Oxford in a Day – Books, Boffins and Beer

Our first week of WWOOFing got off to a great start, with our adventure beginning in the ever so friendly village of Shillingford, at the heart of rural Oxfordshire. Spending our days outside, surrounded by tall trees, noisy geese and serene red kites gliding overhead, we thought we should visit the noble city of Oxford on our day off, giving us a refreshing contrast to village life.

According to Flic’s Google Fit app, we took 19,000 steps around this famous university city. We certainly packed plenty in. We didn’t even take the time to stop for a cup of coffee – usually an essential for us during any city visit. If you fancy a day of culture in this must-see English destination, here’s what we suggest you do:

Oxford Covered Market

Begin your tour with a visit to the covered market, situated appropriately on Market Street, where most local bus connections will drop you off. There’s a delightful selection of craft shops, coffee houses and a butchers with an interesting selection of meat hanging in the window (whole deer anyone?). We stopped off at the Sofie de France Café for hot pork paninis, smothered in tangy barbecue sauce and melted cheese. Should we return, we’d definitely consider Pieminister or the Colombia Coffee Roasters as alternative pit stops.

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Ashmolean

If you’re after a dash of curated culture, your next stop must be the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, about 500m north of the covered market. Wipe the sandwich grease from your fingers and put away your wallet because admission is free (although a donation is encouraged and some temporary exhibitions are ticketed). The museum collection is overseen by the city’s renowned university, and it’s clear the boffins know how to do history. With exhibitions of original artefacts spanning eras and continents, there’s something here to interest everyone. Our highlights were a carved Viking rune stone and an exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige II’s study of Mount Fuji through the seasons – playful yet thoughtful illustrations of Japan’s most famous mountain. We recommend leaving before you get museum fatigue. Don’t try and cover it all. Just pick the bits that interest you, otherwise you could get lost in there all day.

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Blackwells

The same can be said for Blackwells, Oxford University’s original swatting-up shop. It’s perhaps our favourite book shop in the country, although it’s a tough call between this place and Foyle’s in London. Head here for a huge choice of books and while away a good hour with your head between pages. Make sure you explore the higgledy-piggledy building from top to bottom, and don’t miss the spectacular Norrington Room, a great colosseum of literature, or the selection of rare books on display. During our visit we saw a first edition set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, retailing at £14,000 – a little out of our budget.

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University Buildings

We understand that many tourists visit Oxford expecting to find the university as a single building. This is not the case, as the university is split into 38 colleges and 6 additional Permanent Private Halls. This is great for visitors to the city, as there’s plenty of grand university buildings to explore for free, each with their own character. We wandered around Wadham College, with its stunning garden and secretive staircases, and took a look at the brilliant Bodleian Library courtyard. Standing among these sandstone schools, we wished we tried a little harder in school…

You can find a handy list of the colleges online to help you plan your visit. They may be closed to the public at certain times, but there will usually be a sign at the entrance if this is the case.

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Pitt Rivers & Natural History Museum

Some may say that visiting three museums in one day is crazy, but it seems fitting to go intellectually wild in a city like Oxford. So, once you’ve had a peek at those fancy colleges, make your way to the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is helpfully attached to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Apparently 19th Century scholars wanted the two collections to be housed together, but it was very important that things that they thought were created by God, like the humble weasel, were displayed separately to those created by humans, like the samurai sword.

We suggest entering through the Museum of Natural History, immersing yourself in a world of stuffed animals from every continent, under the beautiful gothic revival ceiling. Once you’ve had your fill of taxidermy, head next door to the Pitt Rivers collection, choc full of stuff from all over the world. We started on the second floor, and made our way down from there. Each cabinet is full to the brim with artefacts, be they terrifying Tanzanian knuckle dusters with sharp steel spikes, Fijian children’s toys or, our favourite, keys and locks through the ages.

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Hertford Bridge, or, Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs

When you’ve finally had enough of looking through glass at old objects, clear your mind with a walk towards Magdalen Bridge for a punt, via the picturesque Hertford Bridge on New College Lane. This gently arching skyway joins two parts of Hertford College, presumably to stop the brainiacs’ gowns getting wet between lectures when it’s raining. The bridge is widely referred to as the Bridge of Sighs due to it’s similarities to the Venice landmark of the same name, but its designer Sir Thomas Jackson never intended this, and would presumably be rather irritated that people keep drawing this comparison.

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Punting

Once you’ve waited long enough to take a photo of the bridge without other people in your picture taking a photo for the bridge, stroll on to the Magdalen Bridge Boathouse where you can hire a punt for a trip around Oxford’s waterways. The punts can take up to 5 people and cost £22 per hour. Unfortunately the weather was a little bleak when we arrived, so we gave it a miss. But on a summer’s day, we can imagine no better way to see Oxford. There are several suggested routes, with some staying inside the city and others heading out to the surrounding countryside.

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Cowley Road

With waterways explored, the last stop on your tour should be Cowley Road, the multicultural heart of Oxford. Here, Mediterranean delis, hipster micro pubs, Polish skleps and Indian spice stores all hustle for business. There’s a big student population here too, so this vibrant artery out of the city is the place to go if you fancy something more reasonably priced, and probably tastier, than the rest of the city’s posh nosh.

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Oli’s Thai

For a real treat, we strongly suggest you visit Oli’s Thai on Magdalen Road, just off of Cowley Road. We were told about this place by a trustworthy local bloke, so we thought we ought to check it out. We were told that the restaurant is usually booked up 3 months in advance, but if you arrive just as they open, you may be able to get a seat at the bar. We made our way there for 4:30pm, and were waiting outside with a few other people who had the same idea. If you turn up later and the seats have been taken, fear not. The staff will take your number, point you in the direction of the nearest pub and give you a call when your seats are available.

