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City of dreaming spires, and TV murder victims

Costa Rica

Oxford is one of the most familiar cities in Britain, after London, even for people who have never been there. Its fine wide streets and noble buildings – even its pubs - have been the backdrop for countless TV programmes and films, from Lewis to Harry Potter. I checked out the attractions of this day-out or short stay destination, from Einstein’s’ blackboard, via a Christopher Wren theatre to one of Britain’s best indoor markets. Recently the wonderful old Ashmolean re-opened after a complete internal remake, as one of the most impressive museums in the world. Picture - display in new Ashmolean, November 2009, by the author.

Stroll city

The marvel of Oxford is that so many attractions are within an easy stroll of the railway station (train is the best way to get here – otherwise use park and ride as city-centre parking is diabolical). Shops, colleges, the excellent covered market and gracious buildings such as Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre are all close together. A favourite walk of mine leads via the City Museum to Christ Church College, (the Great Hall is Hogwarts Hall in the Harry Potter movies). It even has its own cathedral. A man in a shiny bowler hat patrols the main gate on St Aldates. Walk on through the water meadows alongside the Thames and Cherwell, past the spot where James Sadler became the first Briton to fly (in a balloon) in 1784, to the University Botanic Garden, the oldest in Britain. Then back to the Bodleian Library (its Divinity School is the Hogwarts library) for the 1 hour tour.

Pitt Stop.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of my favourite Museums anywhere in the world. It reopened in May, 2009, after a Lottery-funded makeover. This is a spectacularly diverse (and free) collection of the objects that make people different. Splendidly old-fashioned display cases are crammed with the unexpected - Hawaiian feather cloaks in brilliant shades of red and yellow, ceremonial ivories from Benin, actors’ masks from Japanese Noh dramas, baskets in so many shapes and sizes, Inuit fur parkas, decorated moccasins and magic amulets. Lt.-General Pitt Rivers made an original gift of 18,000 objects in 1884, some collected on Captain Cook''s Voyage in the 1770s. Later travelers have added a further 300,000 objects. It adjoins the Museum of Natural History, with its dodo and display on Alice in Wonderland.

The Ashmolean, in Oxford, reopened to the public in November 2009 following a lavish redevelopment. There are 39 new galleries in the new building, designed by architect Rick Mather. The Ashmolean now has a world-class building to match its world-class collections.

Arranged over five floors, it provides 39 new galleries and 100% more display space than the former building. There is room for thousands of objects previously in storage to be displayed. New environmental controls allow even rare and fragile items to be displayed.

Locations to kill for

Even if you have never been there, I bet you already know Oxford, through Morse and Lewis, the Harry Potter films, the Golden Compass and Brideshead Revisited. You could easily find your way around the settings for so many books, TV series and films, but the city’s official guides know where the bodies are buried, so to speak, in Jericho and the other blood-spattered districts of fictional Oxford. Other tours take in the haunts of Iris Murdoch and Dorothy L. Sayers, the Victorian art of the Pre-Raphaelites and some of the finest stained glass in Britain, and much more. The guides have the direct route into the colleges, settings for many a TV drama. These ancient cloisters, right in the city centre, may seem a little snooty. But they were here first, some in the 1200s. Or peer in for nothing through wrought iron gates. Oxford Information Centre, 15-16 Broad Street, 01865 726871.

Einstein was here

When Albert Einstein gave a lecture in Oxford in 1931, adding detail to his Theory of Relativity, some bright spark had the foresight to remove the blackboard with the five lines of (to many of us) totally baffling Picasso-like equations which the 20th-century’s foremost genius had written, put it a glass frame and save it for posterity in the Museum of History of Science. This is another of the city’s prodigious museums. Said to be the world’s first public collection, it was founded in 1685. (It’s free.) The scope is science from antiquity to the 20th-century. In no particular order I liked the microphone on which Nellie Melba sang Home Street Home, a handbook for young chemists on how to make gunpowder, Lawrence of Arabia’s archaeology camera, one of the oldest pendulum clocks, and a very convincing drawing of the moon from 1795.

Bella Italia

Only world leaders and the glitterati get to try Jamie Oliver’s cooking at first hand. The next best way to savour the young whiz’s menus is in one of his restaurants, where chefs follow his direction. In Jamie’s Italian (200 yards from the city centre, on George Street), the menu is driven by what ordinary people are eating in Italy. Rustic, simple dishes, a mix of fresh pasta, local seasonal ingredients and Italian imports, prepared and served without fuss. Details include tea towel napkins, mirrors in old frames on brick walls, photos of Jamie in Italy and jazz softly playing. They don’t take bookings, so prepare to wait. On my visit service was cheerful and brisk. I had baked chestnut mushrooms with smoked scamosa cheese, followed by Spaghetti Bolognese - “old school classic ragu of beef, pork, herbs, chianti, parmesan and homemade pasta.” (On a Saturday, pre-theatre, arriving at 5pm we were seated in 10 minutes.)

Thirst degree

Some famous names, literary fiction and a very unusual use of bar profits collide in the convivial old Lamb and Flag on the broad boulevard of St. Giles. Thomas Hardy set the seduction of his hero Jude by the barmaid in Jude the Obscure in this 300 year old hostelry. Graham Greene was so smitten by a real barmaid he compared her to Queen Nefertiti. And Morse, Lewis and Bill Clinton have all popped in for a drink. I ordered a pint of Betty Stogs (Skinners Brewery -Champion Best Bitter, 2008) and found a cosy nook, content that owners St John’s College will use all the profits to fund needy students. The college also own the even older Eagle and Child, directly opposite, where Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), C.S.Lewis (Narnia) and other friends in the Inklings used to meet.

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