26 July 2008
The dreaming spires of the oldest English speaking university in the world is a charming day-trip from London. Just choose the timing of your visit wisely.
Firstly, what NOT to do - visit Oxford on a Saturday on a sunny summer's day. The place generally heaves with day-tripping tourists, but in the summer it explodes with a stressful menagerie of dawdling American retirees, shrieking teenage students from the Continent and obedient Japanese schoolgirls in matching kilts and knee socks. It felt like pre-Christmas Oxford Street (pun intended), but there was nowhere avoid the crowds. If you really want to do something, book in advance and prepare to wait.
Bodleian Library Tour: An interesting and drily amusing truncated 30 minute tour of the gloriously atmospheric Duke Humphrey's library and the medieval fan-vaulted Divinity School, home to Hogwart's infirmary. The vacuum tube book request system still delivers tomes via miniature underground train (I have a mental image of a Santa's cave of dwarves rushing around with piles of books). The standard 1 hour tour also goes to the Convocation House and Chancellor's Court but the crowds got to the box office before we did (see above). Highly recommended for £4-£8.
Visit a college: Many of the colleges are closed in the summer but you can still peek in through the cobbled entrances to appreciate the sedate buildings surrounding the perfectly manicured quad lawns and bright flowerbeds. The queue for the most famous college, Christ Church and its cathedral, was a couple of hundred people long in the heat. Needless to say, we missed out. See above.
(No) Punting: See above. We didn't have time to wait so unfortunately Tim didn't get to fulfill his dream to go punting. Luckily it wasn't a life dream.
Official Walking Tour: The Oxford Tourist Information Office runs daily 2 hour walking tours for £7. Unfortunately, I think our guide was one of the worst guides I've experienced. You couldn't fault his enthusiasm, but his exuberant over-use of adjectives 'romantic!' 'beautiful!' 'magnificient!' and slowpoke pace was coupled with an unsatisfying lack of factoids about the colleges, the town and the history.
Climb the Sheldonian Theatre: Most people pay £3 to climb the spire of University Church of St Mary the Virgin to get a panoramic view of Oxford. Instead, visit the Sheldonian Theatre. You can admire Wren's architectural skill in supporting the dome without pillars, see a similar bird-eye view of the city and the surrounding green meadows for only £1, and there's no queueing.
Alice's Shop: A tiny shop which was the inspiration for the Sheep Shop in Through the Looking Glass. Alice in Wonderland is my favourite children's book and it appears to be the favourite book of thousands of Japanese tourists as well. My find was the Cheshire Cat mug - when you pour a hot drink into it, the cat disappears, leaving only the grin!
Blackwell: A bibliophile's delight - an extensive bookstore sprawled over several buildings on Broad Street. We bought two huge Eboy posters: one London cityscape and one called 'Foobar' for Tim's inner Web 2.0 geek.
Covered Market: If you don't fancy a sit-down lunch, try some of the stalls at the covered market, including a massive milk-shake stand, an Italian deli and vegetarian food.
Turf Tavern. If it hadn't been for Tim, I would have bypassed a Very Important Monument in Oxford; a blackboard marking the pub where Bob Hawke, former Australian Prime Minister and raging alcoholic, broke the world record for the amount of time taken to finish a yardglass (2 pints) of beer. It's also famed as the place where Bill Clinton 'didn't inhale' and the location for several Inspector Morse episodes. As for the pub itself - it's quite charming, with cosy low wooden beams inside and several shady beer gardens outside. Naturally it was very busy, but the service was still efficient and the food was decent pub grub (£7.25 for bangers and mash).
Vaults and Gardens: Take a break from the heaving crowds and enjoy your ye olde English soft drinks (Fentiman's botanically brewed Curiosity Cola and Dandelion and Burdock) in the gently shaded churchyard of University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the face of the pearl of Radcliffe Camera. It specialises in organic food and the lunchtime salad plates looked delicious.
G&D's Ice Cream Cafe: The long snaking line outside 'Oxford's Own Ice-cream Cafe' was, for once, really worth it. The icecream is made on premises every day and the mango and passionfruit sorbet was refreshing and one of the best I've ever had.
Snaps to National Rail. Just occasionally, First Great Western works in my favour. Our trains to and from Oxford departed and arrived on time and despite the braying youngsters, it was a very comfortable ride. £14 return for 2 people booked one month in advance.
Bodleian Library - Old Library: Catte Street Oxford OX1 3BG
T: 01865 277000
Oxford Tourist Information: 15-16 Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3AS
Tel: +44 (0)1865 252200
Sheldonian Theatre: Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3AZ
T: 01865 277299
Alice's Shop:83 St. Aldates
Blackwell: 48-51 Broad Street Oxford, OX1 3BQ
Oxford Covered Market: The Market, Oxford, OX1 3DZ
T: 01865 250133
Turf Tavern: 7 Bath Pl
T: 01865 243235
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin: High Street, Oxford OX1 4AH
T: 01865 279111
G&D's Ice Cream Cafe: 55 Little Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX1 2HS (and other locations)