Monday, April 28, 2008

Top Tourism

I finally went on the Oxford tourbus today. Having explained pretty much all I knew to some friends who were visiting, I decided I really should know more about the subject I was vaguely waffling on about. I could point out where the funky gargoyles are on the High Street, and often arrange to meet people by the ‘market cross thingy’; I could list the really old colleges and some of the student traditions, but when it came to famous Oxford residents of the past, architectural snippets and answers to really quite simple questions, I was struggling!

It was quite expensive - £9.50 for a concession and £11.50 for an adult, which, coupled with the embarrassment of sitting on a tourbus in my own town, made me instantly want to dislike it. However, I must admit, it was actually really good. The standard ticket lasts for 24 hours, so you can hop on and off at leisure and use it as a normal bus service for central Oxford the next day if you time it well.

So, now that I have no excuse for being uneducated, let me share some interesting things I learnt. Then, at least, in my future moments of fumbling hesitation, I can refer people to this blog for proof that I once knew what I was talking about!

- The Radcliffe Infirmary was the first place to use penicillin.

- There is a postbox in North Oxford commemorating the creator of the English Dictionary.

- The market cross statue thing (still don’t know its name!) on St. Giles commemorates Protestant martyrs who were burnt as heretics. The fire from their death burnt the doors of nearby Balliol College.

- The poet Shelley was a reluctant Oxford student who was expelled for distributing an atheistic pamphlet, was frequently in trouble for playing pranks such as throwing acid on his tutors’ carpets and swapping babies in adjacent prams left outside shops!

- The not-so-pretty construction site area around the Westgate shopping centre was the site of a great archaeological find: the ruins of Greyfriar monks.

- The giant concrete building in the science area is supposed to resemble an ocean liner and won an architecture award in the 1960s. Whatever floats your boat…

Silly Supermarkets

I went to the supermarket today: the big Sainsburys in town, with the intention of buying some cordial, some birdseed and some fresh herbs in a pot. I really cannot comprehend how supermarkets are laid out! When writing my mental shopping list, it usually goes something like:
Aisle 1 – the first item I want
Aisle 2 – the second and third items I want
Aisle 3 – everything else I want
Aisles 4-10 – other things I don’t even need to look at.

But no, it seems the marketing people have other ideas and want me to walk past thousands of things I ‘simply can’t live without’ while bumbling around in confusion, growing increasingly flustered because I can’t find the everyday item that I wanted to pop in for. No wonder some people have to dedicate half their weekend to shopping, many a boyfriend or husband will do anything to avoid the shopping chore, and most babies you see in supermarkets are bawling their eyes out.

The cordial was fine: straight to the drinks aisle, and eventually found it lurking between lemonades and a startling array of flavoured waters. Apparently squash just isn’t posh, but buying ready made diluted drinks is. I’d rather spare the cash and the effort myself, but each to their own.
The birdseed was more of an effort: I came across some lentil health food type shelves, but nothing there. No luck in the nut section either, and good luck if you want to buy sunflower seeds or similar to eat. I’m sure they’re there somewhere! Luckily I stumbled across the birdseed in the pet food section (how many times have I been there without noticing there was a pet section?!).
The herbs were another mission. It seems Sainsburys hasn’t latched onto the herbs in a pot success that places like Tesco have had. Instead, they sell rather expensive fresh herbs in plastic, which are about as far in distance from the dried herbs as you can get.

When I finally reached the till, I was again bombarded with last-minute offers of chocolates and chewing gum. Why is chewing gum always at the till? Do they think you’ll have bad breath simply from looking at the food on the shelves? Do most people leap from the supermarket into the arms and onto the lips of wonderfully good-looking partners with impeccable breath? Who knows. On with the queue: no I didn’t have a Nectar card, no I didn’t want 2 carrier bags for my 3 items, thank you.

Okay, rant over. I know it would be better for my blood pressure and my local community to use local shops. The convenience of one shop selling everything is bound to cause navigational confusion, and it seems inevitable to lose in time what you save in money. I’ll sip on my cordial and keep quiet for now.

