We had done Cambridge in the October of 2012, it was a bit of a wet autumn to be honest but it had been a wet summer so no surprise there. We did it as a day trip and felt a bit rushed as we sloshed about the city . We liked it on the whole and because we felt we missed out on the chance to see a play staring Tom Conte due to time constraints. We thought this trip to Oxford in a cold and soggy March would have a more relaxed feel to it, with an overnight.
Sue chose the “Head of the River” an ancient pub, restaurant,and hotel along side the river Thames, or rather The Isis as it is called around these parts. Luckily we were able to park the car here in rather cramped conditions it must be said but a real bonus. Oxford council hate private motor vehicles, not perhaps with the cat spitting fervour of Nottingham’s but hate it is.
After checking in we walked into the town along St Aldates, passing the Thames Valley Police HQ, seen many times by Morse fans in the intellectual detective series written by Colin Dexter. Himself a classics graduate from Christs College Oxford.
Next along Aldates is the very same Christs college , a fabulous, huge, imposing building in extensive grounds. Built in the square fashion, a la college mode, around a massive quadrangle about the area of two football fields. The student accommodation is equally impressive and has a delightful rural outlook. One can’t help feeling masses of cash make this happen in the middle of a city, still it must be a total pleasure to be educated in this establishment. One can walk past all this 15th century grandeur to give it the once over, by strolling along “broad walk.” Which puts you back in the town near Magdelin Bridge, after passing the rear of the Botanical gardens and Merton College another familiar name for viewers of University challenge, as are most of the colleges in Oxford it must be said.
Christs college Student accommodation
As one continues walking gently up Aldates, passing Christs, on the left, can be seen Pembroke College, nowhere near the splendour but still ancient, then the town Hall is on your right another stone built edifice, they have seen some cash here over the years it is obvious. We reach the crossroads of High st and St Aldates. Here on the left is the Carfax bell tower. The word Carfax is thought to be an anglicisation of the French word Carrefour or quatre face meaning cross roads or four face.
These very bells were rung after a pair of students in the 14th century, threw mugs of beer, whose quality they were dissatisfied with, at the landlord of the Stockswindle pub ( it is now a Santander Bank) , who also happened to be a pal of the towns mayor. He took exception to being smacked in the kisser thus so rang a peal or two to gather the towns folk together, where he rallied their support to mount an attack on the students. There exists much history of “town verses Gown” so there probably was not a lot of rabble rousing necessary . However the meeting was overheard by a passing college fellow who ran back to the “gown” area and rang the bell of St Mary’s church summoning the students, he let them into the proceedings and a pitch battle ensued. They didn’t mess about in those days, every participant was “tooled up” be it a dagger, a pitch fork, an axe, a stone or what have you. This brawl lasted for 2 days and resulted in the death of 63 students and around 30 locals.
I love the rallying cry used by the Townies. “Havac , havoc! Smyte well and give gode knocks!”
There was later an enquiry which found in favour of the “gown” and as a result on each and every St Scholasticas day, the10th February, the mayor was required to pay a fine of one penny for each student killed. A total of 5shillings and thre pence , or in centigrade, 26.25p! After first walking bareheaded through the town to St Mary’s, to deliver it. This punishment lasted for 470 years until the mayor in 1825 simply refused to take part and that was the end of that!
Continuing now gently downhill through what is these days pedestrian precinct, one passes a real old Tudor building that leans drunkenly but with a certain majesty and is now rather incongruously housing a Pret a Manger sandwich bar and Bureau de change. To me this is the most attractive building in Oxford, every. time I see it, I smile.
Adjacent is a Saxon tower, this is “St Michaels at the north gate city church” there can be few cities with buildings over 1000 years in the centre, although the church itself is of 19th century construction.
A few yards past this is another cross roads, Broad St to the right but we enter George st to the left, to reach Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant for lunch. It is excellent, a dry cider and a shell fish pasta for me. For Sue , a tagliatelle Pork and beef thing with 2 glasses of house red! ( they were a bit mean though) cost? £35 and my scarf ( I left it, like a twat). We went back for it the following day but the operatives were not very interested, who would want to nick a blokes scarf? I ask you!
We arrived at the tourist information office in Broard street shortly before 1.30 to take the “Morse tour of Oxford”. Blow me it was full! We were keen to do it. At this time of year though this tour only operates twice a week, damn it.
The back up plan was to take a”free” tour of the centre of Oxford that started at 2 pm. We found the meeting point, a blue bicycle chained to a lamp post, opposite a fudge shop on Broad street. Of course it is not free, you give a tip to the guide at the end. I like the basic idea because the guy or gal will strive to be as good as they can be. We overheard a couple of the “official” tours over the next couple of hours and they seemed quite stuffy in comparison to our “footprint” one.
