I’d lived in London for two and a half weeks before I even ventured outside the borders of the city. Granted, that’s mainly because a) the city is huge and there are a million things to do here and b) I rely solely on semi-costly public transportation, but still. London is fantastic, but come on… the English countryside awaits!
Amity had a class trip to Oxford to visit a few art museums last week, and as I still have no school or work to occupy my time and am trying to avoid sitting in my pajamas eating bonbons all day (I limit myself to four of those days a week), I decided to tag along.
We took the tube to Paddington Station and bought our rail tickets, grabbed a quick coffee, then jumped on the train for the hour-long journey.
Essentially, it was like the Hogwarts Express, minus the steam engine and sweets trolley. The hazy, gray city streets outside our windows gradually gave way to misty green rolling hills with quaint little cottages dotted here and there. I even saw a water wheel at one point – I am serious.
We arrived at the train station in Oxford with about an hour to spare before Amity had to meet her classmates, so we decided to take our time traipsing through the town. It’s just so charming – much more rural than London, with quiet streets and lots of greenery, but plenty of shops and cafés to keep things interesting. And of course, the architecture is astounding.
Thanks to Amy, my Oxford connection via Meg, I was fully equipped with a color-coded map from 1906 displaying the best spots in town. Amity and I headed down picturesque Turl Street in hopes of visiting Amy’s favorite coffee shop, but were blockaded by a mysterious filming crew. Being British, they kindly apologized for the inconvenience… but then detoured us anyway. What could they have been filming? It would be hours before we found out… **suspense!**
I figured a little culture couldn’t hurt, so I decided to head inside with Amity and wander about on my own while she met up with her class and took notes.
The Pitt Rivers is a museum of international anthropology and archaeology and I found it completely fascinating. The main area was tall and cavernous, but the majority of the exhibits were crammed together on the sunken ground floor.
The aisles were narrow and the glass cases were jam-packed with artifacts, not all of which were even labeled, but for whatever reason I was just transfixed by this place. There was just so much to look at. I mean, the sheer volume of items in this collection is unbelievable.
The display cases were separated and labeled by category – writing instruments, treatment of the dead, human form in art, clothing, etc. – and within the cases, items were organized by world region. There was an entire case each for lutes, flutes, and zithers, so I guess humanity really likes those things.
See? It’s like a maze. A maze of knowledge. I actually took a fair few courses on anthropology and ethnography in college and really loved them all – I even wrote my senior honors thesis about my time in New Zealand through an ethnographic lens.
Speaking of good ol’ NZed…
I beelined for the Maori sections in every display! Aside from my most favorite culture, a few of the other things that most intrigued me included some beautiful Chinese urns from the 1500s, Native & South American pottery that was 800-1000 years old, actual shrunken heads (called tsantsas – I’ll spare you a photograph), and writing instruments from Burma & Tibet in the 1800s.
I spent a while in the museum and looped back around a few times, before deciding to head out on my own.
Amy had told me that Oxford is an extremely walkable city, and she was completely right. I decided to just follow my feet and see what I came across. One of my first stops was an Oxford landmark: the beautiful Sheldonian Theatre.
You’re allowed to peek inside and even climb up to the cupola (see the windows under the little green dome?). Unfortunately, there was a sound guy setting up for an event in the main theatre and there were projector screens and office chairs everywhere (kind of detracted from the historic feel of the place), so I just took a quick look around in there and headed up the spiraling stairs. Although it was pretty funny when he began his sound check and I heard him going, “Onnnne, TWO! One, two two! Onnnnne, TWO!” the entire way up.
There wasn’t anybody else visiting the theatre just then so I had the whole place to myself. For the record, 360-degree views of the gorgeous English country are pretty cool things to have to yourself.
From left to right… the Tower of the Five Orders (thing with a bunch of spikes), Radcliffe Camera (big dome), and the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (thing with one spike). I hope you’re following my extremely technical architectural terms.
That semi-distant spike on the left is the Lincoln College Library (Amy’s college!), and on the right is Exeter College. The cupola is eight-sided and has windows facing every direction, so you could just spin and spin and keep looking at the stunning view… but eventually one will become dizzy and find it is time to descend.
I found my way back to Turl Street, from which the filming crew had magically disappeared, and took a quick jaunt through one of the college courtyards. Technically, it wasn’t open to the public, but I tried to look very confident and gave a winning smile to a professor with elbow patches who then held the door open for me. Success!
Oxford has almost as many picture-perfect courtyards as it does loose paving stones. That, my friends, is saying something, because I almost faceplanted about every six minutes all day. The whole town is a tripping hazard.
Anyway, I soon tired of my espionage within the walls, and went to find some lunch. First I popped in to Oxfam in the hopes of finding something to read while I ate (again: success!), and then visited the café behind St. Mary’s cathedral for cream tea (which means tea with scones and clotted cream & jam) in the garden. Does it get more British than this?
