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Trip Report: Oxford, England (January 2011)

Trip Report: Oxford, England (January 2011)

Mar 13th, 2011, 10:12 AM
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Trip Report: Oxford, England (January 2011)


I spent four days in Oxford in January. While I was there on business, I did have extra time to sightsee and explore. Since it’s been so long since I’ve shared a proper trip report on Fodors, I thought I’d post the details for anyone else who might be headed to Oxford.

I arrived at Heathrow and went directly to Oxford. From Terminal 5, this couldn’t be easier. Simply hop on the #11 bus (which comes by every half hour). It’s 26 pounds for a return ticket, and you can pay the driver in cash when you board the bus. I’d heard reports that drivers can be grumpy about receiving anything but exact change, but my driver could not have been more friendly and accommodating. The bus ride is fairly uninteresting, but quite comfortable. There are a bunch of stops once you arrive in Oxford, so the total time to Gloucester Green (the main bus station, right in the heart of the city) is about 90 minutes.

I stayed at Malmaison, a charming little boutique hotel a short walk from the bus terminal. It’s a former prison and rumored to be haunted. How chic! Seriously, though, it is a really unusual and intriguing place to stay. It’s all done up in the most modern way, but my room was in the main building (the cells) and there’s no question that it was a prison in the not-too-distant past. You’ll find lots of complaints online about this place being too dark, and I can’t tell you that it’s not. I think it sort of adds to the mystique, but let’s just say I double-checked my makeup outside in the daylight. Oh, and I brought a book light for reading. On the upside, I loved the rain showerheads, heated floor tiles and the indulgent room service breakfasts. This place is hip, cheeky, and definitely unique. It’s also in a prime location in Oxford, easily walkable to everything in town. They run some good specials, so it’s worth considering. Malmaison has a very happening bar and a popular restaurant. You won’t be short of entertainment options if you stay here.

My first two days were really consumed with work activity, but I did escape for pub nights with some co-workers. We went to The Eagle & Child, The Lamb & Flag and Oxford Retreat. Had a wonderful time. (All restaurant recommendations & details below). I’ll focus on my final day and a half in Oxford, since that’s when I was able to get in some good, touristy exploring.

My one quick note here is that as part of my work activity I was able to spend some time roaming around Merton College. It’s open to the public only a few hours a day (I want to say 2pm-dusk during the week), but it is absolutely gorgeous. If you can fit this college into your schedule, do it. The 13th-century dining hall is quite impressive, the quads surrounded by ivy-clad walls are so wonderfully British and the chapel features some really beautiful stained glass. I absolutely loved this campus.
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:13 AM
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After being released from meetings on Friday afternoon, I raced out to see what I could see of Oxford in the two hours of daylight that were left to me. This included an accidental stroll way out into west Oxford. I thought I was headed to the Jericho neighborhood, accidentally went the wrong way and ended up out past the train station in Oxley. I wish I could report that I stumbled upon some fabulous, off-the-beaten-path, authentically local site of interest… but I did not. I just about froze to death and was all turned around and confused. Hey, these things happen. I eventually found my way back into town and out to Jericho, a hip and happening little neighborhood on the north side of Oxford. I’d heard so much about the great restaurants and shops out here (Loch Fyne and Maison Blanc were mentioned by several friends), but had no time to stop and enjoy them.

