Listening to a speech by the Duke on the steps of a great house in Oxfordshire — a situation that could have taken place at any time in the last 600 years or so — the enormous depth of heritage, history and tradition that surrounds you in Oxfordshire really hit me.
The great house in question was the unspeakably grand Blenheim Palace, itself a rare pinnacle of the short-lived English-baroque period, and a place with all kinds of tales to tell. From the rise and eventual exile of the great John Churchill, military hero of the 18th century, all the way up to the more familiar Winston Churchill, Britain’s World War 2 Prime Minister, it has seen a great many historical figures pass through its doors (Winston Churchill was actually born here, though he later lived at Chartwell). Today it’s part museum, part home and part memorial surrounded by sweeping green parkland, it’s also an essential part of any trip to Oxfordshire.
Blenheim Palace is just the beginning however, an appetiser for Oxfordshire’s delights. When you hit the city of Oxford itself, it’s as if you’ve been transported back in time. From the elegant spires and crenelated medieval towers of Oxford University’s colleges to a host of half-timbered taverns, cobbled lanes, and old-fashioned shops, its combination of grandeur and charm is overwhelming.
Hidden-away squares adorned with Victorian style lampposts make you feel as though you’ve stumbled out of the wardrobe and into Narnia. Which, in a way, you have: C.S. Lewis, creator of the Narnia stories, created them right here in Oxford when he was a professor at Magdalen College. There’s some debate as to exactly which of these Victorian lamp-posts was the exact lamp-post that inspired him, but most say it was the lamp hanging in the courtyard outside his rooms in Magdalen. While we’re talking about books, don’t forget that Christ Church college in Oxford became the fictional wizards’ college Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films. Whether you’re a Narnia or Harry Potter fan, the feeling of exploring a timeless fairy-tale city is ever-present in Oxford.
After stopping for lunch in one of Oxford oldest pubs – the 13th century Turf Tavern, I walked over to the famous Radcliffe Camera, easily recognisable by its huge silver-blue dome. Tours are available here, and lead you right down into the underground tunnels where the book stacks of the huge Bodleian and Radcliffe libraries are to be found.
Just around the corner is the Museum of the History of Science, while a little further north you come to one of my personal favourites: the Pitt Rivers Museum. Filled to the rafters with wonders from around the world, the museum staff hand you a torch and send you off to explore the darker recesses of the building, adding a whole other level of atmosphere to the experience. Feeling a little like you’ve discovered your very own lost civilisation, you emerge into the sunlight with a renewed sense of wonder.
But Oxford's not just about heritage. The city bustles with contemporary culture too, and the sound of its fiercely independent music scene echoes from its abundance of pubs and live music venues on most nights of the week. Modern Art Oxford is one of the UK’s best modern art galleries, while shoppers will discover a rich seam of consumer delights is to be had here, from major stores to cosy independent shops tucked away down little lanes. You’ll find some great bookshops here too, as you might expect in such a learning-orientated city.
If you want to unwind in the open air, Oxford is home to some magnificent green spaces. South Park is one of the biggest, and gives you an unrivalled view down to the spires and towers of the Oxford skyline - come here in the morning or at sunset to make the most of it!
Outside of the city you're surrounded by the rolling green hills, meadows and river valleys of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, interrupted here and there by idyllic country towns like Chipping Norton, Burford and Witney.
Visiting Oxfordshire is a vital part of any trip to Britain as it brings together such a great cluster of classic British things. Beautiful historic architecture, grand stately homes, traditional pubs, the rural tranquillity of the Cotswolds and the beating heart of the city's modern cultural scene. Get out there and experience it all for yourself!