A May 2002 trip
to Oxford by actonsteve
Quote: Honey-coloured buildings, leering gargoyles, and sleepy colleges encapsulate Oxford, a medieval town with a worldwide academic reputation and one of the loveliest cities in Britain.
It encapsulates the English idyll--honey-coloured colleges, draping willows, meandering rivers, leering gargoyles, and green quadrangles. The greeness of the country rolls into town and contrasts with ancient medieval colleges sprinkled with spires, statues, and cloisters.
Oxford University's reputation for academic excellence precedes it and makes it one of the greatest universities in the world. It is a world unto itself. Academics spend their lives in sleepy private studies, bowler-hatted porters guard the gates, and an international population rushes around trying to be on time for lectures.
Whenever I go there I am struck by the colour of the city. Most of the colleges are made from a beautiful honey-coloured stone called Oolite which, when it ages, begins to crumble and makes the buildings look exceptionally ancient. The effect of this decay is quite picturesque. It's also one of the greenest cities I have ever visited--the colleges have hung onto their ancient meadows and parks to create countryside on their doorstep complete with deer parks and swan-filled rivers.
You need at least two days for Oxford and, as you wander around, you will succumb to the gentle way of life here. A lazy morning on the green lawns of a college, a cycle ride along the Cherwell, carols in Christchurch Cathedral and some truly exceptional pubs. Oxford is the most English of cities and its cosy cloistered life is very seductive.
If you only see one British city outside of London--let it be Oxford.
Oxford is primarily a good city to meander in. It almost invites visitors to stick their heads into echoing cloisters, narrow alleys, and hidden gardens. There are numerous attractions in the surrounding area and it makes a good base for touring the Cotswolds and Thames Valley.
If you want understand the heart and soul of England - well, this city comes very close.
My favourite way of reaching the 'city of spires' is via the 'Oxford Tube'. This fleet of double-decker coaches runs around the clock and costs £10-return--half the price of the railway. It starts at Victoria Station, then hits Marble Arch and Shepherds Bush before taking the M40 to Oxford. The green countryside whizzes past, with sheep-filled fields, tiny hamlets, and herds of cows all visible from the windows.
Oxford City Council is very progressive and has recently banned private cars from 'The High' which is now only open to buses and taxis. Buses fan out from 'The High' with the Oxford bus company reaching Windsor, Stratford, Abingdon, Blenheim Palace (via Woodstock), and many other Cotswold towns.
And of course there is punting. Punts are available for hire at Magdalen and Iffley Bridge for about £20/hour. There is no better way to see Oxford than from the river at twilight
Attraction | "Blackwells bookshop: a Bibliophiles paradise"
For some people it's dusty academics pouring over 14th-century first edition folios in antiquarian bookshops. To others, it's impoverished students in round spectacles engrossed in their copy of Descartes and hiding in bookshops to keep warm. Both of these stereotypes come to life in Blackwells.
Blackwells is an Oxford institution that began in 1879, in a shop so tiny that, when more then three people entered, the apprentice had to be sent outside. Now it is five shops--including Blackwells Cookery, Blackwells Music, Blackwells Paperback and Blackwells Children's--not more then 20 feet away from each other along the monumental Broad Street thoroughfare. From the outside they are undoubtedly beautiful, housed as they are in 18th-century buildings with bay windows and overhanging gables. But the original one still stands at 48-51 Broad Street next to exclusive Trinity College. It has been the policy of the management to encourage browsing and some of the famous customers that have obliged include Oscar Wilde, JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Hilaire Beloc, George Bernard Shaw and one Anthony Blair.
Some of Oxford's famous literary stars are showcased on the ground floor, where the creators of Middle Earth, Narnia and The Mad Hatter's Tea Party have pride of place. Also on show here are beautiful coffee table books about Oxford as well as some lovely watercolours of Oxfordshire that are so pretty they may inspire you to visit the rest of the county.
