Oxford: first-class destination with distinction

 Janine Kelso visited Oxford, the perfect destination for a daytrip from London as it's only an hour from the capital by train and easy enough to explore on foot.

The seat of one of England’s most famous universities and immortalised in Colin Dexter’s ‘Inspector Morse’ crime stories, the city is a pleasure to visit.

Aside from the dreaming spires
If you thought that Oxford was all about spires and world-class academia, think again. It also has a dark and bloody history, which you can learn about in the little-known former gaol and new attraction, Oxford Castle Unlocked.

A prison for 800 years until 1996, when it was forced to close due to its poor standards, the lock-up once housed rapists and murderers. Experience the austere confines of the 18th-century debtors’ tower and prison D-wing, before venturing underground to the icy chill of the 900-year-old crypt, once a storage space for food, drink and dead bodies, and now thought to be haunted by the ghost of a touchy-feely cloaked monk who likes to pull hair and moan.

Get walking
Follow in the footsteps of Tolkien, CS Lewis and Oscar Wilde by getting off the main drag and exploring the town’s paved alleyways on a two-hour walking tour.

You’ll swing by some of Oxford university’s colleges with their pretty courtyards, grand dining halls and centuries-old facades peppered with photogenic gargoyles that vary from squirrels to dogs. The university is 1000 years old, making it one of the three oldest universities in the western world, along with Paris and Bologna, and it’s home to 42 colleges.

We’re shown the spot on the lawn of Exeter College where that self-same fictitious Inspector Morse collapsed after a heart attack, only to die at last at the end of the episode.

Make a stop at Bodleian Library, used as Hogwarts library in two of the Harry Potter movies, before walking through the beer halls. 

On the river
Finish your day and enjoy a tranquil cruise along the river on a soundless electric boat with Oxford River Cruises (oxforddrivercruises.com), following the University regatta course. Pass ancient Folly Bridge, the university rowing houses, attractive barges and bizarrely, fields of cows, with the city’s towers and spires providing the dramatic backdrop.

On the river itself, goggle at students rowing in preparation for their inter-college tournaments and the ubiquitous punts, used on the Thames for centuries. Keep an eye out for the Isis tavern, one of the UK’s few pubs that you can’t drive to. The boozer is reachable only on foot or by boat.

Before taking the train home, enjoy a pint on the outdoor terrace of the Head of the River pub, on Folly Bridge, overlooking the river.

Getting there:

 First Great Western (08457 000 125)

There are trains from London Paddington every 15 minutes from £4 each way. The journey takes one hour. 

Visit visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com for visitor information and to book your walking tours.




To stay: For budget accommodation, crash at YHA Oxford (yha.org.uk) on Botley Rd, which offers dorms from £22, or Oxford Backpackers Hostel (hostels.co.uk) in Hythe Bridge Street, which offers dorm beds from £18. Go upmarket at the boutique Old Bank Hotel, in High St (oldbank-hotel.co.uk), with double rooms from £240 a night.

Pints in a pub

Oxford is brimming with historic taverns and riverside inns, perfect for a pint and a hearty lunch. The Bear Inn, in Alfred St, has been serving up beer to students since 1242, while The Turf, in Bath Place, offers a dazzling array of ales. Student favourite The King’s Arms, in Holywell St, claims its has the smartest drinkers of any watering hole in the world.

Foodie heaven

Visit the historic Oxford Covered market, which offers a top-notch range of food, from wild boar to Isis Cheese. Also, look out for the Cake Shop and marvel at the comical novelty wedding cakes and buy some scrumptious cupcakes. For first-class gastronomy in a pub setting, visit the Oxford Retreat, in Hythe Bridge St, offering hearty cuisine like wild boat bangers and mash. If you’re shopping on the main drag, stop for a feed at Fire and Stone in George St.