Oxford, Nice To See You My Old Sunshine

Stood at the beach, enclosed by the prison walls, I was taking in this unusual Oxford scene when I noticed some large Mahou beer banners outside a tapas restaurant. For a moment it was like my life had converged into one small focal point. All the temporary sand pit with deck chairs lacked was a Punch and Judy show, the former Oxford castle and jail is now a trendy food and drink area but the Swan and Castle attracted my attention for a few nights of my six day visit.

The English heat wave was crumbling into storms at various points but it stayed true for me and formed a lovely background as I looked up old friends, old brews, and the best of England’s green and pleasant countryside. A long overdue trip to London to see my friend Chrissie involved a short hop to Heathrow’s very impressive Terminal Five and a Tube ride across to Hattons Cross. The London Underground thrilled me as a toddler, delivered me safely on many sports based capital crawls, and still made me tingle as it rattled along. The Kingfisher at Chertsey Bridge was our river side destination for some good food and a catch up, followed by a stroll along the river with swans majestically gliding by.

A day later I met up with former work friend Christine in Oxford and we had a snack at The Folly restaurant down below the bridge. This time narrow boats were the main traffic on the Thames (or Isis in Oxford) at the old punting platform. I resisted the urge to go skinny dipping in the less than clear river and we walked through Christ Church meadows following a punting stretch. A sprinkling of heavy storms over recent months ensured the leafy lanes were in good form and the river level was steady, very different to the parched ground in the drought summer of 1976. I used to enjoy walking through the huge expanse of the University Parks, it’s beautiful and serene and as a “local oik” I liked the idea of invading this bastion of privilege and money.

An English country pub is always a joy to behold, so it was good to meet some more work friends (Shana, Roger, and Julie) out at The George and Dragon in Long Hanborough, I’m sure I have played Aunt Sally there many years ago. Sadly the villages and the towns are feeling the squeeze of the huge supermarkets and cheap beer, it wasn’t mega busy but no doubt an army of BBQ’s were being fired up in peoples gardens. During all my trips and a dip into the Oxford city centre pubs, The Britannia in Headington was my “local” and finish point as I relished their selection of real ales.

It’s easy to neglect the rewards right under your nose, so one afternoon I ventured into Bury Knowle park in Headington, I think I only went in there once as a kid and still have the scar from splitting my hand open in a cycling accident. What a fantastic place, a lot bigger than I expected with the regal looking Bury Knowle house containing a public library, outside there was a kids adventure area including an aerial runway, I was itching to hang on and ride down hanging from the zip line, a crazy golf course and tennis courts. The best thing of all was the nicely designed chill out areas, I thought from a distance there was a tall sculpture in the centre of the park but it was “The Storybook Tree” carved into a totem pole featuring fictional animal characters and surrounded by a circle of small benches with more characters from childrens stories. It all made me feel like kid again so I bought a dribbly ice cream from the tuck shop and slurped my way around the paths, sports pitches, and shaded corners where couples were giving in to cupids arrows. I noticed later in town that the metal ping pong tables were down by the main bus station as well as in the parks – maybe training for the next Commonwealth Games.

It was a packed trip, I also got to meet my former boss Clare at her shop in Wantage, a delightful market town full of pubs. I did limit myself to evening beer consumption and ran into a few old drinking buddies, the real ales were varied and plentiful although a trifle expensive. I even did the tourist bit with a wander around the college back streets to admire the gargoyles, one looked like Jimmy Hill. It would have been perfect if Oxford City had been at home but I will try to catch a league game at a later date. Cheers Oxford.