An Oxford education without the fees

Who wants to pay museum charges? Catherine Stebbings devises a free day out in Britain's oldest university city.
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The Independent Online
Bewitched by the mask of the devil doctor, and faced with a line of shrunken heads strung up like bobbing apples, we ran into the clutches of flesh-eating plants and human corpses, and still had time for hot chocolate in between.

Oxford is a city that has nurtured academics for over 800 years, so it is not surprising that it houses some magnificent collections, bequeathed, collected and looted from around the world. It is perhaps more unexpected to find that so much is free to the public. A large student population also ensures a range of inexpensive and informal places to eat, making Oxford excellent value for a family day out.

The city's museums and galleries are all within walking distance of one another. While each one offers more than enough to see, museum hopping is easy, rewarding and particularly good for children who get bored in a single place. It also allows you to look round the city while avoiding its appalling commercial centre.

The diversity of Oxford museums caters for all tastes. Britain's oldest museum, The Ashmolean, is the largest of the University museums, with a superb collection of art and applied arts from around the world. Students still sketch classical casts in the foyer, and an active education department guides hordes of visitors around the highlights, which include such diverse artefacts as the exquisite Anglo-Saxon cloisonne Alfred Jewel, fine Italian renaissance paintings, and the shell-studded deerskin cloak worn by Pocahontas's father.

Meanwhile, the florid Victorian architecture of the University Museum complements its polished cases of insects, rocks and stuffed fowl below. Bones and bodies are mainly intact, except for the dodo - only his head and feet are preserved.

Nothing, though, can prepare you for the eccentric collection of anthropological trophies to be seen at the Pitt Rivers collection, housed within the museum. After such sights, even the most avant-garde exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) would seem relatively tame.

Behind the colleges, the vast meadows and parks offer a perfect respite from the traffic-torn centre. On the banks of the river beside Magdalen Bridge are the Botanic Gardens, with living plunder from around the world.

The visitors

City breakers were Hannah, eight, and Imogen and Sophie, both seven. Between them they wanted to see paintings, dinosaurs and people punting on the river.

The deal

We took the bus in from the Park and Ride to the Ashmolean Museum, where we concentrated on the Egyptian and Western art galleries. We took a short walk to Browns for hot chocolate and croissants, and then continued our museum crawl to the University Museum and the adjoining Pitt Rivers Museum. We walked past the central University buildings before lunching in the covered market. We walked through Christ Church Meadow, had a rest on the river bank, and finished in the humid greenhouses of the the Botanical Garden.

Hannah: We did a lot, but I don't think it was too much. It was a good way to see Oxford, and I am glad we didn't go shopping. I really liked the Ashmolean, in particular the picture galleries. I liked the very colourful picture of the hunt [by Uccello]. Some people were on horses and others were on the ground with the dogs. They wore strange clothes like red tights and soft-looking hats. The wood was very dark, but you could see lots of flowers on the ground.

I thought the Pitt Rivers was a very unusual museum, with lots to see. There were Eskimo clothes and snow shoes, bagpipes, shrunken heads, bows and arrows and lots of weird things. I drew a picture of the totem pole and a very old Indian doll.

Sophie: All the museums in Oxford seem very old-fashioned. I suppose they are here because of the university.

The best museum was the University Museum where there were lots of stuffed animals, and bones of animals and dinosaurs. There was even a human skeleton. I looked at a stone through a big magnifying glass and saw lots of crystals. There was a dark room with lots of glowing crystals of different colours; pink, blue, green, purple and white. I really liked the Egyptian gallery in the Ashmolean. They painted people in profile but you could see their whole eye. The mummies were really good.

Imogen: Oxford is a nice place, full of students and bicycles. The colleges where they live look very grand, with nice gardens. We also saw quite a few homeless people; one had a three-year-old child.

I think we went to too many museums but I liked them all, even if I got tired. The University Museum was good; it looked like a station with a glass roof. There was no hands-on anywhere but I was too busy looking to care.

The covered market was fun, with lots of butchers' shops, a flower shop and a cake shop, where we watched them decorate the cakes with things like Spice Girls and Tellytubbies.

We saw lots of people punting on the river and children feeding the ducks. In the Botanical Garden I saw a cocoa plant, a banana tree, carnivorous plants and lots of cacti like you see in cartoons. We didn't go to the Disney shop.

Oxford orientation

Transport and parking: Oxford's mainline station is 10 minutes' walk from the centre. Car parking in the centre is inadequate and expensive for daily rates, but car parks are well signed throughout the centre. Park and Rides at Peartree (north), Redbridge (south), Seacourt (west) and Thornhill (east) cost 50p per day plus pounds 1.20 bus fare, children free.

Tourist information: The Old School, Gloucester Green, open Mon-Sat, 9.30am-5pm (01865 726871).

Free attractions: Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, (01856 278000). Open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm, Sun 2pm-4pm. University Museum, Parks Road, (01856 270949). Open Mon-Sat 12pm-5pm. Pitt Rivers, Parks Road, (01865 270949). Open Mon-Sat 11am-4.30pm. Botanical Garden, greenhouses open 2pm-4pm daily. Bate collection of Musical Instruments, St Aldates (018565 2276139). Open Mon-Fri 2pm-5pm, Sat (term only) 10pm-12pm. Museum of History of Science, Broad Street (01865 277280). Open Tues-Sat, 12pm-4pm.

Food and drink for families: There is a good range of pubs, restaurants and cafes but the following are pleasant for snacks and meals for all ages: Browns, 7 Woodstock Road; Ashmolean Museum Cafe, Beaumont Street; Mortons, 104 Covered Market (for spectacular hot chocolate); Moma cafe, Pembroke Street (good for mums with young babies). Little Clarendon Street has nice bistros and an excellent ice-cream parlour.

Toilets: St Aldates, Market Street.