Last weekend I had a nice little getaway in the beautiful historic city of Oxford, which I’ve never visited before. I spent the daylight hours visiting a museum and going on a walking tour, while in the evenings I attended a concert and a stand-up comedy gig, so I made good use of my time there. None of it is sponsored or gifted, and I hope you enjoy this review of what I got up to!
Getting to Oxford was nice and easy, being just a short train ride from London Paddington. And finding my way around the city was generally easy, thanks to the navigation apps on my phone of course. Moovit was handy as usual for finding the right buses to catch and knowing which stops to get off at, and Google Maps was great for general directions when walking around.
The main issue I found is that there are some busy junctions where there are no lights or zebra crossings to stop the traffic and help you cross safely. In particular, next to the railway station, Frideswide Square is one of those unnerving shared spaces that have become rather an obsession amongst some town designers. I did feel a bit like I was taking my life into my hands when crossing the roads there, as I had to just hope that road users would spot me in time if I didn’t see them first. Especially where cyclists are concerned, as I can never see them coming, and as such there were inevitably occasions over the weekend where I chose the wrong moment to cross, and either had to move out of the way sharpish or the cyclist stopped just in the nick of time. I still remember a female cyclist gasping in horror as she missed me by inches, as she just came at me out of nowhere.
So I didn’t feel perfectly safe at junctions like that, and I know people with much more severe sight loss have raised their worries about it in the past. Even the tour guide I met on Sunday jokingly congratulated our group for not being run over by cyclists, which implies they do have a bit of a reputation there. There are certainly a huge number of them, so you have to be very careful indeed.
And yet in contrast, along parts of Botley Road, which takes you towards Frideswide Square from the west, I did find some clearly marked cycle lanes, and traffic lights with symbols for pedestrians and cyclists. So there has clearly been some effort to help us all co-exist safely, just not in the busiest central areas that need it most. I don’t know if there have been any accidents yet, but even if there haven’t so far that doesn’t mean the design of the square is suitable or safe.
In terms of accommodation, I stayed at the Oxford Botley Premier Inn, which is slightly further afield than their City Centre hotel, but about half the price with excellent bus links right outside, a good selection of shops nearby, and it was perfectly quiet in my room despite it overlooking the ring road. So I was comfortable there.
However, Premier Inn’s disability training is clearly in dire need of improvement at the moment, given that a blind lady called Angharad was recently thrown out of the Enfield branch in the middle of the night, after staff forced their way into her room to wrongly accuse her of faking her disability. There are more details in the BBC News article and Angie’s interview on BBC Radio 4’s In Touch, and the hotel chain are investigating, but other disabled people have also come forward with issues they’ve faced as well. So I recommend keeping a close eye on Angie’s Twitter feed and Facebook page as she tries to ensure appalling incidents like this don’t happen again.
Anyway, I digress. It just wouldn’t have been responsible to mention Premier Inn without acknowledging that story. But now let’s move on to the things I got up to in Oxford…
The University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of art and archaeology was founded in 1683, making it Britain’s oldest public museum, and it’s absolutely huge. I spent a full day there, using the map I’d downloaded from their website to wander through all of the rooms in order, marvelling at the many different statues, paintings and countless other objects from across different time periods, countries and cultures. I didn’t go to the special Pre-Raphaelites exhibition that you have to pay for, I just explored the myriad of free galleries they have, which were quite fascinating. You do get very absorbed in looking at it all.
I also enjoyed listening to a lot of the tracks on their Smartify audio tours. Dotted around the museum, in front of specific objects, are big round stickers with QR codes on the floor, so it was easy for me to notice them. Those markers relate to audio tracks in the Smartify app, allowing you to hear someone from the museum talking about the objects in question. They’re not audio description tracks, but they’re still very interesting and enlightening. Some tracks are part of a general highlights tour of the museum, while others are part of a Rebellious Bodies tour that looks at how certain objects have a connection with disability, neurodiversity and chronic illness. You can check out both tours at any time by downloading Smartify and searching for the Ashmolean Museum.