We checked out the blue bike with its modest advert and were immediately accosted by a friendly , witty , and enthusiastic individual who thrust a leaflet at us, I cottoned on to his style straight away and agreed we would give it a go.
We wondered up one side of Broad street and down the other to waste the half hour. Cars are banned here unless one has a special pass, it is not pedestrianised but bikerised instead , so you have to keep your wits about you or you could have the wheel of a Chinese export jam’d unexpectedly between your buttocks.
Returning to the bike we joined 3 other folk, then 2 more arrived one of which had done the tour the previous day but enjoyed it so much wanted a second go, quite a recommendation that, even if it was a bit like the guide having a stalker.
When the guide arrived it turned out to be the same “come on” guy we met earlier. He started his introduction, it took some time as he had ( poor fellow). A couple of nutters in the group that asked questions or made clever remarks, you know the type! The group grew to 10 during this time, A Swiss, a Frenchie, and a Colombian, mix that with an Irish and a pair from Yorkshire and you have quite an eclectic bunch.
Our guide Tom , had a style of delivery that smacked of the comedian Michael McIntyre , sans the bouncing dark hair. It was almost like witnessing an impersonation.
We moved a few yards to the first stopping point, a square yard of pale cobbled street, that was bared of the 20th century Tarmac . Laid into these cobbles was a cross of black stones. This, said Tom, marks the very spot the Oxford Martyrs in 1555 were burned alive at the stake! Our Yorkshire wit said ” is that why the Tarmac is melted away”? A great gag, you may want to use it if you do an Oxford tour.
Tom regaled us with the whole martyrs tale and is quite a significant part of English regal history. A few yards to the north is another familiar college name, Baliol who claim to be the oldest in Oxford, next door along Broad street is Trinity. They both have masses of green space inside their private grounds it is all very lovely. Further along from Trinity is the famous book store of Blackwells.
The most interesting thing , apart from it’s huge store of books on almost any subject you care to name, is its massive basement it stretches under the lawns of Trinity college it is that extensive.
Next door to Blackwells is a “Morse pub” he was well known as a connoisseur of beer, the White Horse. It is though a bit pokey, olde world e, I’ll grant you but jolly uncomfortable with mostly stools to sit on, we tried it but didn’t stay for lunch.
Across the road is the Sheldonian theatre one of the iconic Oxford buildings, it’s not a theatre at all really but a building used for the ritual issuing of certificates to successful graduates and the occasional music recital, which sounds awfully boring. Hidden behind this is the Bodlian Library, the name is of which is iconic itself , another huge building. This one though houses a copy of every book, magazine and newspaper ever printed in English. From Shakespeare to Barbra Cartland, I doubt Barbara’s stuff or 50 shades of anything is actually on these estimable premises, a pound to a pinch of sand there will be a large shed ( the Bodlian annex) somewhere on an industrial estate for those.
Back on Broad street we turn into Turl street and enter Exeter College and its gardens, not only do Exeter have a large quad , we re not allowed in there, but a stroll around its gardens is quite permissible. From the garden wall one can see down onto Radcliffe square and view “The Radcliffe Camera”, once again one is forced to use the word iconic. It is a building used as a reading room for the Bodlian. Ingress and egress is gained via extensive underground tunnels. The rules of the Bodlian state that no books are to be removed, by anyone no matter what your name or position. The Bodlian make little money from fines for late returns it appears. There is a lovely story about this subject and Oliver Cromwell, I’ll leave it to your guide to tell you though.
From Exeter’s wall one can see the side of another well known building, that of Brasenose college. It sounds awfully snooty but when you realise it is a bastardisation of “the college with the big brass nose like knocker” ! It looses a bit of its aura. From here we wander past a few odd buildings and houses, many of which have a tale or two attached or imagery used by well known ” Oxograds,” JRR Tolkein and C S Lewis for example. Some are very plausible , others? maybe one needs a lungful of chemical stimulants or a pint or two of beer to grasp.
Eventually we find ourselves on Radcliffe square itself, in front of the famed Camera. The foot way is made of large pebbles cemented into the surface simply horrid to walk on, I think mud is more comfortable, it doesn’t look tidy like this stuff though. I can’t help but wonder if cyclist crash into each other here through blurred vision? This square is well familiar to viewers of both Morse and Lewis. St Mary’s Church is adjacent the very one mentioned in the punch up above.
