I was in Shanghai recently talking to a Chinese woman who had never heard of Oxford but she had heard of Bicester Village (50 Pingle Drive, Bicester, Oxfordshire, OX26 6WD; +44 1869 323 200; www.bicestervillage.com).
Oxford is world-famous as a historic university town with great literary and political connections but you might not associate it with destination shopping. However serious shoppers do come from all corners of the globe to go to Bicester Village, Europe's leading luxury outlet.
The market town of Bicester lies off Junction 9 on the M40 motorway to the north of Oxford. It is a pleasant sturdy place that dates back to Saxon times. Its offspring, a slightly twee out-of-town shopping mall known as Bicester Village is what has put Bicester on the map and even threatened to displace Oxford itself in the popular imagination. From all round the world students flock to Oxford in their hundreds, but shoppers in their hundreds of thousands flock to Bicester.
Some of the hotels I’ve recommended – The Bell, The Feathers and the Macdonald Bear Hotel get booked out by parties of women (it usually is women) who descend on Bicester Village for the weekend.
But what of shopping in Oxford itself?
The city centre was spoiled a number of years ago by some poor rebuilding and a lot of garish shop frontages along Cornmarket. This ancient road running north/south through the centre of Oxford is now pedestrianised and is home to the chain stores without which provincial English life cannot proceed. Boots, WHSmith, HMV, Next, McDonald's and a host of brightly-lit shops eager to upgrade your mobile phone. Unless you have to get the basics for daily life, this is a street to be avoided.
Cornmarket is the bit of Oxford that is like every other British city. The Clarendon Centre (52 Cornmarket, Oxford, OX1 3JE; +44 1865 251493; www.clarendoncentre.co.uk) is no better. In fact it’s worse - at least you’re allowed to wheel your bicycle down Cornmarket. Worst of all, yet very, very handy for the basics, is the Westgate Centre (37 Westgate, Oxford, OX1 1NZ; +44 1865 725455; www.westgateoxford.co.uk) dominated by an enormous Primark.
There are however places to shop in Oxford that are pleasurable and unique and I will be exploring these in the guides below. Here is the first: Shopping in Oxford: breaking the chain.