The main issue I found with the app is that, on the menus for each tour, the names and location information for each object don’t wrap or scroll to show the full text, so they just get truncated, especially when using a larger font size (and even at a standard size, anything on the “lower ground floor” has its gallery number cut off). So while it’s fine to wander around the museum and stumble upon the floor stickers by chance, it can be more difficult to locate a specific object you’ve seen in the app when you can’t read the gallery number.
And in terms of the exhibitions in general, as noted in the galleries section of their access guide, the object labels are very small, and some objects are very dimly lit behind glass to preserve them. So while I could read most of the introductory wall panels to each gallery, which had relatively large text and I could get close to them, I had to use my monocular (my pocket telescope) to try and read the object labels, and even then it was still difficult, so I only looked at the labels for a few objects. As such, I didn’t know the names or stories behind most of the things I looked at, and there were some exhibits I couldn’t see at all. But everything I did see was still very impressive, and you can get very close to some statues, paintings and other objects, even if you’re not allowed to touch them.
According to their access page and a page in their Map PDF, however, they do offer programmes for people with additional needs, including touch and description tours, BSL tours, relaxed openings, etc. I didn’t try and arrange a tour on this occasion, because I just wanted to have a general browse of the museum, plus I only booked to go there a few days before my visit, so it would probably have been too late anyway. But it’s good to know they do that kind of thing. Mind you, their access page also carries a note that “during lockdown and the times of social restrictions, these haven’t been available, but hope to recommence the programme in the future”. So it’s not clear if they’re offering accessible events at the moment. I can’t see anything of that nature in their Events list.
So the museum has its access limitations, but they do offer some accessible experiences as well. Some kind of descriptive tour or handling session would be fascinating I’m sure, so that could be something to look into if I visit the city again. But in this instance I enjoyed simply having a general look around for the first time. They have a vast array of stunning and interesting exhibits that make it well worth a visit, meaning I spent a good 5 hours there, including a break in the café for a sausage roll and a flapjack. So I’m very glad I went. You can see more photos from the museum on my Instagram page here and here.
In the evening after my museum visit I went to the New Theatre Oxford to see Jools Holland & His Rhythm And Blues Orchestra. This was slightly out of left field for me, as I don’t own any of Jools Holland’s music other than the track Cool For Cats by Squeeze from 70s compilations, and I don’t watch his Later or Hootenanny shows except for rare instances where he has a guest I’m really keen on. I do have a DVD compilation of Series 1 of The Tube though, which he hosted (and it’s a shame they never released any more DVDs of that show).
All that said, however, I’ve always enjoyed the occasions where I have seen him performing on TV or in clips online, because I like the blues, boogie and jazzy styles of music that he plays so brilliantly on the piano. And when I was booking to see Jimmy Carr at this particular venue, I saw that Jools was appearing on the previous night, so I figured I’d give it a go.
And I’m glad I did, it was a wonderful night. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know most of the tracks, they were all performed really well. The show actually started with a solo set by Jools’ brother Christopher Holland on a small keyboard, and he was fairly good. But then after an interval things kicked up a few gears when Jools and his band came on stage to do their full set.
We were treated to a great variety of lively upbeat songs and instrumentals, and a few slower tunes as well, and several members of Jools’ very talented orchestra got the chance to come forward to do solos on their respective instruments, including the saxophone, trumpet, guitar, etc. The drummer was fellow Squeeze member Gilson Lavis, and he did a fantastic solo at one stage as well. And Jools also had a short segment to himself at the piano, playing a few pieces including the version of Bach’s Air On A G String that was used in the old Hamlet Cigar ads.
There were also some special guest singers, all of whom were very good, including Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals (who performed Suspicious Minds as well as some other songs), Ruby Turner (who did a jazzy version of Bye Bye Blackbird among her selection), Sumudu (who has recently worked with Van Morrison) and Louise Marshall.
Jools also performed a nice original composition of his own called Forgive Me, which is sung on his album Pianola – Piano & Friends by Tom Jones, and this concert tour is partly designed to promote that album. The finale of the concert then included the songs All You Need Is Love and Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think), with the audience eagerly joining in, which was a fun way to end the evening.
