robots assembled the frames of the MINIs. Manufacturing robots are RIDICULOUSLY COOL. The thought that every movement they make needs to be strictly measured, coordinated, and programmed just blew my mind. I thought getting high definition D5 D-Cinema squeeze cross conversions between 1080i and 24p done was tough - but they're NOTHING compared to the logistics involved with putting together an automotive plant.

After our trip through this first section of the plant (and me still reeling over how exactly they get all those robots programmed with such precision), we again boarded the "coach" and were driven to the "finishing" portion of the plant - where, instead of robots, there were actual PEOPLE putting the MINIs together. Erik can probably explain this better, but there are a number of separate production lines within the factory, which all finish up in a single line. ALL of the different kinds of MINIs are assembled on the SAME lines, and every MINI is a custom job, so when a Cooper One right-side drive MINI needs a silver dash, it's there, right when it needs it - and the next MINI that rolls up behind it might be a left-side drive Cooper S with a Chili Red body-colored dash - and it's there! The logistics are just that amazing. And to think, both our MINIs rolled off these very same production lines. *Sigh*

After the nearly three-hour tour, feet just torn to shreds, hungry and tired, just wanting a bed to appear out of nowhere, we stumbled back across the street to catch another bus to take us back to the Oxford City Centre, close enough to the rail station. We waited for about fifteen minutes for a direct train back to Paddington Station, and chatted it up with that 12/13 couple, MINI owners from Texas. Once we got on the train, I was pretty much knocked out until shortly before we arrived back at Paddington.

Fortunately there's a tube stop right there at Paddington, so we took a short tube ride back to our hotel, grabbed a quick dinner (McDonald's, I believe?) and slept quite soundly. Geez, I don't even remember what we were planning for the next day!

posted by Julie at 11:49 AM

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