"Where do you suppose he's going?" I asked my son.
"Off to an exam, I expect," Riley replied. "Everyone at Oxford has to wear the full academic dress when they write exams."
This tradition is one of many that remind you that Oxford is no ordinary college. The oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford was formally established in the 13th century when the first of its 39 colleges opened their doors. From William Penn to Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking to Hugh Grant, famous Oxonians have made their mark in every field of endeavour since the earliest days.
Being a city university, Oxford does not have a main campus; instead, all the buildings are scattered throughout the town. On almost every street in the heart of Oxford, you will find one of its walled colleges, most of them opening into a central quadrangle around which sit the halls and other facilities. Many of the colleges are closed to the public, and can only be glimpsed over walls and through hedges. One of the oldest and most beautiful is Christ Church College, now famous as the cinematic stand-in for Harry Potter's Hogwart's.
The Rivers Thames and Cherwell run through Oxford and it was the latter we followed for a magical lunch on the first day of our trip. Since 1901, Oxonians have come to the Cherwell Boathouse to rent hand-made punts for leisurely expeditions up and down the rivers and canals. On the day of our arrival, dozens of punts jostled idly at the dock, their wooden decks glistening in the rain.
Family-owned and run, the Cherwell Boathouse offers exceptional British food. Chef Nick Welford produces inventive dishes based primarily on local, seasonal produce. From the impressive wine list we selected Gusbourne Brut, a surprisingly dry and crisp sparkling wine from Kent. Our appetizers ranged from raw salmon tartar to seared Brixham scallops to pork belly confit. They were all beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. Our delight continued through the main courses, particularly with the pan roasted Gressingham duck breast with duck lasagna on a parsnip puree scented with vanilla. The chef's creativity continued into the dessert course, which included a surprisingly good carrot and chocolate fondant and an orange and passion fruit tart with mascarpone ice cream.
The setting, the service and particularly the food at Cherwell Boathouse will keep us coming back, rain or shine. And when the sun does shine, we'll work up an appetite punting on the river!
Back in the town centre for the afternoon, we paid a visit to the Ashmolean, Oxford's museum of 'art and archaeology.' Due to the merger of different institutions through the centuries, the collection is diverse with art and artifacts from a wide range of cultures. Another great characteristic is its size – the museum is not too big, not too small, but in fact just right for a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon. And, like most museums in the UK, it's free.
As the afternoon drew to a close, I headed out to the hamlet of Cumnor, about 15 minutes by cab (one can also take a direct bus) on the outskirts of Oxford. Here I was a guest of a quintessentially British pub and inn, known amusingly as the Bear and the Ragged Staff. The latter refers to the knobby stick carried by the bear in the emblem of the inn, not to the personnel. The staff was vibrant, tidy and most pleasant – anything but ragged!
While the pub has been in operation since the days of the Tudors, it has been five years since the current proprietor Mark Greenwood took over. The inn offers 9 distinctive rooms, all updated and absolutely modern in juxtaposition to the centuries-old backdrop of the original building. My room was tucked under the eaves and the bed sat under a gorgeous old leaded glass window. The huge bathroom featured an over-sized tub, rain shower, lovely amenities and an extremely comfortable lounge chair arranged under the skylight. A perfect mini-spa to call one's own!
Over dinner that evening with the innkeeper, I came to appreciate the extent of the inn's commitment to sourcing local produce.
"We're out among the farms and so we reach out to them directly," explained Mark. "We buy wheat from the farmer across the road, mill it right here using a rigged-up coffee grinder, and make our own bread on the premises."
This dedication to locally sourced ingredients came across during our leisurely dinner. The first course featured fresh local asparagus accompanied by an indulgent hollandaise. The main course, consisting of parsley, lemon and garlic rolled hake with hand-made gnocchi and baby spinach, was delicious. And the desserts – one a warm lemon meringue pie with raspberry puree and the other a cheese tray with local favourites such as Oxford Blue and Godminster Cheddar – were generously excellent. All courses were accompanied by the inn's own brown bread – warm and flavourful.
