Thursday, 27 March 2014

The City of Dreaming Spires

My sixth form chemistry teacher tried to persuade me to go to Oxford University. Actually, that’s a lie. He offered the entire class an option. Briefly it was this:

You can go to Oxford (or Cambridge) but if you want to you must excel at all of you’re a Level subjects and then exceed them. You must take S-level exams – and pass them – and then take an entrance exam. 

For the first time in my life I was forced to examine my own potential. I found all my A-Level courses challenging enough but then I had to do additional work to pass yet another set of exams to get to Oxford (or Cambridge).

I decided that A-Levels were enough for me and I would do my best to pass them and go to a university that I could achieve.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I finally made it to Oxford University after all these years.

I hasten to add – just as a visitor – not a student.

Mrs PM and I are on a quest to visit British cities with a heritage and history that we have ignored in our lives so far. I am ashamed when American tourists say to me:

“You live in England and you’ve never been to Oxford? I have and I live thousands of miles away. You should be ashamed.”

And the truth is I am ashamed – hence our quest.

This weekend it was the turn of Oxford to suffer a visit from the PMs. We found a bed and breakfast with a car park that was just ten minutes’ walk from the city centre. I must admit, I was excited. I had heard that Oxford was a beautiful little city full of history and tradition and I wanted to experience this first hand.

Compared to Manchester, Oxford is a very small city. The centre itself is easy to cover on foot. It didn’t take us too long to get our bearings. We arrived on Friday at around 2pm and, after a pub lunch near to Christ Church College, we mooched around the city for a couple of hours with no real plan of action.

Oxford has a few park and ride sites, which means that you can park your car away from the city centre and catch any one of a number of buses into Oxford itself and stroll around in a city that seems to be populated only by taxis, buses and bikes.

And that’s one of the first things I noticed – the sheer volume of bikes either riding around the streets or chained to railings and special bike areas dotted around the city centre.

Bike City

As we strolled around the city I spotted a little passageway with a sign pointing to “The Famous Turf Tavern”. I was intrigued and led Mrs PM down the passageway at the end of which we found the pub that the sign referred too. It was an opportunity to have a quick pint in a 13th Century alehouse that has featured in Inspector Morse and also gets a mention in the Thomas Hardy novel, Jude the Obscure.

The bar was wonderfully quaint with a low beamed ceiling that I very nearly smashed my head against.

“How many people bash their heads?” I quipped to the barmaid, who must have heard the question a thousand times.

“Lots,” she replied with a polite smile.

The pub itself was full of foreign visitors and Oxford students, a couple of whom appeared to be dressed up for a graduation ceremony.

After a further bit of mooching around the city, we returned to our hotel before strolling out again for an evening meal.

The next day, we had a planned walking itinerary to take in the sights, taking in Alice’s Shop as a starting point. Oxford is the birth place of Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Shop is mentioned in the book. Today it sells lots of Alice in Wonderland gifts and mementos. Apparently Alice is based on a real girl called Alice Liddell. To be honest, I was intrigued and started looking for a white rabbit and a hole big enough to fall down.

Crossing over the road from Alice’s Shop, we explored Christ Church, including the Cathedral. Sadly, the Great Hall, the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, was closed because our weekend coincided with the Oxford literary festival. It seems that Oxford has now, to a certain degree, claimed Harry Potter as one of its sons, as was evident from the shops selling Harry Potter memorabilia around the city.

The Great Hall in Hogwarts?
Sadly, not open to Plastic Mancunians today.

Our walk took us to most if not all of the other sights in Oxford including the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library, the Carfax Tower and the Radcliffe Camara, via a museum or two. I even found a place to hide my fear of heights as we climbed up the relatively small Saxon Tower of St Michael, a tower that is almost a thousand years old. Although it wasn’t as tall as some of the structures I have been stupid enough to climb, I found my legs shaking slightly as I tried to take photographs of the city from this lofty position.

I was particularly fascinated with the Bodleian Library (known by the Oxford elite as “The Bod”), containing over 11 million items. I would have loved to have dived in and asked to wander around the old bookshelves full of dusty and ancient works, reading words from times gone by on all manner of fascinating subjects. Sadly, time and the Oxford literary festival put paid to that idea.

Our time in Oxford was completed on Saturday night with a Chinese meal and a final late evening stroll around the city before retiring back at the hotel for a good night’s sleep before the 160 mile journey back to Manchester.

Here are a few photos we took of the city.

A big bell in the Saxon Tower at St Michael's

Radcliffe Camara

Bodleian Library

Oxford riverside

One of the many churches

Hertford Bridge (aka The Bridge of Sighs)
Finally, here are a few fun facts about Oxford.

(1) Oxford was the capital of England during the English Civil war.

(2) Adolf Hitler had plans to invade England during the World War 2 and if he had succeeded he would have made Oxford his base. This was one of the reasons why he didn’t attempt to bomb the city.

(3) Christ Church Cathedral has a bell called Old Tom that strikes 101 times at exactly 9:05 pm. Traditionally this is a curfew signal for students who should immediately cease their late night shenanigans and return to the college.

(4) Oxford is home to the world’s first public museum, the Ashmolean Museum, opened in 1683.

(5) Twenty six British Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and the current incumbent, David Cameron.

If you ever get a chance to visit Oxford, I would recommend that you do. And let me know if you say a white rabbit running around – or Lord Voldermort.


H2B said...

Cambridge next? What is S levels?

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi H2B,

Yes - Cambridge is on the list, as is Edinburgh (though I have been there before), Durham, Belfast, Inverness and a few others.

S-Level is "Scholarship-Level", which is effectively A-Level Plus.




Elephant's Child said...

Jealous thoughts. I have over the years read so much about Oxford and would love to spend some time there. Sigh. Thanks for the mini tour...

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi EC,

If you find yourself in he UK, it is worth it.




Big D said...

Great pics.

Sad to say, the only part of Oxford I've seen is the bus station.

No, correction. I once used a 40 minute layover to pop off in search of a comic shop then had the fright of my life when I realised I didn't know which of 4 identical alleys led back to the bus station - and I only had 15 minutes before the bus left.

I'll have to do Oxford properly one of these days.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Big D,

I can see how you struggled - we walked down quite a few alleys that looked similar.

It's definitely best explored with time on your hands.




DrB said...

I am not a big fun of Oxford. I love Cambridge, Inverness, London and Edinburgh. Never been to Manchester or Belfast, will try to visit one day.

River said...

It's so beautiful! I love the old buildings and the Bridge of Sighs is something to dream about. You must go back one day when the "Harry Potter" hall is open, I'd love to see it.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

I daresay I'll visit Oxford again - I really liked the city.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi DrB,

Manchester's a great place (but then I am biased).

I am a bit of a weird Northerner actually because I love London too (but then I am really a Midlander I suppose).

You're probably wondering what I'm on about! :0)




Drb said...

I gather that Northerners are supposed to dislike London but why? The next blog? :-)

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi DrB,

Let's just say, there's a friendly rivalry between the north and the south. I may well elaborate in a future post.




Pandora Behr said...

Love Oxford - just as I love Csmbridge. I'm envious that you get to visit these wonderful historic places. I miss England for that. Glad you had a good time. Oh and if you go to Cambridge, save an extra half a day to visit Ely, about 20 miles away - it;s one of my most favourite cities (and cathedrals) in Britain. Pand

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Pand,

Ah - of course - Ely. Yes, we will definitely pop over there when we visit Cambridge.