Explore Oxford with Tea, Beer and Cocktails
There's more to this historic university than you think
Get to know the city from the inside during the cool and rainy months.
PHOTO BY EMILY EGGLESTON
Winter months in Oxford, England, offer comforting tea, warm pubs and ample opportunity for exploration of medieval university buildings. In chilly March, you’ll likely skip the walking tour and get to know “the city of dreaming spires” from the inside.
First, clink your teacups at afternoon teatime. After exploring the mummies, ascend to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology top floor for cream tea, so called for the clotted cream that accompanies your scones and jam. Feathers adorn the Ashmolean Dining Room light fixtures, casting a bit of shadow whimsy onto your delicate china. The food is dainty but rich enough to satisfy a hungry traveler. For a fancier tea experience, plan an outing to a hotel like Old Parsonage or Macdonald Randolph.
Now, set refinement aside to raise a pint glass. There are plenty of local ales to try and several can’t-miss pubs in which to sip them. The low-ceilinged Turf Tavern dates to the thirteenth century and has eleven rotating draught beers, or cask ales. A narrow cobbled alleyway brings you to Turf Tavern’s six-foot doorway. Enter and sit within the thickly mortared stone walls that boasted the patronage of Bill Clinton in his Rhodes Scholar days. If you’re used to fizzy Madison brew, prepare yourself for uncarbonated English ale.
Within walking distance of the Turf is the oldest pub in town, The Bear, which might also host the most elaborate décor. Thousands of Oxford club ties—pipe band, golf club, choir—cover The Bear’s walls and ceiling.
Another must-visit pub is The Eagle and Child, haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their writers’ club, The Inklings. A 1948 Inklings roster is on the tavern’s wall with each member’s name written in his own script.
If you favor wizards over hobbits, plan to visit the university’s Bodleian Library. Inside, you can tour Duke Humfrey’s fifteenth-century reading room, filmed as the Hogwarts library for the Harry Potter films. Two other Hogwarts hallows are Oxford’s Divinity School, filmed as the wizarding school’s infirmary, and Christ Church College’s dining hall, Hogwarts’ Great Hall. Both are worth a gander, even without enthusiasm for Mr. Potter, as they are majestically medieval.
Make the third toast you raise to Oxford a cocktail at Café Tarifa in the ungentrified working-class neighborhood south of the university. Tarifa is on Cowley Road, beyond the centuries-old gateway to Oxford campuses, Magdalen Bridge. Stepping away from the academic Oxford allows you to take in another part of the city’s identity, England’s oldest car manufacturer. Lounge beneath an indoor tree at the Spanish-themed Café Tarifa and order a Bramble, sweetened gin and blackberry liqueur, or an Al Green, lime-infused hazelnut and wild strawberry liqueurs drizzled with cream.
Between cocktails, tea and ales, by the time you leave Oxford, you should’ve raised at least three cheers for this charming city.
Emily Eggleston is a freelance journalist specializing in food, environmental and travel writing.