Oxford Excursion

This famous university town is a welcome respite from hectic London and a great place to teach the kids a history lesson or two.


Has the madness of London got you wanting to set your hair on fire? You aren’t alone. We arrived in London at the beginning of an extended European tour. Yet after a few days of museums and cathedrals, the insane traffic and hectic pace of the city had me reaching for the matches. Friends prescribed bucolic Oxford as the requisite remedy.

Oxford is home to England’s oldest and arguably most prestigious university—the one where Bill didn’t inhale—and is an easy day-trip from London. Nestled where the River Cherwell meets the Thames, entry into the city center is via one of three bridges. This results in a downtown with limited access to cars, making it delightfully pedestrian and cyclist friendly.

Oxford boasts that the Park and Ride movement was pioneered there. There is a hidden message in that boast; simply put, “car” and “Oxford” should only be used in the same sentence if joined by the phrase “please leave yours at our doorstep.” The frequent train connections between London’s Paddington Station and Oxford take between 60 to 90 minutes depending on whether the train is a local or an express.

What to See

Once in Oxford, head straight for the Tourist Information Center (TIC). There you can get ideas on what to see and do during your visit and they will supply you with a map so you can easily find your way. The TIC is well signposted as a white i on a blue background and is about a half-mile from the train station. Take one of the frequent local buses or walk the pleasant route over Hythe Bridge. Keep a sharp eye out for the i signs and you can’t miss it.

Many sights and activities are just a few blocks from the TIC, including the Museum of the History of Science (free) and the Bodleian Library, which contains one of 48 known copies of Gutenberg’s Bible. Many of the University of Oxford’s 39 colleges, including Christ Church and Merton are also within walking distance. 

Some of Oxford’s colleges date back to 1264. Kings, saints, sinners and many others who left their mark on history once walked the halls, including:

  • John Wycliffe
  • Dr. Seuss (really)
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Stephen Hawking
  • C.S. Lewis

During our family’s stay we started by visiting places that served as inspiration for The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien’s Tree in the Botanical Gardens of Christ Church meadows) but quickly became consumed busying ourselves with discovering how many places we could find from scenes in Harry Potter.

Getting Around: Bike or Punt

Renting Bikes 

We found that cycling is a great way to get around Oxford and the near environs. You can rent a bicycle for about ₤10 per day at the Bike Zone or Cycloanalysis.  Repeat after me: ride on the left, ride on the left, ride on the left. You do not want to find out that lorrie isn’t a girl’s name like I did.

Early one morning my mind was not focused on trivial matters such as staying alive, but instead on more pressing matters like finding a Starbucks; I was cycling on the right. I was exchanging morning pleasantries with a truck driver after cashing in a Get Out Of Death Free card with my guardian angel, and I couldn’t understand why he kept referring to himself as Laurie.  Only later did someone explain that he wasn’t Laurie, but his truck was.  Rather his truck is a lorrie. I simply thought it was a Big Freaking Truck.

You’ve been warned. 

River Punting

One of the most popular pastimes in Oxford is punting, which has nothing to do with kicking a pigskin on the fourth down. A punt is similar to a canoe, only much more stable due to its flat bottom, and is propelled along the river by use of a pole.

Although the Thames is the most famous of Oxford’s rivers, the city is surrounded by many fine waterways where you can take the family punting. We chose the River Cherwell near the Magdalen Bridge. Head downstream past Christ Church Meadow and you’ll ultimately end up at the Thames. Keep a firm grip on that pole as you push yourself along; the river bottom is muddy in this area and you wouldn’t want to find yourself suddenly down the creek without your “paddle.” Despite the popularity, once past the immediate vicinity of Magdalen Bridge, punting is a quiet, rural experience.

Where to Eat

Ten quid (better known as British Pounds Sterling) for lunch at a restaurant is considered a bargain. Ouch.

If you are in town for only a day, drop in any supermarket downtown and buy the makings for a simple lunch and take it to one of the many college quads in town for a memorable picnic. Using the supermarket for lunch will not only help with the cost of the meal, but you also save on the VAT (17.5%) and gratuity (another 15%). An added bonus is that shopping for groceries is always an interesting window into different cultures. For example, for your picnic, skip the peanut butter and pick up a jar of Vegemite instead. If it doesn’t suit your tastes, Vegemite also makes superb axle grease.

Don’t want to go to the market? When you want a fast but memorable lunch, and spend less than five quid, try Pret A Manger (French for “ready to eat”) right around the corner from TIC.

Extended Stays

There’s so much to see and do in Oxford that you can easily justify spending several days there. Tourist Information can help you find overnight accommodations. Flashpackers will be happy to know there is a great campground within walking distance from the city center; it also has a bus stop at its entrance for those days with less than blue skies.

For something that go beyond a simple hotel, the rural area surrounding Oxford has superb working farms that can double as a place to call home for a few nights. Farm stays are a great way to meet local folks and be greeted with a hearty English breakfast in the morning.

While walking the grounds of a world renowned university provides a great segue for a history lesson, our most cherished memory of Oxford was simply time spent on a punt. Hopefully the history lessons about Tolkien and Gutenberg’s Bible will be remembered, but gratefully the time spent together won’t be forgotten. 

[Check out other day trips from London in our Family Friendly Day Trips article.] 

Destinations: Oxford, London

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

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