Cycling around Oxford, ‘the literary heartbeat of the world’
PUBLISHED: 16:47 13 August 2019
Scot Whitlock hoped cycling through Oxford would expose the city’s architectural delights and scintillating history – and he certainly found all the glories the city has to offer
I love trying to capture that unique moment of an everyday street scene. I find interesting locations like city squares, markets, places of worship and historic buildings are brilliant for capturing the mood of a ride. My hope was Oxford would expose me to its many architectural delights and scintillating history.
My rather bizarre starting point was the John Radcliffe Hospital. After a brief climb I was suddenly descending at speed down Headington Hill, into the outskirts of the city. I stopped on Magdalen Bridge completely hypnotised by the tranquil flowing water, verdant open spaces and the ever popular array of vibrant floating vessels. It looked an ideal place to hire a punt and explore the waters. Opposite was the entrance to Magdalen College, which is acknowledged as one of the richest learning establishments of the University and is famous for its stunning gardens. It's one of the most visited of the colleges.
Oxford is a city defined by its University; renowned as one of the World's greatest academic institutions, the affiliated Colleges dominate the city. Its home to 39 in total and all offer something different. Geographically the city is wedged in between the Rivers Thames and Cherwell possessing a rather impressive skyline with plenty of vantage points to enjoy the beautiful symmetry of the architecture. I was hoping to capture the city in great light. The weather was glorious, spring had begun.
The light was constantly changing which had a substantial effect on the subject matter. Within a moment, buildings which initially portrayed a rugged personality were softened by the effect of indirect light from the shadows, as the sun fell. As I continued down High Street, I experienced the city in all its splendour. It maintains a vibrant heart, laid out around the University buildings with the majority boasting flamboyant battlements, buttresses and opulent pinnacles.
The heart of the city is set at the intersection of Cornmarket Street, High Street, Queen Street and St Aldates. The surreal juxtaposition highlights the stunning simple beauty of the labyrinthine streets and the wide open boulevards overflowing with people. A buzz with vehicles and animated conversations, the city is still very much alive and kicking. Considering my immersion was rather brief, I did find the traffic chaotic and, at times, irritating. Thankfully, I found solace in my trusty bicycle.
I jumped off the bike and followed the throng on foot along Cornmarket Street towards the Ashmolean Museum. I passed by the Saxon Tower of St Michael which claims to be the oldest building in the city, at nearly 1000 years old. It was strange to see such a historic building sat amongst the normal high street stores, caught confused between the past and present. It was only a short distance to the imposing Ashmolean Museum. The Museum was established in 1683, and is recognised as the Country's oldest. The present building is one of the best examples of Neo-Grecian architecture and dates from 1845. It offers a wonderful display of European art and Middle Eastern antiquities. It's also constantly hosting permanent and temporary exhibitions and most importantly it's free.
From the Ashmolean I headed out of the city north towards Woodstock and Blenheim Palace. I followed the A4165 Banbury Road (also signed as the NCN 51) and bypassed both the busy A40 and A34. Breezing passed the small airport I eventually arrived at Blenheim Palace. It's a lovely congenial old place, the architecture is bizarre, a lovely baroque fantasy that definitely works. The aesthetic appeal and historic resonance are definitely it's predominate draw but it offers so much more. Situated in Woodstock, just 8 miles from Oxford, Blenheim Palace is surrounded by over 2,000 acres of 'Capability' Brown landscaped parkland, the great lake, and beautiful formal gardens, offering an unforgettable day out for all. It was a gift from Queen Anne and a grateful nation to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough following his famous victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
Back in the City, my next destination was the Pitt Rivers Museum. I continued to follow the well maintained and signed cycle route and stopped by an ornate gated entrance to the University Parks (Keble Gate). It's a great place to plomp your rump, it provides plenty of green open spaces to throw a Frisbee or kick a football. Busiest at the weekends with mostly families, especially if the sun is shining, it does offer a convenient spot to while away an hour or so. I sat and watched a rather rotund gentleman attempt an energetic keep fit routine, slightly hindered by ill-fitting trousers and the effects of gravity.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is housed in a splendid building alongside the University Museum of Natural History. It allows visitors to explore the endless treasures hidden within; the dark eerie environment providing a wonderful experience for all. Glass cases stuffed with gruesome shrunken heads and all manner of historic artefacts and weapons, beautifully arranged like a chaotic junk shop. It's a lovely antidote to the modern theory of contemporary museum design so popular nowadays. If clutter is king, long live the king!
My next stop was not planned; I stumbled on the Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre and Clarendon Building. A jumble of structures which effortlessly combine an understated indulgence, anywhere else these buildings would completely overwhelm and dominate, but not in this beautiful city. I left my bike in the courtyard and wandered aimlessly around the remnants of history. The Sheldonian Theatre is a magnificent building based on the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome and is unconventially semi-circular at the rear and rectangular at the front. It's in extremely good company, its close neighbours being the Old Bodleian Library and the Clarendon Building. The Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library, with over 11 million items. The Clarendon Building was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and originally housed the Oxford University Press, nowadays it provides office and meeting spaces for staff. The whole area moulded a magical, almost divine image. I sat happily relaxed in the enclosed courtyard for sometime listening to the constant noise of footsteps echoing all around.
