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

MuseumRd+LambandFlagPsg

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.

EliasAshmole++

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)

Buddha+

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