Oxford at Christmas: a car-free trip to a city of dreaming spires

The city’s cultural highlights are part of a Christmas-tinged visit – by rail and bus – that also includes a walk by the Thames and Blenheim Palace’s festive extravaganza

A gust of cinnamon from a pine-wreathed glühwein stand while the carousel plays Frosty the Snowman, and neon snowflakes decorate the neoclassical columns. A Pavlovian sense of festivity fights with my inner Scrooge. On the journey, there were still smudges of autumnal ochre on the wooded hills outside the train window. But Oxford, an hour’s ride from London’s Marylebone station, is in Christmas mode.

I’m planning festive cultural tourism in my old home city, including visits to places in Philip Pullman’s books; His Dark Materials is currently enlivening Sunday nights as a BBC One drama. First stop is the Ashmolean Museum, 10 minutes’ walk from Oxford station. The world’s first museum has had a £61m revamp in the last decade and ancient treasures are newly revealed. The Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition (adult £12.25, 12-17s £6, until 12 January 2020) recreates Roman feasts from mosaics, rusty pruning hooks and carbonised pomegranates.

Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Ashmolean Museum. Photograph: Emily Jarrett

Next up is a display of maps in the Bodleian’s new Weston Library (free, until 8 March 2020). There’s CS Lewis’s sketch map of Narnia and a Victorian “drink map” of Oxford showing all the pubs, such as the centuries-old White Horse next door, visited by crime writer Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse character and Pullman’ Lyra Belacqua. Over the road, I climb into the Sheldonian Theatre’s cupola (£3.80) for an all-round view of the city’s towers and bridges.

The university’s 39 self-governing colleges each have stuff to explore, from the marble statue of drowned Shelley in University College to Christopher Wren’s sundial outside All Souls. I’m visiting just one: Exeter, Pullman’s alma mater and the model for his fictional Jordan College. It is open to visit, free, most afternoons. I wander into the jewel-like chapel with its stained glass and William Morris tapestry, before heading out to the garden bench (where Lyra sits) overlooking Radcliffe Square. Seeing the cobbles from this odd angle, framed by an exotic strawberry tree on the high garden wall, feels like wandering into a parallel universe. There’s a similar strangeness stepping out of the wintry Botanic Garden (adult £5.45, under 16s free) into the steamy hothouses, full of pitcher plants and water lilies.

Two minutes away, Keepers Kitchen and Bar opened earlier this year in the Mercure Eastgate hotel, where I’m staying (and where JRR Tolkien dined). The bee-themed restaurant likes to flavour dishes with Cotswold honey, including the keepers pizza with roast veg and rocket (£11.95) and a honey bubble cocktail, featuring vodka, raspberries and prosecco (£8.50).

Greenhouse and Magdalen Tower, University of Oxford Botanic Garden, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, UK.
Greenhouse and Magdalen Tower, University of Oxford Botanic Garden. Photograph: Dylan Garcia/Alamy

Next day is cold and grey. Perfect for a culture crawl, my excuse to visit log-fire-warmed pubs while wandering three miles up the Thames to Wolvercote. I’m too early for the Eagle and Child, meeting place of the Inklings (a literary group that included CS Lewis and Tolkien), but there’s great coffee and brownies at Common Ground, which popped up round the corner on Little Clarendon Street last year.

On through the Jericho neighbourhood and into the sandalwood-scented, byzantine interior of St Barnabas church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary with music and festivals. The church features in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and was commissioned by Thomas Combe, an early patron of the pre-Raphaelites. Hardy worked for the architect here in the 1860s. More recently, the writer Heathcote Williams lived nearby. His polemic Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit (2016) was posthumously reissued this summer and his equally prescient Autogeddon (1991) inveighed against the lethal tyranny of cars.

Strolling up the canal and over Port Meadow, I reach riverside Binsey with its thatched pub, The Perch (another Morse and Inklings favourite), where Lewis Carroll first gave readings of Alice in Wonderland. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ 1879 poem, Binsey Poplars, lamented the felling of local trees and the human tendency to “hack and rack the growing green”.

Flooded Port Meadow, Oxford.
Flooded Port Meadow. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

The Thames Path is still just passable heading north but there is currently floodwater on both sides. Swans, gulls, geese and cormorants crowd onto grassy islands and the line of spires and domes fades into misty distance. Another mile along the river, I pass ruined Godstow Priory and the Trout Inn, with its peacock-haunted garden, and follow the road into Wolvercote village for tea at beamed Jacob’s Inn. The Oxford Bus Company’s (one of the UK’s greenest) No 6 runs from nearby Home Close every 15 minutes back into Oxford (£2.30).

Later, I catch the No 3 eastwards to meet friends at the Magdalen Arms, a gastropub that offers a early evening menu with a glass of house wine for £12 (Mon-Fri 5.30pm-6.30pm). We try some delicious things à la carte, the most memorable being a melting pear and almond tart (£6.60). Lots of Oxford’s best restaurants are in the east, such as bakery-cafe Silvie or the Sri Lankan Coconut Tree.

The Trout Inn, Oxford.
The Trout Inn. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

I take the Stagecoach S3 bus to Woodstock on my last day, for a walk round the Blenheim estate, one of Capability Brown’s largest landscape designs. The palace has newly transformed itself into an enjoyably OTT Alice-in-Wonderland fantasia (until 5 Jan): every corridor is a wintry extravaganza and a clockwork Queen of Hearts rotates beside the state-room tapestries. Jaunty ragtime music serenades a Mad Hatter’s tea party in the Long Library, where projected playing cards swirl across portraits of Queen Anne and the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Blenheim (palace, park and gardens £27, 5-16s £16, family 2+2 £67.50) offers 30% off regular entry to people who get here by public transport and, working with Good Journey, attracted more than 20,000 extra car-free visitors in 2019.

Blenheim Palace light show, at night, Christmas 2019. Oxford, UK.
Blenheim Palace. Photograph: Richard Haughton/©Blenheim Palace 2019

There are buses back to Oxford until late. The No 7 stops at Oxford Parkway, an out-of-town station that opened in 2015 with regular trains to London, so I can stay and see the spectacular mile-long trail of Christmas lights that winds through Blenheim’s gardens (£20, no bus discount, until 1 Jan). There are lasers, pulsing vines, tunnels of pea lights, a rose garden full of flaming torches, and the spot-lit bust of Winston Churchill, who was born here. For me, the most beautiful moments are when the lights enhance the existing landscape: the floodlit intricacies of a craggy oak or stately cedar, the rainbow incandescence of a winter-fierce waterfall, crossed by a twinkling bridge. Even my inner Scrooge is enchanted.

Train travel provided by Chiltern Railways (advance single tickets from London to Oxford from £5.40). Accommodation was provided by Mercure Oxford Eastgate (doubles from £140 room-only)

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Phoebe Taplin

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