Get the latest financial, economic and market news, instantly.
Subscribe
My Readse-paperNewslettersIFSC Code Finder NewWeb StoriesMintGenieFor You
Switch to the app Download App
e-paper
Home / Impact Feature / Is Oxford, England’s oldest university town, actually cool cow?

Is Oxford, England’s oldest university town, actually cool cow?

Oxford is easily accessible from all major London Airports, with direct bus connections between Oxford’s Gloucester Green bus terminal and either Heathrow (every half-hour, taking 80-90 minutes) or Gatwick (hourly, taking 2.5 hours). (Bloomberg)

An easy weekend trip from London, the city of Oxford still trades in (exceedingly) old-school charms but it’s far livelier these days, reports a relieved alum.

I HAD BEEN here before. Gone running here, passing swans and wildflowers, along the banks of the River Thames in Port Meadow park. I’d taken this path frequently, during the nearly nine years I’d spent at Oxford: first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. I’d entered through the country gate in the city’s bohemian, warren-like neighborhood of Jericho. And crossed the little pedestrian bridge over the gently rocking narrowboats, making my way all the way north to the 12th-century ruins of Godstow Abbey, where once, legend has it, King Henry II had installed his illicit mistress, known as Rosamund the Fair. Sometimes I would go a little farther up the Thames—known colloquially here as the Isis—and stop at the Perch, a thatched-roof, 17th-century pub in the village of Binsey, at Port Meadow’s edge.

I HAD BEEN here before. Gone running here, passing swans and wildflowers, along the banks of the River Thames in Port Meadow park. I’d taken this path frequently, during the nearly nine years I’d spent at Oxford: first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. I’d entered through the country gate in the city’s bohemian, warren-like neighborhood of Jericho. And crossed the little pedestrian bridge over the gently rocking narrowboats, making my way all the way north to the 12th-century ruins of Godstow Abbey, where once, legend has it, King Henry II had installed his illicit mistress, known as Rosamund the Fair. Sometimes I would go a little farther up the Thames—known colloquially here as the Isis—and stop at the Perch, a thatched-roof, 17th-century pub in the village of Binsey, at Port Meadow’s edge.

Today, however, the path revealed something new. The Medley, an outdoor bar and pizzeria run by the local Medley Manor Farm and boasting wood-fired pizza (and fresh farm vegetables), had opened up just past Medley Footbridge (my favorite of the bridges). On a Saturday afternoon, dogs lolled in the grasses, overlooking the Isis. A raucous group of cyclists congregated at one table, a young family at another. An old man read the paper with a Schnauzer on his lap, resting each page upon the dog’s head.

MINT PREMIUMSee All

Hi! You're reading a premium article

Today, however, the path revealed something new. The Medley, an outdoor bar and pizzeria run by the local Medley Manor Farm and boasting wood-fired pizza (and fresh farm vegetables), had opened up just past Medley Footbridge (my favorite of the bridges). On a Saturday afternoon, dogs lolled in the grasses, overlooking the Isis. A raucous group of cyclists congregated at one table, a young family at another. An old man read the paper with a Schnauzer on his lap, resting each page upon the dog’s head.

Over the course of my time at Oxford, I had gotten used to a resolutely staid city, shaped in many ways by the equally staid university that dominates the city’s geography and soul. (One of the university’s most infamous jokes—how many Oxford professors does it take to change a lightbulb—is a trick question; the answer is “No change, ever.") My old undergraduate college, Oriel, was founded in 1326. Life here was, so often, a life outside of time, formed by bizarre and byzantine traditions: Latin graces, academic robes.

By my late 20s, I’d begun to chafe at living in a city so small and, more galling, so still. I’d dreamed of finishing my dissertation at last, of moving to a more frenetic, more dynamic city. But this spring I had returned to Oxford for the first time, on a weekslong fellowship, five years after leaving, not as a restless young grad student or as a brief weekend visitor but as an adult in my 30s. To my surprise, Oxford had changed more than I expected—and changed for the better. The places I had loved most were still there. Among them: the Grand Café, with its high tea and dizzyingly sweet Brandy Alexanders, and the Bear Inn, founded as the Jolly Trooper in 1774, where old school ties still line the walls and ceilings. At the Vault & Gardens, a shockingly affordable farm-to-table-style cafe in a congregation house off the University Church dating back to 1310, tourists and exam-cramming students alike still wolf down coconut curry and cheese souffle in the shadow of the Bodleian Library.

