Home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world as well as several world-class museums and galleries, Oxford is a dream short break location for culture vultures and history buffs. But the city’s large student population also means the “City of Dreaming Spires” has a lively and cosmopolitan side to it as well with plenty of hip and quirky places to eat and drink. A city of contrasts then? Ideal for a 2 day escape!
Since it was first founded back in the time of the Saxons, Oxford has played an important role in English history down the years. Oxford Castle was constructed to assert Norman authority over the area following William the Conqueror’s invasion, Bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were burned at the stake on Broad Street during Mary I’s bloody reign and King Charles I made Oxford his base during the English Civil War.
Visitors can find out about the town’s varied history at the Museum of Oxford which is located in the front of the Town Hall on St Aldate’s in the centre of Oxford. The archaeological and anthropological collections of the University of Oxford are housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum and include tribal masks, carvings and even grisly shrunken heads! Oxford’s most well-known museum is surely The Ashmolean which first opened its doors to visitors in the 1680’s. Highlights of the Ashmolean’s collection include paintings by Rubens, Picasso, Cézanne and Constable, the death mask of Oliver Cromwell and a huge collection of artefacts from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. If you only see one thing on a visit to the Ashmolean, make it the Alfred Jewel. This exceptional example of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship dates from the 9th century and is an important and unusual piece of Old English jewellery.
Oxford Castle has played an important role in England’s history from the civil war of the Anarchy in the 1140s, the Barons’ War of 1215–17 and the English Civil War where the Royalists made Oxford their capital. In later years the castle was used as a prison, a place of punishment and even execution. Discover the grisly stories from this era as you explore the confines of the 18th century Debtors’ Tower and Prison D-Wing. Oxford Castle Unlocked guides you through the castle’s turbulent past. Along the way you’ll hear stories from various characters involved with the castle down the years which really brings the castle to life!
If you’re not completely historied out by this point, why not pay a visit to Christ Church Cathedral which although small, is perfectly formed. Although mainly Norman the cathedral houses a variety of architectural styles, some stunning stained glass and several notable burials to explore.
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation then Oxford’s series of parks, gardens and nature walks will really help you get away from it all. The Oxford University Parks lie to the north of the city centre, on the banks of the River Cherwell. There are several unusual species of trees and plants including giant sequoias and Japanese Pagoda Trees as well as Oxford University’s cricket ground; perfect for whiling away a few hours to the sound of leather on willow! South Park is the largest park within Oxford city limits and its highest point gives great views across the city and its “dreaming spires”.
One of Oxford’s absolute musts is a punting trip on the river. Oxford lies between the rivers Thames and Cherwell and a relaxing punt along either is a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Glide through Christ Church College Meadows, past the Magdalen School gardens and past Oxford’s famous Botanic Gardens. Punts are great fun for a group of friends and basic training is available if you’re a bit unsure of yourself!
Fans of Colin Dexter’s famous detective, Inspector Morse will already be familiar with Oxford’s streets and landmarks. There are several guided walks around the city centre where you can discover the locations used in the TV series and books and even visit some of the pubs where Morse enjoyed a pint of his favourite English real ale.
Speaking of which, you might want to stop for a pint at Beerd. A recently refurbished pub that is serious about craft beer and also serves some intriguing pizzas and bar snacks in a trendy environment (including the obligatory faux-vintage filament lightbulbs) There are at least 20 beers to choose from, which would keep anyone occupied, and a refreshing mix of clientele from families to students and older guests.