The city of Oxford, home of Oxford University (the oldest university in the English-speaking world), is just up the railway line from Reading and, with perfect weather forecast, I found myself on the train at 9:40 am Saturday bound to spend the day there. I did not, however, watch beautiful English countryside roll by from my train seat as I hoped; no, I awoke to a thick English fog with visibility down to 50 yards in places. But I had faith it would clear.
And by the time I arrived in Oxford 30 minutes later, it was dissipating. After a 5-minute walk into town from the train station, my first stop was the TI (Tourist Information bureau) to collect a map, my pre-paid tour ticket (more on that later), and to peruse the free brochures and such. Then I was off to the Ashmolean Museum, which houses a fine collection of Egyptian artifacts, Renaissance drawings, and silver, glass, and gold stuff ranging in provenance from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century. It is a very fine collection, indeed.
I found an unexpected treat in the museum’s “Treasures” collection: Powhatan’s Mantle. This was described in 1683 as the “robe of the King of Virginia” and it was later catalogued as “Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells or Roanoke”. As Disney will never let us forget, Powhatan was the father of Princess Pocohontas. The “mantle”, a large deerskin piece inlaid with small sea shells, may have had some function, such as a temple hanging, rather than being an actual garment. But it was a cool and surprising discovery for me in Oxford.
After 90-minutes in the museum I headed off in search of lunch and found The White Horse pub, a tiny but traditional place with low ceilings and lots of charm. Then I went off to the famous Turf Tavern for a pint and it was a clever warren of rooms and outdoor seating areas, where I enjoyed the very pretty fall day now in progress. Both of these places were recommended in tourist reviews on the Internet.
At 1:30, I went back to the TI, where I joined my tour. Many American PBS watchers are familiar with the Inspector Morse detective series imported from Britain. This series, based on books by popular crime writer Colin Dexter, ended in 2000 after 33 episodes and featured a crime-fighting detective duo based in Oxford. So, I was joining the “Inspector Morse Tour” wherein I and 20 other fans of the series were paraded around Oxford to places used in the show. Our first stop: The White Horse pub; our second, the Turf Tavern (Inspector Morse liked his pint). The tour did nothing more than pass by these places but it was fun to know that I’d anticipated our itinerary a bit. As we walked along, our tour guide provided us with many amusing production anecdotes and I recognized some sites from the show. A lot went over my head, though others on the tour were obviously more ardent about the series (had the DVD boxed set, watched them over and over, etc.) and were, as the Brits say, very keen. Two hours of this, though, was enough for me and I ended my tour at O’Neills with a pint of Guinness Red.
Oxford, the university, founded in the 12th century, is one of the world’s leading academic institutions but is a little different from many U.S. universities. It consists of 39 undergraduate and 10 graduate “colleges”. You may recognize some of their names: Exeter, Christ Church, Merton, and Trinity. Most have their own completely enclosed grounds, which include dorm rooms, classrooms, eating hall (where all sit down together), and lovely gardens. Many have their own churches attached. There are big inter-college rivalries in sports, academics, etc. Our tour took us into many of these places and it was delightful. Libraries, labs, examinations, and so on are the central university’s responsibility. Recipients of the coveted Rhodes scholarship study here.
Oxford, the city, is a typical college town but with fabulous ancient architecture and many narrow, crooked, cobble-stone alleys and back streets. All in all, and the extremely high-level academics notwithstanding, I came away thinking it would be a marvelous place to go to school. My train trip back to Reading was pleasant and I did get to see the countryside, though the foliage has not yet turned.
Coda: the very popular Morse series ended when the wonderful actor John Thaw, who played Morse, was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2002. His “sidekick” Robbie Lewis, played by Kevin Whatley, has reappeared in a new series called "Lewis", which is also set in Oxford and is nearly as enjoyable as Morse. When I got back to Reading, I turned on the TV and an episode of Inspector Morse was on; I was able to spot locations in it that I had been to that afternoon.