Oxford is similar to Cambridge, yet I prefer the former. There seems to be more to do somehow, which was became clear when we couldn’t fit all the things we wanted to see into a day trip and ended up calling hotels in the area at the last minute to extend our stay.
This is not something we normally do. When travelling, I plan all our accommodation and movements to a tee with military-like precision, complete with printed itineraries.
So when we decided to stay the night it was an unusual move for us, but hell, you only live once and what’s life without spontaneity?
On the first day we visited Christ Church, one of the most famous of the Oxford colleges and where Winston Churchill, among other prime ministers, studied. For £8.50 I think the admission is pretty steep, and later on we saw guided tours being sold for £12 with all the college entrance fees included, which seems much better value.
However, Christ Church is the setting of some of the scenes from Harry Potter – most notably the Great Hall where the students dine in the film. The stairs leading up to the hall is where Professor McGonagall scolds Harry for being late on the first day he attends Hogwarts. The ceiling is beautiful – gothic architecture – although it was only added 150 years ago, very recent when considering the 1,000 years the college has existed for.
A five minute walk from the college is the Turf Tavern, a hidden pub off the main streets of Oxford. It’s one of the oldest watering holes in the town and we stopped for a tipple to drink in the history. Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke entered the Guinness Book of Records at this pub after downing a yard glass of beer faster than anyone before.
Former US President Bill Clinton also smoked illegal substances which he apparently ‘did not inhale’ whilst on the premises as a university student.
Thankfully it was a beautiful sunny day and we were able to sit outside – the Turf Tavern has one of the biggest pub gardens in the town, although you might struggle to find a table due to its popularity.
Leaving the pub, we wandered down to the river, where you can go punting if you fancy. Much like at Cambridge, it’s a good way to take in the sights whilst seated with a beer in hand. Also like Cambridge, Oxford has its own replica of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs, yet in Oxford it’s situated over the road rather than the river like it is at Cambridge.
We gave the punting a miss this time and instead strolled along the river banks, taking in the peacefulness and enjoying being away from the shrieking ambulance sirens that dominate London’s soundscape.
Houseboats line the canals of Oxford and many of the neighbouring properties have lawns that reach down to the waterfront. Throw in deep green hedges and bright bluebells and it was a picturesque scene.
We didn’t really know where we were going but after half an hour we reached a pub called The Anchor. We decided to eat dinner there and it’s just as well, as it was the best meal we had in the town during our stay. I enjoyed the sweet corn soup with fritters and Dave had a steak that was so tender a steak knife wasn’t need to cut into it.
Most of the food is organic and sourced from nearby farms. The wine list is well selected and we were surprised to see one of our favourite wines – from Brown Hill in Western Australia – on the list. The vineyard back home is tiny, so we were pleased they’d found it.
The following day we spent the morning at the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums, which were two of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. From dinosaurs to shrunken heads, the museums had it all. You can read more about them on our future posts.
We followed this with a trip to The Bodleian, one of the oldest libraries in Europe which houses around seven million books. It is entitled to receive a free copy of every single book that’s published in the UK, meaning it’s an ever-expanding collection! Of course, the main problem with having this many books is the question of where to store them all. In order to solve this dilemma, a couple of centuries back those in charge of the library decided to dig underground and now there are tunnels running underneath the buildings, being used as cellars in which to house the books. Unfortunately this wasn’t open to the public because it’s undergoing refurbishments at present.
The Bodleian building itself is magical. The room where we had the tour was first constructed in 1610, when the book collection in the neighbouring cathedral grew too large. Books were so valuable back then that the collection had to be attached to the wall using a hook and chain, to prevent any thievery. Nowdays there’s a more modern system in place – if taken from the shelves the books will activate an alarm.
The scenes from Harry Potter where Harry breaks into the restricted section of the library are filmed here. The professors were reportedly outraged that they weren’t allowed access to the library for three days during filming. Nonetheless, not even Harry Potter gets special treatment – the cast weren’t allowed to touch the books and so all the books you see being used in the film are digital enhancements.
These days, if a student wishes to use a book for research they’re not allowed to take them from the library but they can still read them if they request permission in advance.
From the library we moved into more modern history – although by Australia standards it’s still very old – to the 1770s. This was the decade the Oxford Covered Market was built. A short stroll from The Bodleian, the markets are charming with glassed ceilings and an array of boutiques in which to shop. We decided to finish off our adventures in typical traditional English fashion, grabbing a pie complete with mushy peas and gravy from Pie Minister.
No regrets there – with flavours including green Thai chicken curry, chorizo and olive, and steak and Stilton blue cheese – our bellies were soon full to the brim. No surprise that I fell into a contented doze on the rocking train back to London that afternoon.