I walked back up to Broad Street and spent some time browsing in Blackwell’s Bookstore. Then, I took a quick peek into St. Mary Magdalen Church, which is very old but not terribly exciting otherwise. I headed up to Cornmarket Street, the big pedestrian shopping area in central Oxford, where I had an evening coffee and indulged in some fantastic people watching. From the preppy college boys to the dandy elder gentlemen to the local drunks, there really is something for everyone on this street. At this point I was exhausted and really had to catch up on some final work emails, so I headed back to the hotel for room service and an internet connection (about 10 pounds for 24 hours).
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:13 AM
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Saturday was my big sightseeing day, and I was determined to make the most of it. I got up early and headed down High Street to University Church of St. Mary’s. Did you know that this is the most-visited parish church in all of England? I didn’t until I was on the flight home, reading Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island.” That Bill, always teaching me something new. Anyway, this is a lovely church, definitely worth visiting. In the morning, I was the only person in the place (except for someone crying in the back pews, but I tried to give her some room). Climb up the stairs to the balcony for a wonderful view of the church’s interior. From here, I ate a quick breakfast at The Vaults & Garden Cafe, around the backside of the church and down a short flight of stairs. Then, I walked up to The Bridge of Sighs and around on Holywell Street to see Turf Tavern. I walked up and down that street three times before I figured out where it was. Here’s the deal: When you see the music school on the west side of the street, you’ll be just about opposite a little alleyway called Bath Street. If you look down it, there’s a bed and breakfast. You need to walk down the alley, and just before you reach the B&B, a tiny passageway on your left will appear. Head down the passageway and make a right, and then you’ll see the pub in front of you. Turf Tavern is awfully cute, and so twee all tucked away in the alley. You’ll think you’ve stumbled into the Shire. Even if you’re not going to toss one back, you’ll enjoy walking around the courtyard and giggling at the chalkboard posters the pub has on display. Their motto is “An Education in Intoxication,” so it’s clear they have a sense of humor.

From there, I headed out the back of the alleyway and was deposited back near The Bridge of Sighs. I walked across the street to Bodeleian Library and booked a ticket for the next tour, at 10:30am. I had just missed the 10:00am tour, which was the extended tour that includes a visit to the Radcliffe Camera. That was a disappointment, but I didn’t want to wait until the afternoon for another extended tour. In the meantime, I headed over to the gift shop. The courtyard at the library is all torn up right now and surrounded by an ugly fence. Apparently, they are laying new stone. I think this area will be really pretty when construction is finished, though. The library tour had pluses and minuses. I think it’s absolutely worth taking, because you can’t get beyond the foyer of the Divinity School without a tour, and the library itself is breathtaking, absolutely worth the price of admission. That said, I was a little disappointed that (a) we weren’t allowed to bring cameras into the library and (b) we spent only about 5-10 minutes of our hour-long tour in the library, and only in the anteroom of the library, at that. And yes, I completely understand the reasons for this, but it was so amazingly gorgeous in there, I wanted to vault over the security desk, run down the aisles and put my hands all over those incredible books. And now that I’ve put this on the internet, I will be barred from any future entry into England. This library is beautiful. It was my favorite thing I saw in Oxford. Also lovely is the Divinity School ceiling, so even if you aren’t going to take the tour (shame!) make sure you pop into the Divinity School.

From there I went next door the Sheldonian Theatre, where for the cost of just 2.50, I was able to climb a ton of stairs and look out over the city. Best not done on overcast days. Fortunately, there was a good break in the clouds and I had a lovely view of the skyline. Next, I continued down High Street to Magdalen College, which had a sign up saying that it wouldn’t be open until the afternoon. So, I darted across the street to the Botanical Gardens. There isn’t much to be seen at the gardens in January. There were a few little bulbs making an appearance here and there, but it was mostly dirt plots. I imagine it will be gorgeous in the summer, though. The greenhouses are full of plants, but I wasn’t all that interested. I wandered out to the river’s edge and spent a good while clucking at the ducks and taking photos of the boats, stacked in storage under the bridge.
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:14 AM
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After a very nice lunch at Quod, in the Old Bank Hotel, I walked down to Christ Church. It was 2:00pm and there was a big sign saying that the Dining Hall was closed until 2:30pm (so the students could finish their lunch). No problem. I wandered around the edge of the Quad, watched the 15-minute informational video and checked out the gift shop. When I emerged at 2:30, it was as if every tour bus in England had dropped off its passengers at Christ Church. Throngs, absolutely throngs of people had arrived. The cathedral was so full that it was difficult to enjoy the scenery, what with all the jostling for space and loud conversation in many languages. Had I not been so pressed for space, I would have stayed longer and taken more time to read about the various points of interest within the cathedral. I headed up to the Dining Hall to find that the line to enter stretched all the way down the stairs. Again, a little difficult to enjoy the ambience with such a crowd. When I finally forced my way out of the Dining Room and back out of the college, I saw that the line to buy admission tickets (which had not existed when I entered) now stretched all the way out the gates and quite far down the path. I think the lesson here is to try to go to Christ Church at some off-peak hour. Maybe first thing in the morning, or right at mid-day. I just can’t imagine how insane this place is in the summer, if it’s this crowded in January. The strange thing is that this is the only place I went in Oxford that had any kind of crowd. At the other sights I visited, I was one of the only people there, if not the only person. Christ Church was like suddenly stumbling into a rave. Perhaps I’m being a little dramatic, but you get the point. I was happy to retreat to High Street and head back to Magdalen College.

