Everyone knows that Oxford is a stunningly beautiful place, especially when the sun is shining, but in addition to its picture-postcard medieval and Neoclassical buildings, it also has some wonderful green spaces perfect for a contemplative stroll of a warm afternoon. Below are some of my favourites!
Perhaps the best known walks in Oxford are on two of its meadows, Port Meadow and Christ Church Meadow. The Port Meadow, on the west side of Oxford between the Thames and the Oxford Canal, has been common grazing land continuously since long before its mention in the Doomsday Book, and it’s not uncommon to be joining a herd of cows or horses on your ramble across. The Meadow is also graced by two lovely pubs, the Perch on its west end and the Trout in Wolvercote at its north-east corner, and by the ruins of Godstow Nunnery.
Christ Church Meadow is a large parcel of land to the south of the college for which it is named, bordered to its east by the Cherwell River and on its south by the Isis (Thames) and many of the college boathouses. The actual meadow and its grazers are fenced in, but there is a lovely tree-lined path all the way around, and it’s particularly lovely in the spring when the daffodils are out in huge swathes and the first of the punts are taking to the river.
Both meadows are open to the public, although opening hours of Christ Church Meadow’s several gates vary with the season.
Just east of the Meadow, on the tip of the High Street before Magdalen Bridge, is the entrance to the University’s Botanic Garden. Founded in 1621, it is the oldest botanic garden in the UK, and well worth a visit pretty much all year round, although it’s obviously a particular delight on a sunny spring or summer day. The grounds are a perfect place for a picnic, either under a spreading tree by the flower beds or down by the curve if the river, and the greenhouses are fantastically lush (well, all but the Desert House, of course). The Garden does charge an admission for visitors, but entrance is free for any Oxford or Oxford Brookes students and staff.
The other large green space with plenty of trees within the bounds of the city centre is University Parks, known locally as ‘Uni Parks’, purchased by the University from Merton College in the 1850s, and graced at its center by a lovely Victorian cricket pavilion. It can be accessed by a number of gates, or by watercraft along the Cherwell, which runs along its eastern edge. (This being Oxford, the small stretch of the park which extends between the split upper and lower levels of the Cherwell is known as ‘Mesopotamia’, Greek for ‘between the rivers’.)
Elsewhere in Oxford, one can take a walk in the wonderfully named Aston’s Eyot in East Oxford, on the other side of the river from Christ Church Meadow, to see adorable muntjac deer, or observe a herd of rather larger fallow deer in the Deer Grove of Magdalen College (which also includes the beautiful Addison’s Walk and is open to non-college members most afternoons). Trinity and New College (to name just two) also have lovely gardens.
For those of a literary bent, an afternoon could be spent in a worse way than finding the tombstones of Kenneth Grahame, Charles Williams, and scores of illustrious Oxford dons in Holywell Cemetery, off St Cross Road. If you’re in search of a vista, South Parks in East Oxford has a high hill which provides a marvelous view of the dreaming spires.
Slightly further afield, to the north-west of Oxford, is Wytham Woods. As it is used for University environmental research, you have to apply for a walking permit: I got a great thrill from sending my form off in the post to the ‘Keeper of the Woods on the Hill’ (or something like it), but it turns out that these can also be more prosaically obtained online.
Getting to the woods as a pedestrian from Oxford without getting flattened by multiple lines of traffic is not immediately obvious—I was pleased to be reading Bill Bryson’s Road to Little Dribbling, finding him setting off to walk in the Woods, hoping his description would provide me directions, but alas, he couldn’t find it either. The successful route I eventually settled upon (although there is likely a more direct one) was to hie across the length of Port Meadow, turn left at the ruined nunnery up by Wolvercote, walk about 10-15 minutes along the pavement to the village of Wytham, turn left and then right at the pub, and then turn right again on a road that says ‘Private. No Thoroughfare’ (which obviously doesn’t apply to innocent pedestrians) and continue along that until reaching a very small sign which says ‘PRIVATE’ and beneath it in very small script ‘Wytham Woods, Permit Holders Only’. After which the thing is fairly simple. The bluebells weren’t quite out yet, however, so I shall have to go again.