The day after my museum and concert experiences, I went on a 2-hour University & City Walking Tour. I was in a group of about 15 people, and we were taken around by a graduate from the university called Libby, who was very friendly and knowledgeable. She gave a nice overview of the history of the city and the university, and told us lots of entertaining facts and stories, as she took us around various locations.
We started across Broad Street from Balliol College, as Libby explained how it was founded because of a punishment enforced on John de Balliol. She also pointed out the Anthony Gormley sculpture of a nude man on top of Blackwell’s Bookshop nearby, which is an interesting little oddity. Apparently he does get a bit of decoration for special occasions like Christmas!
We then went into Wadham College via their front quad, where Libby explained how the college was founded by Nicholas & Dorothy Wadham in 1610. Dorothy was left to run it after Nicholas passed away – yet she was never allowed to set foot in the place, because it was a male-only college, and only a launderess was given permission to enter. It was only in 1974 that female students were admitted, one of 5 such colleges to start being more inclusive at that time. Other all-male colleges caught up in the end, but sometimes it took much longer – the final establishment that voted to allow women to study was St Benet’s Hall in 2015, which is surprisingly late!
We also spent some time admiring Wadham’s stunning chapel, which has some extraordinary architecture and impressive stained glass windows. It already had some festive decorations up as well because, as Libby explained, the university celebrates Oxmas every November, to make up for the fact that students won’t be there for Christmas itself, which is a lovely idea.
We then had a little walk in the college gardens, where Libby told us about the university’s love of rowing – not just for the big boat race against Cambridge, but also other competitions they hold. There’s a novice regatta, for example, which is for people who have never rowed before, so that can get a bit chaotic. And there are bumps races, where crews have to try and catch boats ahead of them, without being caught by anyone behind them – but whichever position your team finishes in for that year is where you then start the next year, so you could have to battle your way up from a low position purely because your predecessors didn’t do well!
We were also told that some students at the university play a real-life version of Quidditch, using a person as a substitute for the Golden Snitch that has to be caught. Apparently they had to refine the rules early on, after one Snitch realised they could evade capture by catching a bus!
After leaving Wadham we were taken to the beautiful Sheldonian Theatre, which was designed by Christopher Wren. We had been told a little bit about it earlier as we viewed it from across the street, but this time we walked right up to the building for a closer look (though we didn’t go inside). There are some statues of heads on plinths between the outer railings, which don’t represent anyone in particular, but are just in an appropriate style for the venue.
And it is a very important building because, among other things, the university’s big public ceremonies take place there. They’ve stuck with tradition for these occasions as well, as to this day the degree ceremonies are still conducted entirely in Latin! Of course, most students don’t understand a word of it now, but everything’s explained in the brochure they get, and they’re led up to the stage when it’s their turn by someone senior who does understand what’s going on.
We then stood across the road from Hertford College, with its impressive Bridge Of Sighs that links its main buildings, because Libby used to study there. So she was able to tell us some interesting facts about it, including the amusing story of their resident cat Simpkin IV who, despite being banned from the nearby Exeter College, continued to stroll over there so he could invade their own cat Walter’s territory and eat his food! So it’s been a bit of a scandal, and a much more light-hearted one than the big political ones in the news, plus it sounds like Hertford College are quite proud of the fact that their cat is the only one in the area to have its own Wanted poster! It’s not clear if the feud has since been resolved, but if you want to see more of Simpkin then he naturally has his own Instagram page, as does Exeter’s cat Walter.
Our final stop was the main complex of the Bodleian Library, a huge institution spanning 27 buildings altogether (including the Weston Library that we also passed earlier in the tour). It’s particularly significant and important because it’s one of only 6 libraries that are entitled to receive a free copy of every book published in the UK & Ireland. Some books are kept under very tight security as well, even with lasers apparently, requiring special permission to get access to them.
From the quadrangle Libby got us tickets to enter the Divinity School, which is another really impressive space. She explained how it was historically used for oral examinations conducted entirely in Latin, with students watched by their peers, who could put their hands up to ask their own questions in addition to those posed by the tutors. So it was pretty tough! Thankfully today’s exams aren’t conducted in that way, but they still require an awful lot of hard graft to prepare for them regardless!
