One of the features that makes Oxford stand out is the parks, meadows and rivers which extend right into the city centre. Situated on a floodplain crossed by watercourses, Oxford has many areas that cannot be built on creating a wonderful mix of historic buildings and natural areas. Where are the five best places to explore a mixture of nature and history in Oxford?
Port Meadow is Oxford's number one spot for escaping the crowds and enjoying nature. It covers 300 acres of beautiful nothingness. In winter, it floods to create a shallow lake and in summer, its grassland is grazed by horses and cattle. Whatever the season, it has big skies and a sense of isolation and spaciousness which is entirely unexpected so close to the bustling city centre. The River Thames runs along the western boundary, providing sheltered swimming spots.
Being in Oxford, it also has interesting historical connections. It is along this stretch of the Thames (known as the Isis in Oxford) that Lewis Carroll made up the story which became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The Perch pub, located on the edge of the meadow in the village of Binsey, was a favoured drinking spot for both Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis.
Right in the centre of Oxford, within the gates of Christchurch College lie 70 acres of meadows, open to the public free of charge during daylight hours. It lies beside the confluence of the River Cherwell, which winds peacefully down the eastern side and the River Thames, flowing along the southern edge of the meadow. The central meadow is fenced off, wet in the winter and used to graze longhorn cattle. You can complete a one-mile circuit around it on tree-lined footpaths, admiring how it frames the view of the grand college buildings. There are also grassed areas for picnics. The meadows were a defence against Parliamentarian forces in the Civil War and the site of some of the earliest balloon flights in the country in the 1780s.
3. Aston's Eyot An eyot usually refers to a small island in the River Thames. Aston's Eyot is not in fact an island surrounded by the Thames but is bordered by the Thames, the River Cherwell and Shire Lake Ditch. It was used as a rubbish tip for Oxford in the early 20th century and so old pottery and glass can still be found. Being surrounded in water and its previous use as a dump provides it with a sense of wild isolation and it is now covered in a mosaic of woodland and scrub habitats. Its overgrown habitats are loved by a variety of urban wildlife and it is hard to believe that you are less than a mile east of the city centre. Access is from Jackdaw Lane, just off Iffley Road, close to the sportsground where Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile in 1954.
4. University Parks University Parks offers a neat and ordered version of nature, with colourful flower beds and interesting trees. There is a pond full of tadpoles in spring and ducks at any time of year, and the River Cherwell flows along the edge of the park. It was laid out in the 1860s as an arboretum and a sportsground for the university.
Alongside the river you can spot a bench with a memorial plaque for one of Oxford University's most popular professors; JRR Tolkien. Further along, you will reach Parson's Pleasure, which was once a male-only nude bathing area but is now just a pool and weir adding a further point of interest in the park.
From Parson's Pleasure, you can walk along the river from the park along a scenic and quiet trail known as Mesopotamia Walk. The path lies sandwiched between two channels of the River Cherwell. A watermill was recorded on this site in the Domesday Book and each step takes you further away from modern life as there is no evidence of cars or city life, just water and trees.
University Parks are north east of the city centre and can be accessed from Parks Road.
These two parks are located on Headington Hill, where the ground rises steeply from Oxford's floodplains to provide views over the dreaming spires of Oxford. The two parks have different characters but are connected by a footbridge over London Road. South Park is an open hillside, providing the best views and plenty of space for picnics, festivals and running. Headington Hill Park is landscaped with trees and shrubs and offers winding footpaths and a sense of being in a rural woodland. They were previously part of the Headington Hill Hall estate, owned by the Morrell family, who were local brewers.