Blackwells was also a publishing house for a time and some of its early authors became world famous--Tolkien, LP Hartley, and Robert Graves got their first chance thanks to Blackwells old publishing house.
Below ground is the gigantic Norrington Room--the bookstore's real treasure--that has been featured in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the biggest book repository in the world thanks to its 3 miles of shelves. If you can't find what you want here then it doesn't exist--that said, it may take you a long while to find it. For bibliophiles, the place is sheer heaven and it's a terrific place to lose yourself among a forest of books.
Blackwells takes pleasure in higher-learning, and each visitor can't help but be involved.
And isn't that what Oxford is all about?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 26, 2002
48-51 Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BQ
+44 1865 792792
Attraction | "'Eagle and Child' pub - home of Lord of the Rings"
The tavern itself dates from the 1620s, when it was the first inn to be encountered on the road north out of Oxford. It is named after the crest of the Earls of Derby and during the civil war was popular with royalist soldiers. To find it, you must head north from ‘The High’ along the magnificent St. Giles. This impressively wide street houses the cream-colored Balliol and St. John’s colleges, Ashmolean Museum, and the posh Randolph Hotel. St. Johns in particular has a beautiful medieval quadrangle, and it is worth sneaking past the porter to view its gargoyles and immaculate lawns. Tolkien was professor of Anglo Saxon at nearby Exeter College and used to wander over after lectures to read excerpts of his works to his friends. He lived in Oxford for 50 years until the attention of his fans became too much and he fled to Bournemouth.
If you read his works, then the simple things in life--country walks, a good pipe, a tankard of ale, and good company--come to the fore. The pub has this in abandon with a very narrow bar, rowing pictures on the walls, cider jugs on ledges, partitioned ‘snugs’ or alcoves, and reams of timbered wood. You can perch on wooden bar stools or take a table in the covered garden. The place is very quiet (broken only by a jukebox) and is a good place for a pint and a newspaper. Tweedy old men with walking sticks and berbers testify to its continued popularity with locals.
The range of ales is as good as expected with Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen, Theakstons, Ruddles, and Strongbow cider on tap. The food is exceptional, with Sunday roasts (£5.50), gammon and pineapple (£4.50), and huge melts of bacon and cheese (£4.75) that are almost too big for the plate. Frodo and Gandalf would certainly approve . . .
Eagle and Child
Oxford, England OX1 3LU
+44 1865 302925
Attraction | "'Turf Tavern' - Greene King and Olde Peculiar"
And finding it is half the fun. It is tucked behind Hertford College and the Holywell Road, and can be reached only by tiny alleys. If you are coming from the Radcliffe Camera then step under the Bridge of Sighs to New College Lane. The alley leading to the Turf Tavern is only a meter wide and on the north side of the street. If you follow it behind the college accommodation and gardens and take a swift left, you'll find the beer garden of the Turf Tavern. From the north is the better way, and once you have found your way to Holywell Street, it is just a sidestep to the south. The alley to look out for is Bath Place, which is only 2-feet wide and lined with cobbles. At the end is the pink Georgian hotel called, suitably, the Bath Hotel. But it is a passageway to the left you must look for. And this will bring you out into the beer garden of the Turf Tavern.
The Tavern goes back to the 13th century where it served not just as a hostelry, but an inn as well. It backs onto the ruins of the medieval city walls and its beer garden is on many levels with wooden benches. When you venture inside, you realize people must have been much smaller back in the 1200s as the ceiling is very low and covered in timber beams. The bar is in a horseshoe shape, allowing staff to serve patrons on either side of the tavern. The beers are good with Oxfordshire specialities such as Fuller and Bombadier on tap. There are also other ales and stouts such as Greene King, Old Peculiar, and the ever-popular Speckled Hen. For cider drinkers there is Dry Blackthorne and the mulled wine is good for cold winter afternoons.
