Master and Miss Gallivant have an abject fear of doing anything on holiday that might be deemed ‘educational’. They reckon that they spend way too much time at school as it is, so why on earth would they want to spend one second of their free time on mind expanding activities?
So when I told them that we we were going to Oxford for the weekend they were immediately suspicious.
“What are we going to be doing exactly?” they asked.
I should have known better than to say. The moment the words ‘walking tour’ ‘museums’ and ‘colleges’ were uttered, the eye rolling and moans began.
“Is this an educational trip then? It sounds sooo boring. How come all our friends are going skiing/to the Maldives/on safari this Easter hols – and we’re going to blummin’ Oxford?”. I tried to resist the lecture about the fact that they were lucky to be going away at all.
So off we went. We weren’t staying in the city itself, but in Woodstock – one of my favourite Cotswolds villages and just a 20 minute drive away. I’ll be writing up my review of the Feathers Hotel, and of Blenheim Palace, which is right on its doorstep, in my next post.
We headed off on a bright Saturday morning, arriving in Oxford just as lunch was beckoning. We found a place on our walk from the car park into the city centre. The Jam Factory used to be the Coopers Marmalade factory. It’s not smart, more bohemian (I’m guessing the service could be a little hit or miss) and has interesting art, which you can buy if you really love it! The current exhibition is by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (below is what was up when we were there). Anyway, we liked it and the burgers were good!
Next, we were off to do a spot of punting on the river with some local friends. Anyone who has ever done it will know how precarious it is. You drift along in a flat bottomed boat, with one person steering and propelling it with a long, heavy pole – whilst someone on the other end helps out with a paddle. The potential to fall in is enormous, but that’s half the fun…at least when someone else is ‘driving’. I managed not to disgrace myself when it was my turn despite (or maybe because of) the Champagne we glugged along the way.
Master and Miss Gallivant struggled a little and we kept banging into the riverbank and being dragged through bramble bushes – not cool. But nobody fell in and, at the end of the trip they did declare it their favourite thing. It was certainly a beautiful and civilized way to see the countryside.
For dinner, we treated ourselves to cocktails followed by dinner at the Old Parsonage, a smart hotel with a cosy, atmospheric restaurant, The Parsonage Bar & Grill. It’s a slick set up. We turned up looking slightly bedraggled and not at all slick after our punting experience, but nobody seemed to mind.
Next morning we awoke to another day of bright spring sunshine. After breakfast and a little look around Woodstock, we headed back into the city. I realized we were in time to join a free two hour walking tour from Footprints. Master and Miss Gallivant were hugely reluctant to do it.
“Can’t we just wander around by ourselves?”
Mr Gallivant was equally grumpy.
“I bloody hate being herded.”
But afterwards, they all admitted it had been surprisingly enjoyable. Our tour was led by a student – not an Oxford one, but he was born and brought up here. I think the kids liked the fact that he was closer in age to them than us and he brought everything to life with amusing tales and anecdotes. Now, if you questioned him on some of the finer historical points, I’m not sure whether he’d struggle but for us, wanting something a little ‘lighter’, it was perfect.
It gave us a good overview of the city, its amazing buildings and its colleges. The tour doesn’t include entrance into the colleges incidentally (some of them charge) but it will give you an idea of which ones you’d like to go back to and explore properly.
Our favourite snippets:
All Souls College – This college is reserved for the cleverest post grads. Until just recently it was famous for the ‘one word’ essay part of its tough entrance exam. Applicants were given a word and three hours to write about it. One particular year that word was ‘courage’. One student simply wrote ‘This is it.’ and nothing else. He got in! (yikes – don’t try that , kids. Veeerry risky).
Christchurch –It has produced 13 prime ministers in the last 200 years – more than all the other Oxford Colleges put together and only one less than all the Cambridge colleges. Impressive stuff. More importantly, at least as far as Master and Miss Gallivant were concerned, it has lots of Harry Potter film connections! The Great Hall in the films was based on the Great Hall here, where lucky students eat their meals. The cloisters here were also used during filming.
We came back after the tour so that we could wander at will. We loved the set of stained glass windows in the Great Hall that depict the ‘real’ Alice from Alice in Wonderland (as well as other characters from the book). She was the daughter of the Dean here when maths tutor Charles Dodgson – aka Lewis Carroll – wrote a story featuring her. He always denied it was based on her though.
Narnia Door – down a little alleyway (opposite the entrance to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin) there is an old wooden door, said to have inspired C. S. Lewis, who studied and taught here here, to write ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. On it is an elaborately carved face of a lion. On either side of the doorway are two stone fauns (Mr Tumnus) and to one side of the door is a single lamp post.
Bodleian Library –This ancient library, still used by students today, is spread across three buildings – the main Bodleian building, the wonderful and unusually shaped Radcliffe Camera, and the Weston library. It’s a copywright library, meaning that they are entitled to house every book published in this country. They receive an average of around 1000 every day. Phew! We went back after the tour and paid a small fee to see the Divinity School, also a Harry Potter filming location.
Then, it was on to another venerable Oxford institution – Ben’s Cookies! This place, in the Covered Market, churns out thousands of pieces of warm, crumbly deliciousness to tourists, locals and students every day. We accompanied ours with an excellent flat white coffee from the Columbian café next door. Master and Miss Gallivant opted for milkshakes from Moo Moos. Choosing took some time, as there is quite a selection…
Suitably revived we decided to look at one more college before calling it a day. St Edmund Hall – aka Teddy Hall – was where my brother studied so I have a little soft spot for it (I used to rock up occasionally for balls with my friends). It was closed but as we stared through the railings into the pretty quad, an elderly man on the other side started chatting to us. It turned out he was an old boy, here for a college reunion. After a quick word at the Porters’ Lodge, he persuaded them to let us in and gave us a little accompanied tour. We saw the dining room, the library, housed in a 12th century church and, the bit I remembered the most, the JCR (Junior Common Room) bar! It was lovely to go back, but by now it was definitely time to head back to our hotel. We had all had quite enough education for one day.
* Footprints 2 Hour Free Tours take place several times daily and don’t need to be pre-booked. Just turn up at the meeting point. For details, visit www.footprints-tours.com
* It’s wise to book at The Parsonage Bar & Grill – visit www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk
Let us know about your own Oxford experiences. We’d love to hear them…