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Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

Oxford, in my mind, is probably as equally well-known as a university town as it is for the television series about the fictional detective, the opera-loving, often morose, Inspector Morse. 

Despite its strong connections to Oxford and the university – Colin Dexter, the author of the novels that the series is based on, worked at the University of Oxford for more than twenty years – Morse, a brilliant and perceptive detective, surprisingly did not receive a degree from any of the city’s famous schools.

I don’t remember much about Oxford from my only visit in the early 1970s but watching the series, which was filmed around the city and the university, made me long to return and do a proper tour.

I found a free 2-hour walking tour with Footprints Tours  (If you have a good time, leave us a tip. If not, it was nice to meet you! their website declares) and met the group at Oxford City Center – an easy, 15 minute walk from the train station.

I was late joining the tour and was surprised to hear the guide’s American accent. It felt disorienting to be on a tour of Oxford, England and hear the accent I left in New York. That’s not to take anything away from the guide, who was very enthusiastic, or the tour, which was chock full of history, insider information, and not one boring moment.

Oxford – a short back story

Oxford started humbly, very humbly in AD900 as a river crossing. The name comes from the Old English words (ox/ford) which mean a place (ford) for oxen (ox) to cross. Today, it is a city of approximately 160,000 and home to the University of Oxford, the oldest English-speaking university in the world. The university has been around since at least the 12th century, its earliest colleges – there are 30 of them in all – since the 13th century. 

A Few Places to See

The Sheldonian Theatre: Located on Broad Street, The Sheldonian got its name from Gilbert Sheldon, a chancellor at the University of Oxford. The theatre was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral among other notable buildings). Construction started in 1664 and continued until 1669. The Sheldonian is used for lectures, concerts and graduations. 

Oxford The Sheldonian Emperor

The Sheldonian ‘Emperor’

Thirteen heads, called herms, or termains, philosophers and emperors, each wearing a different beard greet visitors to the Broad Street entrance to the Sheldonian. It’s unclear what they mean or why there are thirteen of them.

Oxford, Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera: Built between 1737 and 1748, the Radcliffe Camera (Latin for vaulted room or chamber) is a science library. The library got its name from John Radcliffe, a medical doctor who left the funds for its construction. 

Oxford Hertford Bridge

Hertford Bridge

The Hertford Bridge over New College Lane connects Hertford College’s administrative offices and its students’ accommodations. A popular landmark, it is referred to as the Bridge of Sighs. Just past the bridge, on the left, is the entrance to the alley to Turf Tavern.

Christ Church College: Known officially as The Dean, Chapter and Students of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford of the Foundation of King Henry the Eighth, Christ Church is the only academic institution that is also a cathedral. Part of the University of Oxford, Christ Church is the alma mater of politicians, including several British prime ministers, scientists, philosophers, academics and entertainers. 

“Find us if you can, and you’ll be back.”

Turf Tavern: Walk down St. Helens Passage, a narrow alley off Hertford Bridge, and you’ll arrive at The Turf Tavern, an Oxford institution that has been around in one form or another since the 13th century. Once a malt house, a cider house in 1775 and an inn, The Spotted Cow in 1790, it became the Turf Tavern in 1847.

Among the well-known who have passed through its doors – I hope none of them bumped their heads on the low beam near the bar – are Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, Oscar Wilde, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Burton. 

The Bear Inn: Dating to 1242, the Bear Inn is the oldest pub in Oxford. It is also well know for its collection of ties from the early 1900s. You can find it on the corner of Alfred and Blue Boar Streets.

I could have spent an entire day walking around Oxford and probably not see the same thing twice. It is a beautiful city with spectacular buildings from all of England’s architectural styles. 

Oxford Travel Essentials

Oxford is accessible by train from London’s Paddington Station, and by coach from Victoria, Marble Arch, Notting Hill Gate, Shepherd’s Bush.  

 

Linking this week to Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Nancie at Budget Travellers Sandbox, Ruth at Tanama Tales, Jan at Budget Travel Talk, and Rachel at Rachel’s Ruminations.

Budget Travelers Sandbox
 
 

Stonehenge, Repackaged

Stonehenge was a bit of a disappointment when I saw it in 2011 and for several days after, I tried to figure out why.

One thought was that Stonehenge could not compare to the inflated images I had in my head – images that had been shaped by television, stories I had read and my own very fertile imagination.

Another was that my mind was still fresh from seeing the Eiffel Tower a few days earlier. Unlike Stonehenge, I hadn’t longed to see it or created personal myths around it. It was a blank slate, and when I finally saw it up close, its size left me speechless – and that’s not easy.

The Eiffel Tower soared over the city of Paris like the centerpiece on a spread of buildings against which I could make a quick, visual comparison. I could appreciate its towering scale.

Except for a line of trees in the distance, there is no structure near Stonehenge that I could compare it to, and the flat, open plain that surrounds it makes its 50-ton stones, which are nearly 30 feet high, seem stunted.

The entrance to the monument was unremarkable. My only memory of it was seeing a drawing depicting how Stonehenge would have looked when it was intact.