Next I somehow managed to stumble on the Covered Market. This little gem is tucked inconspicuously down Market Street (obviously). I browsed the artisan stalls, piled with ornate wood carvings and brimming with handmade delights. The old nostalgic lanes provided a glimpse into the past. I contentedly ambled, pausing briefly for a coffee in one of the many cosy cafes. It was an affordable, informal place, an ideal spot to eavesdrop on some juicy Oxford gossip.
From Market Street, I pedalled east briefly before finding myself on Catte Street, looking up at an astonishing image. Pictures are great but nothing beats the whole sensory experience of actually interacting with your surroundings, the texture of stonework, the cacophony of noise from church bells and the fragrant aroma of incense. The city offers a plentiful supply of candidates. The best however was now directly in front of me, the Radcliffe Camera is emblematic of Oxford. In my opinion it's the city's most dazzling structure, gloriously Italian in style, it's perfect. The setting, the façade, just everything radiates a serene splendour. I sat and tried to savour the experience. My eyes were constantly drawn to the dramatically lit rotunda as the sun shone brightly, creating a near spiritual hue. I was especially taken by the coupled Corinthian columns and the balustraded parapet.
I believe the affinity I felt for the city was, in part, due to its history with cyclists and cycling, it's an acceptable part of its culture and environment. It was happily over-run with a mass of two wheeled tools of adventure. The National Cycle Network offers several routes in and around the city.
Before heading back to the hospital, I felt the urge to visit Pembroke College, as my brother spent three years of his life there in the mid 90's. I pedalled down St Aldates and was completely taken aback by the architectural marvels of Christ Church College which is conveniently opposite Pembroke College. It's recognisable by its distinctive 'Tom Tower' so called because it was dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury and was the work of Christopher Wren in 1681. The bell chimes 101 times each evening at 9.35pm which is the hour when the original 101 students were called in. Its Oxford's largest and arguably most prestigious of establishments, educating the likes of Albert Einstein and no fewer than 13 British Prime Ministers. In-comparison, Pembroke College is not as well known or recognised. The grounds are home to a lovely chapel which was constructed in 1732 in a classic Georgian style. The rest of the buildings provide an architectural feast of gothic influences. I was pleased to read that my brother was in good company, J. R. R. Tolkien was a Fellow of Pembroke from 1925 to 1945, and wrote The Hobbit and the first two books of The Lord of the Rings during his time there.
After taking some photos I retraced my route towards the hospital. The deflating sight of Headington Hill was expected but not welcome. The climb was arduous but I obtained some respite in the grounds of a welcoming park, just below Oxford Brookes University. I pushed on in good spirits and increased vigour and eventually glimpsed the welcoming vibrant, pastel coloured façade of the John Radcliffe.
I had a great time poking my nose into the glories of the city, brash and buzzing, with exquisite architecture. It's an easy place to navigate on foot or by bike. It's comfortably cosmopolitan and hip without trying too hard, for those who seek plenty of history, edginess and sublime sophistication, Oxford is the place to be. And to explain the reference to literature in the title, the City has more published writers per square mile than anywhere else in the world. I can't imagine a better way to discover the attention grabbing sights than sat atop a saddle. It's ripe for adventure.
That evening I immersed myself in complete decadence with a stay at Water Meadow Cottage, which is nested snugly in the woodland of the Blenheim Park estate. As I approached, the twee (in a good way) Georgian exterior was glowing warm in the bright sunshine. The cottage sat enveloped in greenery and vibrant blooms providing a wonderful soupcon of rusticity. Just me, the bike and the indulgent remoteness.
The interior is equally stunning. A mix of lavish spaces accessorised to the highest standard. The owners, 'Unlisted London', have sourced the most covetable items meticulously utilising only traditional quality British furnishings and the result exudes a quintessential English Country elegance. The décor and fabrics are magnificent, Cole & Sons wallpaper, and Royal Doulton fireplaces creating a period feel, but with a vibrant contemporary twist. All 'Mod Cons' are in place, flat-screen TV, satellite, DVD's, IPOD dock and WIFI to appease those tech savvy individuals. All the rooms are cosy with bookshelves brimming with all manner of curiosities and games to enjoy with the family. The main bedroom hosts an inviting Queen sized bed and the bathroom, dominated by the delectable roll top bath, provides a romantic asylum.
Outside is definitely the highlight. The chance to experience 'al fresco' dining on a beautiful heated terrace with sumptuous views of the river Evenlode and exquisite lawns before retiring to the summer house to get lost in the big welcoming sofa. What a delightful home away from home seclusion in rural Oxfordshire.