More manageable than London, and more beautiful than Cambridge, Oxford’s the England we’re all looking for…..
A jodhpur-clad girl rode confidently through the traffic on a reconditioned retro racer. I imagined how she must have been on her way home from hockey practice or rowing on the river. No doubt she’d prepare a pot of tea and get back to studying Latin and Metaphysics for the afternoon. My grip on the steering wheel loosened as my shoulders dropped, it felt good to be so far away from London. Not far in physical terms, obviously. It was only a couple of hours’ drive from our flat in South West London. It would have been even quicker if we hadn’t taken an accidental lap of the North Circular.
Oxford instantly felt different. Warmer. Wiser. More about gaining knowledge and skills, and less about gaining wealth. I’m well aware that one leads to the other, but still, it felt different. I wondered what the future might hold for the girl on the bike. Would she go on to help find a cure for cancer? Would she make the politicians of Britain sort their act out? Then I laughed at myself, stereotyping and making my mind up about life in Oxford, before I’d even parked the car. But how can you leave your preconceptions at home when you’re visiting a city like Oxford?
We stepped onto the high street and I was horrified to find the branded mega chains that dominate every other city in the UK. At least HMV was still thriving here, I figured it must be due to the older, wealthier inhabitants who still buy books and CDs instead of downloading what they want from the internet without paying.
We walked briskly away from the generic high-street brands, towards the tops of pointed spires that stood sharply on the horizon. I wanted to be transported back in time, to the good old days, to one of Britain’s greatest cities, and it didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. The pavements were packed tightly with tiny people wearing bright red sun-visors, purple backpacks and yellow bum-bags; their flags held proudly in the air for their trigger happy flocks to follow.
A narrow pub with slatted windows and a creaky front door sat modestly off the street. The sign said they served “Traditional Cask Ales” and “Good Food”, so we shuffled inside. Three couples sat around on low bar stools, chatting about their plans for Saturday night. One bloke explained to his girlfriend that he couldn’t eat because it was nearly 4pm and he wouldn’t be hungry at 8.30pm, which was when they’d arranged to meet their friends for dinner later on. Not quite the high-minded politics I’d expected to find in the pubs of Oxford. Another young couple conversed about how beautiful the music was at the orchestral performance they’d been to the night before; the emotional crescendos, violins and cellos. That’s more like it, I thought.
It turned out that like many traditional pubs in the UK, Old Tom’s kitchen was run by Thais. Shovelling our Thai curries down our throats, we were just reaching that magical place that only good food and a warm ambience can take you to when, without warning, a gentleman at the bar fell head first from his stool. He bounced elegantly off the wooden floorboards with an impressive thud. “Sorry,” he said, trying his hardest not to create a scene. “Perhaps it’s best if you take a seat, no?” suggested the bartender in his thick Eastern-European accent. The bloke who’d been debating the best time to eat lunch got up to help the old man into a chair. It was breathtakingly amicable.
Like kittens on catnip we floated through the lush green fields that surrounded Christchurch College – the holy grail of education. The yellows and purples of spring set the fields alight, while flames of red-headed runners burnt along the footpaths. Such a shame, I thought, that they had to spend their weekend run dodging us pesky tourists.
As I breathed in the fresh air and felt the sun on my face, my thoughts turned to London. The endless streams of commuters and money-hungry egomaniacs. I thought of the millions of people trying to “make it”, and of the merry-go-round known formally as “The Rat Race”. Thank God for Oxford, I thought. A welcome and worthy escape.