Travel

DREAMING OF OXFORD

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Carfax Tower, Oxford

With the entire 30-year old Inspector Morse series being rerun on PBS and Britbox, it’s time to revisit the city of ‘dreaming spires.’

Coincidentally my middle daughter landed a wonderful job in the UK and now lives in the heart of Jericho, one of Oxford’s liveliest areas. We’re staying with her for a few days.

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires” is a line in a very long poem titled Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold, first published in 1886, in memory of a friend. It extols the many virtues and beauties of Oxford.

With 39 colleges and six halls, there’s too much of the famous University of Oxford to take in at once, so we plan to visit just a few of our favourite sites. As we walk around the city, we poke our nose through ancient archways and discover hidden quadrangles and secret gardens. Some are free and some make a small charge. Some are open all day and some have limited hours. You’ll just have to check, or as we do, take a chance and wander around. Near our base, on we discover Worcester College, with unremitting logic on Worcester Street, where between 2:00 and 4:00 pm one can visit their spectacular garden, free of charge. Off Merton Street, no surprise, we get a peek into Merton College‘s Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle at the university, constructed in the years from 1288 to 1378.

Carfax, meaning “crossroads” is acknowledged as the centre of town and that’s where we will start. It’s easy to find because the 74 feet (23 m) tall Carfax Tower stands on one side, all that remains of the 12th-century St Martin’s Church. If you’re lucky you might hear the six bells being rung. The steps to the top are exhausting, but I’m told the view is worth it if you are sprightly enough to make the climb.

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Punt rental on the Cherwell

We head east along the High Street with the famous square Magdalen Tower an easy 10-minute walk away. Magdalen College (pronounced ‘Maudlin’) is by no means the oldest college, dating back only to 1458, but it is one of the largest and wealthiest.  Its chapel and quadrangle are another spot well worth a peek, for a modest fee.

If you are inclined, you can take Addison’s Walk around the college’s Water Meadow, bordered by a loop of the River Cherwell, or rent a punt for a lazy river cruise. Be warned, punting is not as easy as it looks. Instead, we step into the peaceful world of the Oxford Botanical Garden, across the road. There’s a small fee for entrance and a pop-up coffee shop in clement weather. Plus 6,000 plants, of course.

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The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A short walk north from Carfax, is The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology which dates back to 1683, when it was built to house Elias Ashmole’s cabinet of curiosities. Since then it has moved and grown and grown to its present location and size. We’re intrigued by the current exhibition–Last Supper in Pompeii–which runs until January 2020. The fee is reasonable. Many of the interesting objects have never before left Italy, and we enjoy an hour of examining antiquities dug out of the ruins and ashes of that great 79 AD disaster. In the rest of the museum, there are lots of other treasures, so many that it is hard to take in the immensity in one visit. Fortunately, entrance is free, so we can visit as often as we like.

Not far away, The Bodleian Library was founded long before Elizabethan courtier Thomas Bodley rescued a floundering institution and gave it new life. Like the Ashmolean, it has grown far beyond its original walls, encompassing many other University libraries, although each college retains its own library as well. It too is well worth a visit, especially the beautiful Radcliffe Camera building. Shortly after Bodley’s death, work began on the main entrance to the library, the Tower of the Five Orders, inside the quadrangle and so named because it is ornamented, in ascending order, with the columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. Opposite, acting as a conduit between two sections of Hertford College, is a copy of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs. Nothing in Oxford is dull.

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The Tower of the Five Orders, Bodleian Library, Oxford

When it’s not raining, we take long walks along the banks of the River Thames, through the wonderful Port Meadows, and find little pubs to sit and chat and dream before the hike back. Two months after hip surgery, I find even I can manage a mile outbound and a mile back, as long as there’s the reward of refreshment at the turning point. Even the promise of a good cappuccino will get me going.

The Trout Inn north of the meadow, has a history dating back to the 17th-century, and sits on the river with fine views and a nice vibe. To the west of the meadow, nearby but not on the river, The Perch claims 800 years of history and close links to Oxford.  Both are about three miles from our base, so for now at least part of the journey must be by car.

The wonderfully named Jude, The Obscure is less than 100 yards from my daughter’s pretty maisonette. Trip Advisor names this chain pub “the worst in Oxford,” but I wouldn’t be that cruel. One March, we watch the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (Oxford lost, as usual!) on their big screen and are perfectly satisfied with our pies and fish and chips and the convivial atmosphere. Inspired perhaps by the race, my daughter took up the challenging sport of rowing in eights with a local club, for the summer.

Colin Dexter started writing the Inspector Morse books, set in and around Oxford, back in the 70s and though not a native lived there for most of his later years. The Morse series came along in 1987. At the time I was a big fan of actor John Thaw but now the series seems a bit slow and dated. The Lewis sequels that followed Morse’s retirement and Thaw’s death, were much more entertaining. The prequels with the gangly uncertain young Endeavour (Morse’s first name, which we had never learned) growing cleverly into his copper’s shoes, were even better.

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The Thames from The Trout Inn, Oxford

A year after the final book in the series, and final episode in the TV series was made in 2000, Thaw was diagnosed with throat cancer and died a year later, one day after he’d signed a contract for a new special. He was 60, the victim of a lifetime of heavy smoking.

Actor Kevin Whatley played sidekick Sgt Lewis for 13 years before continuing the role for more years in his own eponymous series. He retired from acting after the ninth and final Lewis series, in 2015, having played the part on and off for 28 years.

Shaun Evans plays the young Morse in the delightful prequel series, Endeavour set in the mid 60s. The continuing success of these characters is evidenced by the announcement this August that Britain’s ITV have commissioned an eighth series.

Around every corner in Oxford are recognizable scenes from the three series. In The Randolph Hotel‘s ‘Morse Bar’ there’s even a plaque to Dexter who drank here frequently. In his honour, we stop by and raise a glass.

How they manage to shoot all those episodes on these streets packed with cyclists, students and tourists, goodness only knows. Perhaps they buy out the locals by making them all paid extras!

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Featured image: The dreaming spires of Oxford, from a photograph at Castle Howard

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This is Nigel’s 258th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous stories.

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