Shelly’s Oxford

Shelly Lachish is an ecologist and freelance writer who covers travel, science, and the natural world. She has lived in Australia, Mexico, Israel and Canada, but currently resides in Oxford, England, where she moonlights as an academic. Learn more about Shelly on her blog, The Travel Affair, and on Twitter @shellylachish.

Oxford is My City

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to see the impressive architecture of the historic university college buildings, which garnered Oxford its poetic appellation of the “City of Dreaming Spires.”

Spring is the best time to visit my city because the gardens and parks are awash with colorful flowers and the woods nearby are carpeted by beautiful lilac bluebells.

You can see my city best from the tower of St Mary’s church on the High Street. Climb the tower’s narrow spiral stone staircase to get a magical view of the whole city and its dreaming spires.

Locals know to skip the major supermarkets and check out the Covered Market for fresh local produce and gourmet goods instead.

The Varsity Shop is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs: they sell Oxford University clothing and accessories to graduates and visitors alike.

In the past, notable people like Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Aung San Suu Kyi have called my city home.

My city’s best museum is the Pitt Rivers because it contains over half a million archaeological and anthropological artefacts from all around the world, including shrunken human heads!

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that bicycles rule. Oxford is a bike-friendly city meant to be ridden in, not driven through. So rent a bike and get peddling with the locals.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is on the Thames Path. Hop on a boat cruise, or grab a kayak and paddle up the river. Better still rent a punt for the morning and travel the narrow canals in style, like a true local.

My city really knows how to celebrate May Day because the May Day morning celebrations are a 500-year-old tradition in Oxford. The festivities begin the night before with all-night balls and parties at most of the colleges and clubs. At 6:00 a.m., the thousands of revellers make their way to the city center to listen to the eerily beautiful hymn sung from the top of Magdalen Tower by the college choir. The party then spills into the streets and continues for hours.

You can tell if someone is from my city if they are wearing academic gowns, or are animatedly discussing philosophy, science, the environment, or politics at the pub.

For a fancy night out, I frock up in my finery and attend a college ball.

Just outside my city, you can visit the numerous enchanting villages of the Cotswolds and stroll through the lavish extravagance of Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s birthplace.

My city is known for being a university town, but it’s really a city with diverse, world-class credentials in technology, publishing, manufacturing, philanthropy, and sustainability, and a vibrant population of residents drawn from all over the world.

The best outdoor market in my city is at Gloucester Green every Wednesday and Thursday: fresh produce, antiques, crafts and local wares.

Oxfork is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Kebab Kid is the spot for late-night eats (terrible, I know. But, really, there’s nothing better than a kebab on your way home from a night out).

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read The Daily Info, it lists absolutely all gigs, theatre shows, seminars, activities, and events.

My city’s biggest sports event is The Boat Race; the Varsity rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge, held annual since 1859. Watch it in London on a stretch of the Thames running between Westminster and Putney. Okay, so I realize that this isn’t held in Oxford itself. So a close second would have to be Eight’s Week, a four-day regatta of rowing races, featuring Oxford’s unique bumps racing style, which is held on the Thames in Oxford proper.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I peruse the numerous charity shops in Headington for a bargain, or during summer, I go see a free Sunday movie at Café Tarifa in Cowley.

To escape the crowds, I go for a stroll through the fields and commons behind the University Parks and stop to say hello to the horses and cows.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Johnny Depp because it is beautiful to look at, but has a quirky bohemian character, and is more concerned with intellectual and cultural pursuits.

The dish that represents my city best is a quintessentially British steak and ale pie and chips, and a pint of ale is my city’s signature drink (though my preference is for a deliciously cold gin and tonic).

The Radcliffe Camera is my favorite building in town because of its exquisite 18th-century English architecture, its magnificent courtyard setting surrounded by other architecturally impressive buildings, and the fact that it has a secret underground tunnel leading to the nearby Bodleian library.

The most random thing about my city is that the majority of the buildings in the city centre are part of the university.

The Cellar is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out The Purple Turtle.

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Being buzzed by groups of students in academic gowns on bicycles, clutching textbooks, and peddling furiously to get to their classes could only happen in my city.

In the spring you should head to nearby Wytham Woods to see the bluebells at their finest.

In the summer you should bicycle through Port Meadow to The Perch to drink Pimms and enjoy their outdoor barbecue.

In the fall you should tour the University of Oxford’s many colleges and watch the new students nervously begin their academic life.

In the winter you should hope for snow, grab a toboggan, and then head to South Park to careen down the only hill in town.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss Alice’s shop. Oxford was home to Lewis Carroll for most of his life, and it was here that he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church. This shop, which actually features in the story, is full of Alice in Wonderland gifts and memorabilia and organizes Alice tours of the city.

The best book about my city is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, though the many famous novels inspired by Oxford are just as good, if not better (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows).

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Chariots of Fire.”

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because it is an eccentric, quirky city with a fascinating history, rich traditions, stunning architecture, beautiful open spaces, and a diverse and vibrant population.

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