I’ve been on a jaunt this week. I got the chance to go to Oxford on a course for work which was really useful but very gruelling. I also got the chance to spend a bit of time in Oxford too before the course started thanks to a day of holiday which I booked. I love walking round cities. There’s so much more to see than in the countryside. The urban landscape changes more quickly. Walk up a hill for ages and you see the other side of the hill, eventually. Walk round a corner in a city and there’s a constant supply of people and buildings to entertain me at each turn. It appeals to my impatience and need to see and do more constantly.
Oxford, to me, seems like a foreign tourist’s idea of Englishness all crammed into one churchy, scholarly city. The buildings are regal and stately, people wear tweed jackets, flannels and boaters and (had it not been raining constantly since last summer, preventing this) people loll about in pastoral scenes quaffing Pimms and nibbling cucumber sandwiches. There are scores of earnest faced young people with furrowed brows looking intelligent and a tad otherworldly with a disregard for image. Older men wander about in improbable coloured trousers (a sure sign of the English Upper Classes). Bicycles abound, chained to anything that doesn’t move. They don’t tend to be racy models either but battered old things with baskets on the front to carry one’s books in. High tea is readily available in the afternoons. In short, it feels like you’re entering a walking cliché.
Scratch the surface slightly more and you’ll see that Oxford actually represents England’s current climate in a more realistic way. The small independent shops and cafes are dwindling and every other shop seems to be a chain restaurant or store. There’s enough Costa coffee available to drown yourself in. The streets at night are scattered with homeless people at brief intervals and the quaint old churchyards are hosting groups of street drinkers. I’m not being snobbish about it. I actually ended up eating in a chain place myself. I always intend not to and then get flustered by choice and familiarity sucks me in. Damn those marketing ploys.
Small sights please me. I was delighted to see a flock of Buddhist monks cramming themselves into the Ashmolean Museum via a revolving door. They created a blur of orange robes as they whirled through, cracked smiles beaming on improbably happy faces. I enjoyed a coffee in a very tatty cafe which was staffed entirely by Italian men and littered with old 1950s signage. They amused me with their posturing and their over loud appreciation of a photo of a shapely girl in a magazine. It felt right that they should be so stereotypical. Stereotypes are so comforting.
The paintings in the Ashmolean made me laugh to myself especially a Stanley Spencer which showed his wife and two children in a field of cows (see below). The children are about to become airborne and the whole scene is faintly comical. There was an array of Madonna and child pictures. No, not Lourdes and Miss Ciccone, the original one. The variety of faces and attributes made me stop and stare and I wondered why some of the artists had chosen such sultry looking girls as models. I always expect a Madonna to be at least a little bit po-faced and not at all racy looking.
I managed to take in the Botanical Gardens. I’m fascinated with lily pads. It’s a childhood thing. I still almost think they contain frogs which can be kissed into Princes or little elves with fishing rods. They didn’t. The hothouses were beautiful though. I sat by the river and a brief spell of sunshine punctuated the seemingly endless summer of rain. Watching the punts go by I wondered what would possess anyone to try that. It looked ungainly and a bit terrifying to me.
My room was in a University college and overlooked a library with huge windows. I found this comforting. The first thing I do when I get into a hotel room is arrange my books somewhere. A little pile of books adds so much to a room. I shopped and bought books, of course and then had to lug back the heaviest bag possible over the bridges of the stations.
Oh, I learnt stuff too. Don’t worry taxpayers. You got your money’s worth.