Oxford: City of discovery

I woke on the last day of my Oxford staycation with only one non-negotiable left on my list – the Ashmolean Museum. But overnight Wednesday’s rain had given way to disarmingly blue skies and I decided to spend an hour or so meandering. So I headed in a new direction, turning into the cobbled laneways and discovering some wonderful pockets of Oxford life.

Carfax Tower+

L: Carfax Tower at the bottom of High Street; R: Longwell Street

Oxford streets

L to R:  Oxford Castle; Oriel College;  the tower of Magdalen College pierces the sky.

Boats + Bikes

Ways to get about in Oxford – bikes near Merton College and punts on the River Cherwell.

I’d walked as far as the Botanic Gardens then turned around to cross back over the bridge and head down the High Street. This took me past Magdalen (pronounced Mawd-len) College – the college that most people had recommended that I should visit – and seeing that it was open, I decided to pop in. I spent a wonderful hour surrounded by the magnificence and serenity of the cloisters, the Great Hall, the chapel and the grounds.

Magdalen Courtyard panorama

Main courtyard, Magdalen College – you can see the outside of the chapel on the right.

Magdalen Coats of Arms

Coats of arms adorn the corridors and ceilings of the Magdalen College cloisters.

Magdalen Chapel+Hall

L to R: Magadalen Chapel; the Chapel’s monochrome stained glass windows; the Great Hall.

Magdalen Cloisters

The cloisters: The photo on the right was taken standing in the right hand corner of the cloister running across the left hand photo. Magdalen Tower (right) is a well-known Oxford landmark and plays an important role in the city’s May Morning celebrations each year on May 1st.

Magdalen college foilage

Left: Heading into the cloisters. Right: This plane tree was planted at Magdalen College in 1801 – its seed was from a 15th century plane tree in the nearby Botanic Gardens.

Feeling rather pleased with the success of this visit, I decided it was time to amble through the back streets in the general direction of the Ashmolean Museum…

Holywell Street

Peaceful scenes in Holywell Street


En route to the Ashmolean via the Wardens’ House (on the corner of Parks Road and Museum Street) and Lamb and Flag Passage.

…arriving just after 11am. After fortifying myself with a much-needed coffee and a delicious slice of pecan pie in the cafe (walking makes me peckish), I finally succumbed to the charms of this amazing museum.

The Ashmolean was founded in the late 17th century by Elias Ashmole and is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. I had an interest in archaeology in my early teens (I even considered it as a career for a short while) and it was this that inspired me to spend a heap of money travelling through Egypt for two weeks in 1997. But this interest also kindled a lifelong passion for history and I spent a very happy couple of hours wandering though the Ashmolean’s collections.

Ashmolean entrance

Left: The main entrance to the museum on Beaumont Street; Right: An unusual guard dog greets the museum’s visitors.


L to R: Portrait of Elias Ashmole, the museum’s founder; the Sculpture gallery; Delft tiles

AM - Purse+Hoard

Left: Chancellor’s Seal Purse from 1850 – perhaps you could pop some of the Didcot Hoard (Right) – which was discovered in 1995 and included 126 gold coins from AD54-160 – into it.

AM - Skull+

Left: Cast of Homo Georgicus skull found in Dmanisi, Georgia in 1999 – the skull was from 1.8million years ago and provided early evidence of the genus homo outside of Africa. Right: Shrine of Taharqa from the temple at Kawa in Egypt – “the only complete free-standing pharaonic building in Britain”. (Source: http://www.ashmolean.org)


Left: Schist Relief Panel depicting Buddha’s Descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, Gandhara AD200-300. Right: Hand-painted harpsichord (I think?) I forgot to take a photo of the description plaque next to it.

There was so much to admire (I read somewhere that there’s around 8,000 years of history represented) with display case after display case packed full of fossils, curios and trinkets. I was overwhelmed with insatiable curiosity, lingering in each the galleries to read all about the thing(s) I was looking at.

But this feckless information-gathering has a price.

When I spend time at museums and exhibitions, I usually spend about two hours before feeling like I’ve had enough. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is because I like to read about the things I’m seeing and put the pieces of their bigger story together. But it does mean that my brain get saturated and there comes a point when I can’t absorb any more. When this point comes – when I stop being ‘wow-ed’ quite so much – that’s the signal to stop. And after a little over two hours of educated loitering I’d had my fill – the Ashmolean had left me thoroughly and happily drenched.

