You wouldn’t think you could spend a morning in Greece, an afternoon in Rome and a lazy Sunday in ancient Egypt — all without leaving Oxford. You wouldn’t know it because the Ashmolean — a once fusty, dusty collection of curios crammed into display cases — didn’t let you know. But that place is a planet removed from the marvellous museum which has just reopened.
More than £61m has gone into transforming Britain’s oldest museum into what must surely be the best showcase the nation has of the world’s most important civilisations.
Even if the British Museum has more stuff, it couldn’t possibly have laid out its stash more logically and engagingly than the new Ashmolean, where great emphasis has been placed on interpretation as well as display, and a real effort made to entertain as well as educate.
It’s not just style over substance — archaeology and art buffs will have to travel to Oxford to find the only major assembly of Minoan antiquities outside Greece, the best collection of pre-Dynastic Egyptian material in Europe and the largest, most important group of Raphael drawings in the world.
And all this grew from a ragbag collection of specimens collected by two Londoners who in 1659 passed their finds to Elias Ashmole, who donated them to Oxford University.
The jewellery, pottery, costumes and temple fragments the university has assembled from all over the world since taking over the original collection, and vigorously pursuing a teaching brief would knock anybody’s socks off.
There are some great 20th-century paintings, too, as well as Oriental art, Renaissance masterpieces and ancient paintings and sculptures. The only downside is that it’s too much to take in in one visit so, as entrance is free, it makes sense to do Oxford as a weekend and enjoy its other attractions between dips into the Ashmolean marvels.
Oxford has a great deal to offer the visitor, but it pays to know how to approach it.
Comfortable buses go from the West End, sparing drivers a parking nightmare, but there is so much beautiful countryside around the city (including fine places to eat) that there is a case for bringing a car.
Motorists will find themselves arriving at a vast open space known as St. Giles, lined both sides with parking spaces. Take one of these if available, and if not, turn to the left rather than the right, where Oxford’s vast spread of outlying car parks are to be avoided if there is a viable alternative on the old side of the city. All the good stuff is to the left of beautiful St Giles.
Broad Street has splendid bookstores and the splendid Bodleian Library, currently showing a fine illustrated translation of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. The Broad connects via Turl Street to High Street, aka The High. This is a wide, handsome boulevard lined with modern boutiques and old-fashioned clothiers selling brocade waistcoats to foppish students with a Brideshead complex.
In between these two best streets in Oxford lies the brilliant covered market, which has purveyors of wonderful shoes — check out MacSamillions — and eclectic clothes alongside cake shops, delis and old-fashioned fruiterers.
The High leads to Carfax, as Oxford’s main city intersection is inexplicably known. Turn left down St Aldates and you can visit the free Museum of Oxford in the Town Hall to get an overview of the history of Oxford and its university. Next door, catch a glimpse of Christ Church College, with one of the most pleasing of all Oxford quads, but be prepared to pay an admission charge for a closer look. Many colleges don’t charge, but only admit guests in specific visiting hours.
While it has its fair share of chain stores, Oxford also has a notable bespoke fashion design shop in Annabelinda, which for nearly 40 years has been making beautiful, romantic dresses and jackets from velvet, silk and Liberty fabrics. The store is on Gloucester Street, a rare jewel on the less interesting side of the city, close to the Oxford Playhouse and cinemas.
The other notable establishment here is the redevelopment of Oxford Jail by Malmaison, who have revamped its once-dingy cells into a luxury hotel. The Mal, a distinctly hip hostelry, is one of only two serious accommodation choices in a city whose best-known hotel is the traditional Randolph, a favourite haunt of Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse.
Dining is more problematical than sleeping, for the fine free-standing restaurants which once distinguished Oxford have disappeared. While the Randolph is splendid for a good-value formal lunch or traditional tea, its Gothic restaurant could be a daunting dinner venue. As could the basement brasserie of the Malmaison, which is rather young, chilled and noisy.
Oxford-dwellers turn to the excellent inns on the outskirts of the city, of which The Trout, on the river at Lower Wolvercote, is most famous. Featured in episodes of Morse, since an expensive revamp it is now a restaurant with a pub-like atmosphere rather than a pub per se, but the 17th-century rooms are charming, and the food very good value. There are many fish and veggie choices as well as stone-baked pizzas and pastas for the observant who must eschew the rotisserie.
It can make sense to stay on the edge of town at the Barcelo, a business hotel with oodles of free parking and good value for the level of comfort. It’s worth spending £20 more on a premium room to get a bathrobe, slippers, snacks, water and free wi-fi.
Shoppers will also want to remember that the Bicester outlets, some of the UK’s best, are nearby.