Oxford Calling: A Cabby’s Perspective
I was rather proud of my taxi. It was a metallic brown Ford Cortina GT with a vinyl roof and illuminated sign on top. If you’d hailed a cab in Oxford all those years ago you may have met me: a recently graduated, fresh-faced youngster driving day and night to pay the rent while I worked out what to do with my life. American tourists certainly loved me back then. It was a chance to come face-to-face with a real-life authentic former Oxford student who could give them an expert guided tour of the world-famous city from the comfort of a cab.
Simon Heptinstall, is a travel and food writer extraordinaire from Wiltshire. He once persuaded a 2-star Michelin chef to cook him a meal on top of a Norweigan glacier. Discover more about Simon’s discoveries on Twitter https://twitter.com/sheptinstall
After three years studying (and partying) at Oxford University, I definitely knew my way around the city’s maze of cobbled streets, alleyways and quadrangles. And I was familiar with the names of all the beautiful medieval college buildings, the friendliest pubs and the best places to see students cycling past clutching their books. Perhaps it was even where I began to enjoy telling people about places they can visit. It’s something that I eventually turned into a career. So this piece for Avis Inspires is by me, the travel-writer, coming full circle back to where it all started. And it means I’m an especially qualified person to tell you where to go and what to see in Oxford today. It’s STILL one of the best cities in southern Britain for a day trip.
Lonely Planet’s Guide to Britain calls the city’s famous dreaming spires “one of the most beautiful sights on earth.” Oxford is also a setting for Harry Potter and Golden Compass films, Morse and Lewis TV shows, and the home and inspiration of Lord of the Rings creator J.R. Tolkein. Yet most day visitors find the historic heart of Oxford is a complicated labyrinth. The dreaming spires can become a nightmare. There are almost 1,000 different historic buildings within one square mile. Which of the 40 colleges, dozens of libraries and museums, and scores of gardens and parks are worth visiting?
Well, if you’re arriving by hire car these days, it’s best to start by parking as soon as you can. The city centre is a mix of severe restrictions and pedestrianisation. Use the Park-and-Ride system or the parking around the edge of the centre. Then take a cab like mine, hire a bike or simply walk. It’s a very compact place to explore. Start at Broad Street, the wide area in the midst of the University. The best – and cheapest – way of seeing the real Oxford is to take a peep into college doorways to see the historic squares inside where students have worked, rested and played for hundreds of years.
All the colleges have unpredictable and individual opening times; and many charge entry fees. On Broad Street, you’ll see entrances for Balliol and Trinity Colleges. Have a quick look inside until a ‘porter’ in a suit ushers you away. Then it will be time to pop into Blackwell’s Bookshop next door. Blackwells is an Oxford institution – one of the world’s biggest bookshops with a quarter of a million different titles on two-and-a-half miles of shelves. There’s even an old pub in the middle of it.
Opposite is the ancient Bodleian Library, also one of the world’s biggest. Five kings, 40 Nobel prize-winners and 26 Prime Ministers have studied here. A tour of the dusty atmospheric corridors and reading rooms of the ‘Bod’, as students call it, is one of the Oxford highlights. At the east end of Broad Street, head under the arched ‘Bridge of Sighs’ into a winding cobbled lane. A tiny twisting alleyway to the left leads to the Turf Tavern. This charming old student pub stands among half-timbered old houses and a section of city walls. It can only be reached on foot. This quirky old place is where US President Bill Clinton famously smoked cannabis but ‘didn’t inhale’ when a student at Oxford. Today it makes a memorable stop for lunch.
Further along the lane you’ll find New College and not far beyond, Magdalen College. These are two of the best to visit. New College has a famous El Greco painting in its fabulous Gothic chapel while Magdalen has its own little deer park. Walk back down the High Street, peeping in the entrances of Queen’s College and All Souls, and you’ll spot specialist tailors selling college ties, scarves and blazers. The best view of the centre comes from the top of St Mary’s church tower. You’ll be able to peer down into the gardens and quads of colleges that aren’t open for visitors.
Meander south through the maze of streets leading from the south side of ‘The High’. An alley leads south from Merton Street into wonderful riverside meadows behind the colleges. Explore Christchurch, the biggest and most aristocratic of the colleges. Its chapel is a cathedral and its Great Hall is a familiar Harry Potter film location. Wander north across ‘The High’ again, exploring the eccentric covered market and 1,000-year-old Saxon church of St Michaels. On the far side of Beaumont Street, is the grand colonnaded entrance of The Ashmolean, one of the best art and history museums outside London. It’s one of the world’s oldest museums and is free to enter. One of its treasures is ‘King Alfred’s Jewel’, a fabulous 1,200-year-old gold-encased portrait surrounded by the words ‘Alfred ordered me made’.
The final Oxford port of call? It’s one I used to know well as a taxi-driver, dropping the wealthiest visitors here with their luggage. The grand Victorian Gothic Randolph Hotel stands right opposite the Ashmolean. This five-star hotel has been a favourite of US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Its ‘Morse Bar’ celebrates the hotel’s popularity in scenes from Morse and Lewis TV series. The exterior is modeled on the Oxford Union and the three-rosette restaurant is adorned with college coats of arms. Dinner here is a suitable finale to a day in Oxford. And when you’ve finished, why not order a local cab back to your hire car? Don’t forget to chat to your driver – he may turn out to be a professional travelwriter one day.