With that it was almost time to go home so I grabbed a good-for-me lunch at the Organic Deli Cafe a block or so away before trundling to the station for the journey back to London.

And so this brings us to the end of my armchair tour of Oxford. It’s a city built – and rebuilt – on the dreams of great scholars and thinkers and filled with both stunning architecture and bags of history. It’s also a wonderfully walk-able city and I’d encourage anyone visiting to pause between ‘the sights’ and take some time to amble through Oxford’s cobbled streets and winding lanes.

It was one of the things I enjoyed most – crossing and recrossing this iconic university campus – so I hope that in sharing the time I spent in Oxford, I’ve inspired you to get your walking shoes on and discover it for yourself.

There are three posts in my armchair tour of Oxford – for your vicarious reading pleasure here are the other two:

Oxford: Dons and dreaming spires

Oxford: Words and music

Oxford: Dons and dreaming spires

I visited Oxford for the first time seventeen years ago.

In 2000, Mum and I spent a little over five weeks travelling together through Europe. We started with a week in London and, having come so far with so little time, we were eager to squeeze in as much as possible. So we decided to take a day trip that covered Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Cotswolds – I know, it’s a lot to fit into one day.

Back then, our sojourn in Oxford meant that we scurried industriously along behind an energetic lady of advancing years (who set quite a pace and put us all to shame) for an hour or so before the torrential rain set in. This time, I booked a couple of nights in a B&B and packed my hiking boots and rain jacket…

Oxford is a city of some 150,000+ people in central southern England and is the county town of Oxfordshire. It has played host to many significant events in English history and is also home to the University of Oxford which, as well as being the top-ranked university (according to the Times Higher Education rankings), is also the oldest English-speaking university in the world. It’s comprised of 38 colleges and six halls spread across Oxford which pretty much makes the city a wonderfully walkable university campus. And in my two and a half days, I crossed and recrossed that campus many times.

Oxford is also just over an hour from London by train so mid-morning on a sunny Tuesday, I departed from Marylebone Station to arrive just in time for lunch. After something to eat and a little aimless meandering, it was time to get stuck in so I made my way to Broad Street to join a free walking tour*.

Our guide Tom brought many charming and entertaining stories along on our two hour trot-and-stop through the city’s historic streets and colleges. From the cobbled cross that marks the site of the Oxford Martyrs‘ burning during The Reformation…

Oxford WT Mtg Point

L: The site in Broad Street where the Oxford Martyrs were burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. R: The green bicycle marked the meeting point for our tour.

…we set off to ‘attend’ Trinity College, ‘sat our exams’ at the Divinity School (part of the Bodleian library complex)…


From L to R: Entrance to Trinity College; Divinity School (scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed inside); Entrance to the Bodleian Library on Broad Street.

…and finally ‘received our degrees’ at Christopher Wren‘s first ever commission, the Sheldonian Theatre.


The Sheldonian Theatre is on the left of this courtyard which is accessed by walking through the Bodleian Library entrance in the previous photo.

It was then onto Radcliffe Square and some stories about the Radcliffe Camera, All Souls College and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Radcliffe Camera + All Souls College

All Souls College – a prestigious research-only college (no under-graduates here!) – and the Radcliffe Camera (another part of the Bodleian Library complex).


Interior views of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the original site of all of the university’s teaching and administration.

…before entering the grounds of Christ Church College for a few final stories.

Christ Church entry garden

The War Memorial gardens

Christ Church building

The Meadow Building

I parted with Tom and the group on the banks of the River Cherwell delighted with my re-introduction to Oxford. And inspired by the mild weather, I decided to take a solitary walk around Christ Church Meadow. It was gloriously peaceful and exactly the tonic I needed.

Cherwell River

The River Cherwell where Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll first regaled the Liddell sisters with tales of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Merton College

View of Merton College from the River Cherwell

CC Meadow 1

River walk + me

CC Meadow college view

View of Christ Church from across the meadow.

CC Meadow 2

‘Tis the season…for harvesting the hay.

It’s just as well because over the next two days, I packed a lot in.

I spent time at three different colleges during my stay – Christ Church (well, in the meadow anyway), Merton and Magdalen.

I indulged my lust for literature with a tour through the Bodleian Library, a visit to Blackwells’ Bookstore and its Norrington Room and a delicious meal at the Old Bookbinder’s Alehouse tucked away in Canal Street, Jericho.