I’m so glad I made it to Magdalen College before dusk. I get the feeling “dusk” is somewhat arbitrary here, and there was a closed sign posted as I was leaving, about 4:15pm. If you go to any college in Oxford during your time there, I’m going to recommend Magdalen College. It’s breathtaking, and was my favorite college by a wide margin. The covered hallways surrounding the cloister, the green meadow sloping away from the back of the school and the flowers and ivy climbing up the sides of the walls are absolutely gorgeous. As I walked through the archway and into the school, I could hear singing. I walked toward the sound and found myself outside a door marked “song room.” The school’s choir was rehearsing, and standing there, looking out at that beautiful cloister with choral music in the background was a little surreal. Don’t miss Magdalen College when in Oxford.

After all that walking, I was ready for tea. The Rose had been recommended to me as the best place for afternoon tea, and the fact that I had to wait more than 20 minutes for a table was proof of its popularity. I indulged in two heavenly scones and some really wonderful black tea before trudging back down towards Cornmarket St. I did pop into the Covered Market on the way, accessible via a short alley off of High Street. There are lots of little shops in here, and I wandered around for a bit. The most popular stall in the market was definitely the one belonging to Ben’s Cookies. There was a line 15-deep to purchase a cookie, and the smell alone was enough to convince me it was worth the wait. I peered through the glass at the cookies coming out of the oven, and they were big, pillowy things of beauty. If I hadn’t just stuffed myself full of scones, I’d have tried one. Next time.

I did a little window-shopping on Cornmarket St. and then lingered in WHS until it closed and they threw me out. It was a Saturday night, and the streets were crowded with people going to dinner or a pub. I momentarily considered finding a corner at a pub, but having eaten three meals alone that day, I was ready to go back to the hotel and relax.

Sunday morning, I checked out of the hotel and headed back to the bus station. It’s so easy to get from Heathrow to Oxford and vice versa. And given the incredible number of buses I saw around town, I think it’s easy to get to the surrounding areas via public transportation, as well. I’ll be back to Oxford in June, and am hoping to find some time to get further afield then. I’ll let you know.
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:15 AM
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Brown’s- Brown’s is a favorite of my local colleagues, and we had a very nice dinner there. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie, but the food is very contemporary British. We shared a variety of dishes and they were all wonderful. I recommend the shepherd’s pie and pork belly. The sweet potato dauphinoise was popular with our group. Be sure to check out the specials. We had a fish special that was very fresh and tasty.

Eagle & Child- One of Oxford’s most famous pubs, Eagle & Child was surprisingly quiet when we stopped in. We were able to take a table right in the Inklings’ corner and enjoy our Brakspear beer (local, Thames Valley brew) in relative peace and quiet. I walked by again on Friday night and it was more crowded then. This is a very traditional old-England pub.

Lamb & Flag- This pub was packed on a Wednesday night. It’s clearly very popular with the local university students. We couldn’t find a place to sit, but we did find plenty of people to chat with around the bar.

Oxford Retreat- This was maybe my favorite local dining experience. The sticky toffee pudding here beats all comers. It is fabulous. I also loved the warm, cozy but elegant interior. With the lights down in the evening, it’s romantic and lovely. The dinner menu has lots of tempting options, but the risotto and burger were the favorites at our table.

Malmaison restaurant- I ate breakfast here as a hotel guest, and had room service delivered from the restaurant several times. Everyone talks about the burger here, and it was quite good and very large. Breakfast in the dining room was either a buffet of cereals and pastries, or hot breakfast on order. While everything I ate was fine, I’m not sure I would have dined here if I wasn’t a hotel guest. Meals are on the pricey side and the food wasn’t out of this world. That said, my room service breakfast was remarkable, delivered in a large rattan chest and filled with enough food to feed several people. Fresh pastries, fresh yogurt with fruit and granola, freshly squeezed orange juice, cereal…. it was memorable.

