I tried to go to Oxford University when I was twenty but they wouldn't let me in -- I'm too stupid. I'm so stupid that when I went to playschool I had to repeat a year -- that's how stupid I am. So I ended up getting my education at the school of life instead (I failed). So here I am, sitting at the station waiting for the 8 o'clock train to Oxford, dreaming of what might have been.
This station is probably full of people dreaming about what might have been -- you can see it in their tired faces. We all want to be somewhere else... and I don't mean sitting on the train. Hopefully this train journey will wake me up a bit because I am dozing off here; I'm not used to these early mornings. You either have a good train journey in this country or a lousy one. You either get a good seat with a window and a bit of peace and quiet, or you get wedged next to a big mouth and his fidgety kids.
So that is the kind of mood I'm in this morning... like a collapsed rainbow, or a cloud too close to the ground. But at least the weather's nice (it's raining). Someone has put the sun on half-power this morning. Do you think it's running out? Oh I hope so! I wonder if it's going to be like this in Oxford. I doubt it: Oxford is the kind of place where it's permanent springtime. Whenever you see Oxford on the telly it's full of blokes in boaters and summer shirts. The only kind of rain they have in Oxford is butterflies and apple blossom. That's why I could never live there -- it's too damn beautiful.
But anyway... I have arrived now. And yes, it is sunny. The sun miraculously came out as soon as we pulled into the station (and I'm not even joking). I’ve got a long list of things to do here and I’m going to try and squeeze them all into a single day… so hopefully I can let you know how much is possible to do and which ones are better being skipped.
Your first impression of the city when you step out of the station will not be very good (you can trust me on this). It's not like Oxford off the telly. It's more like concrete town and roadworks. But don't worry, just have a ten minute stroll up Park End Street and then New Road and you will come to the castle. (Did you know that Oxford has a castle?). It's got a big Norman mound out the front and a ruined tower behind, and you can have a walk around the prison courtyard. If you take my advice then you will skip the guided tour because it's sixty minutes long. If you're only here for a day then there are plenty of better things worth seeing and you don't want to lock yourself in to an hour of this. So have a quick look outside and then continue down New Road and Queen Street. Now you are starting to enter the "pretty Oxford".
If you want a quick arial view of the town then you can climb up to the top of Carfax Tower (on Queen Street). I was expecting something on a par with The Shard by the way they were talking in the brochure, but in reality it's just a little stubby church tower. It's still worth a quick climb though. The view isn't all that amazing, but hey, it's only a few quid to get in so what the hell -- let's live a little! And it gives your heart a nice work out as well because you have to clamber up several flights of very tight and windy iron and stone stairs. (I made it okay with my busted knees, so you shouldn't have any trouble.)
Now have a stroll down St. Aldates and past Christ Church College. Enter the gate at the far end (past the main facade) and get your camera out. This is the Oxford that you came to see. This is the Oxford of Inspector Morse. You can see quite a lot of nice architecture out the front for free but I definitely recommend stumping up the money to enter. It reminds me a little bit of Hampton Court and Westminster Abbey inside with all the cosy little courtyards and cloisters, and you can have a nose around the cathedral too. You can't walk around the entire college (large parts of it are only open to the staff and students) but there's definitely enough there to make it worth your while.
You'll probably be lost when you come out of the exit, but try and find Merton Street. There are lots of very beautiful houses down there -- it's all stone cottages and cobbles and gas light lampposts. Then round the corner at the end and check out Magdalen College (pronounced "Maudlin") -- another beautiful building. You can't go inside it unfortunately (at least, not without a scholarship), but it's round here that they do the punting -- keep going over the bridge and you will see them all lined up in the water.
Now double-back down the High Street (called "The High") and turn right down Catte Street towards that interesting looking round building. That's the Radcliffe Camera. You definitely want to have a good nose around this whole area. I definitely recommend stumping up some money for the Bodleian Library tour as well (which includes the Radcliffe Camera). But first of all you have to find the ticket office... so prepare yourself for the best looking courtyard in town. Walk around to the other side of the Camera and through the central door in the building behind (signposted to the shop). I won't say any more. I don't have to -- the courtyard through here will do all the talking for me.
The tours book up pretty quickly so you have to be lucky (the first one I could get was for 3 PM, and that was at 12 noon). But it takes you into the Divinity School and the Bodleian Library proper (Duke Humfrey's wooden library) -- the ancient place with ancient books and ancient readers reading them. There are three different tours -- cheap, cheapish and not so cheap -- but if you want to see inside the Camera then you have to settle on the most expensive one. That's the one that I did (but do the cheap one as well if that's all you can get... it's still worth seeing the library).
Once you've finished with the tour find Catte Street again and have a look down New College Lane at the famous Bridge of Sighs.
If you fancy a long walk then you can continue in a straight line up Parks Road to Oxford's equivalent of the Natural History Museum. This place reminds me of taking a Bizzie Lizzie plant cutting when I was a kid, when the teachers made us cut a bit off and stick it in a yoghurt pot. Someone has done a cutting of the Natural History Museum in London and that's what we've got here. It even looks the same inside with the same colour bricks and arches, and the same towering dinosaurs bones in the entrance hall.
Now all you've got to do is find the Ashmolean Museum (head back down Parks Road and turn right down Broad Street). You can pop into the Museum of the History of Science along the way if you want but I don't recommend it. It's full of old telescopes and watches and clocks, and it's pretty boring unless you've got a particular interest in that kind of stuff. That nice round building next-door is the Sheldonian Theatre, built by Christopher Wren.
The Ashmolean is basically the same as the British Museum, but on a much smaller scale. Personally I can take it or leave it, but I know that for a lot of people this will be their highlight. It's pretty good on Egyptian and Assyrian stuff, with cabinets full of statues and mummies and busted bits of brick, etc. And there are plenty of pots and pipes and plates and slates (yawn). Then you repeat all of that for the Greeks. Then you repeat it all again for the Romans. And then again for Asia. Lots of pots plates bones stones bricks sticks beads seeds (yawn yawn yawn).You can tell that I'm a total philistine when it comes to this kind of stuff -- the Ashmolean is supposed to be one of the country's great museums! My favourite exhibit was downstairs in the art gallery where someone had done a bright green neon Hitler next to what looked like the two motorbiking cops from Chips (remember Ponch and Jon?) -- I thought that was quite amusing. That was more on my level.
And that's about it really. That's all the must-see stuff done. It might have only taken you five minutes to read it but that's more than enough to fill up five or six hours. If you’ve still got some time left over before your train comes then maybe you can just have a stroll around the shops in the old town. If you want to get a picture of the famous 'dreaming spires' then you'll find them halfway up The High (look up!). There are a few Tudor-style houses down Cornmarket Street which are quite nice. The guidebooks always mention the Covered Market as well, but I thought it was a bit rubbish to be honest. It's just a normal everyday market and I didn't even bother to take any photos of it. It's full of everyday items like fish and shoes and apples and eggs.
I used up the rest of my time with a city sightseeing bus. You can catch it outside Christ Church College which we saw earlier (pay for the ticket on the bus), or buy a ticket in the little shop at the bottom of Carfax Tower. It only takes an hour to complete the entire circuit and it's a handy way of seeing all the colleges and learning about the city's history.
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