Christmas among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford
PUBLISHED: 12:51 24 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:15 24 November 2017
Tracy Spiers gets in the mood for Christmas by donning a pink Santa hat and heading to Oxford ahead of its festive celebrations
Sipping Glühwein, soaking up the sun on a Greek island beach and having the chance to adopt a pavement made of animal knuckle bones may not be what one associates with the City of Dreaming Spires, but Oxford is getting ready for the festive season in style.
An established town since the ninth century, Oxford has been home to royalty and scholars and of course it is famous world-wide for its University and historic importance. Today its rich heritage is mingled with modern life, creating a bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere set against a beautiful backdrop of fine architecture.
My task today is to set the scene for Christmas which, bearing in mind dear reader, is not so easy when features are written in advance and there is not one festive tree in sight. I start my journey in Broad Street – a street known for its bookshops, including the original Blackwell’s bookshop at number 50, founded in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell, son of the first city librarian. It is here where the first Oxfam charity shop was established in 1947, where one will find Ballilol College, Trinity College and Exeter College; the Sheldonian Theatre and the Old Ashmolean built in 1683.
On this occasion you find me, a petite elfin character wearing a pink Santa’s hat, much to the amusement of surprised shoppers. I am not alone for I have managed to persuade Nicole Rahimi to join me with a matching red one. It puts us in the mood to talk Christmas Markets, which takes place in Broad Street from December 7-17. Homesick for the German Christmas markets she grew up with in her homeland, Nicole wanted to create the same ambience and experience for Oxford.
“I have grown up with Christmas markets. When we came to the UK 13 years ago and lived in London, I was expecting to see one, but they didn’t have anything and I felt sad. I missed it because it is something that people look forward to in Germany. They are up for four to six weeks and I grew up with that tradition,” Nicole tells me.
In 2007 Nicole, her husband Kazem and their young daughters moved to Oxford, where she actively pursued her dream to re-create some of the festive childhood magic. Two years later Oxford Christmas Market was launched and it is now an important part of the retail calendar. Traditional wooden huts are thoughtfully decorated by Nicole to create a unified spectacle and each contains festive treats which provide a feast for the eye and tastebuds. This year there are 13 new traders which takes the stall numbers to 60. Handmade gifts are in abundance such as jewellery, candles, ceramics, olive wood boxes, hats, hand-made alpaca knitwear, oriental table ware and novelty bobble hats. An eclectic range of culinary goodies provide the ideal festive gift. These include chilli sauces, luxury hot chocolates, Italian soft nougat, salted Carmel hazelnuts, strawberry kebabs, traditional pickles, preserves, curds, flavoured cheeses, freshly made churros, chocolate wine and sipping vodkas flavoured with mango, marshmallow, coffee and coconut.
Words and pictures can only convey so much – they can’t create the rich aromatic aroma of mulled wine (that’s the real Glühwein from Germany) and cinnamon which drifts in the air or the uplifting musical sounds. Local choirs including Oxford Community Choir, the Rock Choir and a powerful brass band help boost the Christmas spirit. The Handy Voices Signing Choir, an award-winning innovative Oxford-based community choir and the only signing choir in Oxfordshire will also be returning. Members aim to not only share the beauty and wonder of music to those who cannot hear it fully, but to share the beauty and wonder of British Sign Language to those not familiar with it. Another favourite part of the market is a small carousel which also guarantees a smile on faces of the young and not so young.
A sight not to miss is Santas on the Run, Oxford’s annual festive 3.5 km fun run which takes place on December 10 in aid of Helen & Douglas House, a hospice for local children and young adults.
“This is really magical. There are around 2,000 Santas of all ages in Broad Street early in the morning who join the Santas on the Run. After the run many stay on and enjoy the atmosphere of the market,” says Nicole.
Culture is at the heart of this city. With Christmas in mind there are plenty of quirky shops to look around as well as high street chains. More importantly there is a plethora of cafés and restaurants for the essential break. Many are housed in buildings which have fascinating histories. I drink my cappuccino in a 14th century building, thought to have once been used as a brothel!
One of my aims of this Oxford trip is to discover what theatrical delights are in store over the festive break. Jack and the Beanstalk is the annual pantomime taking place at Oxford Playhouse from Friday, November 24 until Sunday, January 7.
I visit the New Theatre, Oxford on the corner of George Street. There has been a theatre here for almost 170 years. Now owned by The Ambassador Theatre Group, the country’s biggest theatre owners, this theatre attracts leading opera and ballet companies, hit musicals and sell-out pop concerts. With the madness of shopping, I am highly tempted to escape to the New Theatre where I can fly off to Greece with the smash-hit musical Mamma Mia! The songs of ABBA will fill the stage from November 14-25 before the Welsh National Opera arrives with Eugene Onegin (November 28 and November 30), From the House of the Dead (Wednesday, November 29) and Die Fledermaus (December 1-2). This is followed by WarHorse, which runs from December 13 until January 6.
The New Theatre which can seat up to 1,785 people is currently undergoing improvements.
“Last January we changed over 800 seats in the stalls and over the summer we replaced those in the circle and the balcony. It is one of the things we wanted to improve. It is important our audiences have comfortable seats to sit on and we are working to give them the best experience when they visit us,” explains Steph Tye, marketing and communications officer.
“I believe theatre is massively important in today’s culture. It gives us a chance to step away from daily life and through theatre be transported to a completely different world, whether it is something that really happened or completely fantastical. It is pure escapism.”
“To give someone a theatre ticket at Christmas is giving them a chance to experience something completely different,” adds Steph.
Another alternative Christmas present, provided in Oxford is unusual but one which will enable the recipient a unique opportunity to be connected to a piece of local history. Days before handing in her PhD, I meet up with Victoria McGuinness-Francis, a trustee at The Museum of Oxford and Manager for TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). The museum is housed in the town hall, a grade II Victorian building, which has launched an Adopt an Object campaign to raise fund for Oxford Hidden Histories, an exciting project to redevelop the museum.
The city is well-known for its connections to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and included in the list of 60 objects available for adoption (which incidentally have already been snapped up) are Alice’s toffee tin, scissor set, watch and Red Cross medal as well as Charles Dodgson’s biscuit tin and pocket watch. Also on the list is a range of intriguing objects relating to Oxford’s past such as an early bicycle, a knuckle bone pavement, mermaid panel, cannon ball and a Quarter boy.
“It is quite a rare idea and exciting one for a museum to allow its collection to be adopted. This represents our outreach and engagement with local people and our desire for them to own the museum which tells the story of Oxford,” says Victoria.
I am tempted might to buy my husband an adopted gift of a lamppost or a bit of pavement made from animal knuckle bones for Christmas! As I visit on a day when Christmas is still 100 days away and I can only whisper the word, I can’t taste the goodies at Nicole’s lovely market. Instead I find my own culinary fix in Oxford Fudge Kitchen on Broad Street, and fall in love with the freshly made, still warm, sea salted caramel.
“Like Santa Claus, it is our busiest time. We make almost 12 batches of fudge a day – that’s 700 slices and our best seller is the one you have just tasted. Ho ho ho,” says Quentin Fé, who dons my Christmas hat for good measure.
I feel like one of his elves skipping out of the shop with my pink Santa hat. Well you have to get into the festive spirit don’t you? And one thing is for certain, Oxford certainly does that.