The Repackaging of Stonehenge

Since my last visit, Stonehenge has had a long overdue overhaul (from some articles I read, it was nearly 30 years in the making).

A handsome new £27,000,000 ($41,000,000) Visitor Center, which echoes the design of Stonehenge’s iconic trilithons, now greets visitors. It houses a ticket office, exhibition space displaying more than 250 artifacts found at the site, a gift shop, gallery, café and restroom facilities.

Since most people never get to see Stonehenge from inside the circle, there is an audio-visual presentation that simulates the view during the summer and winter solstices. During my visit in August, there was an exhibition of postcards, guidebooks and photographs chronicling the different ways that we have experienced and interpreted Stonehenge over the years.

A recreated Neolithic village of thatched cottages occupies a prominent space just outside the Visitor Center. Appropriately, there’s a gigantic sarsen stone that visitors are invited to try to pull. Even though the stone sits atop logs – experts’ best theory of how the builders of Stonehenge moved those massive stones – it was still difficult to move it.

Stonehenge sarsen stone

Larsen stone – Think you can move this?

Stonehenge moving the sarsen stone

Not as easy as it looks

To provide access to the now roped-off stone circle, a trolley service ferries visitors the mile and a half trip from the Visitor Center. The monument is also wheel-chair accessible.

Rounding out the repackaging of Stonehenge, is a larger parking lot that can accommodate cars and tour buses. A minor road that ran through the site has also been closed.

These improvements make Stonehenge the first class facility it always should have been. However, I was shocked by the crass commercialization that it has embraced. To me, mead and curd fit better into the milieu they’ve created than Stonehenge water, shortbread or cheap-looking Made in China baubles.

Linking this week with Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Nancie at Budget Travelers Sandbox, Jan at Budget Travel Talk, Ruth at Tanama Tales and, Rachel at Rachel’s Ruminations 

Budget Travelers Sandbox
 
Also linking to Weekend Travel Inspiration hosted by Rhonda at Albom Adventures, Reflections Enroute, The Crowded Planet, Contented Traveller, Safari24, Families Go! and Malaysian Meanders. 
 
 

 

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites, Pt II

After leaving Stonehenge, we drove through the English countryside towards Bath, arriving there just before lunch. Named  World Heritage Site in 1987, Bath is a picturesque city located on the Avon River in Southwest England, and part of the south Cotswolds. Its well-known Great Bath (Bath Spa) and historic Georgian structures attract more than 250,000 visitors annually. 

What Not to Miss in Bath:

  • The Royal Crescent – Designed by John Wood the Younger, between 1767 and 1774, the 30 Georgian style terraced houses are laid out in a crescent shape.
  • The Circus – John Wood the Elder began construction on the Circus, a group of Georgian style townhouses arranged in a circle, in 1754 but died before he could complete it. His son, John Wood the Younger, finished it in 1768
  • Bath Abbey – The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was founded in the 7th century.
  • Pulteney Bridge – Completed in 1774, the bridge is one of four in the world that have shops that span its full length on both sides.
  • Jane Austen House – the author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, lived in Bath from 1801 – 1806. The center on Gay Street, about a 10 minute walk from the center of town tells the story of Austen’s time in Bath. There’s also a small gift shop with Jane Austen-themed goods. A must for Austen fans!

Westbury White Horse

The Westbury White Horse was not on our itinerary but it’s hard not to miss it standing as it does against the green Westbury Hill. The horse is 180 feet tall, 170 feet wide and was carved around 1778 into the chalk soil of the area.

Westbury White Horse

Westbury White Horse

Silbury Hill

At about 5,000 years old, Silbury Hill is about 130 feet high. It is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. Made primarily of clay, which is all over the area, it is still unclear why it was created.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Located near Silbury Hill – you can see the hill from the barrow – and about 2 miles from Avebury, West Kennet Long Barrow is a prehistoric burial ground about 330 feet (100 meters) long. When its five chambers were excavated, the remains of about 40 adults and children who were buried around 3,600 BC were found along with grave goods, pottery and stone implements.

Avebury

I didn’t know what to expect as we headed towards Avebury from West Kennet Long Barrow. Then I noticed a few small upright stones. If this is it, I thought, I’m not impressed. But our driver kept going. Where was he going? I wondered.

As he continued, I started seeing more and more stones, planted in a row – like fence posts – and they seemed to go on and on.

Whereas the circle at Stonehenge is concentrated in a comparatively small area, Avebury’s circle and ditch are spread over nearly 30 acres.

That is impressive!

Constructed around 2600 BC, with three circles – the outer one measuring 1,088 feet, and a henge 460 feet across – Avebury is the largest stone circle in Europe. Unlike Stonehenge that is in a wide open area where you can see the circle clearly, Avebury’s circle and henge are part of the community with houses close by and a busy main road which dissects the site. 

Avebury circle and village

Part of the circle and village of Avebury

Although Avebury is free and open to the public, it wasn’t overrun by visitors as Stonehenge is. It also isn’t strictly controlled. While we were there, I saw people climbing on top of the stones, sitting on and posing for photos on them. 