Radcliffe himself is a rather amazing character a scholar, scientist and Doctor known for a rather forthright and even brutal bedside manner. He saw his patients as scientific challenges instead of frail , vulnerable human beings. He would be struck off these days but medically, his thinking was light years ahead of his peers, a wonderful man!
Just yards from here is All Souls college ( I keep wanting to pronounce it as arseoles) a very special place no undergraduates here, all the members are “fellows” all doing some sort of research. One of their old fellows was T E Lawrence, (of Arabia fame in WW1). A very intelligent man , biker and nut case and writer of a most unintelligible book called the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. Peter O Tool did a great characterisation in the film of the same name. T E, was killed crashing a 1000cc Brough Superior motorcycle wearing a cap with goggles and a tweed double vented hacking jacket for protection, I said he was a nut case!
Associated with All Souls is something to do with a “Mallard hunt” I can’t remember the details but it sounded like drunken chaos, I’m sure those involved enjoy it though.
From here here we pop across the road to “the bridge of sighs” it was built, it appears, because Cambrige had one. They are both replicas of the Venician original and look awfully impressive and very well constructed. The Oxford version connects two buildings of New College that were on opposite sides of a street. So keeping up with the Cambrians also has practical purpose.
Passing under the bridge our group comes to a very narrow passageway or alley called St. Helens passage (at one time called hells passage) which leads, after a right angled turn to the Turf Tavern. Dating from the 14th century and updated in the 17th. It is significant because in the olden days it was right on the edge of the city wall , evidence of which can still be seen and pretty high it was too. As the boozer was technically outside of the city it meant it and its occupants were not bound by the town rules and college regulations, therefore students could get hammered on the local grog without fear of reprimand by the college bursar. These were not the ordinary skint students we are familiar with today, no, these are the progeny of the gentry and well to do. With names like, Walter Spryngheuse and Roger De Chesterfield you know they are not the sons of bricklayers and farmers. It was in this establishment that the future Prime minister of Australia, Bob Hawk, broke and still holds to this day the record for downing a yard of ale. Bill Clinton, who went on to become a two time President of USA attempted to smoke a cannabis joint during his tenure as a Rhodes scholar at this very pub. I bet the Aussies loved Bob.
In St. Helens passage is a blue plaque, dedicated to Jane Burden a ” muse and embroiderer”. She is worth a mention as the wonderful Tom knew nothing of her he had never even noticed the plaque. She was a poor woman living in this passage apparently, selling pieces of embroidery for a modest living. She was noticed as a classical beauty by a couple of artists who fell for her charms. They used her as a model. One of them, William Morris eventually married her, they moved to Kent had a couple of children then moved to London. The other artist in the tale, Dante Rosetti became her lover and she continued to model for him. The love petered out when he became a drug addict, dope is not a modern abomination it seems. Mr Morris in the meanwhile had taken a lover of his own. Jane Morris nee Burden, although from lowly stock ( her dad was a stableman, her mother an illiterate domestic servant) was intelligent and had no trouble in mixing with the upper classes, she educated herself in French and Italian. Eventually dying in 1914, her story, it is believed, became the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady.
After passing the “new Bodlian” built in 1940 and not a patch on the original, we finished our tour at the Oxford Martyrs Memorial close by the Ashmolian museum. Where Tom finale’s his tour with the ghastly end of Thomas Cranmer the final member of the trio of martyr’s and ex Archbishop of Canterbury. We then bung him a tenner and it is worth every penny. Now We are left with wanting to return to Cambridge and repeat a footprint tour there, so well done Tom!
We wobble back down Aldates and return to our Hotel for a pint and a rest before our pre prandial walk along the river. We have arranged to meet a pal who lives locally for dinner so snatch a spare hour to stroll the banks of the swollen Isis . It’s not long before we see the facilities of the many boat clubs that contribute to Oxfords fame, some are quite posh looking all displaying their crest proudly. The one on our side, the right going down stream is absolutely stunning, modern, new and bossy looking with smoked glass! We guess this is where the chosen have their HQ, the ones who represent Oxford in the annual university boat race.
We notice an odd looking watercraft being readied nearby it has standing room only and is mounted on a pair of floats. I guess it is for the sculling coach who these days does not cycle the tow path looking sideways at his clients whilst yelling instructions down a megaphone. Instead rides majestically in this boat with a driver. This has to be much safer. The volume of cycling traffic along this towpath makes the former a lethal act.
Returning to The Head of the River, we meet our dinner companion bang on time. Pete Tollput , an ex motorcycle racer and BMW robot engineer, who offers to buy our dinner, what a fine fellow. The evening passed all too quickly with fine food and many good laughs as we regale one another with tales of daring do and stupidity. A lovely evening ending a satisfying day we are ready for a good sleep in our room which is dedicated to TS Elliot. Each room at “the Head” is so dedicated, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, et al.
