Oxford - a jaunt round the city of dreaming spires

by Martin1000

Oxford is a great place to spend a few days lazing around olde worlde pubs, taking in the culture, and wandering along the canal and through the alleyways of this ancient city

Oxford, a city famous for its dreaming spires, sandstone colleges and cultural pleasures is within easy reach of London and a great place to spend a few days strolling through streets that, away from the main shopping thoroughfares, appear straight out of Victorian England, and sipping ale in the numerous local pubs.

Oxford is less than an hour from London on the train, or about an hour and a half on the regular, and importantly for night owls, 24 hour, regular coach services. Like many areas within the London commuter belt, though, it can swallow your hard-earned cash rather more swiftly than you’d like, so here’s how to make the most of the city and ensure you have enough money for treat yourself when you want to!

Where to stay

If you’re on your own, it’s hard to beat the Oxford Youth Hostel right by the train station - a new building, conveniently located and well priced. There are a couple of other hostels over on either side of Hythe Bridge Street, but they are very much in the youth grunge market – if that’s you, go for it! For couples the youth hostel is still not a bad bet, but for only a little more cash, the Premier Inn at the top of the Cowley Road is worth a look, as are the numerous B&B’s along the Iffley and London Roads. Particularly recommended are the Old Black Horse Inn at St Clements, which is an old coaching in with wood panelled walls, convenient  for the restaurants and pubs of Cowley Road, and the homely Red Mullions Guesthouse in a quiet area of  the London Road. At the other end of the scale, both the Randolph Hotel, a great huge traditional hotel, and Malmaison Oxford, in the former jail and castle, are a bit of class with a difference, both worth a visit to gawp at even if you  don't have the cash to spare to stay the night.

What to do

Walking the streets is free, and probably the most enjoyable thing you can do in Oxford (thats not a back-handed compliment!) -  the architectures fantastic and weaving around the town, which is increasingly pedestrianised, is a treat. The main colleges are all easy to find in the centre of town, as is the museum of modern art, but make sure you walk south down St Aldates and take in Christ Church college, cathedral and meadow. From the meadow you can walk along the canal to the pretty village of Iffley. The nearby Head of the River (on Folly Bridge) is a great place for a pint in summer, overlooking the river and college. It also has rooms for rent which are convenient for the centre of town.

At the end of the main, sadly largely homogenised, shopping street of Cornmarket, is the grand Randolph Hotel (Beaumont Street), where it's almost cheaper to stay the night than buy a round of drinks, and across the road the newly re-opened Ashmolean museum. Here you can spend hours wandering through Egyptian tombs, past Persian mosaics and old masters and end up on the rooftop café. This has had mixed culinary reviews, and I haven’t eaten their yet, but the terrace is a good place for a drink when the weathers good, watching people weave through the streets below.

The University science quarter starts at Broad Street with the somewhat underwhelming history of science museum, after which a bit of a livener at the White Horse across the road might be needed, one of the smallest pubs in the city. Walk through the Sheldonian theatre courtyard into the Bodlian library court and Radcliffe square, under the bridge of sighs and take a swift left to the Turf tavern, the pub with probably the greatest range of ales in Oxford and a real student hang-out. If you’re here at the end of term, a covering of flour is as likely as the barman's frown upon you ordering a pint of lager! Just across the road from the rear entrance, back onto Broad Street, is the Kings Arms, a great multi-roomed pub full of local memorabilia.

Further along Parks Road is the wonderful, and free, natural history museum, regularly voted the most child friendly museum in Britain, and immediately behind it, and through the same door, the Pitt Rivers museum, somewhat less child friendly due to its extensive collection of shrunken heads. It has recently been refurbished but has retained its olde worlde charm wonderfully, though this does include a slight uncertainty about what many exhibits actually are! Unsurprisingly, further along Parks road still, are the University Parks, free to enter, and which rival the botanical gardens (which in turn are sometimes free to enter themselves, but not always) for botanical entertainment, and also host 'warm up' county cricket games April to June.

Leaving the Parks by the same entrance, you can cross the road, head directly away from the Parks and walk through Jericho, passing the Gardeners Arms (39 Plantation Road), which serves great veggie food, on the way if you’re a little thirsty by now. Past Jericho you can walk onto the vast Port Meadow where horses roam free, and have a leisurely stroll for an hour or so down the Isis to the pretty village of Wolvercote, and some refreshment at the Trout, directly across the river, and where the lion on the island opposite the pub allegedly gave local don C.S. Lewis his idea for Aslan in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Where to eat

You’ll have to travel out to Little Milton for what is often labelled the best restaurant outside London – Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons (www.manoir.com– and it's well worth the trip. The city itself boasts Blanc Brasserie (www.brasserieblanc.com), Raymond Blancs’ less pricey and classy, but very good, brasserie on Walton Road in Jericho. Many of the other best places in town are of the ethnic variety. Indians dominate, and in my opinion, the long standing Aziz on the Cowely Road is a bit past its prime (but still not bad). Better are The Bombay on Walton street in Jericho (BYO and a great off-licence almost next door improves the value for money significantly), and Cumins in St Clements. For Thai, Bangkok House on  and Chiang Mai (down Kemp Hall passage at 130 High Street) in town both offer fantastic food in beautiful buildings with a history. The Cowley Road abounds with cheap eat options, with the Red Star being of particular note for Asian fare.

Evening entertainment

I think I’ve mentioned a few pubs already, but if you’re still stuck for a pint, the Eagle & Child and the Lamb & Flag are fall of history and good beer, and almost directly opposite each other on St Giles. The Academy on the Cowley Road has a good selection of well known bands playing almost every night, and the Jericho Tavern on Walton street caters for newer or upcoming bands. There’s also a huge range of classical concerts in ancient buildings and colleges (including Holywell music rooms, the oldest purpose built concert hall in Europe), as well as an excellent jazz club at The Spin, above the Wheatsheaf, which is down a rather daunting alleyway off the High Street.