If you’d like to see a real henge monument up close and without the crowds, Avebury is the place to go. 

Avebury and Stonehenge were co-listed, along with Durrington Walls, Woodhenge, West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill as Avebury, Stonehenge and Associated Sites, and were inscribed in 1986 to UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Avebury, the Red Lion pub

Avebury, the Red Lion pub

Once you leave the site, walk over to the Red Lion  – look left, look right, then left again before you cross the road – and have a glass of wine, a pint or some fish and chips. It’s not hard to miss.

Avebury, Prince Charles portrait

Avebury, Prince Charles portrait at the Red Lion

PS: You won’t find a pub anywhere near Stonehenge!

Linking to Budget Travelers SandboxRachel’s Ruminations, and Tanama Tales.

Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites, Part I

I didn’t plan to return to Stonehenge – the Neolithic stone circle located on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. I’d been there only a few years ago, in 2011, to be exact. It was during that tour that I heard about Avebury.

If you like Stonehenge and have time, the guide said, you should visit Avebury. It’s quite impressive!

I was intrigued. I couldn’t imagine anything more impressive than Stonehenge. If Avebury is that impressive, I thought, why hadn’t I heard about it?

Disappointed because I was leaving London the following day, I promised that I would visit Avebury on my next trip. I started looking for a tour as soon as I knew I was going. Since all the tours I found included Stonehenge, I concluded that it’d be good to experience both. 

So early one morning in August, I boarded a small tour bus with our guide, Edward, an archeologist from Tours from Antiquity, and about 15 others for a day-long tour of Durrington Walls, Stonehenge, Bath, Silbury Hills and Avebury.

It’s clear now why the tours to Avebury include Stonehenge and I’m glad that I saw them both on the same day. With only a few miles separating them, seeing these sites together makes it easier to understand the context and appreciate their connection. 

Durrington Walls

Our first stop was Durrington Walls. Located about 2 miles from Stonehenge, it is the area where the builders of Stonehenge lived. They were hunter-gatherers who lived in thatched huts and moved around the landscape hunting red deer, wild boar, and aurochs (wild cattle, now extinct).

They’d gather in the thousands in the Durrington Walls area for the winter and summer solstices. Tests done on animal bones found there suggest the animals, some of which came from as far away as Scotland, were killed at about 9 months.

Woodhenge

Located in Durrington, about 1000 yards from Stonehenge, Woodhenge is a six-ring wooden circle that was discovered in 1925. It was built about the same time as Stonehenge and has a similar layout but it is still unclear how the site was used. The posts were of different sizes, with those in the largest ring up to 30 feet (9 m) high. Some of the posts were aligned to the direction of the summer sunrise and the winter sunset. A ditch enclosed the site, making it a true henge. 

The site was excavated by Maud Cunnington who discovered the remains of a 3 or 4-year old child (a cairn marks the spot), who Cunnington interpreted as having been sacrificed. However, scientists have not been able to analyze the remains as they were destroyed when the museum in which they were being held was bombed during World War II. Also found buried among the posts were pottery, tools made of flint, carved chalk objects, and other items of everyday use.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge has changed since my first visit. Now a sprawling new £27,000,000 (about $40,000,000) Visitor Center, a gift shop, a small museum and a replica of a prehistoric village, anchor the site. Visitors are ferried 1 1/2 miles by buses from the Visitor Center to the site of the circle.

The stones were straight ahead as we arrived at the drop-off point and with people already milling around, it was striking how small they looked in comparison to the size of the stones. 

Even though I’ve seen them before, the stones were impressive. I’m happy I visited when I did and that I was able to go inside the circle as access is now restricted, the site now roped off.

A few things to know:

  1. Although it’s called Stonehenge, strictly speaking, it isn’t a henge. A henge is a stone or wooden circle with a ditch on the inside. The ditch at Stonehenge is on the outside. Woodhenge and Avebury are true henges.
  2. Archeologists believe Stonehenge was created around 3000 BC.
  3. Stonehenge was a burial site.
  4. Stonehenge is made up of two circles – an inner circle of smaller bluestones, which weigh about 4 tons and came from the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away in Western Wales, and an outer circle of sarsen stones that weight approximately 50 tons.
  5. Trillithons is a structure created by two large vertical stones topped by a horizontal stone (a lintel). The lintels are secured ‘Lego-like’.
  6. Stonehenge and Avebury were named World Heritage sites in 1986.
  7. There is a £5,000 fine for trespassing.

Stonehenge Travel Essentials

Hours 
Mar 16 – May 31  9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Jun 1 – Aug 31  9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. 
Sept 1 – Oct 15    9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Oct 16 – Mar 15  9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
** Last admission – 2 hours before close

Admission Price: 
Adults (Free for members of English Heritage) £15.50 / $23.93
Children (5-15 years) £9.30 / $14.36
Family (2 adults, 3 children) £40.30 / $62.22