THE suzi feay column : oxford: where the tourist fears to tread

Not a very welcoming town, Oxford. A town of high walls, thick gates and "not open to the public" signs, of "do not walk on the grass", of privatised peace and annexed beauty, and the paradox of a tourist trade predicated on elitism. If you are not Gown, it follows that you must be Town. Crocodiles of pudgy coach- trippers crawl up the High, conga down the steps of the public toilets, string out like chains of unruly molecules. What do they all expect to find here?

Movement on the pavements is only slightly slower than on the roads. Oxford seems to have half a dozen different bus services, all in competing acid liveries, and most of the vehicles are half-empty. My pounds 2 return to the city centre is immediately trumped when another bus shoots by with a cheaper price emblazoned on its door.

We are all looking for the Oxford Experience, though we are more likely to get it from sitting in an armchair with an old book than from traipsing round and gazing at the blank back walls of colleges. Clearly I need a mediating Hermes to guide me past the porters. And, loitering at Carfax, I think I've found him.

He is wearing the vestigial black rag which passes nowadays for the academic gown, and, in homage to Brideshead, a straw boater. He's bellowing something about walking tours led by real undergraduates but stops long enough to charm me out of pounds 2.50. My guide will be Hannah, and she will meet me in three-quarters of an hour on the steps of the Town Hall. She is not, it turns out despite his rap, an Oxford student, but a Townie who studies elsewhere, which seems a bit of a swizz.

At the rendezvous there is a thin person of indeterminate sex who says that, yes, they are there for the tour, but when I produce my flimsy ticket there is a moment of embarrassment, a stumble of heavily accented English, and we both stare in opposite directions up and down St Aldates, wondering if we've been stood up. But two minutes after noon Hannah materialises with a troupe of walkers and we all pace down towards Tom Tower. Hannah is small, plump and very pretty, wearing a a monkish floor-length brown gown and leather sandals. She announces herself boldly as a student of psychology "here at Oxford", and as the walk progresses, talks with some feeling about the exams and rituals. This does rather leave me wondering why she and the chap at Carfax haven't got their story straight between them.

"Don't worry, we'll leave the traffic behind very soon," she says soothingly, and after admiring the red-faced, bowler-hatted sentinel at the gates of Christ Church, we sweep past Meadow buildings, where (though Hannah does not tell us this) Sebastian Flyte ate plover's eggs and Anthony Blanche sobbed lines from The Waste Land through his megaphone. Hannah does say that this represents the ne plus ultra of student accommodation.

A mere pounds 2.50 for a walk with constant commentary for an hour and 10 minutes does seem amazing value; though perhaps some of Hannah's assertions are questionable. A wiry, bearded man takes issue with her over the date of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile, and I register a few blips, too: "Thomas" Hawksmoor (no!), King Charles executed at the Tower of London (no, no!), Mary Queen of Scots burning protestants (no, no, NO!). But Hannah's ready flow of anecdote never dries up, and most of it is very entertaining: Dead Man's Walk outside the city walls, where bodies were flung during the plague; the setting up of a Royal Mint at New College while Charles I lived at Christ Church, thus turning the city into the country's temporary capital during the civil war; the fact that if you turn up at the Examination Schools in full armour on a white horse, you are automatically given a First, though you will then be conscripted into the Army. Another University rule ordains that any student has the right to order and be served a pint of beer during examinations, though the last student who tried it was fined for failing to comply also with the rule about having silver buckles to your shoes.

In Broad Street Hannah bids us farewell with a sheaf of discount vouchers for the T-shirt stall, and I head off to cross-check her account with The Oxford Story, a hi-tech affair where you trundle back through time sitting at a desk. It's deserted. I buy my tickets from "the porter's lodge" where a dispirited cashier begs for change, and pass on alone into the "Junior Common Room". An audio-visual display begins, featuring much posing on bikes in hallowed gateways and chirpy commentary from an oik and a woman who look like they're from Grange Hill.

From there you traverse a mock-up of a student bedroom, its decor a bizarre cultural melange of Bjork, Echo and the Bunnymen and M M Kaye's The Far Pavilions; on through a mocked-up college library to pick up your desk. "You know who's just gone through with his family?" whispers the guide. "John Thaw." Wow, Inspector Morse, Mr Oxford himself! "You'll probably see him at the end." Then I'm off, lurching up a steep incline past busts of Christopher and Thomas Bodley, while baroque music through the headset drowns out the whine of the lifting gear. The Oxford Story and Hannah differ on a few key points, such as the precise number of times the Christ Church bell tolls its curfew, but this is pounds 4.50 reasonably well spent, even though it doesn't seem quite sufficient to plug the gap between John Wesley and Lewis Carroll with a tableau of Darcy-esque toffs lolling on the riverbank. A hundred years drifted by in aristocratic underachievement, it seems.

I coast through the gift shop and into the street with the vague hope of accosting Mr Thaw, then reflect that they probably say that to everyone. At New College, after paying pounds 1 entry I admire the remnant of the city walls which rings the gardens. A small girl gambols past the warning sign on to the sacrosanct grass, asking: "Mummy, are we public?" "No, darling, we're private," says mummy, and this touch of smugness is the nearest I'll get all day to the Oxford Experience.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities