Whether film buff, history lover or pub enthusiast, Fred Mawer discovers that this medieval city has something to please everyone
The top of the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin is just the place to start exploring Oxford. You’re treated to mesmerising vistas of the fabled “dreaming spires” that punctuate the city’s skyline and an up-close eyeful of its photogenic building, the circular Radcliffe Camera, part of the university’s Bodleian Library complex.
Oxford University is not laid out like most other universities. With no campus, it is spread around the city, including 39 colleges. Many date back to medieval times and have pristine, lawned quads, grand dining halls and ornate chapels. Nosing around or at least peeking in the cloistered compounds is a must, but visiting times at some colleges can be frustratingly restricted or erratic. One notable exception is Christ Church, the grandest college, with a magnificent dining hall that served as the basis for Hogwarts Hall in the Harry Potter films, a chapel that doubles as the city’s cathedral, and porters in bowler hats.
Given the vagaries of colleges’ opening times and in many cases their hidden-away locations, signing up for a guided city tour can make a lot of sense. Oxford Official walking tours, which are led by accredited guides and organised in conjunction with Experience Oxfordshire, almost always include a college visit in their itineraries. As well as introductory university/city walks, there are tours themed around Oxford’s many literary, TV and film links, among them Inspector Morse, Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, CS Lewis, Tolkien and Philip Pullman. Some scenes for the BBC’s recent adaptation of Pullman’s His Dark Materials were shot in Oxford: New College (not exactly new – it dates from 1379) stood in for Jordan College.
Families considering visiting Oxford in 2020 should know that the Story Museum is reopening in the spring aftera major redevelopment. It promises to bring to life classic children’s tales associated with the city.
The beautifully displayed Oxford University Museum of Natural History is also very family-friendly (don’t miss the dodo). Doors at the rear lead to the extraordinary Pitt Rivers Museum, whose cabinets of curiosities are filled with everything from opium pipes to coats made of seal intestines. For more history and culture, on the other side of town Oxford’s 1,000-year-old castle beckons. It served as a prison until as recently as 1996, and tours convey the grim conditions.
Oxford works well as a destination year-round. As well as first-rate museums, there are snug, historic pubs such as the Turf Tavern and The Eagle and Child, and varied city-centre shopping, from Tardis-like Blackwell’s bookshop to the quaint Covered Market and the recently revamped and rather snazzy Westgate Oxford shopping mall.
Added attractions come into play in the warmer months: strolling through Christ Church Meadow lapping up views over playing fields to the backs of the colleges… Wandering around the university’s walled and riverside botanic garden, the oldest in the UK… Going punting, whether DIY or with a chauffeur… And, weather permitting, a great way to round off the day is taking in those spires over a drink or two at one of the outdoor terraces of the smart bars and eateries on the rooftop of Westgate Oxford.
The Ashmolean Museum
Dating from 1683, when wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to Oxford University, the Ashmolean is Britain’s oldest public museum. It’s also a strong contender for the country’s leading museum outside London for art and archaeology. Among the multitude of highlights are exquisitely decorated coffins from ancient Egypt, vividly painted Minoan ceramics, and the dazzling Alfred Jewel, an Anglo-Saxon gem whose inscription translates as “Alfred ordered me to be made”. Paintings cover everything from masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance to more modern works by the likes of Lucian Freud. There are also one-off oddities to discover, such as the lantern Guy Fawkes reportedly used on the night of November 4/5, 1605, and the “Messiah” violin made by Stradivari.
With much too much to cover in a single visit, the advice is to focus on a few galleries, or follow highlights tour leaflets – available for adults and children. There are also free, first-come, first-served guided tours most days, which pick out highlights or concentrate on particular themes.
The Ashmolean’s major exhibitions are also big draws: the most recent, on Pompeii, got rave reviews. This year’s main show is Young Rembrandt (February 27 to June 7), concentrating on the early career of the Dutch master artist. There’s a charge for the exhibitions, but the museum’s permanent collections are free.
You can round off a visit in style by having a meal in the excellent, glass-sided Rooftop Restaurant, which has a large outdoor dining terrace and is open evenings Thursdays to Saturdays as well as daily for lunch, booking essential.
Where to stay
College rooms. Many of the university’s colleges rent out rooms at affordable prices to visitors, chiefly outside term times; you can also have breakfast in their grand dining halls. Book through Experience Oxfordshire
Malmaison Oxford. This highly unusual hotel occupies former prison buildings in the Castle Quarter. For the full Porridge feel, stay in the A-Wing, whose stylish bedrooms are converted from prison cells.
Old Bank Hotel. Oxford’s best-located upmarket hotel, just across from the Bodleian Library. Bedrooms combine historic features with modern art, while Quod brasserie is one of the city’s top dining spots