I satisfied my urge to rummage around in history with a couple of hours at the Ashmolean Museum.

And, as I am wont to do, I did a whole lot of wandering about.

It was marvellous!

So if my first afternoon in the City of Dreaming Spires has whet your appetite, stay tuned. There’ll be more about what else I did in Oxford next time…

* A note on free walking tours: When I arrive somewhere that I am unfamiliar with, I find one of the best ways to get my bearings is to join a walking tour. A lot of cities offer free walking tours – you just turn up at an advertised time and place to meet your guide. The guide usually asks for a contribution at the end of the tour – the amount is your choice and you are free to pay something or not. It’s up to you. I’ve done these free walks in several cities and having found them really excellent, always find something to give…Tom got a fiver.

Edinburgh: A royal trifecta

After the success of my trip to York in March, I indulged in another mid-week staycation at the beginning of June, this time to Edinburgh. I had been twice before – an airport-customer meeting-back to the airport affair on both occasions – and had heard many good things about visiting the city itself. It was definitely time to explore further afield so I got onto a train at King Cross station in London for the four and a half hour journey north to Edinburgh.

This post is the first of three and is designed to be an armchair tour of my foray into Edinburgh’s royal associations. The city has a lot of royal connections – think Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland/I of England and Robert the Bruce – and aside from meandering up and down the Royal Mile, there are essentially three ways to doff your cap to royal Edinburgh.

Day one of my staycation dawned and after a damp morning wandering along the Royal Mile, I was off to Edinburgh Castle. The previous evening I’d had the brilliant idea of booking a skip-the-line ticket with a castle walking tour to avoid waiting around. Well as I mentioned earlier it was raining – I mean REALLY raining with fat wet drops that teemed down relentlessly – and this had clearly put a dampener on people’s plans. It turned out there was no line to skip.

However the walking tour was worth it, chock full of lively tales about Edinburgh, the castle itself and some of its key protagonists. Our guide also took some time to explain to us why Braveheart (the Mel Gibson movie) and the stereotype of the kilt-wearing, haggis-eating Scot were both wildly inaccurate – obviously a sore point. In any case on such a wet day, having someone knowledgeable to shepherd you around and tell you stories about the various points of interest was far more efficient than trying to stay dry whilst reading about them at each of their locations around the castle. And there were plenty of stories and things to see…

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I particularly liked going through the Prison of War and loved the views from around the castle which, despite the weather, were spectacular. The formal tour part went for just under two hours and I spent another hour looking around so you’d probably need to allow half a day for this visit. And don’t be put off by the rain – this is Scotland and it’s not green for nothing so a) it would be silly (and potentially pointless) to wait for better weather and b) a smart staycationer always packs enough layers to accommodate all weathers.

Speaking of weather, it was significantly improved the following day with bright blue sky and pleasant sunshine (who knew!) so I spent the morning down in Leith on board the Royal Yacht Britannia. The entrance was inside a large shopping centre and it felt a bit odd to be looking for a rather big boat by walking through the shops. But the signage was easy to follow and once there, I had a really enjoyable couple of hours.

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Whether you’re a royalist or not, this was a fantastic opportunity to see how everyone lived on board – including the crew – as well as the huge number of people and jobs involved in the smooth running of the ship. It took me just over 90 minutes to wander around and look at everything before deciding to head up to the restaurant  where I enjoyed a bowl of cullen skink and a fresh fruit scone with jam and cream.

The sun continued to beam brightly overhead so I decided to get on a bus, head back to Edinburgh’s Old Town and spend the afternoon at Holyrood Palace. It’s the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland as well as the old home of Mary Queen of Scots so there’s a lot of history here. There were also some awesome abbey ruins and a sprawl of beautiful gardens around the palace with views of Arthur’s Seat. I settled for a while on a sun-drenched bench to enjoy the peace and quiet, admire the views and ‘take the air’.

I couldn’t taken photos inside the Palace (for preservation reasons) but I took loads of snaps in the gardens and abbey ruins…

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This visit wasn’t part of my original to-do list but I’m so glad that I went. I took a great deal of pleasure in the range of things available – beautiful gardens, awesome architecture and shed-loads of history. I also upgraded my ticket to see the exhibition in The Queens Gallery – at first glance, Maria Merian’s Butterflies may not have seemed my thing but the more I wandered, the more fascinating and exquisitely drawn I found it.

