From museums covering tens of thousands of years of arts, archaeology and natural history to pubs that inspired literary geniuses, Chris Burn gets an education in Oxford.
There is an amazing piece of history on seemingly almost every corner in Oxford. History and, more often than not, a large crowd of tourists. The city of dreaming spires has a wealth of attractions to draw in visitors, playing host to around seven million a year, more than 500,000 of whom come from overseas.
If the pull of Oxford was in any doubt, the large number of excited Japanese tourists at breakfast in our hotel made it clear just how much of a draw the city is.
But while the crowds in the very heart of the city can be a little overwhelming at the busiest times, Oxford is such an extraordinary place it is undoubtedly worth a visit, particularly for those willing to venture beyond the usual hotspots.
My wife and I and our 23-month-old son stayed for two nights at the Holiday Inn Oxford on the northern outskirts of the city. After arriving in the late afternoon following a drive of around three hours from Yorkshire, we enjoyed a quick swim in the hotel’s pool before having a tasty evening meal in its restaurant where we were joined by my brother, who lives in Oxford and had gallantly offered/been press-ganged into being our tour guide.
One of the great advantages of the hotel is its close proximity to a regular park and ride bus service into the city centre.
Oxford’s central shopping streets are surprisingly similar to High Streets across the country but the relatively diminutive size of the city centre means that you do not have to venture far to find the grand university buildings and museums that are known across the world.
Our first stop was the Ashmolean Museum, an incredible institution founded in 1683 as Britain’s first public museum and now host to world-famous collections of art and archaeology that date back to 8,000 BC.
A more recent addition and a nice spot for a meal is the museum’s restaurant terrace on its roof with views over the Oxford skyline. For obvious reasons, it is a popular spot so it is probably advisable to book ahead if you fancy eating there.
On our way from there to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, we passed not one but two pubs with notable places in British literary history.
Sitting on opposite sides of St Giles’ Street are the Eagle & Child, which is where members of the Inklings literary group including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis would regularly meet in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Lamb & Flag, another pub frequented by the Inklings but also believed to be the place where Thomas Hardy wrote much of Jude the Obscure. In more recent years, it frequently featured in Inspector Morse.
We then made our way into the very family-friendly Natural History Museum, filled with life-sized dinosaur replicas, stuffed animals and accessible displays. As a bonus, it is also connected to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which showcases all sorts of fascinating archaeological and anthropological exhibits from across the world, from musical instruments and jewellery to weapons and totem poles.
My brother’s local knowledge then came into its own as we took a short taxi ride to Hinksey Park, a beautiful spot more popular with locals than tourists and around a 15-minute walk or cycle ride away from the city centre.
Our young son enjoyed the play area and sandpit at the quiet and picturesque location, while for visitors who want a bigger splash there is a heated outdoor swimming pool that is open between April and September.
Before heading back to the hotel after a busy day, we had time to venture back into town and stopped off for some delicious chocolate brownies and coffees at Turl Street Kitchen, a social business that supports the work of its sister charity the student-led Oxford Hub. In addition to mid-afternoon snacks, it serves breakfast, lunch and evening meals.
Of course, there is much more to do in Oxford than we managed in the short time we were there. On past trips, we have been on tours of university colleges, including the ever-popular Christ Church.
Its landmarks, the cathedral spire and Tom Tower, the latter designed by Christopher Wren, are key components of the Oxford skyline, while scenes from Harry Potter films were famously filmed here.
Christ Church Meadow, which is open to the public all year around, is another wonderful spot to visit, especially in the summer months.
For centuries, it has been used as a site for sport, entertainment and recreation and was the location for some of the earliest balloon flights in England in the 18th century. Enclosed by the rivers Cherwell and Thames, it is now used more as a spot for picnics and is an ideal place to watch rowing and punting.
Indeed, whatever the time of year – and no matter how big the tourist crowds get – a visit to Oxford is undoubtedly worth a punt.
■ Chris Burn stayed at the Holiday Inn Oxford. Rates this winter start at £40 per person sharing a twin/double room, including breakfast. For more information, visit hioxfordhotel.co.uk