Tottering happily up to the room, I found a full tray of herbal tea as well as coffee, fresh milk and house-bottled still and sparkling water. A comfortable bed and lovely linens contributed to a perfect sleep, after which I experienced the gentle wake-up call of the sun rising over Oxford and peeking through the windows over the bed.
Breakfast at the Bear & Ragged Staff is a casual affair. The standing buffet offers fresh fruits, cereals, juices, pastries and the inn's homemade breads. Typical hot breakfasts are also available and I enjoyed a huge helping of farm fresh scrambled eggs with slabs of toast, local butter and English jams. The coffee is incredible – strong, hot and served with warm milk. Leaving the Bear & Ragged Staff that day, I could already feel the pull to return for a longer stay in this place that straddled town and country.
I hopped on the bus to Oxford and met up again with my son and his girlfriend. As she is a student at the university, we had privileged access to a few spots, such as the ancient and evocative churchyard of St. Peter-in-the-East, adjacent to St. Edmund Hall. The seated statue of St. Edmund portrays him as a student reading a book, and today's students often sit to keep him company as they study under the shade of the trees above.
We continued our stroll and as the rain began again, we ducked into the covered market in the centre of Oxford. Operating since 1774, the market is home to a kaleidoscopic variety of vendors – from butchers to bakers to all sorts of makers. The shoe shop Macsamillion and the Hat Box millinery carry products of exceptional quality that will have you covered from head to toe!
Our last excursion in Oxford took us through the gorgeous Port Meadow, an ancient area of common land, given to the people of Oxford in the 10th century and still used for grazing hoses and cattle. It was on the River Thames, which flows through the meadow, where Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) rowed in 1862 with three young girls including one named Alice. At the girls' request, he began to make up a story that was later expanded into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. For our visit, the meadow was awash in buttercups, glowing yellow under light rain.
At the northern end of Port Meadows we came to The Perch, an historic thatch-roofed pub dating back 800 years. As the rain intensified, we were happy to sit in the cozy dining area of the pub, with views over the gorgeous gardens that stretched far to the back of the property.
The staff at The Perch is extremely friendly and helpful. Their hospitality was generous and kind, as our inclination to linger continued well into the mid-afternoon.
We started our lunch by sampling across the appetizer menu. Local asparagus from nearby Medley Manor farm sat brightly under an inventive hollandaise with capers and gherkins, complemented by parmesan crisps. Home-cured salmon gravadlax was fresh and tasty with pickled cucumbers and dilled horseradish cream. And the aroma from the steamed Cornish mussels in leek and cider cream tempted everyone to sample from the generous portion.
Perfectly executed mains included a smartly seared rump steak with fat hand cut chips and a silky peppercorn sauce on the side; a whole gilt-head sea bream with roasted fennel and coriander; and rump of lamb with char-grilled vegetables in a warm rich red wine sauce.
Content to stretch the experience of wonderful food in this charming environment, we shared a trio of desserts, which included crème brulee, chocolate mousse and sticky toffee pudding with homemade vanilla ice cream. All the desserts were lovely, but the competition of spoons was especially fierce over the warm and wonderful sticky toffee pudding!
As the rain subsided to a fine mist, we took a stroll through the grounds. One could easily imagine sitting in the garden and ordering beer and barbequed burgers from the outdoor cabana. At the very back of the property a large marquee, furnished with a variety of carpeted comfortable seating areas and hung with rich fabrics, imparts the boho feel of a sultan's tent.
The Perch is many places in one – a cozy pub offering a warm welcome on a rainy day, a luscious garden to enjoy a cold lager mid-cycle, or an exotic venue for a private get-together.
In fact, 'variety' was a good word to describe our experience in Oxford, where ancient meets modern and where the world comes to experience the many ways one can expand the mind and stimulate the senses.