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: 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.