Wednesday 18 July 2018

Oxford: Back to city of my dreams, by the hand and heart

Short breaks in the UK

A view of the town from the dreaming spires — Radcliffe Square in Oxford
A view of the town from the dreaming spires — Radcliffe Square in Oxford
Raymond Blanc's cookery school near Oxford
Susan Jane White

Susan Jane White

I'm on an airport coach, gazing out the window, squeaking like a lurcher going walkies. Oxford was home for six years of my life. I love this city with a berserk ferocity that would rival front row seats of a Lady Gaga concert.

I've come here on my own for some headspace: that honeyed spot where stimulation meets relaxation.

Every corner I turn, nostalgia arrests my body and my breath. From the outside, I must look like someone suffering from a loose pelvic floor. 48 hours in this town is not nearly enough. And yet, is so often too much.

Let me take you around this city by the hand and heart. We'll start on High Street, where we dismount our airport steed and throw our luggage into our rooms.

Accommodation in Oxford is perfectly dreadful, given the captive tourism and overexcited Mastercards thrown into the mix. There are a small handful of central hotels worth seeking out - Malmaison, the Old Bank and the Old Parsonage.

The former two are less than five minutes from the aircoach stop on High Street. Score. The first choice, Malmaison, is a converted historic jail with fuzzy velvet interiors, smooth leather rocking chairs and a snifter of London hipsteria. The heavy iron stairway and bared windows give guests a real Bad Boy roast, alongside quirky allusions to the building's murky past.

Susan Jane White
Susan Jane White

With your luggage happily stowed, take brunch at St Mary's cafe (University Church of St Mary the Virgin), aptly named Vaults & Garden, located near the aircoach stop on High Street. Here you'll find field-to-fork canteen choices, matcha lattes, seasonal crumbles and snaking queues of Burberry jackets.

Try to beat the lunchtime traffic. The garden tables offer unrivalled views of Oxford's neoclassical landmark, the Radcliffe Camera.

Directly across the road, another excellent choice for brunch is The Quod with its hot buttermilk pancakes, vanilla cream porridge and cargo of cold-pressed juices. Bag a table at one of the large windows by the exposed brickwork, to watch the swarms of late students duck through laneways anxiously finding their tutorials.

You mustn't miss climbing St Mary's tower after brunch, and before the tourist spill. It is bang centre of one of the most recognisable skylines in the world. Buggy folk or grandparents won't mind missing out on this, sipping loose leaf Earl Grey tea in the cafe underneath, and sampling their fresh scones with cultured cream.

A short trot east leads you to Magdalen College, Oscar Wilde's playground.

For a few quid, you can enter this remarkably Instagrammable college during afternoon public hours. Small (and big) kids should bring their holly wands to tastefully torment passing students. Jump on a gondola at Magdalen Bridge, and pay (or bewitch) an unsuspecting student to punt you downstream.

Raymond Blanc's cookery school near Oxford
Raymond Blanc's cookery school near Oxford

Bin your map. That's right! This town is best navigated with a bad sense of direction. When our eyes are glued to a map, the most exciting parts are often missed. Let your feet lead the way for the rest of the afternoon. Every laneway holds a scintilla of Harry Potter or Inspector Morse to drive the nose wild.

Onwards to Evensong at New College Chapel, only seven minutes from Magdalen Bridge. Aside from Forest Avenue, Shostakovich and the Swiss Alps, this is as close to God as I will ever get. A medieval church of magnetic beauty, New College Chapel is home to one of the leading choral ensembles in the world with male trebles ranging from age six to 56. The youngest are clad in tall Victorian ruffled collars, intensifying the spellbinding charms of the chapel. A candlelit Anglican service is sung daily at 6:15pm, and welcomes people of all faiths seeking solace.

Then wrap up your first day in Oxford with a fancy meal at Gee's Restaurant on the Banbury Road. Turn left as you exit New College, take your first right towards Keble College and follow the street until you naturally stop at a junction with Banbury Road.

Gee's is a Victorian glass house with dizzyingly good Oxfordshire produce. Soft jazz provides the perfect antidote to tired limbs, as does their extensive British wine list.

