After a 1 hour unassuming train ride through the British countryside, past the obligatory nuclear power plant and the occasional sheep, we arrived at Oxford’s tiny railway station. It was a mild July afternoon and I had high hopes that I’d finally be able to experience the Victorian splendor exahlted in Lewis Carrol’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Alice was, afterall, based on Alice Liddel – born in the 1850s as daughter of the Dean of Christ Church college at Oxford University. It was Carrol’s relationship with the little Liddel in Oxford that was thought to be the inspiration for the novel.
Any hopes of recapturing quaint Victorian times in this famous University town were soon dashed as we quickly found ourselves amongst a mob of tourists and wedding parties from every inch of the globe.
Lesson Learned: Don’t visit Oxford in July
After squeezing our way through the crowds, we made our way to Magdalen Bridge Boat house where we planned on either punting or rowing to start off our day. Unfortunately, we were greeted by a long line of Italian exchange students waiting for boats and decided to tread elsewhere as opposed to waiting in line. We found nearby Magdalen College and paid a modest £3 entrance fee, which came with a pamphlet about its history. The grounds may have been only a few meters from the congested Oxford streets, but the scenery was quiet and peaceful. The buildings that make up Magdalen College’s cloister are magnificent and the gardens were lush and healthy. This was more along the lines of what I was hoping for. After exploring the grounds for an hour or so, we headed back out to the mean streets of Oxford to see what else the city had to offer.
I love a good view, so I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to climb to the top of The Church of St. Mary the Virgin for what was advertised as one of the best views of Oxford. After a 15 minute wait, we again paid a few pounds to make our way up the narrow staircase to the top of the church tower. The climb itself is not that taxing (especially after climbing the Cologne Cathedral), but space at the top is extremely limited. The width of the walkways is hardly 12 inches. Despite the relative discomfort of getting squashed into random strangers, the views turned out to be pretty spectacular. Nestled just behind Radcliffe Square, the church
has perfect aerial views of almost the entire city, and you can easily peer into All Souls and Christ Church colleges.
After a much needed lunch break, we came across a private tour company offering tours of the University for a reasonable fee. We decided to go for it and quickly found out that many of the colleges normally on the tour would not be accessible to due weddings and various other events that were taking place that day. After a tour of Baillol College, we proceeded to wander around the campus aimlessly with the tour guide desperately searching for colleges that were available for tours. Along the way be again passed Radcliffe Square and also saw the old library. Our disappointment in the tour culminated towards the end when we approached the gate of Chritchurch college – the one Harry Potter was filmed in – and were turned away due to a late-running wedding.
Breaking off the tour, we headed back to Magdalen Bridge Boat house, hoping that our second attempt at renting a boat would be more successful than our first. We were pleasantly surprised by the much shorter line and had just enough time to enjoy some ice cream before cautiously stepping into our wooden contraption for the hour. It was about £25 to rent a row boat for an hour and the same price for a punting boat. We decided to row instead of punt because it looked more stable and this was of utmost importance since I can’t swim.
The scenery along the canal was absolutely lovely. Some of the colleges and the city’s botanical gardens remained in view from the canal and we were greeted by the squaks of local ducks and the rings of church bells. For a moment there I could imagine Lewis Carrol rowing Alice Liddel up the very canal I was on, telling her about the whimsical adventures of a girl named Alice in a secret underground world known as Wonderland. The moment didn’t last long, however, as I was quickly forced back to reality after realising we had hit a tree with our boat . . . and possibly a duck.
With our boating adventure complete, we lightly jogged back about a mile to the train station in order to catch our very-full train back to London Waterloo. Despite being laden with tourists and exchange students, there are glimpses of Oxford’s Victorian splendor still present within the compact city. The history, architecture and gardens give it a grand presence that would be difficult for other college towns to compete with. Its location make it a perfect day trip from London and will ensure its popularity with tourists for decades to come.