Here is a report of my solo trip to Oxford this month. This was mainly a trip to London (where I still am), but I'll just post the Oxford part here.
Here is a report of my solo trip to Oxford this month. This was mainly a trip to London (where I still am), but I'll just post the Oxford part here.
Day 1 July 7 2012
After a relatively smooth flight, I arrived on time at Heathrow at 0750. It took 10 min to walk to Immigration (with short toilet stop) walking purposefully but not rushing. I spent about 40 min in the Immigration queue and then had the easiest entry into the UK for a while. Recently they have been asking me a lot of questions on arrival, but today he only asked how long I was staying and if I had been before. I answered yes, and he looked through my passport, but didn’t seem concerned about previous visits and stamped the passport. My bag was already on the belt when I got through immigration, and I came out of the Customs door at 0842 (with time to take a picture of the giant Yoda on a sign on the way out for my Star Wars fan daughter. I probably could have made the 0850 coach to Oxford, but I hadn’t eaten on the plane and stopped at a pub called the Globe for a full English breakfast. It was about 10GBP. It was fine, not amazing. I headed for the central bus station, where I bought a ticket for the 0950 coach from the machine. I recently got one of the new Chase chip and signature cards, and it worked fine for the purchase, which was nice. It did not ask me for a pin. I just inserted the card, waited for it to say to remove the card, and after it thought for a minute or so it gave me the ticket. Nothing to sign either. I got on the coach about 0940.
The coach was nice enough, the seats are comfortable, and it was not crowded (maybe 10 people). Do know what stop you’re going to, as the driver asked me when I got on. We left pretty much on time. It did stop somewhere else at Heathrow, but I’m not sure where we were. Tickets are 23GBP for a single and 27GBP for a return within 3 months. I got a single as I’m heading to London via train after a few days in Oxford. I have heard that you can just pay the driver, and people did at the 2nd stop, but I thought he sent someone back in to buy a ticket at the Central Bus Station.
It was supposed to take 1.5 hrs to get to Oxford, but I think that is all the way to either the rail or bus staion (not sure where it ends). I got off at High St/Queens Ln, and I was at Magdalen College, where I’m staying by 1115. My room was ready, even though check in is not usually until 2PM. This was good, as it had started pouring as we got into Oxford, and this way I could put on dry shoes and socks and pants (trousers) before heading out to see the city.
I’m staying in one of the dorm rooms in Magdalen College. It’s not bad. The bed isn’t the most comfortable one I’ve ever had, but it’s not the worst either. There might have been rooms in colleges that were a little more central (although this is pretty central), but I wanted one with an ensuite bath. Unfortunately, I thought when I booked it breakfast was included, but apparently not. Breakfast is still served, but it’s 8.80GBP. I’ll probably at least check it out tomorrow, but I might not eat there, since that seems like a lot. They gave me a list of breakfast places too. It’s only a few minutes’ walk down High St from the bus stop, and you check in at the Porter’s Lodge. Somehow staying at one of the colleges feels less touristy than staying in a hotel. It’s 154GBP for 2 nights, which was a better deal when I thought it included breakfast, but still not bad. My room is on the top floor, which means I had to carry my bag up 3 flights of stairs. Fortunately, I travel relatively light. Unfortunately, my bag weighs about 8-10 lbs more than usual this time. I’m not sure why, since I don’t think I brought a whole lot more than usual. I did bring 2 pairs of shoes since it was supposed to rain every day, and I don’t always do that, so maybe that’s part of it. Oh, well.
After I checked in, I was going to go to the 1PM walking tour by the City of Oxford. Unfortunately, the internet was down and I seem to have forgotten the map of Oxford I thought I had printed (or maybe I never printed it.) I got directions to the Visitor Centre, but with no map I took a couple of wrong turns and didn’t get there until 1310. At that time the 2PM tour was sold out, so I bought a ticket for the 3PM tour. You can book online in advance, but I didn’t because I didn’t know what time I would get here. I guess it might be a good idea though. I had looked online a couple of days before I left, and there were still a bunch of tickets left for all the tours, so I thought I could just show up and get a ticket. Anyway, that left me with a couple of hours before the tour, so I went to a Carphone Warehouse to get a new sim card for my phone. I got the phone from Call in Europe, but they have gotten rid of their UK service and now it’s through a French company. I decided I didn’t want to deal with everything in French, so just got a new card here. I also bought a cheap PAYG phone and SIM for the next time I travel with my daughter so she’ll have a phone in case we get split up or something. It cost me 25GBP for the phone and 2 sim cards with 10GBP PAYG on each. For some reason, the new phone will keep track of the PAYG costs and the old one won’t. Apparently you can keep track online, but the internet is down at the College and they can’t get anyone to fix it until Monday, by which time I’ll be heading to London. It’s 5p a minute to call the US. It’s 5p a minute for a UK landline and 10p a minute for UK mobile phones.