If you are travelling in the summer, do dine on the river at Cherwell Boathouse and order their fresh salty oysters with at least one bottle of crisp bubbly. The sun will set across the river, searing the day's activities into your memory bank.

The following morning after breakfast and a delicious lie-in, nab a complementary bike from your hotel's concierge.

Amble around town before arriving at the Pitt Rivers Museum on Parks Road, easily one of the most bizarre and exciting museums of Europe. The anthropological artefacts of a world famous explorer, General Pitt Rivers, are snuggled inside. I could spend 48 hours here alone. The building is joined at the waist to Oxford University's Museum of Natural History. Both are hauntingly beautiful. You'll find everything from ancient 30ft skellies to freaky medical implements. Entrance is free.

After checking out of your room, jump in a cab to Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons just a 15 minute ride from Oxford centre. Don't worry about pronouncing it - locals know it as Le Manoir for it is one of Britain's oldest and finest dining experiences. But dear Lucifer, dodge rush hour or you'll pay triple the cab fare.

Le Manoir sits in direct contrast to last night's boho vibes at Malmaison. Here, you can expect thick-carpeted rooms with neat open fires and perfectly unpawed upholstery. I immediately took to lounging about, like a mischievous moneyed flaneur. There was a bubblebath before dinner; chocolates and coffee smuggled into our room, with the air of an honest drunk; and Tip the Can in the garden (eh, the aforementioned bubblebath was in fact our brain bathing in sparkling wine). We were tanked with childish excitement.

At seven o'clock, we take our seats in the fully booked restaurant alongside a British family celebrating a milestone birthday, and two lovers giddy in each other's orbit. We are all here to submit to Raymond Blanc's brilliance. (We also secretly want Blanc to skip out of the kitchen and punctuate the air with "ooh la las" and saucy winks).

It is immediately obvious that the menu here takes a lot of hard graft and peerlessly fresh ingredients from their own gardens. You've probably noticed the trend among hoteliers to big up seasonal produce and cutesy kitchen gardens. Rarely do they amount to more than a disinherited patch of micro herbs or a polytunnel of chaos. Le Manoir is All Garden. There is a honeybee hive, a big fragrant orchard, an encyclopaedic glasshouse of chilis, acres of roaming sheep, and endless columns of greens that would even impress North Korean army generals. If vegetables did opera, this would be it.

The theatre involved with each dish is dazzling, as if our meal was taken over by Baz Luhrman. The kale is so tender, I think they must read bedtime stories to the patch and water it with camomile tea. Their hand-churned butter is practicably kissable. And the intensity of their tomato broth made me disproportionately tearful. This was an evening heavy with reverie.

Although a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, nothing about Le Manoir is stuffy or conceited. The staff are uniquely brilliant - a winning combination of professional yet fun.

And while your wallet will certainly get a good workout here, it's worth remembering that great food and stellar service shouldn't be wasted on the rich.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Picnic & theatre

I've done many perfectly forgettable cookery courses. But Le Manoir's Chocology workshop was a hot, steamy geyser of excitement. No need to stay overnight to partake in Le Manoir cookery calendar events.

Picnic & theatre

Spring term sees a profusion of outdoor student productions. Catch an Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare in the sumptuous surroundings of individual Oxford University colleges, such as Merton, for as little as £5.

Get there

Flights to London Heathrow are available nationwide with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), starting from €65.

Then it’s a simple 90-minute bus journey from Heathrow bus station to Oxford. A return ticket costs £30 (€34). Only sterling is accepted on the bus. There are various cash machines available throughout Heathrow upon arrival.

I recommend a brief stay at the quirky Hotel Malmaison from €147 for a cell room at the epicentre of Oxford. Check out booking.com for best rates.

A luxury break at Raymond Blanc’s Relais Chateaux gaff, Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, starts from €678 per double room. Of course it’s not really one night. It’s a lifetime. You can find good deals with mrandmrssmith.com.

Susan Jane White is a regular columnist for the Sunday Independent's LIFE Magazine, cookbook author, and mother of two high-speed vandals

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