It’s tempting when you visit Oxford, to dash around collecting colleges and ‘dreaming spires’, finding where the Harry Potter films were made and buying an Oxford English dictionary.
These are all admirable things to do and when my daughter is old enough we’ll do exactly that. But for now, I can’t be bothered. My problem is that I live fifteen minutes away by train, so I just pop in when I feel like it. But actually, some of the things I do when I’m there would really give any visitor a feel for the City and the people today, rather than just the history.
Oxford Covered Market springs to mind. I took my daughter there this very morning (she enjoyed her first ever train ride) and we had a great time. The overheard snippets of conversations and accents are beautiful. People were so friendly and happily entered into conversation. But in this lovely hall of quintessential Englishness, I heard only one non-English voice, which means not many tourists are finding the market (although the high street was swarming and I heard loads of foreign accents there).
Inside this beautiful 225-year-old market are about 60 stalls (although they’re more like proper shops, really); traditional butchers who joint their meat in front of your eyes and will prepare things especially to your instructions, if you wish (and yes of course they had traditional British sausages!). The seafood stall proudly displayed dressed crab and oysters atop their mountains of ice as well as just about every kind of fish you could name. The cheese stall offered loads of varieties I’ve never even heard of before (and I’m a real cheese fan). As it’s October, the novelty cake stall was brim-full of cakes shaped like pumpkins, witches on switches, big hairy spider-cakes (and a birthday cake in the shape of a jacket potato for a guy called “Spud”!). The hat stall was sporting beautiful chic narrow-brim winter felt hats with velvet trim in black (or I quite liked the pea-green with deep purple velvet) and the dairy bar called “moo moo” was just opening its shutters for business.
And bang-slap in the middle is something that affirms you are definitely in Blighty; a bright red pillar box (mail box).
So if you’re in Oxford with twenty minutes or more to spare, don’t head for either of the two malls; they’re just like everywhere else. Head instead for the covered market and you’ll be able to have a coffee, lunch or afternoon tea, or buy gifts, jewellery, boots, shoes, clothes, food, even novelty cakes! What more could anyone want?
Well actually, my daughter didn’t want anything at the market. She kept shouting “TRAIN! TRAIN!” in a very excited way until we re-traced our steps and boarded our train carriage for the journey home. I’ve never seen bigger smiles.