August 11-15, 2016: The last time I stayed in Oxford, I slept in Keble college, booked through universityrooms.com. Keble is a relatively new college, founded only in 1870, but I got a good-sized room with a big attached bathroom looking over Liddon Quad, and I ate breakfast in the impressive great hall, the longest, although not the highest, in Oxford. The college was just out of the center, but there was a bus stop nearby if I didn’t feel like walking. It was April, and the town seemed fairly quiet.
This time, Keble was booked, and with a choice of Magdalen or Christ Church I chose Christ Church, although with some concerns about tourists traipsing through. While I would return to Keble, I will not return to Christ Church. True, their great hall is stunning (just look at the Harry Potter pictures), and I got to eat my breakfast sitting at the high table (I assume that the dons, if any still live in college, ate in the Senior Common Room). I had also bought dinner there the one night it was available (the food did not live up to the surroundings at dinner or breakfast). I also had the beautiful and historic cathedral all to myself for half an hour one morning. But that was the extent of the good news.
Christ Church admits visitors from 10:00 until 17:00 (14:00 to 17:00 on Sundays) and there were camera-happy tourists around every time I left the private Blue Boar Quad during those hours. Apparently the same hours are in effect during term time: it would drive me nuts if I were an undergraduate. The Blue Boar buildings were built in the 1960s, and had no view, but I’m afraid I didn’t care too much for the historic Tom Quad either, huge, and all too obviously unfinished. My bedroom was a reasonable size, but furnished with a cot instead of a bed, and I had issues with the windows it took two days to fix.
But my real problem with Oxford had nothing to do with my stay at Christ Church. The place was just too popular. I suppose it has been quite some time since I visited in the summer, and now it seems to be on everyone’s itinerary. Certainly the crowds on the High Street and St. Aldates were overwhelming, and the river was crowded with people who didn’t know how to punt. Happily, some escape was possible, especially if you spent a little money.
Take the Bodleian. The courtyard was jam-packed. But the tour I took had a maximum of fourteen people. Or the Botanical Gardens, where only a handful of people shared the trees and flowers with me. And I had Magdalen College, with its beautiful and historic quadrangle, and it’s extensive grounds, almost to myself. I also noticed that the town seemed a good bit emptier in the evening – I was able to get a table at Nandos on the Saturday night with barely a wait. Given the number of coaches I saw lined up along St. Giles, it appears that many of the visitors are on day trips.
I had four nights in Oxford, but I spent one day visiting family, so only two full days for sightseeing. I started at the Botanical Gardens, which I had missed on earlier visits, and which are mentioned in Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”. I always enjoy gardens, but I felt that these had changed a good deal since Sayers’ time, as some sections looked almost wild, and there were several beds of medicinal plants. I spent that afternoon at Magdalen, where I even got a look at the deer in the water meadows. The next day I visited the Bodleian in the morning, where I was pleased to get at least a glimpse of the Duke Humphrey Library, which also features in “Gaudy Night”. In the afternoon I took a look at the exhibitions in the new Weston Library, which included a First Folio Shakespeare. I finished up at the very busy Ashmolean Museum, where I avoided the crowds by paying for an exhibition on underwater archaeology around Sicily. I very much want to return to Sicily, so I was glad to see the exhibition, and was also interested to learn that a pioneer in underwater archaeology had been a British woman, Honor Frost.
I had bought a copy of the Good Food Guide 2016 over the internet before I left home, marveling at how much bigger it had grown since the early editions, and as a result my splurge meal for Oxford (not counting dinner at Christ Church) was at Branca. I needed a local bus to get there, but it was worth the trek. My first course was a very good pate with ham and saucisson, and the second a correctly cooked risotto with smoked salmon.
When I had arranged my itinerary, getting from Weymouth to Oxford by train had required just one change, at Southampton. But when I checked the routing nearer my departure, I saw that the line was out between Didcot Parkway and Oxford, and I would have to do the last stretch on a bus. This was less of a problem than I expected, as Didcot Parkway had an elevator, and the “rail replacement bus” was a large and comfortable coach. I did find it a bit annoying to have to do the transfer twice more on Sunday when I visited my family. However, a notice at Oxford station informed me that the outage was to allow work on flood protection, which has to be a good thing.