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With time to kill while my daughter was involved in an activity in North Oxford, I took a walk down the Banbury Road and into the University Parks, which are situated on the banks of the river Cherwell to the north side of the city centre. Surprisingly as I live just half an hour from Oxford I've only been into the Parks a couple of times before, but on a beautiful crisp sunny morning I was reminded of what an interesting place this is.
**A Little bit of history**
As I entered the park through the wrought iron Keeble Gate on Parks Road, I picked up a leaflet from a holder mounted on the display board which provided some interesting background information and helped me to understand what this big open area was that I was entering. The following information is taken from this leaflet that is published by the curators of the park.
I learned that parts of the area that the park now covers have been used as a 'pleasure ground' since the 1600s but since 1853 the area has been run by the University of Oxford, when the land was purchased from Merton College, with much of the landscaping having been carried out in 1865. £500 of university money was used to plant the area with many exotic species, supervised by William Baxter, the Superintendent of the Botanic Garden in Oxford. Further planting has been carried out over the years to replace diseased trees or ones that have succumbed to the high winds of storms. Initially the parks covered 91 acres of land, with 4 acres then being used for the university museum. Very sadly a further 20 acres were lost to the development of the rather hideous concrete structures of science buildings for the University in the 1950s, but 70 acres does remain for the enjoyment of both the general public and the University students who use the park for their sporting activities.
But enough about the leaflet - it contains lots more interesting information and a clear map, but I don't want this review to just be a rehash of the leaflet so if you'd like to know more please go to www.parks.ox.ac.uk.
**My time in the park**
About an hour and a half in the park allowed me time to wander over its entire area and get a good feel for what it has to offer, but I could have spent so much more time here too - the plentiful benches looked very tempting to sit and watch the world go by or read for a while, but time didn't allow today.
What I noticed most about the park is how alive it is. It really is buzzing with activity. Just about every type of person must have been represented in that park; the elderly ladies I passed who were deep in discussion sitting on one of the benches by the pond, the numerous joggers in their bright coloured autumnal wear, the couple walking hand in hand down a wooded path, the man on his disability scooter and the two people who were being pushed by their families in wheelchairs, the informal football team knocking around and the University lacrosse team training, and the small child walking with a grandparent. I sensed that many people were out in their local area and even carrying back bags of shopping from the nearby city centre, but there was obviously a fair few tourists too, as well as students engaged in their sports or reading books. The park didn't feel crowded at all but everywhere you looked there were people going about their own business. The atmosphere was both energetic and restful; busy bustling Oxford will all of its academia just a few metres away but in the park people were taking time out from their lives to relax and enjoy the fresh air and I suspect, one of the last warmish days of the year.
I've never watched lacrosse before, so it was good to spend a few minutes watching the students playing on the purpose printed court (do they have courts, pitches or something else for lacrosse?) and hear the cheer as one team scored. I assume they were training as they weren't in kit which made a little hard for me to work out what was going on, but it felt good to be in an environment like Oxford and see a sport that's out of the experience of most of us state school educated people.
Several sports areas have white posts at their edges and this designates that they are freely available for the use of anyone; a team were playing football on one and just warming up for rugby on the other. The thing that was most unexpected for me was when I came across a group of young ladies in the middle of their yoga class under the trees - I think that sums up the sort of place that these Parks are. It looked quite serene and no one, except me seemed to take much notice of them, but I had my camera with me taking photos for review purposes so took one from behind, just to show the atmosphere. There are eight tennis courts marked out, although the nets are now down as we're in winter sports season. Four of these are located in front of the elegant and highly old fashioned looking Victorian pavilion in the centre of the Parks. This looks just like it is taken from a set of 'Midsummer Murders' and it wouldn't surprise me if they had filmed here as much of that programme is filmed around Oxfordshire. I can just imagine the well to do Oxford parents watching the students play tennis or cricket sitting under the white veranda on white painted benches, although there was no action today. The Oxford University cricket club has played on this site for 130 years however.
The Parks also contain a croquet lawn; life in oxford is so different isn't it - where else in the country could you watch a game of croquet while out for an afternoon walk. One of the few sporting activities that is definitely not permitted is cycling. Bejing may have nine million bicycles, but Oxford must have 10 million and you run the risk of being mown down by a bike everywhere else in Oxford, but in the park they are strictly forbidden, allowing you to walk safely around the paths, many of which are suitable for wheelchairs. Fishing without a permit, swimming and tree climbing are also not permitted and dogs have to be kept under control, but otherwise you are free to roam and enjoy the surroundings.
My next stop was down to the river where there is a path that you can walk along for quite a while and if you're lucky watch some novices trying to work out how to work the punts that they've just picked up from the Cherwell boathouse which is just upstream. The river is quite narrow at this point and pretty with many overhanging trees and a plentiful supply of ducks awaiting anyone who'll throw them some bread. An old wrought iron bridge crosses the river and from here a footpath heads towards the Marston area of Oxford and a footpath can be followed along the edge all the way out to the ring road in north Oxford and beyond.
Back up on the bridge I stood for quite a while looking out over the large pond. In places the pond looks quite bear with sparse stonework and is obviously man made. It looks as though some renovation work has probably been carried out recently on one side as the other side looks much greener and more established. Hundreds of lilies fill the pond and it must look glorious in summer. Personally I preferred to sit on one of the benches by the more natural river than the pond, but it seemed popular with many other people.
From the pond I wound my way through a more wooded area which looked stunning on this bright autumnal day with both leaves and berries bursting with rich colours. The park is very much like an arboretum in many ways with one of its purposes being to house a collection of trees and other foliage from across the globe. One of my main frustrations then was not to know what the plants were and where they came from; there is no signage on any of them which I found a bit strange.
To the back of the Pavilion are some public toilets. They're functional and adequate and clean, but are the cold industrial looking shiny metal type with combo gadget on the wall that first dispenses your soap, then water and then gives a jet of drying air - not somewhere to hang around in for long!
**Where are the University Parks?**
If you're in the centre of Oxford the Parks can be found by walking towards the science district of the academic buildings. Cornmarket is one of the main shopping streets in Oxford and I would suggest that the easiest route to the Parks is to walk to the end of here away from the High street to where it meets George Street, Broad Street and Magdalen Street by Debenhams. Walk down the short length of Broad Street, home of the world famous Blackwells book shop and the impressive dome shaped Sheldonian Theatre. Turn left onto Parks Road and after walking past the Natural History museum and Pitt Rivers museum, both also worth a look in, you will come to a set of wrought iron gates that give entry into the Parks. It's about a 10 minute walk from the centre, but worth it to find a good picnic spot and to experience another side of the academic life of Oxford.
Parking in Oxford is phenomenally expensive and street parking is for residents only, so I would recommend using the Water Eaton Park and Ride service and leaving this number 5 bus just before it reaches the centre at Keeble Road where you can then walk straight into the Parks.
Walking in a park can never rival a walk out in the open countryside and hills for me, but as city parks go, I would have to recommend this one. There is so much variety of things to see and a river to walk along is a bonus. It is a brilliant place for people watching and as well as walking I could sit for ages here watching the sporting activities or just enjoying the shade of a tree while reading or maybe looking at the gorgeous herbaceous borders. It is definitely more than your average city park and I would recommend a visit here to complete the 'Oxford experience'.