I also found a hoodie for DD with Oxford University on it. I don’t think students here wear things like that as much as they do at home, but DD wanted one and it will be cool back in the states. It was about 20GBP. I grabbed a panini for lunch and then went on the tour. The tour was pretty interesting, but it didn’t go into as many colleges as I expected. We only went in one (Keble), and we only got to look at the courtyard and the dining hall. The guide did explain some of the history of Oxford and the University, although he seemed to concentrate on fights between the students and the townspeople, which was apparently a big thing until recently. He said the last student killed in one of the fights was in the 1800s sometime. I can’t remember exactly. The tour ended at 5, and then I did a little more shopping. I bought DDs hoodie which I hadn’t bought earlier so I wouldn’t have to carry it on the tour. I also stopped in Blackwell’s Music Store and bought DD some flute sheet music. They had quite a bit more than we usually see, and they were having a clearance sale so that it was all 50p and buy one get one free, so I got 4 books/scores for 1GBP. Can’t beat that. They had a little more, but I was worried about getting it all home. Maybe I’ll go back though, because that’s really cheap. The original prices were more like 10-20 GBP each. It’s hard for me to tell what she’ll like and what’s the right level for her since I don’t usually look at her music much, but for that price she can always not play it if she doesn’t like it.
I headed back to the room to regroup and drop off my bags. By this time my back was really hurting quite a bit. I have back problems anyway, and I don’t think being on the plane and then doing all that walking and standing helped. I got back to the room about 6. I had intended to go to Evensong at Christ Church tonight, but it was at 6 and I had not brought the paper where I wrote down the time. There were also a couple of concerts tonight that looked interesting that I thought about going to, but I lay down to rest my back and fell asleep until 8 so missed them. Oh, well. I worked the overnight shift the night before I left and then didn’t really sleep on the plane so I decided just to skip dinner and go to bed. I had also planned to email DD, who’s at summer camp but they print out emails and give them to her, but can’t since the internet doesn’t work. I decided just to finish this up offline and then post it when I get to London and have internet access.
Day 2 July 8 2012
Today was really just left open for Blenheim Palace. It’s really very easy to get to, and I think it could be done in a day trip from London, although without much time left to see Oxford. I took the S3 bus from Gloucester Green, which is the bus station in Oxford. It also leaves from the train station, and runs every 30 min. Timetables are available online at www.stagecoachbus.com . It supposedly takes 26 min from Gloucester Green and 15 min more from the train station. I didn’t really time it though.
I got up in time to have breakfast here, which I did have to pay for, but not 8.80GBP. It is a la carte, and mine came to 4.40 GBP. I wouldn’t really recommend it though, except that you do get to eat in the medieval great hall. The hot food all sits under a heat lamp as it’s served cafeteria style, and the toast was getting very dry and difficult to eat. The rest of the food wasn’t that hot. They do have cereal and yogurt and fruit, so if you were going to eat there, I’d stick with that. I didn’t finish the whole thing because it just wasn’t very good. I started down to the bus station (which appears to be where you would be dropped off if you took the Oxford Tube from London) and stopped at a café on the way for tea and toast, which was a substantial improvement over the breakfast at Magdalen College. I had intended to get the 9:25 bus to Blenheim Palace, but with the extra stop, I didn’t get there until the 9:55 bus. It is 5.50GBP for a return ticket. I asked for a return to Blenheim Palace but my ticket said Woodstock, so I would think if you wanted to explore Woodstock after seeing the Palace, you could get the bus back from there. There’s a bit of a walk down to the palace, and I purchased my ticket at 10:25.
Conveniently, you can convert your ticket (which is 20GBP for adults) into an annual pass, so I now have free entry if I should wish to return in the next year. When I got there, I decided to walk into Bladon to see Churchill’s grave before entering the palace, since the weather was pretty good, cloudy but not raining, and you have to take advantage of good weather when you can. I’ll post the directions in a separate post. It’s not a bad walk to Bladon, and you get to see quite a bit of the gardens owned (I think) by Blenheim Palace but with public right of way, so you don’t actually have to pay to get there. It’s a nice little church, with some history to it, apparently.
Here is what the church says in their booklet on their history: “Although this present building is about 200 years old, there has been a church on this site for over 800 years. .. Henry II and Thomas Becket walked together here; Edward the Black Prince grew up here; Elizabeth I was imprisoned nearby; Cromwell’s soldiers desecrated it; John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, received it as a gift of a grateful Queen Anne; and Sir Winston Churchill, who loved it greatly, lies buried here with his wife and some of his children.”
