Weekending: Old and new in Oxford
City of dreaming spires, punts on the river and gowned academics on bikes, Oxford was also my home for two years. It’s a great city for a weekend break, small enough that you can walk across it in half an hour but with enough to do to keep you busy. It’s got hundreds of years of academic and literary history, with museums and colleges that have been passed through by centuries worth of famous scientists, philosophers, authors, politicians and explorers. But there is also the modern city, with great shopping, bars and restaurants to explore. Seven years after moving out it was about time I paid it a return visit.
Oxford is synonymous with its university – one of the most well-known and arguably the oldest in the world. Prospective students don’t apply to the University of Oxford though, instead you apply to be a ‘member’ of one of the 38 different colleges, each of which has its own specialities and character. For a good insight into the weird and wonderful world of Oxford academia, you can take a tour by a former student with Oxford Walking Tours. Their tours take you around some of the oldest colleges with lots of insider information about the university’s history and rituals (tours last 90 minutes and cost £9.50 per person). The colleges are dotted around the centre of Oxford so you catch glimpses through their doorways into the hidden courtyards and quadrangles beyond as you walk down the city’s side streets.
For a closer look, many of the colleges are open to visitors, though check opening hours especially around exam times. Probably the best-known is Christ Church, though that might be as much for its role as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films as it is for its academic heritage and famous alumni, who include Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein, WH Auden and 13 prime ministers. For £7 you can go and looks around the quads, grand staircase, dining hall and college chapel, which doubles up as Oxford’s cathedral. Other good colleges to visit include Merton, Magdalen (pronounced ‘mawd-lin’), Corpus Christi, Hertford, All Souls and Oriel. You can also look around other academic buildings like the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe and another filming location for Harry Potter, Brideshead Revisited and more.
As you’d expect from a university city, Oxford is full of museums. One of the biggest is the Ashmolean. It’s Oxford’s version of the British Museum, with a mix of art and archaeological exhibits including ancient Minoan pottery, Greek and Roman statues and paintings by Turner and Canaletto. It also has a dining room up on the rooftop where you can have lunch or drinks with a great view across the city. There are also museums dedicated to natural history and the history of science, but my favourite is the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum. This anthropological museum was founded 125 years ago with 20,000 items donated by archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers. It’s grown since then to encompass the weird and wonderful from across the world, with voodoo dolls, shrunken heads and even a witch in a bottle.
Away from academia, another classic Oxford experience is punting. The city is located on two rivers, the Cherwell and the Thames (which goes by the name of the Isis when it’s in Oxford) and has a couple of places you can test your punting skills – and your balance. Underneath Magdalen Bridge by the pretty Botanic Gardens is where you’ll find the most punts. You can hire one for £14 an hour if you want to try it out, or get a boatman to do the work for you. Or in summer there’s a good punting spot upriver near the Cherwell Boathouse. You’re a bit further out of town here so it’s not quite as busy, and you can get a jug of Pimms from their River Bar to take out on the water with you. Head upriver for about 30 minutes and you’ll get to the Victoria Arms pub which has a big beer garden and plenty of punt parking.
Getting there… In the centre of England, Oxford is easy to get to by train – it’s about an hour from London, and you can get advance tickets from £5.60 each way. There are also frequent coaches like the Oxford Tube which runs between London and Oxford 24 hours a day (£17 return) or the Airline buses which connect Oxford to the nearest airports, Gatwick and Heathrow. Once you get to Oxford, the city centre is fairly small and easy to get around on foot – or bike.
Sleeping… A unique place to spend the night is in Oxford’s castle turned prison turned hotel – the Malmaison. It’s full of character, with rooms set around original wrought-iron stairs and walkways. You can spend the night in a cell – or rather three, with two knocked through to make the bedroom and one for the en suite bathroom. It’s a bit more luxurious now though with roll-top baths, comfy beds and flatscreen TVs. Double rooms start from £120 a night. Or you can get a taste of Oxford student life with Oxford Rooms, who rent out rooms in historic college buildings during vacations, giving you an insiders’ glimpse into their hidden corners. Prices start from a bargain £30 a night B&B, and with lots of single rooms it’s great for solo travellers. There’s most availability during summer, Christmas and Easter holidays, but some rooms are available all year.
Eating and drinking… If you fancy a picnic, stock up at the Covered Market, which has a range of stalls from local producers as well as cafés and sandwich bars. Or take a 45-minute walk across Port Meadow to The Trout, a 17th-century riverside pub that featured in the Inspector Morse books and does great gastropub-style food by the fire in winter or on the sunny terrace in summer. Oxford is full of historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child (nicknamed ‘Bird and Baby’) where you can sink a pint in a snug where writers like CS Lewis and JR Tolkien used to meet in the 1930s. Or for a more modern drinking experience, head to the Jericho area where there are great cocktail bars like Raouls and the Duke of Cambridge.