diamond geezer

 Friday, October 10, 2008

Things to do on a sunny Oxford afternoon in Fresher's Week

Oxford from Christ Church Meadow
1) Go for a stroll around Christ Church meadow
There's a great view across the cows, and it won't cost you a penny.

Botanic Garden2) Wander round the Botanic Garden
If you're a student of botany, you need somewhere to look at plants. And this university's had a botanic garden for nearly 400 years, making it the oldest in the country. There's a more formal walled garden at the front, laid out in neat rectangles with every well-tended specimen duly labelled. A newer section at the rear features a special "autumn walk", brightly blooming even in the middle of October, as well as a herbaceous border, water garden and orchard. Beside the river are densely-stocked glasshouses, home to big cacti and photogenic water lilies and insect-eating plants. It's a real oasis in the city, and ten quid cheaper to get inside than Kew.

3) Enjoy a pie and pint at the Turf Tavern
Whenever Inspector Morse needed to drink a pint of real ale in a photogenic pub, he'd often end up in the Turf. It's hidden away down a couple of narrow alleyways, with the fortunate outcome that tourists never stumble across it by mistake and ruin the atmosphere. The Turf is a ramshackle half-timbered pub, a bit of a squeeze on the inside but with several outdoor courtyards where drinking is an absolute pleasure on a sunny day, even in October. Beer connoisseurs will no doubt salivate at the thought of frothing pints of Spuddles County and Wilson's Heritage Brew, or whatever finest ales the landlord's got on tap this month. The menu's damned fine too, and I adored the homemade chicken and mushroom pie they served up yesterday lunchtime. Cheers.

Pitt Rivers Museum4) Pop into the Pitt Rivers
Except you can't at the moment because the museum is closed for refurbishment until the spring. Which is a shame, because the Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most fabulous collections of eclectic ethnography to be found anywhere. It was founded in 1884 by General Pitt Rivers, one of those Victorian empire builders who went round the world thieving tribal bits and sticking them in display cases. Unforgivable, retrospectively, but absolutely bloody brilliant all the same. Where else would you find cabinets given over to "zithers" and "body painting" and "war quoits"? Or learn about Hawaiian tattooing, or gawp at a giant indoor totem pole? If it was in Central London, everyone would go. As it is, the Pitt Rivers is a rare treat for those in the know.

5) Poke round the Museum of Oxford
Enter the limestone doorway round the back of the Town Hall and you might be expecting a glossy interactive experience recounting the delights of academia. But you'd be wrong. This two-floor museum's run by the council, so it's more about town than gown. The local history depicted here runs from a few old Roman pots to William Morris's car factory, with acres of text and photos to scan inbetween. The galleries are sort of interesting, but only because Oxford's a fascinating town, and I got the feeling that the displays haven't been tarted up much for a decade or two. Missable.

the Bodleian6) Take a tour of the Bodleian Library
They've got one of every book in the country, they have, and if you're a member you can request anything from a medieval manuscript to Budgie the Helicopter. The tours are led by learned librarians, and you get to climb up to the proper old wood panelled bit inaugurated by Duke Humfrey where many of the most fragile volumes are kept. Which is stunning. But sssh, there are English students doing research and they'd rather not be gawped at.

7) Peruse the Ashmolean
That classical-looking building off St Giles is part art gallery, part museum. But more art gallery. It's undergoing renovation at the moment, so trooping from one room to the next can be a bit of a trek. But the paintings are nice (sorry, I'm not an art critic, but you get the idea).

view from Carfax tower8) Hike up Carfax Tower
I like climbing towers, and Oxford has two accessible to the public. This one is all that's left of St Martin's Church, at the main city crossroads, ascendable for a couple of quid via the usual winding staircase. You get a pretty good view of the dreaming spires from the roof, so long as you don't mind the odd department store cooling tank getting in the way. Fingers crossed you get the square beneath the weathervane to yourself, and don't have to squeeze past gangs of grinning tourists taking photos of themselves with pointy limestone spikes behind. The name Carfax, by the way, is derived from 'Quadrifurcus' which is Latin for crossroads. Oxford's a bit intellectual like that.

Cowley Road9) Go back to your old student digs
Look, there's my old room on the multicultural Cowley Road, still above the estate agents, still tiny, and probably still extortionately rented. I wonder if this year's batch of student no-hopers are plagued by ants in the kitchen, and whether there are already piles of unwashed plates by the sink because nobody can agree whose name should be next on the cleaning rota. The Co-op supermarket nextdoor is new (it would have been damned useful 25 years ago for buying all those cans of beans and pasta we students existed on). And look, the pelican crossing which used to plague my sleeping hours has been removed, as has the buzzing overnight takeaway across the street (damn, too late). I'd never live here now, but the street still feels very much like home.

10) Go back to your old college
Sorry. "Closed to visitors. Fresher's Fair in Hall, 2-3:30pm." And I think they'd have noticed that I was 25 years too late.

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