The Rose- If you’re looking for afternoon tea in Oxford, look no further. This is the real deal. The only downside is the wait for a table. The menu features a large number of different teas, with descriptions of each. You can order a tea & scones package, a full tea that includes sandwiches an scones, or a la carte tea and pastries. Their pastry case is full of tempting cakes and pie. The space is small and cozy, and a window looks out onto High Street.

Ben’s Cookies- I didn’t eat one, but believe me, it’s on my to-do list for my next visit. These are some big, fluffy, gorgeous cookies, and they are sold moments after popping out of the oven. No wonder there’s such a line.

Quod- Located in the lobby of the Old Bank Hotel, Quod is very popular and was nearly full when I ate lunch there. It’s a casual, brasserie-style restaurant, and the walls are covered with all sorts of interesting modern art. It’s a light and inviting space, with big windows looking out to the street and a long bar on one side of the room. I had a goat cheese and leek tart that was really delicious—crispy, warm and flavorful. Service was attentive and friendly.

Pret a Manger- This is a takeaway place you’ll find all over England. Pick what you like from a refrigerated case and take it to go. Some prets have small dining areas, so you can order items at the counter and then sit at a table to eat. I was actually very impressed with the sandwiches and salads here. They are quite fresh and tasty, made with a variety of interesting ingredients. There are many vegetarian and ethnic options, as well. I do not recommend the coffee, however. If you really need a coffee fix, just stick to Starbucks.

Other restaurants that were recommended to me, but I did not have time to visit:

4500 miles from Delhi (I was told this is the best Indian food in Oxford)
Loch Fyne
Le Petit Blanc
Maison Blanc (I was told the chocolates and pastries are heavenly)
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:38 AM
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Sharing a few photos....

Merton College: http://tinyurl.com/4fq4ekp

River running through Oxford: http://tinyurl.com/4zstm25

Divinity School: http://tinyurl.com/4sumpm9

Bridge of Sighs: http://tinyurl.com/4mrhoht

University Church: http://tinyurl.com/4qdfckz

Beer on tap at Eagle & Child: http://tinyurl.com/4ugaypm

High Street: http://tinyurl.com/4dhk8ug

Cloister at Magdalen College: http://tinyurl.com/4kxc332

Christ Church http://tinyurl.com/4jg43uw
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 11:33 AM
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Oh to be in ...Oxford! Thanks for taking us there via words (and pics). I will be back for my 4th time this June, too, with some high school students on a guided tour so may not have much wandering time, but if a man is tired of ... oh wait, that's another place. I agree about Magdalen College. (Are you a C.S. Lewis fan? If so, have you been to his home/church/grave in Risinghurst/Headington? Might try to see that in June if you haven't. Highlights of our Oxford visits--could look at my trip reports if interested. Once we had a car and once we walked from and to bus stops.) Your writing is engaging, your descriptions clear--thank you for sharing!
texasbookworm is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 06:35 PM
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Thank you so much Erin - I really enjoyed your report. Totally felt like I was in Oxford. I've never been and it has been on my list each time I go to England. You reinforced that!
soogies is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 07:17 PM
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Thank you for the report, hope to be there in April.
Nlingenfel is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 07:59 PM
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Yes, really a model trip report. Hope you make more trips and write them up.
Mimar is offline  
Mar 13th, 2011, 10:57 PM
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Couple of minor errors:

- walk west from the station and you're going past (but not through) Osney, on the way to Botley. There's no Oxley. The "...ey" suffixes so widespread round here mean island, on account of before we tamed the Thames round 1000 AD, most of Oxford used to be a series of islands in the middle of the river. Osney, which you must have walked past, still is an island, prone to floods every few years, and really quite entrancing. On no-one's tour schedule, but highly desirable to live in if you can cope with the flood risk, it's a lovely oasis from an often over-crowded city, though that's not obvious to people just walking past. Site of the early medieval abbey that the city's ultimately derived from.

