Tuesday, May 21
We ate breakfast at our hotel before checking out. They offered a vegetarian version of a full English breakfast: free range eggs, baked beans, toast, grilled tomatoes, fried mushrooms and even a tiny tub of Marmite. I really wanted to like the Marmite but, boy, was it awful.
We had some time before our tour of the Mini factory so we took a walk into town. One of my favorite things about England is the place names. This is a community garden near our hotel called Cow Mead Allotments.
The Eagle and Child Pub near the university has been open since 1650 and was the hangout of budding writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They called themselves “The Inklings” and nicknamed the pub the “Bird and Baby”.
We walked through the Oxford Covered Market which houses bookshops, produce stands, confectioners and clothing shops.
I usually have trouble shopping for gifts and envy people who have the knack of seeing something and thinking “oh, that would be perfect for x”. When I saw this awesome t-shirt, I had one of those moments. I sort of wish I had bought one for myself, too.
We walked back to the car and drove to the Mini Plant Oxford for our one o’clock tour. I bought a new Mini Roadster several months ago and was excited to see how it was made.
We started in the museum with displays showing the history of the British Motor Corporation. Among other models, BMC made the Mini,
And the Morris Minor.
There was a section showing how the factory was converted to airplane and military vehicle manufacturing during the Second World War:
“Production line expertise and facilities at the Oxford plant were put to use during the war years.
Inevitably, many of the young men working at Oxford were called away for active service, yet the workforce at Oxford grew to 10,000 during this time as thousands of women took over roles previously handled by men.
The Morris team became best known during wartime for the construction of the Tiger Moth aircraft. Over 4,000 of these fairly basic aircraft were produced for use as training aircraft for young RAF pilots, with completed aircraft being delivered at the rate of 40 per week at the height of production.
From 1939 onward, sections of the Oxford plant were turned over to the war effort, with trucks, tanks, aircraft and light reconnaissance vehicles being produced. Wings for the Horsa glider were made in the plant’s sawmill, which usually produced wooden frames and car coachwork. The plant also produced wings for De Havilland aircraft and engines for Lancasters and Beaufighters, while the Salamander amphibious vehicle was tested and constructed at Oxford, Crusader tanks were assembled from 10,000 parts and took 12 days to complete. The tool department at Oxford was estimated to have produced tooling worth £3 million over the wartime period.”
Our tour guides rounded us up and took us through factory. I’m sorry we weren’t allowed to take photos as Mini, now owned by BMW, has a complex but organized and efficient system for manufacturing. There is some automation, of course, but there are still a fair number of tasks that can only be performed by humans. All the models are created at this factory in what is called “sequential assembly”.
The body and paint shop, in a separate facility at the plant, manufactures the styles in lots, for example, 100 Coopers, 100 Roadsters, etc. The painted bodies are brought to the main floor as they are ordered by the customers (most new Mini’s purchased are made to order rather than sold directly from the showroom floors). As soon as a body arrives, it is tagged with a computer chip with the order information. The doors are also removed and transferred to the end of the line.
Part packages are delivered in sequential order at stations on the assembly line and sensors along the way check to ensure the correct parts are being installed on the correct vehicle.
The windshield and rear windows are installed by robots. We watched the first arm run a blue laser around the frame to mark the position of the car. The second picked up the glass, ran it over the adhesive nozzle and handed it off to a third arm which placed the glass in the frame.
The engine and drive train are manufactured in Germany and delivered to a “marriage station”, again in correct sequential order, to install. The dash assembly is made in Romania by a German company and shipped to Oxford in a single piece. The front end assembly is manufactured as attached along the way in the same manner.
At the end of the line, doors are reattached and different levels of fluids are added depending upon where the car is going and that country’s port of entry requirements.
The stereotype of German engineering and efficiency seemed to hold true here. The guides, retired factory workers, remarked on the low error rates tolerated on the line – which is especially impressive considering parts are brought in from all over the world and kept in correct order. I left with a whole new appreciation for my little Mini!
We got back on the road north towards our overnight stop in Nottingham. Jim was getting used to the driving but this was our first time on the freeway system so it was still a bit challenging. We realized at the end of the day that we hadn’t seen a single highway patrol car. There were speed limits posted and some traffic cameras but they didn’t seem to have much effect on drivers. I think we’ll do a little more train travel next time we visit.
On the way, we passed an ominous-looking nuclear power plant.
It didn’t help to have those dark clouds in the background and I was happy to see it getting smaller in the rearview mirror.
After fighting our way through construction, rush hour traffic and a couple of wrong turns, we made it to the Lace Market Hotel in Nottingham. We’d just planned it as a halfway point but after seeing it, I wouldn’t have minded staying another day. It has a nice city center with lots of pedestrian-only shopping areas.
The hotel looked nice enough but it had a strange layout, lots of oddly angled rooms and hallways and short sets of stairs here and there from the elevators. Our room had a window that opened onto a light well down the center of the building.
After relaxing for a while, we went to dinner. On the way out, I asked reception about the heated towel rail. It was too warm in the small room and I couldn’t find an off switch. They said they have to send someone up with a key to take care of it.
I’d found a vegetarian restaurant to try but they turned out to be closing early. The second on my list, Aubergine Cuisine, turned out to be excellent and even Jim the omnivore quite liked his vegetarian stroganoff. I asked our server about the recipe and I think she only told us the ingredients because we assured her we were leaving town the next day!
We went back to the hotel and someone arrived shortly after to turn off the towel rail. We decided it was too early for bed and went for another walk. We wandered around the area and looked at all the old buildings, both Georgian and Victorian era architecture. There used to be a large lacemaking industry in Nottingham (hence the name of the hotel). Down the road from us was St. Mary’s Church, built between 1377 and 1475 and noted in the Domesday Book.
The other lace industry buildings in the area have been renovated and house upscale apartments and offices as well as restaurants and bars. As we walked past one bar, a very intoxicated young man wandered out to chat with us. We had a bit of time getting on our way as he wanted to tell us all about the States – based on his visit to Las Vegas. Eventually, we got loose and headed on home.
I went in to wash up and found water all over the bathroom floor! We called down to the front desk and they sent another person up to check on it. He tried to fix it but it started dripping black water on him and the floor.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, they said they’d move us to another room. It was a bigger room that was a few floors up so we got a little upgrade. The view was a little better but I would have just preferred our original room and dry socks.
They had rushed to clean it but forgotten a few things like a second bath towel and coffee cups. We also found a very hot cabinet containing a mini fridge and a remote with the batteries taped in the wrong way and smelling of burned rubber.
All of those weren’t too bad and the staff really was doing their best so it was fine – until we climbed into bed. It turns out they had flipped the mattress which was a pillow top and not designed to be flipped at all. There wasn’t anything but a thin layer of fabric and sheet between us and the springs. We decided we’d have to turn the mattress back over and, well, let’s just say it had seen better days. We put the bathmat as an extra layer of insulation under the fitted sheet, remade the bed and were too tired to mind much of anything at that point.
I didn’t want to complain to the staff; they really were very responsive and helpful. It just seemed like they were struggling with an old building and miserly owners.