The following day breakfast is Eggs benedict then we check out! leaving the car parked and having a final self guided waz around the city. Magdelin school an independent mainly for boys (and expensive no doubt), Queens, Magdelin, Edmunds, St Mary’s, The Ruskin, and University Oxford are but some of the colleges we pass walking up High street. We notice a rather worn looking rather old fashioned barber shop, I remarked to Sue “look at that dump” I was in need of a trim but it looked an expensive dump. I read later it is something of an Oxford treasure.
Oxford Colleges Have imposing doorways
Oh yes Oxford is a very walkable city. We have the natural history and Pitt Rivers museums as our target . Neither of us are museum people but feel we must give them a go seeing as we are so close. The Pitt is well laid out but is a veritable jumble of stuff, we notice so much but see so little. We eventually escape and move to the Ashmolian again for no reason other than we are here.
As we walk past Keeble, and St Johns colleges I develop a bit of a plan. When we enter, the Ashmolian doorman encourages us in what is on offer, for an extra charge we could see some “Chinese art that is on loan”! When I made the “over my head sign” he seemed relieved that he was talking to normal people and confessed they had had no one up there yet today! He was helpful with my plan though which was to see The Lamp that was purportedly used by Guy Fawkes on his last visit to Parliament on the 5th of November 1605. It made the visit interesting. It is the plan I will adopt in future visiting a museum. “Have something specific in mind and what you see inadvertently en route may give you joy.” It worked very well, we couldn’t help noticing on our journey past many roman statues they all had they’re nobs broken off!
You can’t help but think the human being, throughout the millennia, can’t stop him/herself steeling a stone penis. Very odd ! What would one do with it once you got it home?
One thing I did enjoy learning from the Ashmolian. It was considered by learned ” Sniffy’s ” as nothing but a ” knicknackatory”. What a lovely word.
Leaving this magnificent building it was close to lunch lime. We took a stroll through the old fashioned rather attractive Covered Market that Oxford is famed for. How it survives in todays quick fire, slick, get it done, supermarket style god knows, It does seem to offer top quality, maybe its as simple as that. Our Robot pal from last night had suggested another “morse” pub. This one is out of town someway on the banks of the Thames. “The Trout Inn” took some finding but is well worth it, a proper old building, with ancient timbers throughout, beautifully modernised. Staffed by young keen professional individuals, can’t get better than that. The food is top notch, it was very busy . Its Tuesday in March and bitterly cold. What’s it like in May? It has a delightful patio next to the river that in its present swollen form boils by threateningly. No one is using the patio it’s too cold out there.
After lunch a post prandial was taken past an old derelict nunnery along side of a canal designed to step boats gently down this section of the Thames. It’s on a section of the “Thames path” a 184 mile walk from its source to the Thames Barrier just past Greenwich, Sue displays interest in doing it I’ll check it out later.
In conclusion then. Oxford is worth a visit particularly if you are familiar with the TV Programs University Challenge, Morse and Lewis. It will make you smile as you recognise familiar stuff.
Viewed via google earth it is striking! The many old buildings surrounding green geometric shapes, these are the colleges and their quadrangles and there are loads of them. I think Tom said 39 individual colleges, but they are not individual. They are managed as part of the whole. One can apply to join “Oxford ” or apply to join a specific college, but you will be interviewed by a board that represents the whole institution which ever way you play it. If you are rejected for any reason, it’s no good saying “ah sod it! I’ll go to Cambridge then” because they won’t take Oxford rejects anyway and visa versa it appears. Oxford will not take Cambridge rejects either. I thought Margret Thatcher had got rid of the “closed shop”. Only in the work place it seems, the “gown place” were exempted.
So Oxford or Cambridge? They are so similar the former is the older and seems to hang on to its oldness better and with an overt pride in the fact. Here the learning seems to take place by osmosis. In Cambridge there is an air of “busy learning” about it, there are students thronging hither and yon, all on bikes of course. They are both though, about scholastic achievement, I love the fact they exist at all and am very proud to see the clever sods perform in the many competitions. Unlike the donkey who spoiled the boat race in 2012 by swimming into the path of the boats during his protest about “elitism”. Yes I have to agree with him, they are elite. They are the best rowing team each town can put together, who would want to watch a race between the ordinary, the average or the crap?
In future I pray police snipers are placed on every bridge to take out this kind of plonker.. Well? he may be wearing a suicide vest! Better shot than sorry.
Done mid march 2013.