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

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Indy Lifestyle Online
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.