London is one of the easiest city breaks from Dublin and offers plenty of day trips or overnight options. This time, we decided to steep in the scholarly vibe at Oxford. We spent about 24 hours discovering the best of Oxford in a day. Just an hour by train from London's Paddington station, we set about visiting Oxford early on a Saturday morning. The town was not exactly what I expected when we looked across from the train station at a modern office block. A proud sculpted bull was a bit more on target. We walked into town (about 10 minutes from the train station). When we passed over the canal, muddied from the recent rains, we discovered the Oxford you see in the movies and fitting with the exclusive scholarly image. We saw hints of pomp and circumstance... Hallowed brick buildings from the various college campuses peeked out at the end of small lanes off the high street. Tall fences and gates seemed to warn away the riff raff. We headed down a small alley just outside the wall of Jesus College. There are 38 autonomous colleges within Oxford University and students all belong to one of the colleges.
The Tower House
We'd be spending the night at The Tower House, an atmospheric 17th century townhouse. This place was definitely old but well looked after. We walked up the creaking and slanted staircase to our room which featured a large bed and decorative fireplace. Breakfast at Turl Street Kitchen was included with our stay. The cafe was located just a 2 minute walk away at the end of the block. We were fed a hearty meal including pungent English cheeses, porridge with honey, and some sweet buns. We were charmed by Oxford so far and our hotel was just to our liking. On to further exploration!
Oxford Covered Market
Oxford features a large, quaint covered market lined with stalls dishing up delectable eats and handmade treats. We took a spin around the market when we arrived in town. My favorite stall was a cake shop selling intricate personalized creations for any occasion. We peeked into Browns Cafe and decided to stay for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat. We camped out along the window which turned out to be a great spot for people watching. We sampled strong filter coffee and apple pie drenched in custard. We were spoiled for choice as there were a number of sweet things available. Oxford's covered market is definitely worth a stop if you're in town. You never know what you might find.
The Colleges of Oxford University
The sun was shining gloriously on our trip to Oxford as we wandered through the streets in search of a college or two to visit. We steeped in the atmosphere of this old college town as we walked past countless seemingly impenetrable brick facades. We looked up at the Radcliffe Camera which offers an impressive surroundings for students to study.
The Divinity School and Bodleian Library
We signed up to tour the Divinity School and Bodleian Library. Photos weren't allowed inside the Bodleian Library. In fact, students themselves are only allowed to carry in a laptop and pencil in a clear plastic bag. The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and was established in 1602. Picture floor to ceiling bookshelves in dark heavy wood punctuated by noble crests. You can feel the history in the room. At the divinity school, they were a bit more open about photography so we were able to capture a sense of our impressive surroundings. We had a chance to step into the hallowed chamber where special occasions were celebrated. I loved the intricate decorations on wall and ceiling. Rather uncomfortable looking chairs for the faculty surrounded the wall of the room. A small room to the side housed the university's court.
Historically, student business and issues were kept out of the local courts and handled here. We finished our guided tour and stepped outside again into the sun to have a look around. The Divinity School sits in a series of buildings surrounding an impressive courtyard (this is the blueprint for most of the colleges in Oxford). We strolled through the college toward the main gate. We spotted the circular concert hall as we made our way back toward the street. This part of the Oxford campus was surrounded by a fence featuring huge busts with stern faces. I was fascinated... Each one seemed to have its own personality. A miniature version of the Bridge of Sighs presented itself to us across the street. Back on the public roads, we admired the buildings of a neighboring college (each college is typically closed to the public or requires you to pay an entry fee to visit). Onwards to Christ Church College!
Christ Church College
We made our way through the streets of Oxford to Christ Church College. Christ Church is famous for two reasons. 1) It's one of the most prestigious colleges at Oxford 2) the dining room from Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies was inspired by the dining hall at Christ Church. A lot of others had a similar idea to visit - there was quite a crowd on this sunny winter's day. We walked through an imposing gate onto the grounds of the college which is surrounded by a lush green park. Despite the very serious and solid exterior, we could see signs of modern student life hanging in the windows of the dorms. We paid our entrance fee and were admitted into the inner sanctum of the college. A lovely small courtyard greeted us. The architecture was quite imposing.
Our first stop was the famous dining room of Harry Potter fame. We stopped to admire the hallway on the way in. We had no choice in doing this as the queue was quite long ;-) I wonder how many people visited this place B.H.P. (Before Harry Potter). After about a 10 minute wait, we were ushered into the dining room, snaking among the tables and vying for position among the continuous flow of people. Portraits of famous members of the college spanning a period of several hundred years lined the walls. The tables were all set for dinner. The dining hall is actively in use by the students of the college during mealtime. I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to go to a school that is a serious tourist attraction. Pomp and circumstance ruled the hall with intricate decorations and hallowed crests spaced at intervals. Even good old William Penn from our former home in Philadelphia was featured prominently on the walls. We emerged from the dining hall onto the main college green. There were stern signs warning about not walking on the grass. What fun is that if students can't loll in the sunshine! We wandered through the campus church which featured rich stained glass. Before we knew it, we had emerged once more for a final spin around campus. We admired the stately academic buildings before finding ourselves at the exit gate ready to head back out onto the streets with the public masses.
