After watching every episode of Inspector Morse I felt like I knew Oxford but didn’t. Familiar but not. Then came the spin-off series in the form of Lewis and sidekick Hathaway running through the streets of Oxford, passing all those iconic buildings. It really was time for me to visit the “City of Spires” and not just watch it on TV.
I did just that when staying at the Vicarage in the Buckinghamshire village of Lacey Green with Rev Canon Tony and his wife Pat. Having lived at the Leeds City Rectory facing my home for ten years, they became more than just neighbours. As good friends, they were both subjected to many a unique travel souvenir over the years in return for looking after my house.
Tony had a wedding ceremony to perform that day, thus it was Pat, their son David and I that hopped on the train to Oxford, along with hundreds of foreigners. But their destination was not the historical city of Oxford. Unbeknownst to me, there was a much bigger attraction for these visitors to the UK. The train announcements were not only in English but also Mandarin and Arabic! Yes, all these foreigners, mainly Chinese, were travelling to the Bicester Village luxury retail outlet. The Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum replaced by Prada and Armani.
Where better than to start our city tour at the local prison! Built 1,000 years ago by Norman baron Robert D’Oyly for his comrade William the Conqueror, Oxford Castle was created using elements of an existing Saxon fortification. In 1142, during the height of the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda, the a dramatic siege took place. Surrounded by King Stephen’s army, Matilda narrowly escaped by being lowered down the castle walls camouflaged against the snow in a white cloak.
In 1230, at the end of the English Civil War, like most castles in England Oxford Castle was converted into a prison has since been home to many notorious criminals. In 1996 the prison was closed.
WANTED!!! My mugshot taken at Oxford Castle
A climb up the Norman Castle Mound offered us panoramic views from the top of St George’s Tower. After which, we descended into the eerie 900 year old crypt of St George’s Chapel where Geoffrey Monmouth served. It is here wrote his stories of the Legend of King Arthur.
Where better than to grab a pint and a fish finger sandwich than a pub that is known to have been frequented by great authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien. The Eagle and Child, nicknamed the ‘the Bird and Baby’ by the writing group who called themselves ‘The Inklings’, was a place where they could meet to discuss their plots and storylines. It felt like we had stepped back in time as we sat eating in the cosy snug. Fully refreshed we were ready to tackle our next activity.
A visit to Oxford would not be complete without hiring a boat on the river for an enchanting glide down the Cherwell River.
Well there was not much enchanting gliding in this boat! With David precariously stood balancing on the boat trying to negotiate with a 16 foot punt pole and me frantically splashing at the front with a very small paddle to help steer the boat, it seemed more like a workout. But not for Pat. Redundant in the middle of the boat, Pat was relaxing whilst taking in the beautiful river scenery. David was the nominated chauffeur. It took just one attempt for me to stand then stumble back into the boat to realise punting was not my forte.
Back on the train to Lacey Green we were surrounded by Prada and Gucci bags as the Chinese tourists boarded at the Bicester Village station (pre-Covid I might add!). They looked happy and excited by their luxurious purchases. I too was happy with my fish finger sandwich purchase which I could very well have eaten where C.S. Lewis had once sat.
Oxford Castle and Prison Tour Bookings and Opening Times: Oxford Castle and Prison
Cherwell Boathouse Punting and Restaurant: Cherwell Boathouse
The pub famous for serving authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien: Eagle and Child Pub