But, in the half-decade since my departure, Oxford had also become far livelier and even, perhaps, far cooler than I remembered. Easily a dozen new coffee shops had opened up in the city, replacing the rather dismal chain offerings I’d remembered. At Brew on Banbury Road, I overheard the barista give five minutes of tasting notes to a curious student couple. At the Paper Boat Cafe, another coffeehouse by Folly Bridge, a narrow stairway leads down onto a riverfront terrace. I also found new, more culinarily creative restaurants, particularly in the East Oxford neighborhoods. A branch of the Coconut Tree serves aromatic Sri Lankan food, and the cozy Magic Café offers international vegan fare among vintage furniture and local art. And, to my delight, new cocktail bars, like Sandy’s Piano and Wine Bar just off the High Street, had opened, catering to a drinking population slightly over the United Kingdom’s legal age of 18.

Even the magnificently fusty Randolph Hotel—the sort of solid, avuncular-feeling place to which visiting parents might take impecunious students for dinner—had been renovated during the pandemic by the new owners, the Graduate Hotels company. Its slightly chintzy, dated dining and drawing rooms were reimagined as phantasmagoric Victorian dollhouse chic: a nod to another of Oxford’s favorite sons, Alice in Wonderland’s Lewis Carroll.

During this recent stint at Oxford, I fell back in love with the city for which, at 18, I’d willingly crossed the Atlantic. I fell in love with the nostalgic reverie of the university that gave the city so much of its life. I eavesdropped on graduate students on the High Street, debating loudly the philosophical nature of names. And smiled to myself whenever I saw a student in an academic gown cycle by, sleeves billowing in the wind.

But I fell in love, too, with a city I saw now as an adult, with a life removed from that of the university. I rediscovered its splendid outdoors, following winding waterfront paths along both the Isis and its tributary, the Cherwell. I trekked through footpaths and woodlands less popular with tourists or students than with residents walking dogs or pushing strollers. Farther afield, I walked among the vintage shops and vegan food stores of the Florence Park neighborhood, or else the aggressively adorable streetfront cafes of Summertown, where every other couple had at least one toddler.

I do not know, in the end, whether Oxford had changed—aside from the incontrovertibly better coffee—or whether I had simply learned to see it differently, with the kind of clarity that emerges when you stop taking a place for granted. All I know is that, walking back to my rented apartment late one night after dinner, I passed through Radcliffe Square, as I had so often done, tottering on the uneven cobblestones under the light of the moon, the Gothic and the neoclassical buildings alike illuminated by the stars. But this time I remembered to stop to notice it.

The Lowdown // A guide to visiting Oxford, England

Getting There: Oxford is easily accessible from all major London Airports, with direct bus connections between Oxford’s Gloucester Green bus terminal and either Heathrow (every half-hour, taking 80-90 minutes) or Gatwick (hourly, taking 2.5 hours). Oxford also has multiple links to Central London, with regular trains departing from both Paddington (50 minutes) and Marylebone (70 minutes) stations (prices vary based on time of booking).

Staying There: The quintessential “Oxford Experience" might be had at the recently refurbished five-star Randolph Hotel by Graduate Hotels, directly across from the Ashmolean Museum. (From about $260 a night). Whether or not you’re staying there, its various restaurants and bars, including the fireside “Morse Bar," named for the famous Colin Dexter-penned detective, in the lobby, are worth a visit. For a simpler, cheaper option, the centrally located Buttery Hotel (from about $120 a night) offers clean, no-nonsense rooms with dazzling views of Balliol College.

Eating and Drinking There: Oxford has no shortage of more formal, historic, fine-dining options, including the Parsonage Grill (1-3 Banbury Rd), located in a 17th-century stone building on Banbury Road. For a quicker, cheaper, tourist lunch, the Vault & Gardens (Radcliffe Square) offers an excellent counter lunch service from a small but exquisite menu. For a livelier experience at night, however, head down Cowley Road in East Oxford: home to restaurants reflecting more diverse culinary styles (often at cheaper prices) and several of the city’s best bars, including Café Coco and Kazbar.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint.Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.