As the home to an ancient university and the birthplace of many classic characters, Oxford wears its history on its sleeve. Kate Ford tours the city on foot and finds its many treasures.
Frodo Baggins was born here. Alice in Wonderland and Aslan the Great Lion were, too.
Oxford has been home to many literary greats over the centuries, namely J R R Tolkien, Lewis Carroll and C S Lewis, who created these classic characters. Their writing is fantastical and although Oxford, with its stately university, traditional pubs and grand buildings, feels very grounded in reality, there is a certain magical quality to this city.
Sitting just 82km northwest of London, Oxford is an easy day trip from the capital. Barely an hour by train from London Marylebone, Oxford serves everything up within walking distance.
The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is so old, in fact, that there are no records of when it was founded. Teaching at the university has existed in one way or another since 1096. For context, the First Crusade was happening at the same time. 1096 is 468 years before the birth of Shakespeare and 902 years before the birth of Google.
Surely, then, Oxford is also the birthplace of exam stress and instant noodles.
The buildings and faculties are spread across the city; a constant presence forming the veins of Oxford. The university has educated everyone from Bill Clinton and Nigella Lawson to Professor Stephen Hawking and Margaret Thatcher. I almost feel smarter by walking the same steps as some of the alumni here, although I am yet to see the effects of osmosis take form.
There's a lot more to do in this land of town and gown (townspeople and students) than merely roam the university halls.
A failsafe — and delicious — way to start the day is by having breakfast at Bill's Oxford Restaurant. This fine establishment is tucked away on a side street just a 10-minute walk from Oxford's train station. The simple breakfasts really hit the spot. I order a muesli bowl with fruit and yoghurt while Ryan just can't turn down their scones with clotted cream and jam. An interesting breakfast choice, maybe, but tasty. On leaving we peruse the housemade preserves and take a few jars home.
From Bill's it's a four-minute walk to the Ashmolean Museum, a museum founded in 1683, that features collections ranging from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art.
Right now you can find artist Damien Hirst's The Severed Head of Medusa, made from gold and silver, while Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, explores everything from crystal balls to medieval books on the ritual of magic. Both are on show until early next year.
We keep strolling. Around the city centre there are many professorial types (read: tweed jackets and beige slacks) riding bicycles. Families stop in fudge stores and gelato cafes.
Students fill pizza parlours. Oxford manages to be vibrant without losing a feeling of cosiness.
If there's one thing you must do while visiting Oxford, it's ordering a pint or a pie at The Eagle and Child. This unassuming and very traditional pub, which dates back to 1650, served as the informal headquarters for The Inklings, an Oxford writers' group which counted J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis — among others — as its members.
From late 1933 these writers would meet for a weekly lunch at The Eagle and Child in a private lounge called the Rabbit Room, towards the back of the pub. Legend has it that at one of their meetings in 1950, C S Lewis distributed the proofs for his classic novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Unfortunately, creativity such as this doesn't strike us in our booth but we do enjoy the coronation chicken and shepherd's pie.
With new-found inspiration we walk to Blackwell's Bookshop (blackwells.co.uk). This is where some of the smartest people in the world must forage for books to feed their hunger for learning. Naturally, we browse the shelves. Blackwell's underground Norrington Room has 5km shelving, a fact that led to its Guinness world record for the largest single room selling books.
As it's been a few hours now since our last meal, we draw inspiration from the hobbits (second breakfasts and such) and seek dinner. We find it at The King's Arms, another classic pub. This one is a little more modern than The Eagle and Child, and a lot bigger. We can't shy away from the fish and chips. It arrives with the fish, as described by Guardian columnist Felicity Cloake, a "golden sarcophagus", its crispy batter matched by the crunchy chips.
With full bellies and, hopefully, slightly fuller brains, we walk back to Oxford station — almost needing the Cheshire cat to show us the way.
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