29 Jan An Oxford city break
What better way to banish the bleak January blues than with a weekend getaway? We opted for one of the UK’s most historic cities that we’ve yet to explore: Oxford. Known as the City of Dreaming Spires for its 38 grand university colleges, the compact city has a walkable, medieval centre packed with history. From staying at a riverside inn to scaling towers and discovering Harry Potter treasures, here’s what we got up to on our Oxford city break.
Where to stay on an Oxford city break
When The Head of the River in Oxford invited us to stay with them, we jumped at the chance. Set next to Folly Bridge on the River Thames, this Fuller’s Inn lies just a five-minute walk from Christ Church College and 10 minutes from the rest of Oxford’s attractions. You can even hop straight on a boat at the Salter’s Steamers wharf next to the inn (sadly they weren’t open due to January’s strong currents).
Built in 1827, the building was once a warehouse part of St Aldate’s Yard and the courtyard still features the winch used to lift goods onto boats. There are 20 individually-styled bedrooms named after famous Oxford figures. We stayed in the cosy Dudley Moore room, which came complete with exposed brick and beams as well as a comfy king-sized bed with Egyptian cotton sheets. It was the perfect place to rest up after a day of hectic sightseeing in Oxford.
Veganuary at the Head of the River
The heart of The Head of the River is its traditional English Pub and beer garden. It radiated warmth with river-themed décor, waterside views and a bustling bar area that was busy each night of our stay. Although the menu features British pub fare and Sunday lunches, we were keen to try the special Veganuary menu, which offered everything from delicious curry to a KFC-style burger and linguine dish.
The star of the show though was the complimentary breakfast. Staff were happy to make the vegetarian option vegan for us and delivered a plate full of homemade veggie sausages, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes and toast. There was also a substantial buffet section of fruit and cereal, as well as super-fast wifi and the pub’s signature relaxed, informal vibe.
Things to do in Oxford
After all that superb food and a good night’s sleep, we were all set to explore as much of Oxford as possible, here’s what we got up to.
This red-trim shop is located just down the road from The Head of the River and sells all kinds of Alice in Wonderland paraphernalia. As we discovered while touring Christ Church, Alice was actually based on the Dean’s daughter Alice Liddell, who Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) knew well.
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
£5 each to access the tower
This ornate church is the best place to get an aerial view of Oxford. We paid £5 each to scale a dizzying spiral staircase up the tower, which is the highest point in the city, with views of Radcliffe Camera and the city stretching in all directions.
Bodleian Library and Divinity School
£6 per person for a 30-minute tour
Built in 1427, the Divinity School boasts perpendicular-style carved ceilings and tall windows. The first university exams were held here, which were oral rather than written and attended by members of the public. If the building looks familiar, that might be because it served as a filming location for the infirmary and room of requirement in the Harry Potter films.
We took a 30-minute tour of the Divinity School, which included a glimpse of Bodleian Library (also featured in Harry Potter). The ornate library was founded in 1598 and with funding from the Weston family, it’s the second-largest library in Britain and has over 12 million volumes. A copy of every book that’s published in Britain is kept here and in the library’s storage locations.
Wander Oxford’s historic centre
Armed with a map from the visitor centre, we spent a few hours simply wandering the ancient streets of Oxford. Its narrow alleys are filled with treasures, including the Bridge of Sighs, leafy college campuses, museums and landmarks such as the Radcliffe Camera, Carfax Tower and the Sheldonian Theatre.
We stumbled across a vegan market at the town hall, browsed the world’s largest bookshop, Blackwells, and enjoyed hot soup at the Nosebag Café. It’s also worth having a stroll around Oxford’s covered market, which is filled with independent retailers, from fruit and veg shops to cafés.
Christ Church Cathedral and College
£15 per person
Built in the 13th century, Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and is regularly ranked the best on the planet. It has spawned many famous figures, from prime ministers to writers such as Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, but I was shocked to discover that it didn’t admit women to all of its colleges until 1974. The university has a collegiate system, with 38 campuses scattered across the city but the most famous and picturesque is Christ Church.
Even in January, there was a queue to get tickets for visiting Christ Church, which includes an audio guide. Inside its walls, you’ll get to see sights such as the grand cathedral, library, the student halls from outside and the Banquet Hall, which served as inspiration for the Great Hall in Harry Potter. If you’re a fan, you’ll also notice the steps leading up to it and the nearby cloisters were featured in the films.
Visit other Oxford University Colleges
Many of Oxford University’s other colleges are open to visitors at certain times of day (often between 2pm to 4pm), you may just have to register at the porter’s cabin at the front of each campus. We paid £2 each to stroll around Trinity College but you can visit Exeter, Wadham and Lincoln colleges for free.
If we’d had more time, we would have visited Magdalen College, recommended to us by a guy from the visitor centre, as well as prestigious All Souls. Founded in 1438, All Souls is one of the wealthiest colleges and most difficult to get into, accepting just one or two students a year who pass the infamously difficult entry exam.
Oxford Castle and Prison
£12.50 per person
On our last morning we took a tour of Oxford Castle and Prison, led by a costumed character guide, who took us through the castle’s 1,000-year-old history. This began when William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and decided to build the motte-and-bailey castle in Oxford.
Tour highlights included climbing George’s Tower and heading into the eerie crypt. Used as a prison until 1996, we learnt about the building’s grisly past, from its public executions on the mound to the cells of its most infamous inmates. After the hour-long tour, we were free to peruse the Exhibition Wing, prison cells and walk up the mound for views over the city.
Looking for more things to do in Oxford?
There’s much more to keep you busy in Oxford, we’d love to return in warmer months to take a punting trip with Salter’s Steamers, visit the Botanic Garden and explore more of the university colleges. We also didn’t get around to visiting Oxford’s many world-class museums which include the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums.
Have you been to Oxford? What were your highlights?
*This post was sponsored by The Head of the River by Fuller’s but as always, all opinions are our own.