- Christ Church crowds. I'm frequently in and out of Ch Ch (the fast walking route from the main car park into town goes through it). I've honestly never seen the kind of crowds you're describing. One of the reasons it's more visited than the other big colleges is precisely because it's able to handle crowds of tourists with less damage to its atmosphere than Magdalen or New College. I suppose it's possible some tours all arrive right after lunch - but I'd hate people to start overcrowding colleges that really can't deal with crowds to avoid the one college that can.

Yuo must have just chosen an odd day.
flanneruk is offline  
Mar 14th, 2011, 07:54 AM
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Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed hearing all about Oxford. You seem to have made the best of your short time!
irishface is offline  
Mar 14th, 2011, 08:33 AM
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>>Christ Church crowds. I'm frequently in and out of Ch Ch (the fast walking route from the main car park into town goes through it). I've honestly never seen the kind of crowds you're describing. One of the reasons it's more visited than the other big colleges is precisely because it's able to handle crowds of tourists with less damage to its atmosphere than Magdalen or New College. I suppose it's possible some tours all arrive right after lunch - but I'd hate people to start overcrowding colleges that really can't deal with crowds to avoid the one college that can.<<

Lordy, has no one here ever heard of Harry Potter?? Christ Church doubles for Hogwart's Hall!
Kate is offline  
Mar 15th, 2011, 11:05 AM
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Erin, enjoyed your pics, too!
VolCrew is offline  
Mar 15th, 2011, 11:44 AM
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Thanks so much for this report! We'll be spending a whole day in Oxford in June and were wondering what we'd do--besides Christ Church which is DD's #1 request for the entire 2 week trip--and where we'd eat. Now we know!! Magdalen College sounds lovely.

We're also considering staying at Malmaison--good to get the first hand report. Overall--you'd recommend it? DD is REALLY into forensics and history and I think would get a kick out of staying in an old jail.
travelin_trish is offline  
Mar 15th, 2011, 12:36 PM
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We were attending a Queens reunion and considered Malmaison. We have stayed at both their and Hotel Du Vin's hotels in the past. I just couldn't make the mental link between weekend break and ex-prison.

We tried to get in at The Bank but they only had one room available for three which was their most expensive at £385 a night ie not value for money. Friends stayed at MM, we peaked in and really didn't like the it ,the interior design was fine but couldn't progress past the previous use.

We ended up at The Eastgate which was fine.

Haven't been back to Oxford for 12 years and yes I agree you couldn't argue that many cities in the world have charisma, Oxford is one of them.

Christ Church ? Hog warts ?

They are still very bitter that Queens was choosen over them for The Golden Compass. Good solid Georgian austerity wins every time.
humptynumpty is offline  
Mar 15th, 2011, 01:53 PM
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Thanks for an interesting and well written report. Was the library you visited Duke Humphrey's?
Underhill is online now  
Mar 15th, 2011, 05:23 PM
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Erin, thanks for the great report. I hope to visit Oxford someday.
scotlib is offline  
Mar 21st, 2011, 09:01 AM
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You must be correct about Osney vs. Oxley. My mistake. I was all turned around at that point.

re: Christ Church... I think it was simply an issue of timing. The dining hall was closed for two hours so the students could have their lunch. Then, when it reopened at 2:30, it was mobbed with people who had been waiting around to see it and then arrived all at once. With the Harry Potter connection, it is obviously one of the more popular Oxford tourist sights these days. I'm not kidding about the line to get into both Christ Church and the dining hall. They were quite long and I was extremely surprised at the crowd. It was not at all this crowded when I had entered maybe 40 minutes earlier. So, perhaps it's best to avoid arriving at Christ Church right when the dining hall opens?
Erin74 is offline  
Mar 21st, 2011, 09:06 AM
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Yes, I would recommend Malmaison, especially if your daughter is interested in history and forensics. There is a museum around the side of the hotel that provides tours of some parts of the prison that weren't renovated and gives history lessons relating to the prison. She might especially like that. Malmaison is not cheap and the rooms in the main building are definitely on the dark side, but I found it comfortable and quirky in an interesting way. It's also in a very good location in Oxford, which made it easy to walk everywhere I wanted to go.
Erin74 is offline  
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