Travel writer Ron Smith lets the train take the strain as he heads for Oxford which has so much to offer he could cram just a fraction of the sights into his three days. It makes a return visit a must...
OXFORD is a fascinating place to visit. I was there for three days and feel that I only scratched the surface in terms of all the things that are worth seeing.
It is where the river Charwell joins the Thames, and there are the remains of the canal that once brought goods to a large basin in the centre of the city, now a car park.
The words "recession" and "cut back" do not apply here. There are no closed shops on the High Street. Oxford is busy with tourists all the year round, and the 38 colleges provide thousands of students, with visiting friends and relatives, to keep the many hotels pubs restaurants and shops busy. The university colleges range from 13 to nearly 1300 years in age, and all are architecturally striking. The newest one, the business school by the railway station, built in 2000, is horrible, but still striking.
Students are everywhere, in and out of uniform, flying around on bicycles. On the guided tours they give you the litany of all the UK Prime Ministers who studied at Oxford. To visit the colleges it is best to take a walking tour with one of the official guides, organised at the tourist office. There are many unofficial guides (looking like students trying to earn a few pounds on the side) but the official ones are knowledgeable, trained and qualified, and know which colleges are open to visitors that day and which are having exams or ceremonies and are closed to tourists.
Even in the middle of November, we walked around Christ College, shoulder to shoulder with crowds of tourists, mostly Asians. Oxford is fairly compact and easy to get around. If you prefer, there are bicycles to hire (no hills for miles around and the narrow streets are easy by bike) including electric ones to make it effortless. Many of the buses in Oxford are electro diesel, which cuts down on the pollution and noise.
I would not recommend trying to take cars into Oxford. The city is so ancient and the streets so narrow in places that it is difficult, and car parking, if you can find a space, will cost you around £30. The city is ringed with efficient park and ride sites, and the buses drop you right in the centre – a much quicker and easier way to get there. There are also open-top tourist buses, including from the railway station forecourt, which makes a lot of sense.
Oxford is so very well organised to make life easier for tourists. Whether you want to go punting on the river, or a steam boat cruise, or visit the many historic and interesting places in Oxfordshire, it can all be done by any mode of transport. Check out the website www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com for lots of information and offers. They will also help with accommodation.
There are hotels galore in all shapes and sizes. One I can recommend is The Buttery (www.thebutteryhotel.co.uk). It is a B&B right in the heart of the city on Broad Street; you couldn't be in a better place. The ground floor is a café, with rooms above, and is to a high standard. For eating out, you are spoilt for choice; you can eat food from many nations, and fast food to cordon bleu.
With Oxford being flat, you may like to climb up to get a view over the city. The St Michael tower, said to be 1,000 years old, can be climbed, then there is the Carfax Tower, the tower of Mary The Virgin Church, and Oxford Castle – a fortress and prison since 1071, right up to 1996 when the last prisoner left – has a tower. You can go underground to the 900-year-old crypt. Children seem to love the castle, running around and exploring it.
Something for all the family is on offer, such as special tours, on the themes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Children and adults find out about the Hobbit and Alice in Wonderland, and enjoy afternoon tea in the Hall of Pembroke College where Tolkien dined when he was professor of Anglo-Saxon there. There is also a Mad Hatter Afternoon Tea Party in the Castle.
Oxford featured in the TV Inspector Morse series, so there is an Inspector Morse tour too, which includes a tour devoted to Lewis, the follow-on series, also written by Oxford author Colin Dexter. Many places display photographs of filming for these series. You mustn't forget the Harry Potter tours, so much of which were shot in Oxford colleges. Tours run all the year round, no matter what the weather.
History is everywhere. On the roadway just outside the tourist office is a square mark, the spot where Thomas Cranmer was tied to a stake and burned to death in March, 1556. Although history and famous characters are everywhere in Oxford, it is not a stuffy, dull place, it is vibrant and lively. As you go around, there are often references to Cambridge and their age old rivalry as highlighted through the annual boat race. Each one has its own unique charm and character.
It's hard to do justice to all the events and sights of Oxford, the lectures, concerts, exhibitions, shows, and events that are happening all the year round. It was fascinating to go to the Bodleian Library, with its millions of books, including copies of mine. It is one of the legal deposit libraries which, by law, must receive a copy of every new book produced in the UK. I could have spent a day or two just at The Ashmolean art gallery, and the Museum of Oxford looked good too, but I ran out of time. My three days were not enough.
Oxford is in the centre of England, and I found that the best way to get there was by train. From Keith I took the evening train to Inverness and strolled across the platform to the sleeper (www.scotrail.co.uk/caledoniansleeper/index.html) where the attendant for my coach was waiting on the platform, greeting me by name. The berths are great, and it is such an experience to go to the next carriage, which is the lounge car, and sit with a nice glass of wine, enjoying the scenery before going off to bed. The cooked breakfast was served in the lounge car. If you take the first-class option, you can use the executive lounge in King's Cross for a shower or just tea.
The Underground took me in 12 minutes to Paddington station, where First Great Western (www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk) run several trains per hour to Oxford, the journey taking around one hour. These run smoothly along the flat railway engineered by Brunel to cruise into the busy Oxford station with all the public transport in the forecourt, combined transport at its best. First Great Western run a very busy railway, and on the way there were signs of engineering work going on to put up the masts for the new electric trains to come in just a few years, which will revolutionise trains down there. FGW also run sleeper services, from London Paddington to Penzance at the tip of Cornwall, with some very good offers on prices if you check their web site, now that would be another great journey in comfort and style.
Compare this with the stress, indignity, and just plain hassle of air travel – on the train you do not have to get partially undressed and x-rayed, you can carry a penknife and liquids with you and no-one cares what the weight of your suitcase is. Maybe I have just created a new slogan – travel by train to Oxford.