Feasting feathered friends

The first hint of sun and I’m feeling inspired. I woke up and thought: I want to make a birdfeeder. So, a birdfeeder I shall make.

Apparently urban areas, especially suburbs, have a much higher proportion of birds than rural areas. I’m sure the robin that sings outside my window at all hours of the night is not the only one confused by the nocturnal activity of Oxford, and if our feathered friends are up at the crack of sparrow’s wotsit, they must be getting pretty peckish.

I’ve had a look on the RSPB website and have bought birdseed, lard and have emptied a bottle, which, combined, should make me the Lloyd Grossman of the bird world. The plan is to hang it from outside my bedroom window and to watch the sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and wrens come fluttering over. My balcony shall become the chic place to be; the hangout for hungry birds, a place for a first date, and the chicks’ first real food joint when they’ve left the nest.

I’ll keep you updated on my visitors.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hurray for Haggling

A few weeks ago I went on holiday to Morocco. Apart from the obvious culture difference, what really struck me was the very un-British haggling at the souqs.

The art of trying to barter the price of your chosen item (usually a carpet, slippers, lantern or teapot) to a reasonable amount without appearing overly keen, too disinterested, too rich, too poor or insulting.

I've only ever experienced this in Camden Market here in the UK, and I really cannot imagine it happening in Oxford. Picture the scene: the Covered market, that swanky leather shop, a gorgeous handbag priced £40 and you offer a tenner and your sunhat. The shop-keeper waves his hands and insists the handbag is worth £50 but he's knocked it down to £40 just for you, because you're worth 10 camels in your prettiness. You shake your head and turn to leave the shop. The shop-keeper embraces you and offers you the bag for £20, seeing as you're such good friends. You leave, triumphant in your victory, but slightly worried that the next person will only pay £15.

It's hard to imagine, but this really does happen in Morocco. In fact, to make the situation even more realistic, the shop-keeper would have found you on Cornmarket Street, told you about his great deals and walked you to his shop himself, with promises of mint tea (well, probably Earl Grey as the Oxford equivalent). As you left the shop, his brother/cousin/father/son would have accosted you, asking if you were looking for a cheap restaurant, a great rate on a taxi, or somewhere to stay that night. It's certainly a bit more adventurous than looking reviews up on Qype first, but it's pretty embarrassing trying to say no.

Maybe Oxford would be a friendler place if we adopted some of these Moroccan selling tactics. It would be nice to have a cup of mint tea while browsing Accessorize, to knock a few quid off the price of a CD in HMV purely by seeming sufficiently disinterested, and to be called a 'beautiful Princess' or 'English King' every time we went entered shops. Then again, it's quite nice to be anonymous, to laugh at the awful clothes in some shops without offending the shopkeeper whose wife slaved a month to make said clothes. Perhaps we should stick with our Buy One Get One Frees and our January Sales. Shame they're such a long way off...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


My friend's just got a wii. Despite being an outdoorsy person who shuns the idea of spending hours gazing at a games console playing automated characters, I must admit it's actually quite fun!

We warmed up with:
- Tennis - no buttons involved, should be simple. I am now covered in carpet burns from over-enthusiastic head dives, sliding shots and general flinging around. My friend merely twitched his controller and thrashed me.
- Bowling - much easier than in real life, but without the funky shoes. I still managed to throw a ball backwards...
- Golf - still boring.
- Baseball - would be good if I could actually hit the ball. I managed once while gesturing in frustration, forgetting the controller was still attached to me.
- Boxing - excellent! Shaking the controller as hard as possible and screaming death threats seemed to do the trick. Knocked out my experienced friend in a few minutes (on the screen, despite my best attempts in real life!)