The Divinity School is also notable for being used in the Harry Potter films, being used as both the infirmary and the room where the children were taught to dance for the Yule Ball by Professor McGonagall. So it was cool to be in one of the city’s Harry Potter filming locations, and it was a very appropriate place to finish a very enjoyable tour.
Overall, therefore, we saw a great selection of beautiful and interesting places, and the fact that so many of Libby’s historical accounts and stories have stuck in my mind goes to show how engaging she was. So if I visit the city again in the future, I’ll be very tempted to look into their other guided tours, as there’s so much to see and learn about.
After grabbing some lunch I then went for a random walk of my own during the afternoon, to have a general look around, passing various sights including the Radcliffe Camera (another library), Oxford Castle & Prison (which sounds like another interesting museum to visit), the Royal Oxford Hotel and Saïd Business School (both on Frideswide Square), the Oxford Canal (where it flows parallel to the Castle Mill Stream arm of the River Thames), Worcester College (another part of the university) and The Randolph Hotel (opposite the Ashmolean Museum).
Plus I saw lots of shops and businesses of course. George Street, for example, has a Wetherspoons pub wonderfully named The Four Candles as a loving tribute to Ronnie Barker, who went to the city’s High School For Boys. Meanwhile, down the road, Oxford Asset Management have a job advert cleverly written as a computer script in their window. And I also had a stroll through Cornmarket Street, Queen Street and the big Westgate shopping centre (where they have lots of lovely Christmas decorations up).
So I had plenty to look at during my leisurely stroll, and I know there are all sorts of other places I missed, as it would be impossible to see everything in one afternoon. There’s a lot that I can still check out when I inevitably return to the city at a later date, it is an amazing place.
My weekend finished with another visit to the New Theatre Oxford to see Jimmy Carr performing his show Terribly Funny 2.0. It’s been 10 years since I last saw him live, so it was long overdue, but well worth the wait. He was very funny as usual, with jokes that are often rude or taboo, about all sorts of people and situations. He’s an ‘equal opportunities offender’ in that sense, he doesn’t leave anyone out.
And they are just jokes at the end of the day. He makes it clear at the start that he will make jokes about terrible things, even terrible situations that may have happened to people in the audience, but they’re not the terrible things themselves. And the people who have booked to see him know that already – you’re well aware of what to expect when you go to one of his shows. So there were a few jokes about disability, for example, and I found them very funny – but equally I would never repeat them here, because it’s not the place for them. It’s all about the context of the joke and the environment in which it’s told.
The fact that he’s now a father also came up quite often, as it’s given him a fresh avenue to go down with his material, and it was clear that he has genuine respect and admiration for the incredibly hard work that mothers do.
There was also some enjoyable audience interaction as usual, as Jimmy spoke to a few different people, ranging from a young lad to an older lady, and he made his opinions very clear when he discovered there was an anti-vaxxer in the upper circle. But there was also the opportunity for people to text in messages, jokes and heckles to a special number, and Jimmy went through quite a lot of them after concluding his main set.
Several people had sent in very amusing gags, but there were also a couple of very moving messages from audience members who were dealing with the loss of friends or loved ones, and were thus grateful that they were able to get out and have a good time at the show, and Jimmy was genuinely sympathetic in response. He is a really nice guy, which I can testify to from when I met him at the show I saw a decade ago. He wasn’t meeting people after the show on this occasion as far as I was aware, and he may have had to stop doing that since the pandemic started, but that didn’t matter – it’s the comedy you go to see him for, and as always he didn’t disappoint, it was a lot of fun. I’ll have to make sure it’s not another 10 years before I see him again this time!
So there you go, that was my busy weekend in Oxford, I hope you enjoyed reading about it all and looking through the photos. Other than having to dodge cyclists and not being able to read the object labels in the museum, there weren’t any other problems and I had a wonderful time all in all. I also know that I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s on offer there, so I will certainly try and visit again at some point to see more of the place.
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