Dripping in Oxford
During the drive to Oxford, the English summer returned with a dependable deluge.
With wipers on fast, water overflowing the bonnet and trucks throwing up waterfalls of spray, I eased off the Oxford ring road and headed into the famous city. The oft-praised spires of Oxford could be seen in the distance, but having grown up around this central England city I was there to visit a few of my old haunts, not snap the classic sights that have surrounded prime ministers and presidents alike.
When people talk about the City of Oxford, they rarely mention the full city, beyond Oxford University’s many colleges, venerable institutions and recognisable buildings. But within the city limits you’ll also find another university called Oxford Brookes (where students of a slightly lesser calibre study), along with the BMW Mini car manufacturing plant in Cowley, a large non-student population, and several respected theatres, one of which was overseen by Kevin Spacey, no less.
The Oxford I finally pulled into was not the dreamy spires, nor the car plant, nor the ‘other’ university, but a dreary, rain-soaked multi-storey car park connected to one of the city’s bland shopping malls. For residents of the UAE, used to some of the slickest creations of consumerism on the planet, a British shopping mall is never going to impress. Fortunately this insipid centre was not my destination, purely a place to pass through; it was midday and I was hungry; the only place in town I wanted to find was The Turf Tavern, Oxford’s worst kept secret.
Tucked away in a maze of alleys is the pub that Bill Clinton once called home. It’s easily found near to the Hertford Bridge (also known as The Bridge of Sighs). The landmark itself is something worth seeking — a romantic, arched bridge connecting the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College. I gave it a momentary glance of appreciation, but moved on, having spotted the small alley that leads to the pub. For the uninitiated there's a big sign with a hand pointing the way. Tourists may think twice — the alley resembles one of those classic spots where a mugger lurk — but a few twists and turns will land you at a pub that's been serving pints since 1775, and called The Turf since 1805. Hidden away from view, it’s the perfect place for students to avoid their college dons.
Old as it may be, The Turf Tavern is a long way from being the oldest pub in Oxford. That honour goes to The Bear Inn, which has been welcoming customers, in one form or another, since 1242. To put that into perspective, people have been gathering under its roof (which has probably been replaced a few times) for over 200 years before America was discovered by Europeans.
I moved on, looking for my next favourite place in Oxford, the covered market. This centre of commerce has seen trading on its land for well over a thousand years. In its present incarnation, opened in 1774, traders operate in the comfort of an indoor space — crucial for my rainy visit. The original idea for a covered market was to move hundreds of stalls off the roads of central Oxford, probably because they were blocking the main city crossroads, which even has its own name: Carfax. For many years the market focused purely on the meat trade, but today you’ll find a large mix of shops, including butchers, bakers, florists, and the usual tourist tat.
Moving away from the covered market, with a plan to hide from the rain in a local cinema, I found myself near The Ashmolean Museum, a place I’d visited as a young boy, but never since. With clothes dripping, I squelched inside, leaving an embarrassing trail beside ancient history info boards. The Ashmolean is the world’s first university museum; it was finished in 1683. Planning to spend a half hour inside, it wasn’t until three hours later that I’d had enough. I’d visited Mayans, Incas, the Far East, most of Europe, ancient America, and half of Africa. It’s a fascinating tour of culture and history, and you should hope that rain forces you inside one day.
As I left the classical building’s vast colonnades, the rain had lightened to a lazy mist and I was able to enjoy the streets once more. A small fraction of Oxford had swallowed my entire day, leaving the city’s colleges, punts, and outlying areas requiring a return. If a city can engross that well, even in rainy conditions, you know it’s probably British... and definitely worth another visit.
BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT
May to September is best, but in England it's anyone's guess as to when a clear day will appear. Summer should at least be warm!
(ARTICLE FIRST PRINTED IN KHALEEJ TIMES IN 2010)