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Member Name: a-true-ben
Oxford in General
Date: 05/11/02, updated on 05/11/02 (305 review reads)
Advantages: Attractive, cultured city
Disadvantages: Expensive, quiet
My perspective on Oxford is not quite the same as on Colchester. I haven’t lived there all my life, but I have been studying in Oxford for the last two years. That only amounts to about a year in the city, but means I’ve tried quite a few of the attractions and know a fair bit about the University, one of the main tourist attractions, and the one I’ll begin with, after dealing with:
Oxford’s in the midlands, in the county of Oxfordshire. It’s about an hour from London to the train, from Paddington Station. Better still, catch the regular Oxford Tube coaches, which run 24 hours a day, and at six minute intervals in peak times – they take about an hour and a half to two hours but cost a reasonable £6 (one way). The main road links are the A40 and A34, and you're likely to come in along Botley Road (from the west), Woodstock or Banbury Road (north), London/Headington Road (north-east), Cowley Road (south-east) or Abingdon Road (south).
This isn’t an academic-y overview of the University, for that you might like to see my opinion on Oxford University (which contains some details on all the colleges, unions, applications, etc). The fact remains, however, that the University is central to city life. Oxford University has a better international reputation than Cambridge and, as well as students, attracts tourists from all over the world. Postcards of the colleges and university clothing are available from shops all over the city – try Broad Street or the High Street for starters.
Guided tours of colleges and university buildings are regularly available in summer (try catching a tour from Broad Street or Radcliffe Square). I’ve always meant to go on one (prices about £5 for a one-two hour walking tour) or one of the open top bus tours (allegedly free if wearing the ‘sub-fusc’ academic dress – suit, cap, gown). It has t
o be said I’ve overheard guides making up some pretty hilarious stuff (all this time I thought our bar was below the library, not in the kitchen, but what would I know eh?).
Some sites that might be worth seeing include (you’ll need a map to find these – most have colleges marked on, so I’ll just guide you to which colleges are worth seeing):
Jesus College – this is the only Elizabethan college and one of three on Turl Street – it’s the one on the right if you come from Broad Street. Nothing special visually, unless you can get in the ‘great’ (read ‘dining’) hall and see the portrait of Elizabeth I (painted from life and reputedly near priceless) over high table. Main points of interest – well, it’s where I go really, but that’s only for another year.
Christ Church College – Probably the largest, richest and most famous. Some of Harry Potter was filmed here, and it was also the home of Alice (in Wonderland). You won’t be allowed in by the custodians on the gate, but just try walking round from the front gate on St Aldates to the back in Oriel Square – it’s massive, no wonder I was once able to find my tutor’s room on a map! There’s a tourist information board on St Aldates, next to an entrance to Christ Church meadow – not many cities can boast such an expanse of greenery so near the centre, and you can walk down to the river (Cherwell, which runs into the Thames) where in the summer you’ll see Pimms and boating. Oh, and there’s a cathedral in Christ Church too!
Keble – A little way up north, Keble is easily left off tours of the city centre colleges, but its red brick design stands out for visitors. Has the largest hall of any college – deliberately made about a foot larger than Christ Church’s ;)
Magdalen – Head down the High Street towards Cowley, a slightly r
ough student area, home of many bars and takeaways, and you’ll cross Magdalen bridge – and can hardly fail to spot the college and its tower. Normally no more special than many other colleg
es you could see, on Mayday a choir gathers at the top of the tower to sing in dawn. Joining the crowd of drunken revellers at 6am is particularly recommended. Hanging around for lectures afterwards isn’t – even if the nearby exam schools are very impressive.
Radcliffe Camera – Shaped like a huge breast (in response no doubt to the many phallic towers surrounding it) this economically combines tourist attraction and history library... Ok, I’ve walked past so many times I probably take it for granted, but I do recommend a trip to Radcliffe Square, where you can see both the Camera and side of All Souls College and the University Church.
Bodleian Library – Not much to see really, but again world famous. A British catalogue library, it holds every books printed in the country – although many are actually stored in the nearby village of Nuneham or in underground stacks and only available on order. Books that are available are not for lending or for the public anyway. The best bits to see, if you’re still really interested, are at the east end of Broad Street – the old building on your right and new on the left if you’ve just come down Broad Street. Not a bad spot to sit outside in summer.
Ashmolean Museum – Just on the corner of Beaumont Street I can hardly say the university museum is the most interesting collection I’ve ever seen. It houses paintings and numerous old relics from various periods/places so given that it’s free (donations gratefully accepted) it may be worth a look to kill a few hours. At least you can always go in just to use the gift shop ;)
Obviously I’ve left off loads of colleges off, the union and goodness knows how much else. If you
really are keen on the university, take one of the tours. I’m moving on to the other stuff…
The main shopping street is undoubtedly Cornmarket Street – home to Burger King (recently re-fitted with an opening front window, to allow a Parisian street café feel in summer!), McDonalds, Virgin, HMV, Waterstones (on the corner of Broad Street), W H Smiths, Miss Selfridge, occasional street traders and more. Opposite Market Street is the Clarendon shopping centre, which houses plenty of clothes shops, including Gap.
