Dreaming spires

OXFORD By Victoria Huntley Ominous-looking clouds had rolled over the skies on the morning we were due to leave for our weekend away. As we trudged through the streets of the East End, freezing rain dripped down our necks and by the time

OXFORD

By Victoria Huntley

Ominous-looking clouds had rolled over the skies on the morning we were due to leave for our weekend away.

As we trudged through the streets of the East End, freezing rain dripped down our necks and by the time we got to Paddington we were pretty fed up.


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But the skies brightened noticeably as soon as we left London and, by the time we were crossing the Chilterns, shafts of sunlight penetrated the cloud and red kites soared overhead.

The famous "dreaming spires", unfortunately, are not the first things to strike passengers disembarking at the railway station and, at first glance, we could have been in just about any town centre in the country.

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But the city's charm reveals itself as you wend your way through the streets and courtyards, away from the station and the town centre's main drag.

Stone walls shroud the secrets that lay beyond them but a quick jaunt up a passageway and around a corner will, often as not, reveal a hidden gem.

Magdalen College is one of these; despite being in all the guide books, it is concealed behind the imposing city walls. While the main entrance may look a bit more impressive, we wouldn't know because we sauntered into the grounds by following a gaggle of students before realising we probably shouldn't be there.

But visitors are allowed into the college's striking grounds, which even have their own deer park, to wander around the gothic cloisters as well as take in the imposing facade of the New Building (so-called although it's more than 275 years old).

All this comes at a price, though, and guests have to cough up �4 at the main entrance. But if you're still reasonably young, and generally look a bit shabby, you may be able to wing it as a student like we did.

Oxford's undoubted gem is the fantastic Ashmolean Museum. Recently refurbished, the collection of art and artefacts, while still pretty vast, is like a mini British Museum and the building is crammed with so many treasures that we had exhausted ourselves after looking around only a fraction of it. And it's free.

Being a university city, nice pubs are a bit thin on the ground (I don't know where Inspector Morse unearthed his haunts) but we did find a decent offering, called the Head of the River and not far from our hotel, where we had a few pints from that famous Oxfordshire brewery, err... Fuller's.

George Street is home to chain bars and restaurants, as well as raucous students who are also out and about during the day, either cycling around wearing scarves or clutching cans of lager under the Bridge of Sighs dressed a Gene Simmons from Kiss.

The city is small so getting around is a piece of cake, especially if you use the preferred mode of transport; bikes are used by absolutely everyone but there isn't the "scene" there is in London and that makes for altogether friendlier streets.

During the day on a Saturday the city's pedestrianised Cornmarket Street seethes with shoppers, tourists and students performing Shakespeare or playing in swing bands. By night noisy revellers weaving around in groups might almost be enough to put you off if it wasn't such a nice place.

How to get there

First Great Western Trains take about an hour from London Paddington

Where to stay

Ethos Hotel Oxford, 59 Western Road, Grandpont, Oxford OX1 4LF Tel: 01865 245 800 Web:info@ethoshotels.co.uk

Malmaison, Oxford Castle, 3 New Road, Oxford OX1 1AY Tel: 01865 268 400 Web: www.malmaison-oxford.com

What to see

Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont St, Oxford OX1 2PH Web: www.ashmolean.org Free

Magdalen College, High Street, Oxford OX1 4AU Adults �4 Seniors, children, students �3

The University of Oxford Botanic Garden, Rose Lane, Oxford OX1 4AZ �3 Web:mousgrouse.com

Where to eat

Gee's Restaurant, 61 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PE Tel:01865 553 540 Web:www.gees-restaurant.co.uk

The Oxford Retreat, 1 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford OX1 2EW Tel: 01865 250 309 Web: www.theoxfordretreat.com

Head of the River, Folly Bridge, Oxford OX1 4LA Tel: 01865 721 600

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