“City of Dreaming Spires”Matthew Arnold
That is how poet Matthew Arnold described Oxford, during the late middle ages, taking inspiration from the lofty domes of the numerous colleges around the university, that was established way back in the 12th century! It is not really unexpected, that the first thoughts that we always get when we think of Oxfordshire – are about the “University” and the community around them.
For me however, apart from the scholarly ventures, I had always wanted to visit Oxford, when I first came to know that the Harry Potter movies were shot here. So when opportunity came knocking my door, there were no second thoughts.
Plan for 6 hours?
So the plan was very simple – leave early from the hotel where I was staying in (near Heathrow airport), catch a GWR rail to Reading, change to another train to reach Oxford.
If you are coming from London, hop on to a GWR rail from Paddington station and it will drop you at Oxford station in roughly about an hour. Do check if that’s direct train or you might need to hop onto a Cross Country train from Reading.
Return ticket price for one adult from Paddington to Oxford should be around £28. You can plan your journey and check the ticket price here at the GWR rail site: https://www.gwr.com/
Interesting bit is that this train journey from Reading towards Oxford, runs through one of the many AONBs in UK. AONB? Read on.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is an area of countryside in England, Wales or Northern Ireland which has been designated for conservation due to its significant landscape value. Areas are designated in recognition of their national importance, by the relevant public body: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.Wikipedia
So this train journey runs through the middle of North Wessex Downs AONB and Chiltern Hills AONB and is an absolute scenic journey.
Oxford – the streets
Walking around is the best way to experience a historical place like this. From the cobbled streets merging into small by-lanes, overlooking quaint little pubs and cafes – best way to soak in the ambience. So let some images speak for me.
From Oxford train station, we started walking towards the city center – which is actually surrounded by colleges and markets. The first stop was an 11th century church named “St Michael at the North Gate“. Striking thing about this church is the The Saxon Tower next to it. The view, I was told, is to die for. But when we went there, it was closed. The church, however, was little piece of architecture with traditional long arches.
Potter mania and the shop to go
My first tryst with Oxford being a “Harry Potter” fabled town, happened just then. Right across the street, was the House of Wonders. Justifying its name, it was almost like a shop in Diagon Alley that housed all Harry Potter related products, starting from wands to broomsticks to mementos!
Crossing the House of Wonders takes one to another unique place called the Covered Market. It’s very similar to the small English market places in the city center which houses every kinds/types of things one may require. Built on 1774, this market is still holding it’s place in the present. But it’s quite a different and odd feeling to roam inside such a beautiful market when it’s closed and empty (it was a Sunday!).
Potter locations – Christ Church for the Hogwarts dining hall
I had my own plans to see the locations where Harry Potter movies were filmed -of course starting with the grand Dining Hall from Hogwarts school. Incidentally the dining hall sequence was filmed inside Christ College’s own dining space and as per the articles I read before going there, it’s quite a sight. But alas, meandering across the streets of Oxford, when I reached Christ College, it was pretty late for availing the guided tours. So I could only take photos of the grand 550 year old Christ College, standing with all its grandeur.
Entry Fee to the Quads, Cloister, Hall Staircase, Hall and Cathedral. Access in the Hall and Cathedral is £15 (Jan-Dec 2020). This changes yearly, so do check here: https://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/plan-your-visit/tickets-and-prices
Potter locations – Divinity School for Hogwarts Infirmary
But I didn’t loose hope missing out this one. The other two obvious shooting locations were The Divinity School and the New College cloisters.
Once you enter The Divinity School, you can easily recognize it to be the Hogwarts infirmary. It was here Harry woke up after fighting Voldemort in the Philosopher’s Stone movie and in the Prisoner of Azkaban, this is where Harry and Hermione uses Time Turner to save Sirius Black.
Entry fee to The Divinity School is £2.
New College campus for Hogwarts campus scenes
Next on my wish-list was the New College cloisters where most of the Hogwarts campus scenes were shot. Surprisingly this was closed for 3 days After I had nudged along for almost 30 mins while loosing my way to find it, I was devastated to know that the campus was closed to outside visitors. The strict security guard had a consoling smile after looking at my expression!
Entry fee to this place is £5 and it’s a self-guided tour itself.
So was my Harry Potter trail complete? Actually far from it, yet the experience in the Divinity School will be something I will cherish forever.
But then Oxford is always more than just Harry Potter. You can go punting out here, just like in Cambridge. Since I had already done punting in Cambridge and it was pretty cold in Oxford, I skipped it here. Read more about punting here on my Cambridge travel post: https://honumanshongothon.com/2018/08/07/the-city-of-colleges-cambridge/
There are actually lots of cafes around the town along with the standard fare of McD, Nandos and others. But I was suffering from bad cold, so thought a hot bowl of noodles might just do the trick. So I landed up in a joint called Itsu, a British chain of East Asian-inspired fast food shops and restaurants. Tucked inside Oxford WestGate, this place served noodle bowls and I ordered a bowl of char-grilled chicken Udon noodles with loads of veggies! For a start, it was piping hot, so just what the doctor ordered for my otherwise sore throat. Taste-wise, bland to start with but a little dip of soya sauce, brought back the zing and I finished it no time!
Being a town known for its quest of knowledge, Oxford does throw in that bit of culture here and there. Like this restaurant whose glass walls were decorated with mathematical equations (does A Beautiful Mind ring a bell?). Roaming around the streets in circles, I found that those 6 hours just went past in a ziffy and before long, our train back home was there.
So Oxford, you fascinated me, just as Cambridge did before. Not to forget, my wish to be right in place where Harry Potter movies were filmed, was a dream come true. It is a town inhabited mostly by the academicia, and life here is unhurried, almost ideallic, except during Autum of course, which is the start of the university term! Visit during the English summer, and you will get a taste of the summer so vividly described in all our child hood fairly tales!
“Summer here is more summary than anywhere else I know; not hotter, certainly not sunnier, but more like summers used to be, in everyone’s childhood memories”Jan Morris on Oxfordshire
So soon we will be back with more travel stories around the globe and near to us.