We then moved onto MarioKart and used some funky fake steering wheels. We could hook up with players from all over the world, resulting in a very surreal morning spent throwing banana skins at 'HungryHobo' from somewhere else in the UK and dodging squid attacks from 'Fifi' in France. My vivid imagination conjured up images of an actual homeless bearded guy frantically steering Mario round a racetrack in his nearest games shop before being chucked out, and little Fifi training hard on her brother's game console in rural France, hopeful that one day she shall be champion. As for me, well, I should have been doing work. But sometimes it's nice to escape.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Marital Marvels

I went to a wedding in Oxford the other day. I didn't realise quite how many colleges let you get married in their grounds, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised what a great idea it is. Most have their own chapels with more history than Simon Schama can shake a timeline at, beautiful gardens with historic buildings bursting with romance, culture and an atmosphere of development and tradition working side by side. An Oxford college is in fact the epitome of a wedding. The students naively think the waiting and restaurant staff are there to provide meals before a night in with the books or a night out in a cheesy night club; the conference guests think they're top priority in the dining hall, whereas in actual fact, the staff are merely polishing their talents for wedding canapes, sumptious reception banquets and wedding breakfasts, free-flowing champagne towers and tipsy topples in silly hats. And what better way to top it off than a night in the Randolph?

If this all sounds rather rah and not quite like the weddings you end up going to, don't be put off. It doesn't all have to be Brideshead Revisited; lots of the less-known colleges are still stunning and some are a bit more lenient with allowing people on the grass in the summer (great for a good wedding photo) and allowing noisy music late into the night (ceilidh anyone?). College JCRs are a handy alternative for the non-religious who still fancy tradition and beauty - Mansfield JCR is registered for legal marriages, as I'm sure are many others. Post-wedding celebrations needn't involve expensive parties that don't quite do it for anyone; a picnic in a park is great in summer, or a walk round the Oxford countryside.

Unfortunately I didn't catch the bouquet, but I'm still looking forward to a summer of wedding fun!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Love Children

A minor case of facebook stalking led me to the discovery of a rather funky website: . This lets you take two people's faces and morph them together into some sort of beautiful or hideous love child.

The site provides celebrity faces, so hormonal teenagers and not-so-teenagers can combine the delights of Keira Knightley with Halle Berry. For the more puerile amongst us, personal uploads allow for some great combinations such as Dumbledore from Harry Potter with Gordon Brown.

This personal upload facility also lets you mix pictures of your friends, feminising your ugly beer-bellied mate into an adrogynous pin-up, or adding some facial fluff and bald spots to your excessively vain female friends.

I've been thinking about some of the best Oxford-related combinations (well, best in terms of amusement rather than lust factor):
- Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams

- Thom Yorke and Yoda (okay, Yoda didn't go to Oxford, but this one's been done and it looks fab):

- Hugh Grant and Kate Beckinsale

- Michael Palin and Walter Raleigh

This tool could be seen as a beautiful thing of creation, crossing boundaries of time, space, age and gender. Or you could just procrastinate and have a laugh. Whatever floats your boat.

Monday, April 7, 2008


White flakes, spots and dollops floating falling from the sky, waking up to a white world of muffled optimism and unbridled happiness, the sheer excitement that this substance so close yet so far from rain can bring is quite astounding.

But totally justified.

I woke up to my window being bombarded with snowballs by my friend. Assuming it wasn't my Romeo attempting to woo me, I rolled over and tutted at the youth of today attacking my window. Then it slowly dawned that maybe, just maybe, it was one of those magical days. I ran downstairs and, sure enough, there it was...


The place to be when it snows in Oxford is undoubtedly South Park. It's got a hint of a hill where I spent a happy hour or so sliding on tea trays, bin bags recycling box lids, gazing with envy at the cool dudes surfing past on body boards and a little girl having a tantrum with her giant snowball for no apparent reason.
Aside from the frolics of South Park, Oxford looked really pretty. Gargoyles in the High Street with snow caps on, trees lining Cheney Lane frosted with sugary powder, and I remember the quieter beauty of Port Meadow from last year, with the frozen floodwater and horses galloping across the frozen turf.

On a slightly less poetic note, above is my snowman. Well, snowqueen. She made it about half a mile down the road before tragically ending it all beneath the wheels of the car. RIP.