Oxford Pubs: The Bear
After a long day exploring the colleges at Oxford University, we did what any stereotypical student might do: we sought out the pub. We could see The Bear beckoning to us down a lonely side street. The Bear dates back to 1242 and is a historical gem. We went inside and checked out the list of English Ales on tap. Staking out a nice warm spot by the fire, we sipped our pints. As we were leaving, we noticed case after case filled with clipped ties. Apparently, it's a tradition upon graduation to leave one's college tie here for all posterity. What a fabulously atmospheric spot!
A Sunset Walk in Oxford
Dusk was beginning to settle over Oxford so we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around Oxford to view the place in a different light. We walked the back way around toward Christ Church as the sun was skimming over the tops of hallowed halls. We discovered a lonely cemetery that we thought might lead to the meadows surrounding town but it turned out to be a dead end (no pun intended...) Colorful townhouses tilted with age stood along Mansfield Road. We passed the striking tower of Magdalen College and then veered off toward Merton Field. Faces frozen in time stared down at us from the walls of the colleges. The sunset was gathering force by the time we approached Merton Field. The college campuses were even more impressive in this light. A slightly muddy footpath skirted between the field and the various colleges ringing its edge. I loved the lone bird perched on the outer wall of campus soaking in the last rays of sun of the day. We even spotted a deer standing watchfully in the field. We passed along the edge of Christ Church as a rosy glow was starting to build. We finished our walk at the gate of Christ Church and went in search of something for dinner.
Oxford's Turf Tavern
I learned from an Oxford alumnus that we must go to the Turf Tavern. The place is famous, er...infamous... as being the spot where former U.S. President Bill Clinton 'didn't inhale'. The Turf Tavern was definitely edgier than The Bear but there were a number of fine ales of offer so we settled in for a pint. I have to say that I was particularly intrigued by the 'Guv'nor' in a nod to cockney accents. Some helpful plaques were posted in the outdoor seating area and shed a bit of light on the history of the place. No mention of Bill Clinton though... We left The Turf Tavern and headed into town for dinner stopping to admire a number of college buildings dramatically lit after dark.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other travel ideas focused on universities? Why not plan a trip to:
1. Galway Ireland to discover the NUI Galway campus
2. University College Cork, one of the best things to do in Cork City Ireland
3. Bologna Italy to explore one of the oldest and most famous universities in the world
4. Explore Pitt and Carnegie Mellon Universities in Pittsburgh in the U.S.
5. "The Farm" (knickname for Stanford University in California)
6. Downtown Ann Arbor to check out the lovely campus of the University of Michigan
Dinner at Chiang Mai Kitchen
We'd heard good things about Chiang Mai Kitchen in Oxford so decided to book ourselves in for dinner on a Saturday evening. The restaurant sits in an out-of-the-way alley and was built in the 17th century. It's a great example of modern ethnic cuisine combined with a classic Oxford atmosphere. We started off with a spicy papaya salad. For our mains, we sampled stir fried pork... and a chicken dish loaded with chilies (yum!). A bit of brown rice helped to soften the spice in our mouth after the meal. Before we knew it, it was time to get the bill. We wandered out into the night appreciating the sights and sounds of Oxford on a Saturday night with full bellies.
An Oxford Sunday Morning Walk
On Sunday mornings, the town of Oxford sleeps. We were up early and decided to take a walk through the quiet streets. We passed through the high street of Oxford City Centre and itsu (a great spot for a fast, healthy Asian inspired lunch). A very old, half-timbered building sagged on the corner. Onward, we passed the closed gates of the many colleges around town. We passed monuments on the streets lined with colorful crests. Even the decorations on the facades looked sleepy. A lonely fountain stood silently by. We passed a lovely tiered yellow building that looked like an observatory. The gate to one of the colleges was open! Dare we go inside? We opted to pass the college by and head to the Oxford University Parks. Colorful wildflowers peeked up at us from the grass. We exited the park on Museum Road and spotted Cecil Rhodes' house (of Rhodes scholar and South African mining fame) We took a final look at the intricate facades of the brick buildings in the neighborhood before heading to the Pitt Rivers and Natural History Museums.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum
The Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums in Oxford are an excellent Sunday morning activity when many things are closed. It does get crowded with children and families but we got there when the museums opened and had a good 30-45 minutes strolling around without bumping into too many folks. Sculptures of naturalists from generations gone by sat jauntily between the arches. The Natural History museum featured a soaring hall filled with skeletons, taxidermy, and more. We also noted distinctive marble columns. Each one was mined from a different area and many were from Ireland.
