Next up was Oxford, another ancient college town filled with picturesque moments…
Walking Through Oxford
My first day in Oxford was, tired. There’s just really no other way to put it; a 48 mile trip took me 12 hours. If you followed along on instastories, you’ll know that I spent the day scared, frustrated, lost, freezing cold, with spotty cell coverage, and a nervous wreck. I finally got to my hotel in Oxford just before midnight. I stood in my hotel room like a veritable popsicle: I had snow on my boots, muck on my pants, I hadn’t eaten anything except for chex mix since breakfast, and I was desperate to decompress. By the time I got some room service for a late night snack, and showered it was well after 2am.
When I woke up the next morning, there were two things that I knew. Firstly, I didn’t pack enough sweaters, not anticipating that much snow. Secondly, my frayed nerves weren’t interested in getting back into a car for a little bit. The latter meant I needed to change some plans. So my first day in Oxford wasn’t filled with exploring, but rather recovering. The first thing I did was go to the shopping center conveniently located next to the hotel. A quick trip to John Lewis netted me three sweaters, and then I was back at the hotel.
To be honest, the idea of staying in my hotel room when I had traveled thousands of miles to be there was wholly unappealing. On the other hand, I was exhausted and had plenty to do on my computer. So I decided to take advantage of the “festive afternoon tea” the hotel was offering. I had a little afternoon date with my laptop. My original plan was to stay 2 days in Oxford and then heading up to Scotland. In Scotland, I planned on having a car and driving into the Loch Lomond area. Instead I chose to give myself an extra day in Oxford – to make up for the day I spent replanning and resting – and an extra day in Glasgow. Some changes in hotel reservations and flights, and I was set.
A Little Oxford History
Before I move on to the nitty gritty, a little history of Oxford is in order. Oxford University is the oldest university in the english speaking world and the second oldest in the world. There is no actual known date that it was founded, but records go back as far as 1096, meaning that many of it’s buildings are incredibly old. The university itself is made up of 38 individual colleges, has the largest university press (Oxford University Press), and the oldest university museum (the Ashmolean Museum). It’s famous around the world for it’s notable alumna, Rhodes Scholarship, and the black capes that make up it’s oft used academic dress. (note the dapperly dress frosty in typical academic dress, oh the humor of college students). Oxford has set the scene for all types of literature and films; ranging from the 1400s in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the modern day Harry Potter Films. While now it's definitely a tourist destination; at it's heart, Oxford is truly a mecca of learning, and home to professors, students, and intellects.
I started my day off at Christ Church College. The ground was covered with snow and the main entrance was closed due to icy conditions, but walking in by the meadow had it’s own advantages. It. Was. Stunning. The day had clear blue skies, the sun reflected off of the snow, and it really looked like wonderland. But it would, since Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland while living there, but more on that later. The college itself is truly impressive with a stately quad. The Chapel was closed in the morning , but my entry ticket allowed me to return later to see it.
Like in Cambridge, many of the colleges were closed for prospective student interviews. I had hoped to see St Edmunds and Balliol Colleges but they were closed to the public. Magdalen College was open, and I was able to walk around and see it. On the grounds of Magdalen College was Addison’s Walk. It’s a footpath around a small island in the River Cherwell. When the weather’s nice it’s supposed to be beautiful – but I was blessed with frigid temps and ice.
The Other Sights
My list for Oxford held a lot more than just touring the colleges. One of the things I was most interested in seeing was the Bodelian Library. I did a mini tour that took you into the oldest part of the library – which was the part I was most excited to see. The only place where you could actually take pictures was in the divinity school – which proudly boasts pictures of it’s Harry Potter Cameo.
Probably the most recognizable building of the Bodelian Library is Radcliffe Camera. Housing the science library, the circular building is one of the first images people conjure up when thinking of Oxford. Leading right off Radcliffe Square is St Mary’s Passage. Hiding between Brasnose College and the Church of St Mary the Virgin. It’s a picture perfect little alley – just make sure to look for the doorway that’s said to have inspired C.S.Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia (you can’t miss it!).
Another one of the most recognizable sights in Oxford? The Bridge of Sighs. The bridge itself is a skyway connecting two parts of Hertford College. It’s also right off Radcliffe Square; and yes, it’s named after the bridge of the same name in Venice as it bears such a strong resemblance.
The Ashmolean Museum may not be a “sight” per se, but it’s definitely an attraction worth going to. It’s the world’s oldest university museum and houses an incredible collection of works from Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Titian, a Stradivarius Violin, a ceremonial dress worn by Lawrence of Arabia, biblical manuscripts, roman glass, and honestly so much it’s mind boggling. I of course managed to find some cases filled with jewels. Originally, I had planned to go to Blenheim Palace while visiting, but the snow and cold weather had created icy roads getting there and forced the Palace to close much of their grounds to the public.
Dueling Coffee Houses
The Grand Cafe and Queen’s Lane coffee shop’s lie directly across the street from each other on High Street, with the latter on the corner of Queen’s Lane (convenient right?). Both claim to be the oldest coffee shop; Queen’s Lane claiming to be the oldest continually operating coffee house in Europe, and The Grand Cafe claims to be the oldest coffee shop on the site of the first coffee house in England. I opted to head into The Grand Cafe, my choice based solely on the fact that I saw a fairly large group walk into Queen’s Lane and I didn’t feel like hunting for a seat. Walking in I was satisfied with my choice; The Grand Cafe had the most charming old world interior. I sat at a table near the window so I could people watch in the warmth, and enjoyed a very British pot of tea and scone. There was this one particularly funny moment there. I ordered my tea and told them I didn't need for them to bring any milk or cream. The waitress stared at me in shock for a moment or two and asked 'you drink your tea black?'. When I nodded, she responded 'How positively American'. I chuckled, because yes I am American.
Locked Up For Life
Finding a hotel in turned out to be more of a challenge than I had expected. Those prospective student interviews coming to bite me again. Being centrally located was a must for me; the hotel had to be in walking distance to the sights. When I came across the Malmaison Oxford, I got an inkling it was going to be something fun.
The Malmaison is housed in part of what used to be Oxford Castle. The castle itself is reported to be built between 1071-73 with almost all of it having been somewhat rebuilt over the many centuries. For many years the castle held offices for county administration. In the 18th century, the castle was converted into a prison – which closed in 1996. The hotel is fairly cheeky in it’s homage to its former life as a prison.
Basically I’ve decided that there is just something about a historic college town that makes it impossible not to fall in love.