diamond geezer

 Monday, December 12, 2016

Postcards from Oxford

Today sees the official start of the first direct railway service between London Marylebone and Oxford. But unofficially the first trains ran yesterday, because the second Sunday in December is St Timetables Day when all the schedules change. A couple of years ago Chiltern Railways spent a few million joining their mainline to the previous Bicester spur, and today's fresh connection to Oxford is the end result. I didn't get the first train because that was always going to be full of Men Who Like New Track, but I followed close behind and had a splendid easy scenic hour-long ride.

Bicester Village must be the only station in Britain where on-train announcements are made in English, Chinese and Japanese. It's probably also the only station whose name has been changed from XXX Town to XXX Village, such is the dominance of the adjacent designer outlet park. The train cleared out quite a bit after that. Next up is Islip, a proper village with a fortuitous service, and then Oxford Parkway. Until yesterday this car park was the end of the line and you needed to board a bus for the last bit. Now fresh rails and two new platforms deliver all souls to Oxford proper, avoiding the often nightmarish traffic, in a far-sighted triumph of infrastructural planning. A man in a top hat greeted us as we alighted.

What a wonderful museum the Ashmolean is. Not only is it Britain's oldest, but in 2009 the Queen opened a huge extension and the end result is magnificent. The space is divided between art and archaeology, with rather more of the latter, and the end result is like walking round a modern cross between the British Museum and the V&A. As well as reams of Roman and Greek treasures, the Ashmolean intelligently celebrates the contributions of several civilisations from further east, and all the Chinese and Japanese tourists thronging Oxford's streets would do well to look inside.

Every December for the last ten years a sea of dressed-up Santas has run through Oxford in support of a local hospice. They run on a Sunday morning, to minimise disruption, and they run early, so by the time I arrived most of them had finished their two mile stint. What was amazing was then seeing the centre of Oxford overrun by two thousand red-suited participants, either milling around waiting for the shops to open or heading home. There were Santas queueing at bus stops, Santas swarming over the Christmas market, Santas filling the windows in Starbucks, and whole families of Santas wandering aimlessly dangling their celebratory carrier bags. Oxford when the students have gone home is a very different city.

It's Interview Time at the University, when potential students arrive for a brief stay and try to impress enough to come back properly next year. They wheel their suitcases across unfamiliar cobbles, in expectation or in awe, and try to locate the historic rooms where they'll be lodging overnight. A few of this year's students have stayed on to make them welcome, while all the others have been cast out so sufficient beds are free. I remember my parents dropping me off here a third of a century ago, for brief immersion into a peculiar world of tradition, drinks parties and open-ended questions. I must have answered them OK, because they invited me back, but none of the other 24-hour friends I'd made ever resurfaced.

In common with the majority, my college was closed yesterday to all visitors, even old students. I could have nipped in through the back gate, past the stairs down to the washing machines, but better not. Instead I crossed the street to reminisce about the student accommodation I lived in during my first year, designed by no less an architect than the bloke who dreamt up the Skylon. I was disturbed to see that my room appears to have been turned into a communal kitchen as part of a recent refurbishment, although anything that got rid of the previous kitchen with its clunky electric ring has got to be an improvement. A potential student with a wheelie suitcase was looking lost, so I claimed former knowledge, and she then walked off in the opposite direction. I bet she wondered who the old bloke was.

The Cowley Road has changed a lot since my year spent living out of college. The shops have perked up rather, or maybe it's just that consumerism has moved on, selling trifles that no previous student or local resident would have needed. Burgers are now served sitting down, the Thai restaurant that once seemed novel now seems commonplace, and there's a betting shop where the Chinese takeaway used to be. Checking out the prices in the estate agent's window beneath my former boxroom I'm disturbed to see that rents are now so high they'd have wiped out my entire grant in one month flat. I bet the pelican crossing beneath the window still keeps the current occupant awake at night. Glory days.

I never walked to Iffley when I lived here, nor ever realised what was at the end of the Iffley Road, but a mention in Bill Bryson's latest book persuaded me I should go. Head south and Oxford's suburbs slowly merge into a medieval village, with Cotswold stone cottages and a pub along one meandering street. It's not quite as lovely as an actual Cotswold village, but an impressive survivor given its location, and St Mary's has been described as the finest Norman church in Britain. The interior has lofty Romanesque arches, and several of its stained glass windows are genuine 12th century, rounded off with some splendid John Piper infill. By dropping in between Sunday services I got the entire building to myself.

The Thames Path runs past Iffley Lock, and a chain of (partly-flooded) water meadows. This is the furthest point on a popular constitutional stroll from the centre of town, which perhaps explains the survival of the Isis Farmhouse, a pub inaccessible other than by towpath. In summer the outdoor tables overlooking the banks are full, whereas winter opening hours are rather shorter and yesterday only a couple of couples braved the weather. Now that term is over hardly any rowers are out on the river, being shouted at by an encouraging cyclist, and the long row of architecturally-intriguing college boathouses stands empty awaiting next year's glories.

The train's £25 return, off-peak, whether you choose to travel the new way via High Wycombe or the old way via Reading. An easy day out, and with plenty to see, even in December.

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