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Day trip to Oxford

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by Kat Parr Mackintosh (subscribe)
Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published August 13th 2010
For most people the name Oxford belongs first and foremost to the university, the oldest in the English speaking world. But around the beautiful ancient colleges is an even older riverside town. In Oxford an unusually large proportion of streets are cobbled, the ratio of bikes to cars goes in favour of bikes, and after 6pm the drinks suddenly get a lot cheaper.

Even the Thames as it runs though Oxford goes by a different name: the Isis. Visitors make gushing statements like: 'being in Oxford is like going back in time', and it's probably not unrealistic to suggest that almost every building probably deserves a blue plaque or two. If you're at all interested in history, literature, architecture, learning or student life and antics though the ages, then it's worth making the hour long train trip from Paddington to go and see it for yourself.

If history is your field then the best thing to do is to blink as little as possible, or to take one of the historic walking tours that will take you past the highlights pointing out the most famous colleges etc. The Ashmolean Museum's art and archaeological treasures take most people a couple of hours to get through, but if you're really interested in history then it's an impressive collection.

If your field is architecture Oxford has a building in every architectural style since Saxon times. Most of the colleges have a chapel or church so much of the architecture is of a religious hue hence another one of its romantic tag-lines: 'City of dreaming spires'. Even if architecture isn't your field it's still worth seeking out the iconic Radcliffe Camera - the round, domed library on Catte Street and Christ Church Cathedral, which is a college chapel and cathedral in one. A good place to spy the city from is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street near the centre of town. From the tower you get a good view of all the spires except its own.

Even if you're not interested its history or architecture, the Bodleian Library is almost as famous as Oxford university itself so is very deserving of a visit book a tour if you want to see the inside. It's predominantly a reference library, but it's legally required to have a copy of every work published in the UK. It's got a couple of additional treasures as well, including a Gutenberg Bible, four Magna Cartas, the letters of poet Percy Shelly and Shakespeare's first folio.

The university has been a key fixture of Oxford since at least the 12th Century but there's always been a bit of a frisson between town and gown. Residents have had to put up with more than their fair share of student pranks, and a day seldom goes by when students dressed as something, super heroes seem to be popular at the moment, aren't embarking on some kind of boisterous pub crawl en mass - so you can see why the history is chequered. A good place to find out more about the college's livelier histories is Thomas Hull House, which is where the Oxford University Student Union is based, but you're likely to overhear murmurs about the recent bits all over town.

If you want to see what it's like to be an Oxford student for the day read a book without paying for it in the vast Norrington Room of Blackwell Books Broad Street, eat lunch at The Nosebag, go second hand clothes shopping on the far side of the river and then do a spot of punting in the afternoon, followed by an evening of drinking as much as you can for as little as you can. The drinks get cheaper after the visitors leave.
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Why? The history, the literature, the learning, the architecture and the tales of student antics.
Where: The trains to Oxford leave from Paddington
Cost: Return train tickets from 8 if booked in advance
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