We have been known to seek out other establishments when the only seats going are at the bar, but we put our prejudices back on the shelf here. We were pleased to see that we were given the same menu as customers that had made reservations, and the friendly bar staff were a cheerful addition to our meal. What’s more, we could just make out the Thai chef in the kitchen frying up pad thai, so we felt as though we had the best seats in the house. What’s more, for all its exclusivity, we left feeling full and a bit tipsy for just over £20 each.

Having spent 60 days in Thailand just a couple of months ago, we were missing Thai food a lot. Food in the UK is comforting, filling and flavoursome but it lacks the freshness, delicacy and sheer heat of Thai cooking. Yet we found all of these qualities in every dish, from the fresh apple and cashew salad that was the closest thing to som tam you’re likely to find on English soil, to the delicate Padang duck curry with a creamy coconut sauce bursting with spicy flavours. This was accompanied with a big plate of pad thai, cooked just how we like it with tofu, egg and crunchy vegetables. For dessert, we splashed out on a custard tart each, the soft, comforting centre and flakey pastry taking us back to breakfasts of dim sum in Penang (which is in Malaysia, but who cares?). As we sipped our bottles of properly regulated Chang, we could have been back on the beach in Koh Lanta, watching the sun go down across the Andaman Sea. Yet we were grateful to be in Oxford, as good a place as any when the food’s so good, the people so friendly and the museums so… museum-y. But enough gushing, it’s time to take the bus home.

It’s Called WWOOFing, Not Dogging

On our travels, two questions we often ask ourselves are, ‘Why did we come here?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’. When we’ve been roaming from place to place, sometimes with no particular purpose, we find it easy to forget why we chose to visit somewhere in the first place. Now we’re back in the UK, we know exactly why we returned sooner than expected, and we’ve taken to the road with a clearer plan than ever before.

For those that don’t already know, we left Vietnam early because our TEFL jobs didn’t work out. We’ve heard that many people have found teaching English in Vietnam to be a great way to make some cash, as well as offering a brilliant lifestyle. This was wasn’t the case for us. The school we had selected from the many that offered us teaching positions turned out to be what we can only describe as a shambles. The proposal that we sleep in a shipping container on the roof for a year, and use a shower in the only toilet in the school, which was also in reception, wasn’t overly appealing, either. When the loaded head teacher (luxury Audi, leather seats, sharp suit, full time banker) put us up in the dodgiest hotel we’d stayed in during our whole time of travelling, we thought it best to leave. This was an existential moment. Where would we go next?

A full survey of the finances and a sleepless night of research led us to the conclusion that we should return to the UK. It would be refreshing to see our friends and family again, winter was nearly over and we hadn’t eaten cheese for a long time.

Yet we didn’t want to return to Brexit Britain as we’d left it, back to a 9 – 5 job, pulling our hair out with stress, crushed by the daily grind. We know that we’re happiest when we’re working outside, alongside like minded people, learning new things. We wanted to find a way to see our own country through fresh eyes, exploring places we’ve never even considered visiting, despite living here for over 20 years. But would this be possible on a shoestring budget?

First of all we looked to Diggers and Dreamers, a directory of the UK’s many communities that friends in South East Asia had told us about. Many of these communities offer the chance to stay with them for a while in exchange for voluntary work, often through the WWOOF organisation. This led to the discovery of WWOOFing as a viable means to explore these fair isles, keeping us busy with a good day’s work, whilst drastically reducing the cost.

Let’s be clear, as many people have asked us the same questions – WWOOFing has nothing to do with dogging, the latter a sordid activity that takes place in laybys across the land. No, WWOOFing is not a cult, and communities are not all communes full of people smoking funny things and trying out tantric yoga (although there’s probably a community like this if you’re looking for it). As to what communities are really like, we’re not entirely sure, which is the main reason we’re taking the time to visit them.

WWOOF is a charity, set up by Sue Coppard in 1971, and it’s full name is ‘World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms’, although it’s sometimes known as ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’. Either way, you get the gist. Members pay a £20 annual fee (or £30 for joint membership) giving them access to nearly 700 hosts across the UK, from the tip of Cornwall all the way up to the Shetland Islands, where you can join the UK’s most remote veg box scheme. WWOOFers, as the Willing Workers are affectionately known, receive bed and board in return for around 6 hours work per day, 5-6 days per week. Given that all of the hosts are organic farms, communities or smallholders in some respect, you can expect the food to be rather good.

As with all means of enriching but low cost travel, there are the usual horror stories about overworked WWOOFers being fed gruel and boarding with the pigs. How much of this is true remains to be seen. Besides, WWOOF actively checks its hosts through telephone interviews, and WWOOFers can report any issues in the knowledge that they’ll be investigated by the charity.

We are now proud WWOOFers, heading up the country from Oxford, over to Suffolk and then all the way to Scotland via the Peak District and the Lake District, before making our way back down through Wales in November. We’re hoping to learn as much as we possibly can about growing stuff, eating this stuff and living without so much other stuff that we’ve always taken for granted. We’re working the land in family smallholdings, small commercial operations and live-in communities. Yes, we will probably get tired, be rained on a lot and become well acquainted with steaming piles of manure, but it will all be worth it for the satisfaction of growing our own food and meeting inspirational people as we go.

So, in the immortal words of Wycliffe Jean, we’ll be gone ’til November