The answer is no, it does not.
I took my time enjoying my tea (I love when they give you a little teapot because you can keep your tea hot forever!), resisted the urge to stick my face in the clotted cream (IT’S. SO. GOOD.), had a laugh at Bertie’s antics, was attacked by two wasps, became enraged, hit one of them with my book, and went back to leisurely enjoying my tea. Who wouldn’t enjoy tea with this view?
From there, I headed south to mosey through Christ Church Meadows, an area of beautiful parks, fields, and streams. The beginning of the path takes you past some lovely buildings that are part of Christ Church itself and Corpus Christi College (sidenote: it’s really weird for me to write “Christ Church” as two separate words after living in Christchurch!).
Eventually, you pass beyond the buildings and fences and into a more woodsy part of the meadows. The River Cherwell meanders next to the path for a while and, if you’re lucky, you might even see some people punting.
Guess how much I wanted to get on to that island in the center. GUESS. So much.
There are a few breaks in the trees which act as a perfect viewfinder towards Christ Church Cathedral (not that one) across fields that are speckled with giant – but somehow cute – longhorned cattle.
Keep following the path, and after about 45 minutes you’ll have circled around and wind up back at Christ Church, where you can pay to enter, or just walk around outside and take in its lovely gardens.
From thence (is that right? I don’t think so), I headed to Cornmarket Street, a busy pedestrian road through the center of town. There was a kid in a brown pinstriped suit playing the accordion like an absolute WIZARD and it was incredible. I dropped a few coins in his case and then proceeded to be a huge creep and record him playing from behind a tree. That happened.
Ahh, and now the excitement really begins! If you will kindly harken back to paragraphs of yesteryear, you will remember the filming crew which so unexpectedly blocked our path that morning. Well, following the incident of creeping on the accordion guy, I tried to escape my own shame by dodging down a side street, when I found my way blocked AGAIN by said filming crew! This time, however, they let me sneak around the edge, where lo and behold, I was greeted by this sight:
That spiffy chap in the coat there is none other than Shaun Evans, a.k.a. young Inspector Morse in the British detective show Endeavour. They were filming it right before my very eyes! Anyway, he was clearly busy solving The Case of the Dead Man on Top of the Car, or else I would have leapt forward and begged him for his autograph. Or maybe two autographs. Abby really loves him.
I tore myself away and quickly found myself on what I think may be the loveliest little street in the whole town – and there’s some stiff competition.
I don’t even know what street that was. I just thought it was so perfect and quaint.
Oxford continued its display of being the coolest place ever and led me to a little pub where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to have writers’ meetings in the 1930s-50s.
Lewis even distributed drafts of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to his writer friends in the pub’s meeting room. Um, Tolkien and Lewis hanging out together? I’m channeling Andy Samberg when he does “Get in the Cage.” HOW AM I NOT IN THAT MOVIE?!
I mean meeting. Meeting, not movie.
Around this time, my comrade-in-arms (not really arms, don’t worry) was released from her academic duties and came to meet me. So, as if this day was not excellent enough already, we went to Hogwarts.
I don’t mean just a really cool castle. I mean actually Hogwarts.
Remember this scene from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? (<—click on the link, watch it, then look at these pictures)
Fancy turning someone into a ferret today? Come on, yeah you do.
This place is actually one of the courtyards of New College, and in addition to being ridiculously cool for doubling as a wizard school in its free time, it also was very beautiful of its own accord.
We made a friend and asked him to help us prove that we were actually there that day. Just in case you thought I was getting all these photos from Google.
We were cutting it pretty close before the gates closed, so we took a very quick walk around the rear gardens which are surrounded by a neat old crumbling wall.
The garden path surrounds something called The Mound (see the patch of trees and stone steps directly through the gate above?). We were allowed to walk around the perimeter, but there was a sign which very clearly said that The Mound is private property and you are not allowed to climb up those mysterious stairs. Do you want to know how to make me really want to climb some stairs? Tell me I’m not allowed to climb those stairs. I mean, I was creating strategies in my head and everything. I could dart up really fast and roll down the back if I got caught. I did not say they were great strategies.
Anyway, I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t
for you meddling kids so close to closing time. So I remained a law-abiding citizen and Amity and I headed back towards the train station.
Overall, I was amazed at how much it’s possible to see and experience in Oxford in less than a day. Though I certainly would have enjoyed spending more time there, it was a perfect day trip and a successful first venture beyond the borders of our fair city. Just like London, Oxford is dripping with history, but the academic heritage of this little town pervades every aspect of it and is just awe-inspiring. If you’re lucky enough to visit Oxford sometime, just point your feet in any direction and go – you’ll be guaranteed a full and fascinating day of it!
And if you happen to wander down Cornmarket Street, tell the accordion boy that I still think of him.