So this brings us to the end of royal Edinburgh gidday-style. Next up I’ll be indulging my bookish inclinations with trawl through literary Edinburgh – feel free to tag along if you fancy.

If you are interesting in reading about my entire visit, here are the other posts in my armchair tour of Edinburgh:

Edinburgh: Literary liaisons (the next one)

Edinburgh: Inside and out (the last one)

York: People and a pastry

My last day in York dawned bright and blue-skied, a welcome sight after my wet Wednesday, so I was up, checked out and ready for a cruise on the Ouse (pronounced ‘ooz’ peeps – just to explain my rhyming turn of phrase) only to find that all trips for that day had been cancelled…due to flooding.


So I wandered around the Yorkshire Museum Gardens for half an hour – to make the most of the sunshine (in case it disappeared)…

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…before deciding to head into the Museum itself.

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York: The tower, tour and tearooms

As a history buff and fan of the city break, a visit to York has been on my to-do list for quite some time (okay, since I moved here thirteen years ago). So in March, I finally got my act together, booked a bed and a spot of breakfast for a few days and hopped on a train for the two hour journey north.

I had three days to spend and a list of things I wanted to do. The weather managed to mix it up too – bursts of sunshine book-ended drizzle, rain and even a flurry of snow. But it was blue skies that beckoned as I got off the train, bouncing off bobbing yellow daffodils and brushing the distant Minster tower with soft light. So I checked into my hotel (Marmadukes Town House Hotel), dumped my stuff and headed out to explore.

York Arrival montage

I spent the last few hours of daylight wandering through the walled city’s cobbled streets and when the light finally faded, I found a cosy spot at the Lamb and Lion Inn (right under the old City Gate, Bootham Bar) to prepare my plan of attack over a quiet pint of something local.

It was a full three days – a wonderful mix of history, curiosities, architecture and breathtaking views – and I have so much to share with you. So I’ve split my York warblings into three Armchair Tours to cover the things I loved about each day.

Here’s Part One…enjoy!

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Photo tour: A walk in York

I went to York for three days in March. It’s a city that’s absolutely chock full of history – which I love – and is wonderfully walk-able – which I also love. Quite frankly, I’m astounded that it’s taken me thirteen years to get there.

True to form, the English weather prevaricated between gloriously crisp blue-sky days and a grey drizzle that bordered on menacingly unfriendly from time to time.  Needless to say there were lots of layers-off-layers-on moments as I adjusted to these changes. But that did not stop me doing loads of great stuff and taking oodles of photos.

To whet your appetite for the posts to come, I thought I’d share some of the pics that take me back and even now, take my breath away. Enjoy!

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Lisbon: A big day out

The story so far: Lil Chicky and I managed a six day rendezvous in Lisbon at the beginning of October. We ate, walked, did a little shopping and took squillions of photos – here’s another installment of our adventures.

After a couple of days squeezing a whole lot of value out of our 48 hour HOHO (Hop On Hop Off) bus ticket, we decided to venture farther afield and let someone else take the reins. Cue Andre from Portuguese for a Day tours who collected us from our apartment on a bright blue-sky Monday morning and drove us to the mountain village of Sintra.

For those of you who don’t know, Sintra is a UNESCO Cultural Landscape site set amidst the cool woodlands on Serra de Sintra about a 30-40 minute drive from Lisbon. It’s the site of many royal summer palaces featuring a range of architectures and this makes Sintra a really delightful and interesting day out of Lisbon’s hurly burly.

This was Lil Chicky’s first trip so she wanted to see and learn ‘lots’ whilst I went to Sintra as part of a tour back in 2002 – our then group spent time at the National Palace of Queluz but got very little time in Sintra itself so I was keen to see something different and take a little time to relax. With Andre’s help, we got all of that and more.

After a pleasant drive, full of getting-to-know-you chat as well as discussion about the area and the day ahead, we found ourselves on a shaded winding road, climbing up the mountain through Sintra itself and onto the Parque da Pena.

The park is absolutely huge and you could spend at least a day exploring all of its nooks and crannies but our focus was the spectacular Pena Palace. This summer palace was built for Dom Ferdinand II, consort of the young Queen Maria II (and cousin to Prince Albert who married England’s Queen Victoria) and is situated over the remains of a Hieronymite monastery found on the site in the 15th century.

