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: 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

Oxford: Words and music

Last time I posted, I wrote about my lovely afternoon ambling around the historic city of Oxford. That was just the beginning of my mini break in this delightful city and I spent a further two days indulging my passions for literature, history and beautiful architecture.

After the gentle sunshine of Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday emerged as a bit of a damp squib, the day alternating between light drizzle and heavy showers. As it turned out, it didn’t matter as it was a day of mostly indoor pursuits beginning with a tour of the Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian Library is comprised of a number of well-known buildings including the Divinity School, the Radcliffe Camera, the Clarendon Building and the new Weston Library. The library began its life in 1488 when Humfrey, 1st Duke of Gloucester (and younger brother to King Henry V) donated over 280 manuscripts to the University. The existing library in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin (in Radcliffe Square) lacked the space to accommodate Duke Humfrey’s gift so a new library was built above the Divinity School.

Divinity School + Sheldonian

The Divinity School is on the left with Duke Humfrey’s Library on the first floor. The front entrance to the Sheldonian Theatre is on the right.

The library was stripped of its contents in 1550 as England moved away from the Catholic Church under Edward VI (The Reformation) and languished for 48 years before Oxford Fellow and Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (for whom the library is named) offered to fund its refurnishing. In 1602, the library was reopened and continued to prosper as Bodley persuaded wealthy benefactors and subscribers to contribute to its upkeep and extension. Bodley’s negotiation with the Stationers’ Company of London in 1610 also meant that the library was to receive – in perpetuity – one copy of every book published.

Ongoing expansion has been a theme since Bodley’s death in 1613 and the library has grown to include Nicholas Hawksmoor‘s Clarendon Building (1712-1713), the Radcliffe Camera (1860) and the new Weston Library (2014) as well as a further 153 miles of bookshelves in an off-site purpose-built warehouse facility in Swindon (2010).

Our tour guide Matthew led us through a brilliant ninety minutes of historical facts and anecdotes. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in Duke Humfrey’s Library – the oldest part of the library with books that are hundreds of years old – or in the Radcliffe Camera to respect the privacy of students who use these reading rooms (yes they are still in use). While these were two of the highlights, it was a tour of many high points so I took as many photos as I could where I was allowed. It was an absolutely amazing visit and I’d highly recommend it.

Clarendon Bldg + Radcliffe Camera

L: Bodleian Library entrance via the Clarendon Building; R: The Radcliffe Camera

Library entrance+Quadrangle

L to R: Clarendon Building from Broad Street; delicate ironwork over the entrance; one of the old doors in the Old Schools Quadrangle

Divinity School interior

L to R: Inside the Divinity School with its marvellous ceiling; this chair is made entirely from timber taken from The Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world from 1577-1580.; the Convocation House was the original meeting place for the University’s Supreme legislative body and also housed Charles I’s Parliament during the Civil War from 1642-1646.

CWren door

Images of the Christopher Wren door which leads from the Divinity School directly across to the Sheldonian Theatre which was his first architectural commission.

I left the library and wandered across Broad Street to Blackwell’s Bookstore. I’d never heard of Blackwell’s before coming to Oxford but I’d noticed a walking tour sign about The Inklings which took me to some parts of Oxford I was unlikely to have found myself.

Inklings WT

L to R: The Rabbit Room at The Eagle and Child was where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly; C.S. Lewis was a rector at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – the inspiration for his Mr Tumnus and the lamp in the woods exists in the laneway adjacent to the church (ref: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia)

I’d also heard whispers about Blackwell’s Norrington Room in the basement of store. It’s billed as the largest room built for the purpose of selling books. How many books does it hold, you ask? Well apparently it’s around 250,000 give or take a few…

Norrington room

The Norrington Room: It has an official photo point…

I wandered around for twenty minutes and was so overwhelmed that I left without buying a single book.

I headed off to the Turl Street Kitchen nearby and to the sounds of the rain pattering on the street outside, I tucked into a delicious lunch of home-made soup and bread. The wet weather showed no signs of letting up so I decided to return to the Bodleian’s Weston Library and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the Jane Austen exhibition for an hour or so before heading back to the B&B.

Later I headed out for a little night music at Merton College with Richard Goode

Merton College

Waiting for the concert to begin – a recital by renowned pianist Richard Goode in the chapel at Merton College.

The program was fantastic – comprised of Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven to name a few – and I had a great view of both the pianist and the chapel. (The photo on the right above was taken while I was sitting in my seat.) After almost two hours of spectacular music, the audience finally released Goode from its applause and we filed out.

What an awesome day of words and music I had.

And there was still one more day to go. If you’re still interested, feel free to tag along next time…

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)…

TrinityDivinityBodleian

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.

SheldonianClarendoncourtyard

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).

UnChurchofStMarytheVirgin

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.