John has been on his annual getaway, where he and some friends rent a cottage and play board games for the week. Which means I started Horizon Zero Dawn which is very pretty so far, and marathoned all of Bojack Horseman which stars off okay and is just fantastic and devastating by season 4 (but also very funny!).
I decided on a daytrip in his absence, to avoid cabin fever. Plan A was a visit to Watership Down, but despite its proximity as the crow flies it’s difficult to reach via public transit from Southampton. Plan B was checking out cheap Megabus tickets, and Oxford was a mere £7.10 roundtrip! Another bonus is that Liz Batty lives in Oxford, something I knew but had completely forgotten, and was kind enough to offer herself up a tour guide.
I arrived at the city centre at 9:30am and my bus back was 5:25pm, giving me a solid day to poke around. My knowledge of Oxford is minimal; I knew there were famous museums/libraries associated with the University and about the Inklings, but little beyond that. I figured that for a short visit with a local to show me around I could dispense with my usual obsessive researching.
I started with coffee and a croissant at a place called Morton, which advertised a real log fire. It was tasty and comfy and prepared me for the bracingly cold day. Then a look at the map suggested the Covered Market was on the way to the Ashmolean, so that became my plan for the morning.
The market is a nice mix of shops selling crafts, gifts, and food. There was one long stall with jewellery by a bunch of different people and I saw about a dozen things I would have bought on the spot had I the cash. There was a traditional butcher with entire boars hanging outside, and a very tempting cheese stall. I had a happy mosey through the stalls before continuing to the Ashmolean.
I had till twelve thirty before meeting up with Liz, so I started on the top floor and had a freeform wander from one interesting bit to the next. I saw the Alfred Jewel (or a replica, the real thing was on loan) and a bunch of artefacts from early English history, and then a lot of European art. As noon approached I made my way to the Pre-Raphaelites room. The highlights for me there were the two big pieces of furniture; The Prioress’ Tale Wardrobe painted by Burne-Jones and the Great Bookcase painted by multiple artists from the brotherhood.
I went back down to the ground floor and waited among the Roman statues for Liz to arrive. This gave me the opportunity to spot what is now my all-time favourite museum caption;
Neither of us had eaten lunch so our first stop was at Natural Bread, where we both had a warm, delicious chickpea stew and I bought a massive sourdough loaf to take home. Then we wandered through the Christmas Market to look at all the pretty things and say hi to a friend of hers with a stall there. We each bought a book at the Oxfam charity bookshop and then proceeded to the Bodleian. They have a very clever set up where there are two smallish exhibitions side by side, one a rotating selection of from their permanent collection called Treasures of the Bodleian, and the other a special exhibit of some type. Each takes probably half an hour to see, maybe an hour if you’re thorough.
Treasures has a fun conceit; it displays major items from the collection, a Magna Carta, a First Folio, a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, each paired up with another item. The connections can be quite whimsical; the Magna Carta has small holes from where mice ate bits of it over the centuries and is thus displayed beside a tiny manuscript so small it is worn as a pendant, and whose owner worried it might be “carried away by a mouse”. Other standout items; a wonderfully illustrated Letter from Father Christmas by Tolkien and a personal letter from Mary Wollstonecraft to her future husband.
The temporary exhibit next door is called Designing English and it looks at early English language in its written form, primarily how it was designed and laid out. It was interesting to see it first show up in Latin texts as very much the poor relation, mostly as a necessity when transcribing folk songs or recipes that didn’t make sense to translate. I was amused to find the Alfred Jewel on display here, as an example of English text appearing on objects rather than manuscripts.
There was also a bonus exhibit in the lobby, called The Full Picture: Oxford in Portraits which is a nice glimpse into the institution. Top notch giftshop too, with some nice designs based on items in their collections.
The plan next was to tour some university buildings, but most were hosting holiday events so instead we took advantage of the remaining light to wander between them outside. “City of dreaming spires” is a very apt description, even on a cold, gray afternoon it’s a beautiful city.
By now it was nearing the end of my excursion, so we popped into Blackwell’s Bookshop whose Norrington Room is apparently the largest single room selling books in the world and then went to The Eagle and Child, famous as the watering hole for the Inklings. I couldn’t very well go to Oxford and not stop in, despite being worried it would be a tourist trap. But in fact, it’s a pretty cozy traditional pub with real ale, nice looking food, and hardly any exploitation of its famous associations. It was packed to the gills, but someone was vacating their table and kindly pointed us towards it, so we had a nice pint and chat for the last half hour before it was time to get my bus.