There’s 15 minute steep-ish uphill walk to get to the palace but it’s absolutely worth it – we walked all over it and also around it, getting some fantastic views from the ramparts.


These panoramas were taken on my phone on the way up. Inspiring, yes but I found myself wondering throughout the visit – and since – how on earth could I represent the wonderful-ness of this place.


L to R: View of the entrance archway from the ramparts; beautiful blue and white tiles cover this part of the building; I captured this quiet moment on the way into the palace itself.


There’s an absolute cornucopia of amazing colour and texture around every corner.


There were stunning views from everywhere but I especially loved this view of the coast through the Moorish arches.

Wandering around outside the palace is included in the park entrance fee but we also paid a few extra euros to go inside.


The palace interior was a bit crowded and warranted a bit more time than we had but was full of delicate detail, reflecting Ferdinand’s interest in the arts. But all of these trinkets take an awful lot of dusting…

We met Andre back at the entrance after 90 minutes and as we drove back towards Sintra, we had a chat about what to do next. But it was as we drove past Quinta da Regaleira and heard Andre’s stories about the eccentric millionaire with masonic connections who had it built in the early 1900’s that we were sold. So it was back out of the car and with map in hand, we spent an hour exploring the symbols of religion and the occult scattered amidst the web of shaded paths.


Andre had told us about the network of secret tunnels and the Initiatic Well so we headed towards the Portal of the Guardians (top left) and entered the tunnel (top right). After a short walk we emerged at the Initiatic Well (bottom left) then climbed down the narrow spiral stairs to capture the view from the bottom (bottom right).


A further wander around the gardens yielded a view of the country house, or quinta (top left), many towers and turrets nestled amidst the trees (top middle and right), the lake of the waterfall (bottom right) and a grand mosaic fountain near Leda’s Grotto (bottom left).


Before we headed back to meet Andre, we visited the tiny chapel nestled under the trees not far from the quinta itself.

We were feeling pretty hungry after this visit so Andre took us to a great place in Sintra called Adega das Caves where we sat outside and enjoyed a beer and some local fare – my cod fritters were delicious!


L to R: The blue tiles of the post office building – you can see the Adega das Caves entrance under the balcony; an interesting merchandising display overlooking our lunch position; driving past the Sintra National Palace.

Before leaving for the drive back to Lisbon, we stopped at Piriquita to stock up on Sintra’s claim to pastry fame (and Andre’s favourite Portuguese pastry) – the pillow-y travesseiro – so we had a little something sweet for the three of us on the way back. (I did not get any photos but there are great descriptions/photos provided in a blog post by Leigh and Lucy from their visit back in 2013.)

We started the meandering drive back to Lisbon along the coast, stopping first at Cabo da Roca.


Cabo da Roca is the western-most point of mainland Europe and lines up very nicely with New York on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. We stretched our legs, took some photos…and had a giggle at some of the tour groups milling around.


Probably entirely innocent but it did look a bit like a bus for Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Bunnies

And then it was back into the car for the drive past the beaches of Guincho and Estoril, and a 20 minutes leg stretch in Cascais before heading to one of Andre’s old haunts to enjoy a quiet moment watching the waves and savouring our travesseiros.

(As we drove in, we surprised an older couple necking in their car much to their embarrassment. Andre had told us he used to come here and drink with his mates so this was a great opportunity to tease him about what else he might have gotten up to.)

And with that the day was done and less than an hour later, we were deposited back at our apartment tired, windswept and absolutely thrilled with our Big Day Out.


Andre from Portuguese for a Day Tours with his two happy customers at Cabo da Roca

Andre (and partner Filipa) are two enterprising locals running small group tours that showcase the country they love. Andre’s passion and knowledge was evident from the start and we had plenty of opportunities to shape the day as we wanted as well as relying on Andre’s recommendations about what we might enjoy. For me, it was a lovely way to revisit this area and enjoy a little local cameradie. I know Lil Chicky would join me in strongly recommending that you give them a try vs some of the larger operators offering similar tours in the area.

But don’t just take our word for it – you can also see what others thought here and if you fancy finding out more, here’s a link to the Portuguese for a Day Tours website.

And don’t forget to stay tuned for more from Chicky Tours Unlimited’s adventures in Lisbon – there’s more coming soon…once I sort more of my photos.