- Published: Thursday, 13 November 2014 09:00
- Written by Linda Kissam
Scholarly, privileged, and elite describes Oxford, England. What is so cool about Oxford is it knows it is all that and more. Yes, it is highly aware of its global standing as one of the world’s most famous university towns. It’s the kind of place where the pursuit of distinction, the drive for academic achievement, and the scent of intellectual standards permeates the air as soon as you get off the train. You cannot mistake this place for anywhere else in the world. I only had one day to spend there, but it was enough to know I had landed someplace very special and would hope to return to many times.
Thirty-eight colleges make up the university. Not in the way Americans understand college campuses; it is instead a variety of buildings scattered around the Oxford Village. The stylish stone buildings can be found on winding cobbled streets—and amongst hordes of tourists, especially in the summer months. Yet despite the crushing traffic and mobs of people there is a historical presence that calls to the soul.
The oldest colleges date back almost 700 years and have really changed very little since then. The old-fashioned traditions, customs, and dress codes live on, and the architecture remains largely untouched, allowing visitors to experience the colleges as countless students, parents, prime ministers, poets, and writers and professors have done for decades.
Oxford has a modern side, too. Nightspots blare all kinds of house and electronic music; restaurants serve their own modern takes on local food, mysterious ethnic cuisine, and the ever-popular afternoon tea; and comfy boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts are available all over. The town has also been home to author Colin Dexter and served as the backdrop to his popular Inspector Morse murder mystery novels, as well to the wildly popular “Inspector Morse” and “Lewis” PBS television series.
The Oxford Visitor Information Centre should be your first stop. On my visit, the place was jammed pack, but once you get the attention of a friendly and helpful staff member you will be ensured your visit to is a memorable one. The center can assist you with booking your ticket for an Official Guided Walking Tour, providing advice about what to see and do, helping with itinerary planning, selling discounted tickets to attractions and suggesting appropriate accommodations, and helping purchase bus tickets to London (about an hour away). There is a very cool selection of fun gifts and souvenirs from the gift shop.
Oxford is a bike-friendly town, and it is also perfect for those who love to walk a town at their own pace. If you choose to do either, be careful to watch out for both or bear the consequences of bruised body parts and ego. The city is probably best explored on foot. The narrow cobblestone streets in the center and around many of the colleges are inaccessible for cars, and guided walking tours are a great way to learn about Oxford and its rich heritage. There is a wide range of themed tours offered, catering to all kinds of interests. Book an Official Walking Tour of Oxford for insights into the city’s fascinating history. Be mindful there is a cost to tour many of the college campuses.
Don’t be afraid to just walk the streets. There is a multitude of things to do and see, all of which should end with afternoon tea at a traditional teahouse.
If you’re more of a nature person, escape the busy streets to wander the unobtrusive paths along Oxford’s rivers and through the many parks. Look for Christ Church Meadow or Port Meadow, which link to well posted, long distance paths you can actually walk along for days.
Finally, if you just want to leave the walking, biking, or driving to someone else, take a city tour. The Oxford hop-on/hop-off bus costs about $20 and includes a live guide and 19 stops. It’s an excellent way to get quickly acquainted with the town.
Gardening is considered a national sport in England, and especially so in the Cotswolds. Anyone who has ever planted anything and hoped for the best should visit the Cotswolds to see how it’s really done right. It’s a gardener’s paradise on steroids and is just a tour bus ride away in a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle with knowledgeable chauffeur-guides.
A farmer would define the Cotswolds as an area of gently sloping hills good for sheep farming. A geologist would gush over the oolitic limestone. A real estate agent would tell you it is one of the most affluent and desirable addresses in Britain. The Cotswolds occupies an area larger than just a few villages (100 miles north to south) and has some of the most competitive gardeners in the world. I think they must all have trusts that allow them to spend 24/7 on their flowers and iconic statuary. Sadly, American gardeners don’t stand a chance to match that kind of historical excellence.
The word quaint comes to mind when defining the Cotswolds. The gentle hilly region is about 60 minutes from Oxford. Think thatched cottages, old churches, fun shopping areas, delightful teahouses, hedgerows, storybook villages, and the ever-present cuddly sheep. You will be best served on your first visit to take a guided tour; the right guide can give you insight into what could easily be sensory overload. Pick a tour company such as Absolute Touring, Oxford. It is a must-do that is well worth the price.