The patrons are a mixture of students, locals, and tourists. It is a good place to bring mum and dad when they visit and the food is supposedly good. The usual British favorites of "chips with everything..." is available but I hear their Sunday roast dinner is a bargain at £5.50. It is a good pub for sitting back on one of its rickety wooden chairs and just talking. Students are adept at this and there is always a bunch of them in there flicking beermats at each other and after a few pints discussing the weighty issues of the day such as
"Who was the best James Bond?", "Which is the best college?", and most importantly "Who is buying the next round of drinks...?"
4 Bath Place
Oxford, England OX1 3SU
+44 1865 243235
Attraction | "Botanical Garden - one of Oxfords hidden treasures"
Firstly, the garden was not set up for the aesthetic enjoyment of the populace--it was set up for botanical research by Oxford University. As England explorers traveled the world, different plants were sent back to university to be examined, categorised, and grown in the garden. The first head gardner--a German named Jacob Bobart--laid out the plants according to strict scientific categories.
The Botanic gardens are at the eastern part of 'The High'. The entrance is about £3 and payable at a small kiosk run by sweet old ladies. You won't be able to miss the entrance itself--it's a huge baroque marble gateway with statues of both Charles I and II. The centrepiece of this walled garden is a gushing fountain and, if you look behind it, you'll see the belltower of Magdalen College looming over everything.
The plants are at their best in the spring and summer when they become a riot of colour. 300-year-old walnut and chestnut trees watch over everything while plants from around the world burst into colour. Little black labels are next to each plant so you may find yourself bending down to examine Philesia Magnesia from Chile or Troilus Ancondia from the Himalaya. Whenever I come to the gardens and see these labels I imagine men in periwigs and britches cooing over plantpots and congratulating themselves on each plant. There are little benches dotted around the pools, fountains, and ornamental urns. The gardens are also home to many animals and you may see squirrels, jays, magpies, and robin redbreasts flitting around the flowerbeds.
At the end of the gardens are the greenhouses. Although not on the scale of Kew Gardens, these greenhouses are hundreds of years old and burst with tropical vegetation. The humid temperature allows oranges to grow year round, as well as orchids, papaya, palms, wild lemongrass, and South African fynbos. One greenhouse has flora from the world's desert regions--cactis that soar over your head, wild pineapples and enormous monkey puzzle trees.
One warning: if you go there on a cold day, your glasses will mist up very quickly. If this happens watch where you put your hands - not all plants are harmless.
To me the Oxford botanical garden is a beautiful evocation of another era. The era of Halley, Davenant, and Wren, when the science of botany was in its infancy and the forte only of dedicated enthusiasts. Tourists will find it one of the most beautiful sights in Oxford.
University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Oxford, England OX1 4AX
+44 1865 276920
By this time you may need some fresh air and if you leave the cloisters via the eastern exit, the gardens follow the river Cherwell and upstream a small bridge takes you to Addison Walk and the college watermeadows. But most people head for the baroque New College buildings - "new" meaning" built in 1733. The vast lawn is usually strewn with students with their heads in books and the building itself was the workplace for Edward Gibbon and CS Lewis as well as seven Nobel Prize winners. I like the tree on the edge of the green planted in 1801 to celebrate the peace of Amiens. The tree is withered and gnarled and reeks of ancient Oxford. When I first came here in 1989 I remember getting shouted at by one of the porters as I swung on one of its branches.My memories of seeing the deer park a little further on are still fresh. Back then it was rutting season and the meadow rang to the sounds of clashing stags. The harts are still there from July to September, and the herd numbers around sixty. While Bambi may look cute peacefully grazing beneath the elm trees, they have their uses to the college--notably serving as the main course at the dinner table.Ummmmmm...now where''s my knife and fork?
Attraction | "The heart of Oxford: The Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera"
You may be heartily sick of gargoyles by now and begin pulling faces back at them. I did--the wind changed--and I stayed like that . . .
Central Oxford, Oxfordshire
London, United Kingdom