I’d guess I spent maybe 20 min exploring the church. They have a small exhibition with letters from Churchill, and they have little booklets describing the history of the church and the connection with Winston Churchill. I picked up a couple of those and a postcard for DD, which came to about 8GBP including my candles. Since I only had a 20GBP note, I also picked up a CD for 10GBP with songs from WWII and some of Churchill’s more famous speeches. Payment is on the honor system, so there is no change.
I headed back up to the palace. I’m not exactly sure how far of a walk it is, but it’s on paved footpaths and I arrived back at the palace and had converted my ticket into an annual pass by 12:10. I started out with an exhibition called “The Untold Story” which is an automated tour through several rooms that describes some of the history of Blenheim Palace. It takes 35 min if you go through every door when it opens (they open automatically), but there are a couple of rooms where you could spend more time and then go through when the door opens again. I found it pretty interesting and well done, especially since I didn’t know much of the history, never having heard of the Battle of Blenheim or the Duke of Marlborough. Apparently the whole thing was built as a monument to his military prowess with state money from Queen Anne. His wife, Sarah Churchill was a good friend of Anne until they had a big argument ( I think because Sarah was trying to control Anne) and stopped seeing each other.
After the exhibition, I found myself in the Water Terrace Café, which has sandwiches and hot food. I had a Panini and since the weather was still decent, ate outside on the Water Terrace, which was beautiful.
After eating, I headed back to the entrance to see the state rooms. There were not as many rooms as I had expected, as the first several rooms are given over to a Winston Churchill exhibit, which has many letters and other personal items of his and tells the story of his life. Some of his paintings are also on display there. I’m not a good enough judge of art to tell how good they are, but I enjoyed seeing them. The state rooms were similar to many other state rooms, being modeled on Versailles. The highlight I think was the library, which is supposedly the second longest room in a private residence in the UK. The reason it was the highlight was that (a) I like books, and (b) there was an organ recital going on. They have these “generally” on Fri from 12-1 and Sun from 2-3. There were only 2 chairs, but I just sat on the floor and caught the last 30 min or so. It was interesting as I’ve never really seen anyone play the organ before. I’ve been to a few organ recitals, including at St Paul’s in London, and of course I’ve heard organ music in church, but in those either you can’t see the organist or he/she is too far away to really see what they are doing. It looks like a very complicated instrument to play.
After the state rooms, I toured the gardens, which are supposed to be the masterpiece of Capability Brown. I can’t recall now which Duke of Marlborough it was that hired him, but he inherited the title at the age of 19 and then redid the state rooms and decided to redo the gardens. Apparently the gardens then were the formal kind with clipped hedges in patterns and things. Capability apparently specialized in natural looking gardens (maybe everyone knew that but me), and this was his biggest job. There was a lot of room to work with as the estate sits on 2000 acres. Redoing the gardens involved building a lake, converting a small canal into a river, and planting 10s of thousands of trees. It worked well though, as the gardens are beautiful.
I started out with the Rose Garden since I like roses, although it seemed to be past peak bloom, it was still a pretty little garden, although I think I liked Queen Mary’s Rose Garden in Regent’s Park better. I think we might have been there in early June though, so that could have something to do with it.
Next I walked down to the Cascade (I think I went through the arboretum on the way, but I’m not sure – there were definitely a lot of trees), which is an artificially built waterfall (with real water) that was designed to hide the dam used to build the 154 acre lake. From here I ended up on the Lakeside Walk, which goes along the previously mentioned lake and leads you back to the palace.
From the palace, I headed to the Secret Garden. I couldn’t miss that as the Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a child. I read it until it started to fall apart. I’m not sure a secret garden counts as secret if there are signs directing you to it though. On the way, I passed a display of terracotta delphiniums, which are part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. They were pretty good actually.
The Secret Garden was a nice little garden with rambling paths and many kinds of plants, which were even labeled in case you want to build your own secret garden. However, the “walls” of the secret garden are hedges, which is mildly disappointing if you grew up with the Secret Garden of the book which was surrounded by high stone (or brick, can’t remember) walls with a locked door with a hidden key. It was enough to inspire me to reread the book, which I happen to have on my Kindle since it was free (I think, maybe $0.99) to get.
