Have you ever gone somewhere new and felt like this is exactly where you supposed to be at that moment in time? That is what happened to me after I found myself in Oxford on a spontaneous day trip earlier this year. I had always wanted to visit the city that was the setting for so many stories I have read and place of education for so many people I admire.
I had a very short list of places to visit (one), but what I experienced in that one day was a whole lot more than I ever expected. Come with me and take a turn around the City of Spires for inspiration on how to spend a day in Oxford.
Setting foot in Oxford centre is like stepping back in time. Old brick buildings with glazed windows and cobbled streets hark back to ye olde English heydays most would recognise it for, while dotted around are examples of architecture dating right back to Saxon times. But Oxford is famous for many other things too and I found my way straight to one of the most well-known.
When entering a new museum my radar is auto-tuned to seek out Egyptian artefacts, but the Ashmolean offered so much more. With areas of interest from all around the world it would be easy to spend a week taking in everything there is to see. This is a classic museum with far-reaching arms.
With my hour time limit, I picked up a guide to 10 pieces not to be missed and set about locating these items while taking in as much as possible on the way. Greek and roman pottery, Japanese kimonos and samurai suits, African tribal masks, Polynesian relics, beautiful artworks, marble figures, religious treasures and old English coins are just a few of the rarities to spy.
The Bodleian library had long been on my bucket list and was the one place I wanted to look around. Tours take place daily with additional areas open on designated days, so it is definitely worth checking what is happening on the day that you visit and whether the nearby Radcliffe camera is also open for visitors. The science library is thought by many to house the Bodleian’s rarer books.
Nearby Weston library is the modern sister of the Bodleian and is not to be sneered at. The exhibition spaces alone are a reason to pay the library a visit and are drawing to a close on Babel: Adventures in translation, a journey of exploration in the art of communication throughout history, from the ancient tower of Babel to the modern world. Part of the exhibition included a display of antique books that allow us to track the classic story of Cinderella through the centuries, learn of the hidden language in Alice in Wonderland and see first editions of Harry Potter and J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Tolkien called Oxford home twice in his life, first as a student and then as a professor. It was during the later period that his most famous works were penned. Visitors to Oxford this year will be fortunate enough to see original Tolkien’s maps feature in the new Bodleian exhibition. Talking Maps explores the language of communication through Tolkien’s middle-earth as well as a showcase of historical and fictional maps such as a WWII D-day landing map, 16th century Oxford and the C.S Lewis’ land of Narnia.
The Oxford University museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum are conveniently located in the same area and a short, pleasant walk away from the Ashmolean.
Natural history museum houses fantastic Zoology, Paleontology, Mineralogy and Petrology collections. It is also home to the famous Dodo skeleton, the only soft-tissue skeleton remaining in the world. From the instant you enter the building glass cabinets filled with animals, birds, insects and aquatics fan out in front of you. Around this archways are adorned with historical figures of scientific importance and above are the gentle giants of the sea.
At the far end is the entrance to an extra treat. The Pitts Rivers collection is an eclectic ark of treasure from all over the globe. It is a one of a kind museum and I, like most other visitors, was absolutely fascinated from the second I walked in. The diverse collection began as a pastime of General Pitt Rivers, one of the Grenadier Guards who donated his lifetime collection of archaeological and ethnographic items to the University of Oxford on the condition that a museum was built to house it. Now pieces are donated from museums, auctioneers and collectors around the world with most of the collection on display.
Pitts-rivers museum is very much a collection of lives. A blend of costumes, household objects, weaponry, jewellery, showpieces, models, toys and makeup, it is like the biggest cabinet of curiosity you have ever seen. Both museums make up a key location for those seeking to understand our world.
Oxford has provided inspiration for numerous authors and film-makers. Harry Potter films scenes at the university with A Discovery of Witches series taking place just down the road at the nearby All Souls university. I could not be more excited for the upcoming BBC series based on the spectacular Northern Lights trilogy and could envisage Lyra spying from the rooftops as I wandered around.
The best way by far to soak up the cultural pull of the city is to take to the streets. After snapping shots of the Radliffe camera, I piggy-backed onto a nearby student tour that was taking place under Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs. In a few minutes with the very knowledgeable guide I learnt that Stephen Hawking completed his degree in Oxford as well as being born here, transferring to Cambridge Trinity Hall shortly after to continue his studies. We were shown the signs to an ancient pub and of the house where Edmund Halley lived, the multi-disciplined scientist who plotted the course of his namesake, Halley’s comet.
Not wanting to outstay my welcome, I decided to wander around some of the university campus sites. Many of the campuses allow guests into the courtyards, although this is only on certain days. Still, it is interesting to see the students surroundings.
I can only imagine what it must be like to live somewhere as exceptional as Oxford. To a certain extent I imagine there is a certain amount of blocking out needed, to be surrounded by so many legacies and greats has to be slightly intimidating. But my goodness, if Oxford is not an inspiring place too, than I don’t know what is.
My Babel story – “My own link to the Babel story comes in the surprising form of a recurring dream, way before I knew anything about the legend of the tower. It has become a fascination of mine ever since and it felt eerily like fate that I should be in Oxford at the time of the exhibition. My dream goes something like this… I find myself in a race to solve Indiana Jones-style puzzles on a journey through a tropical rainforest. Each puzzle gives you a clue to the next and eventually I find myself ahead of the other contenders and standing in front of a hidden sandy-stone tower with steps leading up into the sky. I race up into the clouds and at the top there is a platform with an empty golden throne shining in the sunshine. Next to the throne is a big black dog. As I walk towards both, the dog steps forward to stop me and in a loud deep voice, it says one word, “Babel””.
Nearby places to see….