Danny Yee >> Travelogues >> England and France 1997

Oxford: food, architecture, and books

I'm in a Cybercafe in Soho -- my first experience with them. I'm paying 5 pounds an hour for net access, but they serve real coffee (something few places in Britain seem to) so I'm quite taken by the place.

Oxford was a lot of fun, if a bit overwhelming. On Monday I first wandered the city streets, looking at bookshops (more on this later). I then visited All Souls college, St Thomas' church, the oldest part of the Bodleian library, and the Sheldonian theatre. Being architecturally worn out, I then headed off to the University Museum and the Pitt Rivers collection. I only had half an hour in each (due to closing times), but that's probably a good amount. The Pitt Rivers collection is, for the non-anthropologists among you, a thematically organised ethnographic museum; the UM is a natural history collection. The latter is housed in an amazing building -- a most unusual design I can't describe (Vic and Val are getting that postcard), with various animals and plants worked into the traceries and ironwork, and different kinds of stone used for each pillar. Both are single rooms (with galleries) and, though densely packed, far more approachable than larger museums.

I spent the night in Green College (founded 1979, so not one of the older colleges!), which used to be an observatory. Rather lovely though a little on the expensive side (30 pounds for the night, since they only had a double room free). I wrote five postcards that evening! (I've just raided my online address book for some more addresses.)

Finding somewhere cheap but good to eat was a major effort, too. Also, the bookshops were a little disappointing -- a great Blackwells (the best new bookshop I've ever seen, possibly), and an OUP bookshop and a Dillons, but little in the way of good secondhand shops (the best was the Oxfam bookshop). One can't eat or read splendid architecture, so as a place to actually live I think Sydney Uni would win hands down. [ I haven't seen that many universities -- Berkeley and UCLA, Southampton briefly, and inside Australia ANU, UNSW, UTS, Macquarie, and Hobart -- but I think Sydney is way ahead of any of them for livability. Berkeley's famous Telegraph Avenue pales beside King Street. Maybe Boston would be better -- Catherine? Alan? -- and I will be seeing Paris' Left Bank in a month... ]

Anyway, the following day I visited Trinity and Christ Church Colleges, and the rest of the museums. The Ashmolean is a smaller British Museum -- totally overwhelming and enough to give me cognitive dissonance after about 45 minutes. The Museum of the History of Technology had some interesting stuff -- old motors and generators, a huge collection of portable sundials (!) and lots of other scientific tools and equipment. The Oxford Story is a glitzy Audio-visual display which left me wishing for a good book (almost all tv/av displays do that to me, though). The Museum of Modern Art was worth the small entry fee (the rest were free) and the Bate collection (historical musical instruments) was worth a quick quarter of an hour.

After that I looked at the Botanic Gardens and then walked to the railway station the long way -- down the Cherwell and up the Thames. A lovely walk (the riverside paths are one of the nicest things about England so far) but I had to rush to catch my train back to London, so I couldn't appreciate it properly.

Note: In 2010 I moved to Oxford.

On my final day in London I visited Greenwich (the Observatory, the Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark), St Pauls, and the London Transport Museum. I also did some bookshopping -- the only really interesting volumes are a history of Latin America and Zoe Oldenbourg's The Siege of Montsegur (about the whole Albigensian crusade not just Montsegur), which I'm reading as preparation for visiting southwest France.

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