I headed back up to the palace a little after 4, so I’d guess I spent a couple of hours in the garden. On the way back I passed the Italianate Garden, which you can see around the hedges but not enter as it is marked private. By now I was getting a little tired, so I thought I would head back. I stopped off in the Garden Terrace Café for a bottle of water. On my way out I passed the cinema and exhibition so decided to check it out. It has an exhibit on the Battle of Blenheim, which I really didn’t pay attention to. I was feeling a little too tired to read all the signs. They also had a film about Capability Brown and his designing of the gardens, which was mildly interesting but I ended up not staying for the whole thing. There was another room which I think was showing a film about both the 1st Duke and Winston Churchill, but I decided that I didn’t really want to see it that much, so I started out. Just a warning for anyone planning this trip. They lock the gate (Hensington Gate) by the bus stop that is labeled “Blenheim Palace Gate” at 4:45 which is the last entry to the palace, and it was now 5PM. After the gates are locked, you have to go out the Woodstock Gate and then walk around to the bus stop. I ended up walking back to the Palace Gate stop, but I think there’s also one in Woodstock somewhere. It was maybe a 10-15 min walk back to the bus stop, and I caught the 5:30 bus back to Oxford.
I took the bus all the way to the train station, figuring I’d pick up my ticket for my trip to London tomorrow, but then I realized that I didn’t have my booking reference, so I couldn’t pick them up. I walked back into town, stopping at Nando’s on the way for dinner. I had seen a sign and brochure for an Elizabethan concert at Exeter College Chapel, and decided to attend that. You can buy tickets at the door. It was by the group Charivari Agreable, who specialize in Baroque music played on period instruments such as the virginals, viol, and period recorders. This particular concert combined the music with the history of Elizabeth I’s reign and sonnets by poets of the time, including Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh. It was particularly interesting as I’ve recently been reading a fair amount on Tudor history. It was 16 GBP for adults and 10 GBP for students. It was a candlelight concert, although they just dimmed the electric lights and the musicians had electric lights for reading the music. The candlelight probably would have been more effective in the winter as it was still light out and the light came in through the stained glass windows. It was still an excellent concert, though.
On the way back I passed a sign along High St for walking tours by graduates of the University for 8 GBP. It claims to go inside the colleges and also to show you the medieval city wall. It sounded like it might be more interesting than the one from the Visitor’s Centre, so maybe I’ll do it tomorrow if I have time. I’m also planning on a tour of the Bodleian Library in the AM tomorrow, so I’ll just see how I feel tomorrow.
Day 3 July 9, 2012
This was my last day in Oxford. I checked out of my room and left my bags in the Porter’s Lodge. I didn’t bother with the included breakfast that wasn’t included and had breakfast in a little café down the road. (The Queen St Coffee Shop, I think). After breakfast, I wanted to do a guided tour of the Bodleian Library. You can only book tickets on the day and they open at 9AM. So shortly after 9AM I booked a ticket for the 10:30 tour (which was the first one of the day). I ended up with the Standard Tour, which is only 30 min long and really only includes the Divinity School and Duke Humphrey’s Library. I would have preferred the extended tour, but they were only offering that at 1PM and I didn’t want to wait until the afternoon (although in retrospect that’s probably what I should have done).
In the time I had left, I visited their exhibition, which is free. Currently it is about Charles Dickens. This was only moderately interesting to me as I’m not a huge Dickens fan and have not read most of his books, so the book references didn’t mean a lot to me. Some of the things about London were more interesting, such as a display of entertainment posters from London at the time. One was for viewing a wax model of a human, which could apparently be taken apart in steps to show all the organs in their correct places. They had different opening hours for men and women, and the men would have it explained to them by a medical doctor, while the women would get their explanation from a “professional woman,” whatever that means. There was also a letter Dickens wrote to the editor of a newspaper (I think) commenting on the crowds that came to watch an execution of a couple (whose name I have now forgotten) that were convicted of murder. He did not feel it was appropriate for people to be so interested in watching such a morbid spectacle. (Although he must have been there himself to know how many people were there…)
I had some more free time, so I checked out the gift shop. I didn’t find anything that was really appealing to me, though. I like to buy things that will be useful as souvenirs, not things that will just collect dust, and I was afraid there wouldn’t be room in my suitcase if I bought too much after having bought DD a hoodie and flute sheet music.
