BOOKS AND LOVERS
Today is St. Valentine’s Day and, possibly more importantly, International Book Giving Day so where better to spend either of those occasions than amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford, city of lovers and books and any combination thereof? Full disclosure: I love Oxford and in honour of St. Valentine’s Day and International Book Giving Day, here is a list of ten things, in no precise order, I (and my children) love about it:
- History! Anyone who has read this blog before knows that we are big history fans. In Oxford you can’t help but trip over history.. There are ancient colleges that have been attended by numerous writers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, actors, historians, classicists and all-round outstanding people. Many of these have also taught there. During the Civil War Charles I lived at Christ Church College (bizarrely his wife lived separately at Merton College) where Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll later lived, taught and wrote his Alice books. Oh, and the ‘real Alice’ lived there, too. Each College can name-drop dozens of famous figures. Cross Broad Street and you step over the cross that memorialises the spot where the Protestant martyrs were burned for their faith. Round the corner is the steeple-esque Martyrs Memorial. Down the road from that is the pub where the Inklings met. The place is full of old churches, old buildings, old libraries, old streets, old shops. It’s hard to think of what isn’t historic about it.
- The literary connection. If you tire of historical references then slip into the realm of fiction and you will find a long list of book-related sites and activities. I have already mentioned Lewis Carroll; the tourist information office on Broad Street sells Alice walking tour pamphlets. There is now a Harry Potter tour you can pay up to join. If you are a fan of His Dark Materials there is the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Botanical Gardens.CS Lewis and Tolkein are all over the place, as is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. See the Percy Bysshe Shelley memorial at University College. Don’t forget The House in Norham Gardens. Again, the list is almost endless.
- Books! Oxford is home to the amazing Blackwells bookshop. Although I lament the day when its specialist children’s bookshop on Broad Street closed the children’s section in its main Broad Street store is always worth a visit. We discovered some real favourites there such as Joan Aikin’s The Serial Garden; Elizabeth Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians, now republished as The Runaways; and Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. It goes without saying that there is also so much here for the adult reader. The Oxfam bookshop on St. Gile’s is also very good and is reasonably priced, too. There is a huge Waterstones on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket but I hardly ever get there, having spent all my money in Blackwells and Oxfam!
- Ice-cream. There are three branches of GandD’s ice cream cafes in Oxford. Ice cream is their foundation product and they have a large variety of delicious and unusual flavours to try. They also sell cakes, desserts, bagels, coffee and so on.
- The Story Museum. This is so cool! A museum totally devoted to books, stories, poems, illustrations, reading, writing and experiencing all of these things. Some of the rooms and installations change from time to time while some remain there to be enjoyed on every visit like the fabulous Story Throne. Basically, you (or your children!) dress up in some of the large collection of costumes and accessories, grab some word board to give yourself a title and a domain – The Humble Vampire of the Shire, perhaps, or The Beautiful Mermaid of the Wild Woods – and then you proceed to the regal throne and take a seat. Cue a fanfare and a voice, as if from nowhere, announces you by your chosen title. It’s astonishing and addictively fun for children. I think my children could spend all day in that room alone! Other things they have loved doing is visiting Narnia through the wardrobe, peeping into Badger’s cosy sitting room, reading on the giant bed and joining in a workshop of Twelfth Night.
- The Ashmolean. This is the Museum of Art and Archaeology. There is so much to see! Take a kids’ trail or just wander around. My elder daughter loves the Alfred Stone in the Anglo-Saxon room. My younger daughter hates the mummies in the Egyptian rooms but they are fascinating. It is also completely free to enter, although they do ask for donations.
- The Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Also free but, again, asking for donations, this has a wealth of dinosaurs and animals, birds, shells, fossils and insects to see. It also has what remains of the last ever stuffed dodo. I would add the Pitt Rivers Museum, which adjoins the OUMNH, and which is fascinating and staffed by very helpful and enthusiastic experts, but it just isn’t one of my Oxford favourites, unfashionable though that may be. It’s a giant cabinet of curiosities containing anthropological artefacts from all over the world including, infamously, shrunken heads. It is an incredible place but just feels a bit dark, claustrophobic and creepy to me, as much as in its piles of other people’s stuff as in terms of the exhibits themselves.
- It has a Pizza Express. And a Claire’s. And a whole load of other modern, popular shops. I know this is, in many ways, a Bad Thing but it is very useful to be able to book Pizza Express in advance and pay with Tesco vouchers. Claire’s does wonders for perking up flagging seven-year-old girls. There is also a Whittards, a Hotel Chocolat, Boots, and so on.
- Churches. There are dozens of college chapels. There are some wonderful, ancient churches such as St. Michael’s at the North Gate with its Saxon tower. There is Christ Church Cathedral which has a really great kids’ trail. You can go to all sorts of services and meet all sorts of people.
- It’s beautiful. Yes, like most cities, it has its share of ugly concrete monstrosities, its problems (the number of homeless people, for instance), its crowds and chain-stores; but it also has the river, Christ Church Meadow, the University Parks and Botanical Gardens, Radcliffe Camera, Tom Tower, the view across the rooftops and spires, the cold, frosty mornings and long summer dusks.