COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE just had the rare treat of two trips to Oxford in one week. I am inordinately fond of the place, not so much because I spent three happy years there, but because I discovered, much later, that it was that rarest of things, a country city.

If you draw a circle less than a mile in radius round the centre at Carfax, something like half the area inside is green open space, parks, riverside walks, bosky alleys, and a score of mazy, idiosyncratic college gardens - the whole lot, in this supposed seat of privilege, open to the public for most of the year. But what makes it remarkable is that all rurality is inextricably woven into Oxford's quirky, urbane architectural landscape, so that it is hard to tell what is nature and what is culture. Bunches of mistletoe dangle seductively over the punt routes. Every wall sprouts something odd - escapees from dons' shrubberies, collections of medieval herbs - or has a porthole into some blossoming courtyard. As for the Botanic Garden itself, it is a perfect symbol of Oxford's ambivalent relationship with nature. As Jan Morris wrote: "If you stand with your back to the urn beside the southern wall, and look ... over the lily pond, through the ceremonial pillars and across the fountain - if you look down this bower of the Age of Reason, Magdalen tower is not framed in the centre of the great gateway."

You can, if you choose, walk round the edge of the old city and barely cross a road, from Magdalen Grove through the Uni-versity Parks, crossing west to the dark and labyrinthine canals of Jericho, down into the expanses of Christ Church meadow. However, on this blustery March day, I was over my parking time-limit and, after lunch, took a brisk post-prandial round a shorter inner-circle route. Down New College Lane, which Max Beerbohm once libelled as a "grim ravine", the raspberry canes from an invisible vegetable garden were poking above walls self-sown with wallflowers and yew saplings. St Edmund Hall had its geranium pots out. I tacked through the courtyard of The Turf pub, where kestrels hunt from surrounding towers, and across to St Cross Holywell cemetery, managed as a nature reserve as well as the resting place of Oxford luminaries. With odd aptness, primroses were out between the graves of Kenneth Tynan and Kenneth Grahame.

I ended up in Magdalen, Oxford's green centre, which has, surely, what is the only inner-city deer park in Britain. The deer were in the distance, avoiding the building of a new quadrangle. It was the second resurgent quad I'd seen that day, my lunchtime hosts at the University Press having shown me the elegant addition to their vast estate. I'm mystified as to why the cloister-and-quad model hasn't been ad-opted more in new village (and new town) development. Is it too redolent of institutional life for our individualistic times? It ought to be an idea whose time has come again: dwellings surrounding a communal green space, a blend of privacy and sociability, town and country. !

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