Walk of the week: Green and pleasant among Oxford's spires

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The Independent Travel

Oxford can seem rather inhospitable in summer, with battalions of bemused tourists, byzantine traffic regulations and grumpy college custodians. This walk of about two and a half miles follows some of the best-known landmarks, but takes you off the tour-bus circuit into a semi-rural and riverside setting right in the middle of town.

Start at The Plain, the roundabout that marks the eastern approach to the old city. (There is parking in St Clement's, the road nearby.) Cross Magdalen Bridge: the Magdalen College chapel choir sings from the top of the tall tower at dawn on May Day.

To the right, turn left into the Botanic Garden: five tranquil acres of flower beds, fountains and gravel paths. The oldest physic garden in Britain, it contains a spectacular collection of euphorbias and a steamy tropical greenhouse, as well as a riverside lawn from which to watch the perilous antics of novice punters. Entrance costs £2; children under 12 go free.

Back on High Street, the first left turn is into Rose Lane, leading to Christ Church Meadow. Pass through the iron gate (no wheelchair access) and you are in Oxford's rus in urbe, with an expanse of buttercup-covered flood plain and spectacular views of Matthew Arnold's "dreaming spires". The longhorn cattle may have been removed for their own safety during the foot and mouth crisis, but the scene is still a bucolic mix of meadow and waterside shade.

Walking straight on with the Cherwell on your left, you reach the main stream of the Thames and a small bridge that leads to the college boathouses. Bear right along the towpath, observing the Boat Race hopefuls in training, and then right back towards the imposing bulk of Christ Church. On Sunday afternoons you are granted entry ­ at a price ­ to the college, where in the Great Hall you can see where some of the scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone were filmed.

Peep into the manicured Fellows' Garden as you bear right, following the path round the Gothic Christ Church façade, out of the Meadow and into the cobbled backwater of Merton Street. Turn left and right and you are in Oriel Square, from which Oriel Street leads past gaudily repainted medieval houses to the bustle of the High Street.

Directly opposite is the University Church of St Mary, where a claustrophobic spiral staircase with 188 steps ends in a wonderful view from the top of the tower. At ground level, the coffee shop serves wholesome lunches and cakes in a 14th-century hall, and you can sit outside and admire the symmetry of the domed Radcliffe Camera, surely one of the world's most stylish library reading rooms.

This is essentially the heart of the university, and here you are surrounded by colleges and other academic institutions. Nearby is Broad Street, where Blackwells ­ one of the world's great bookshops ­ offers unrivalled browsing. A few yards on, the King's Arms is a good place to take liquid refreshment.

Northwards, along Parks Road, lie the child-friendly University and Pitt Rivers Museums, and the gracious expanse of the University Parks beyond. But instead head eastwards under the Bridge of Sighs through New College Lane (which becomes Queen's Lane), a narrow passageway of medieval stonework and scented wisteria. This leads back into the High Street, opposite the Examination Schools, the nemesis of idle undergraduates.

From here it is a short walk back to The Plain, or you might want to brave the porter's lodge at Magdalen College (afternoons only) and visit the imposing quadrangles and deer park where Oscar Wilde combined classics and clever conversation. Like the meadow across the High Street, this enclave of riverside calm, famous for its fritillaries in springtime, recalls Wordsworth's earlier age of "gardens and groves".

James Ferguson is the publisher of 'Oxford: A Cultural and Literary Companion' by David Horan (Signal Books, £12).

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