To the north end there’s Broad Street – home of several colleges, some small newsagents and most notably Blackwells (bookshop). George Street, running to the west, has many cafes and pubs – including Yeats, Wig & Pen, Pizza Hut, Bella Pasta and more – and it heads off towards the rail station, Park End nightclub and more in that direction. Further north brings you to the Ashmolean museum, Borders bookshop and a Sainsburys local (open 7-11 weekdays but overpriced).
The south end of Cornmarket Street is marked by Carfax Tower, the traditional marker of the city centre. The High Street runs to the east all the way as far as Cowley Road, but it isn’t as exciting as Cornmarket. In the opposite direction Queen Street has BHS, Marks and Spencer and (just about) Argos – as well as running down to the Westgate shopping centre (containing another city centre Sainsburys, larger than the local, and a several of the few cheap shops in Oxford, such as the Works).
The one other notable feature of the city centre is the covered market – housed between Cornmarket Street, Market Street, Turl Street and the High Street (conveniently next to Jesus College). Here you can buy fresh fruit and veg, or even meat (beware the carcasses hanging outside the butcher’s). There are key cutters, flower shops, clothing shops, a stereotypical second hand book shop and several c
Generally I think the shopping is about par for a large town/small city. Nothing compared to, say, London or Birmingham but perfectly adequate for most purposes. Unlike my home town of Colchester, there aren’t so many cheap shops, which is a shame for the students. There are three branches of the Works though – in the Westgate Centre, on Cornmarket Street and on the High Street.
There are plenty of cafes in the centre, but perhaps not so many proper restaurants. If you don’t fancy fast food, you can eat in most of the pubs – such as Wig & Pen (George Street) or Beefeater in the Mitre (corner of High Street and Turl Street). There are lots of restaurants down George Street too – I particularly recommend a little Italian pizza place I can’t remember the name of right now. Or heading north up St Giles the Chinese restaurant ‘Wok 23’ (formerly Wok 22, formerly Friends) is also popular.
My favourite recommendation though is the Radcliffe Arms. A little out of the way, it’s in the suburb of Jericho, off to the west of Woodstock Road (down Observatory Strret). Nothing fancy, but decent pub food for around £3 a meal – although the drinks are a little pricey.
After about 6 until the early hours, numerous kebab vans will appear. I’d only risk chips, or perhaps baked potato. I recommend Hassans (on Broad Street) or the Roving Gourmet (normally on St Giles) for its extra large chips (an extra 20p for quite a few more). And on the subject of pubs (and clubs)…
It may surprise you I don’t have much to offer here – because for the most part I stick to the College/Union bar etc… Any of the various chain pubs will be about normal, and offer more of a towny feel (rather than being full of students). The Turl (on Turl Street) isn’t particularly recommended, but the Turf (hidden down a back alley …) is
, especially for real ale and roasting marshmallows outside in the summer. If you’re not drinking, the Royal Oak at the bottom of Woodstock Road does half a lemonade for just 40p.
Popular student clubs are Park End (down Park End street) or The Studio (formerly ‘Fifth Avenue’, still colloquially ‘Filth’). Slightly better is Po Na Na on St Giles. There’s also the Cellar, just off Cornmarket Street, which hosts everything from drum & bass and hip-hop to goth. The best venue’s almost definitely the Zodiac – a bit of a trek down Cowley Road, but it brings an impressive roster of bands, plus a variety of club nights – dance, indie, rock and the infamous student nights.
Living in Oxford
There’s a distinct town/gown split in Oxford. Perhaps this is so in many university towns, but with the pompous mostly upper class students up to all sorts, no wonder the other denizens sometimes find them (us) quite a lot to put up with. Back in the Middle Ages, this sometimes erupted in violence – such as the Turl Street Riots. The University’s no longer quite as important to the city (read: we no longer run it) and relations are, in my experience, generally good as long as you don’t ask for trouble.
The city centre’s dominated by the colleges, which still own a large part of the land. These restrict shops and residence – 90% of the central ward are students. Central roads are mostly closed to traffic – except buses, cycles and taxis; visitors are strongly recommended to use the park and ride system to avoid the nightmare of one way streets and traffic calming humps (constantly put in and removed).
Oxford strikes me as a nice place to live. It has all the facilities of a city, but also plenty of greenery – Christ Church meadow to the south and University Parks to the north. The attractions will probably appeal most to those who prefer a quiet,
academic lifestyle – excellent libraries and museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers. Because college bars aren’t open to the public, the nightlife leaves some to be desired, particularly if you
r tastes aren’t for cheesy pop. Still amusements can be found – such as the two Odeon cinemas, or the Phoenix arthouse cinema, plenty of attractive cafes and markets. It’s a rather pricey place to live unfortunately, especially if you want a large or fairly central house – hence many students are forced to the outskirts (Woodstock Road, Botley Road and, of course, the Cowley area).
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