The tour was pretty good. Our guide was from Hungary, but her English was fine, and she seemed to be interested in the subject rather than just doing a job. Two of the others on the tour turned out to be history professors from the US, and they seemed to really like it a lot. Just FYI, you can’t take any bags in with you. They lock them all up in a box that the guide has the key for. You can take pictures in the divinity school but not in Duke Humphrey’s Library. I would have liked to do the longer one, though, as it didn’t seem like we got to see very much. For the Harry Potter fans out there, Duke Humphrey’s Library doubles as the Hogwarts Library in at least 2 of the movies. Also, in the scene in the first movie where Harry goes into the restricted section with the Invisibility Cloak, he didn’t really have a lantern as they were not allowed to have a flame in the library, so they had to add that in later with computers. They also had the chains on the books wrong. They had the chains on the spines of the books instead of on the front cover where they were actually chained (most of them are not chained at all now). You can tell because when they chained the books for real, they had to put them on the shelves with the spines to the back so that the chains wouldn’t mess up the other books. They stamped numbers on the edge of the pages so you could tell which book was which when you couldn’t see the spines.
After the tour, I visited the Sheldonian Theatre. This is the first building that Christopher Wren completed. Since I’ve seen several of his churches in London, it was interesting to see the first building. There did seem to be some similarities. Apparently he and one of the math professors invented a new way to hold up ceilings since normally they would have used arches to hold up a ceiling that large. You can also climb up to the cupola which gives you a pretty good view over Oxford. You can also go up Carfax Tower or the Saxon Tower at St Michaels Church, but one tower was enough for me for the day. The Sheldonian Theatre is not really a theatre at all, it was built for University ceremonies, such as graduation. They did have a concert there my first night that I missed, but that’s not its primary purpose.
I went back to Blackwell Music and bought some more flute music for DD. I don’t know if she’ll like it or not, but I figure at 1GBP for 4 books/scores she doesn’t have to. I also found a post office and mailed DD a postcard. I used my Chase Visa card with a chip in the self service postal machine and it worked fine. It asked me for a pin, but I just pushed enter and it kept going and authorized the purchase. I wonder if the postcard will get there before she’s home from camp. I’ve heard horror stories about it taking forever for postcards to get to the States, but I don’t generally send postcards, so I don’t know.
Next I went to Christ Church. You can visit the Cathedral, the Great Hall, the Cloisters, and the Picture Gallery. The Great Hall was closed when I was there. It looks like they close it for lunch. I had already seen it anyway, when DD and I did a Harry Potter taxi tour a few years ago. I enjoyed the cathedral and wished I hadn’t missed Evensong. They also had a video on the history of Christ Church, which was founded by Cardinal Wolsey as Cardinal College, then taken over by Henry VIII as Henry VIII College, then after the dissolution of the monasteries Henry renamed it Christ Church and made it the seat of the newly created diocese of Oxford as part of the new Church of England.
The picture gallery is not included in the admissions ticket, but you get 50% off the entry if you show your ticket, making it 1.50 GBP for adults. You can’t take bags in there either. In fact, they wanted me to leave my purse (handbag) out there, but when I protested they said I could take it in if I held it in my hand. It was annoying after that to see other women with much larger purses just over their shoulders. TBH, I don’t think I wanted to see it enough to leave my purse out there. Anyway, it was a nice display, mainly of religious art. I don’t think it took me more than 20-30 min to see though, as it’s not that big.
I looked around for somewhere to have lunch, but nothing seemed that appealing, so I decided just to head down to the train station and get a sandwich there. I was about 45 min early for my train, which gave me a chance to eat before I got on the train. This turned out to be a very good thing, as the train was packed. At least as bad as the tube at rush hour. I ended up standing the whole way to London. I don’t know if that particular train (the 16:01) is always that crowded or if I was just unlucky. Also, I didn’t see any luggage racks anywhere except overhead. Of course I couldn’t really walk around since the train was so full, so maybe there were some somewhere. It’s the first time I’ve noticed a train not having luggage racks, but of course when I go on day trips I don’t really pay attention as I don’t have luggage with me.
I got into Paddington and took the tube (which was less crowded and I could sit) to the apartment I’m staying in which is near the Barbican. I purchased a 7 day travel card on my Oyster to start tomorrow. My Chase chip card worked fine in the ticket machines there too. It gave me a choice of today or the next 4 or 5 days, so it’s easy to get it starting on the day you want from the machines. Of course it started raining when I came out of the tube, so I had to find it in the rain. I survived it without melting, though. Once I got settled in to the apartment, I decided just to stay in for the night. At least I have internet access again, so I could read the letters DD has sent me and write to her again.
thanks !! ... I'd been waiting for your trip report to start, didn't realise you didn't have internet access ... I'm off to start on the London section now
Nice report. That sheet music was definitely a bargain. I hope your daughter enjoys it.
lovely report, since I'm going to Oxfordnfor a day in October it was an interesting read!
Great report. I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for reading. Here's a link to the London part, although I think most of you have found it already...
Lots of useful detail - thank you for taking the time and trouble to post it all!