We soon made our way to the back of the Natural History Museum to the entrance of the Pitt Rivers Museum. This museum features a ton of curios of anthropological interest from around the world. The place is positively packed with stuff. It's a feast for the senses and you never know what you might find around the next bend. The museum is especially known for its collection of shrunken heads. We sought them out specifically. I didn't want to look but somehow couldn't turn away. The museum sits over three levels and the upper levels offer a great vantage point to look out over the entire space. We did a lap around each of the upper levels. We walked past a curious door proclaiming 'Professor of Geology'.
We took a final pass through the Natural History Museum on the way out taking in replica dinosaur heads and pyrite or 'Fool's Gold'... We waved goodbye to the huge Tyrannosaurus skeleton and made our way back outside. A plaque outside the Oxford Natural History Museum pays homage to evolution and the key figures in defining its tenets. Great stuff. We wish we could have stayed longer but we needed to get to Oxford train station to catch our ride back to London.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other London day trip ideas? Why not consider:
1. Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian
2. Portsmouth for some truly fascinating nautical history
3. A jaunt to Faversham and Rochester by train
4. Traveling to Bath with a side trip to Stonehenge
We had just enough time for a quick stroll on the Oxford Canal before our return to London. A pair of ducks came up looking for a hand-out. We continued down the towpath for about 10 minutes admiring the water on either side of us. A number of boats that looked well-lived in lined the banks. The Oxford Canal is on the way from the town center to the train station and is an easy diversion. I recommend checking it out.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: A Cambridge Day Trip
Cambridge is another fantastic and academically minded destination to visit from London on your next trip to England. We flew into London Stansted which is about halfway between London and Cambridge. We took the train to Cambridge directly from the airport for an afternoon of steeping in higher education. We went from a sea of luggage carts at the airport to a sea of bicycles outside the train station in Cambridge. We proceeded to walk from the train station into Cambridge Town.
I liked an old fashioned sign painted on brick advertising Bulls Dairies Jersey Milk Supplies. Cambridge was positively charming. Even before arriving in the center of town, we were impressed by the architecture of a local church. We loved how you could peep through an archway onto a green space of one of the 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge. Many of the colleges were founded by royalty. I wonder if this is why the entrances often look like castles or fortresses. Cambridge hosts a weekend market in the shadow of St. Mary's Church. Pumpkins were piled high on the tables of a number of the vendors -- a definite sign of the season. We passed a sign featuring Calverley's Ode to Tobacco. I love a good bookstore and so we had to pop in to the Cambridge University Press. There is definitely a lot there for those with a scholarly mindset.
We continued on to King's College -- there is an entrance fee of about 5 quid. The campus and chapel were amazing and since the school was founded in the 1400s, I imagine there is a significant cost associated with upkeep so we did our part and paid our way. We stopped to admire the architecture from the King's College green. The River Cam runs through Cambridge and there are lots of bridges over the river (thus the name of the town). One of the major tourist attractions is to go punting down the river. It was pretty chilly when we were there so we decided to stay on land and admire the activity from above. In doing so, we made friends with a little duck along the path near the river. For lunch, we stopped at a unique diner called Clowns. The place is run by an Italian family and it's not exactly clear why they are fascinated by clowns but whatever the reason, the place is swimming with them. It's not too creepy, don't worry. We stopped for dessert at a bakery called Fitzbillies. It seemed like there was a graduation ceremony taking place the day we were in Cambridge which was surprising to us considering that that we visited in October. We opted for a couple sweet squares (coffee cake and chocolate violet) to go.
We could tell we were in a college town because every free surface (including the church gate) was covered in posters. I liked how there was bicycle parking everywhere. There were actually grooves carved in the sidewalk and little metal rings to facilitate the process of parking. We also noticed an unusual sign -- parking reserved for doctors. Queens' College was our next stop. This campus boasts the President's Lodge which dates back to 1460 -- amazing! Of course, we paid a few quid to tour the campus but once again felt better about the fact that the funds would go to preserve this piece of history. We saw more punters from the Mathematical Bridge across the River Cam.
We walked back into town which was just crawling with people -- it was a sunny and busy day. We spotted some jaunty fellows in capes and top hats. I think they had something to do with the graduation that seemed to be taking place. We wandered over to Trinity College and watched some do-it-yourself punters on the river. You can either rent a boat yourself or have someone ferry you around. I think if we ever did it, we'd hire the 'driver' too. Watching this guy, I was certain he was going to fall into the water as he stood on the bow of the boat. It was fun to watch the festivities from the bridges above.
The scenery in Cambridge was spectacular. We walked past Christ's College en route to the All Saints Garden Arts and Crafts Market. We found some excellent pate de fruit and macaroons for the train ride to London. Overall, we covered about 6 miles alone walking around Cambridge. Cambridge is definitely worth the trip if you find yourself in the vicinity of London.