A slice of Oxford: The dreaming spires inspire new life

This handsome university city is undergoing a modern makeover, as Adrian Mourby discovers

You might feel you know Oxford well from all the times Brideshead has been revisited. However, recently the university has initiated a fundamental makeover of what is being called the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. This huge project is opening up new vistas in a city where visitors may think they've seen it all before. Here's a new way of looking at Oxford with hardly a dreaming spire in sight.

Start this walk in Walton Street, outside Oxford University Press (oup.com) a splendid Neoclassical building where the porters are used to explaining it's not a college (although its museum is open by appointment on weekdays). Looking at the skyline opposite you can glimpse the Radcliffe Observatory, standing proud above construction work like some Alexandrian lighthouse in Cotswold stone. All those cranes are involved in constructing the new quarter, the biggest-ever single development by the university.

Now cross the road to where, by the summer of 2015 there will be a piazza surrounding the new Blavatnik School of Government. This has been designed by Herzog & de Meuron, responsible for Tate Modern. Turn right and head past a sweet little Victorian cottage, number 119a, a day nursery that's owned by Somerville College. In fact everything to your left now, including that odd, angular new accommodation block, is Somerville. On the other side of the street is Jericho, the artisanal area of Oxford. With a population of students – and former students who just couldn't leave – Jericho is awash with good café-bars. As you face across the street Albion Beatnik (07737 876213) is a bookshop-cum-café that holds poetry readings. Call in for a drink here or at the Love Jericho Cocktail Bar (01865 424631; ljoxford.co.uk).

The new shopping development you're now walking past created much controversy last year when a lot of old Victorian shops were closed in favour of a new Co-operative supermarket and 41 study bedrooms created behind those historic façades. Turn left into Little Clarendon Street, window-shop in Uncle Sam's Vintage Clothing Store (01865 558860; unclesamsoxford.co.uk) and shudder at some rather inappropriate concrete admin blocks that the university built in the 1970s.

Arriving at the junction with Woodstock Road, cross to the little peninsula on which sits the 13th-century St Giles Church (01865 510460; st-giles-church.org; open noon-2pm) and continue into Keble Road. On your left is the radical Denys Wilkinson Building (01865 273333) constructed in 1967 for the Astrophysics and Particle Physics departments. At the junction with Parks Road, take in another controversial new building of its time. The full Neo-Gothic splendour of Keble College (01865 272727; www.keble.ox.ac.uk) was considered revolutionary for its use of variegated brick.

Now cross into University Parks for a spot of fresh air and maybe even a jog down to the River Cherwell. Complete this circuit by exiting at North Lodge and heading south down Banbury Road as far as the Old Parsonage Hotel (01865 310210; oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk), under reconstruction and re-opening in March.

Walk through the hotel car park and you end up weaving around the back of more university housing to emerge on Woodstock Road. Here, there's another very good view of the new Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. Cross the road to enter the forecourt of the original Radcliffe Infirmary, built in 1770. It looks like a gorgeous five-star hotel with its restored fountain of Triton, but in fact now contains the Humanities Building and the Faculty of Philosophy. Go in and ask to see the first-floor boardroom, with all the benefactors' names on panels – including the Prince Regent, various Dukes of Marlborough and Grand Duke Alexander of Russia.

John Radcliffe, whose name is commemorated in this new quarter, was a successful 18th-century physician and bon viveur who left money for the building of a library in Oxford. There was so much left over that this infirmary and the famous observatory were also built. Access to the Observatory is through a new road off Woodstock Road that has been opened alongside Green Templeton College. The extraordinary octagonal Observatory, the Observer's house and stables, and the copper-roofed Heliometer (for measuring the sun) were completed in 1794. Over a period of 230 years this beautiful sequence of Neoclassical buildings was obscured from view by the numerous ad hoc extensions to the Infirmary. Oxford city has now got them back and this (as yet unnamed road) has given the public access to a whole new part of the university based around a piazza that will radiate from the Observatory.

Follow the road back to Walton Street and turn left back towards OUP. On your left is Freud (freud.eu), a café bar and Oxford institution since 1988. It's housed inside the old Greek Revival-style Church of St Paul and is right next door to where the foundations of the Blavatnik School are going in at this very moment. The march of the new Oxford is unstoppable.

Fresh cuts

Gee's Restaurant (01865 553540; gees-restaurant.co.uk) re-opened earlier this year within a Victorian flower shop after a £5m refurbishment. The 1930s New Bodleian Library (www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) is scheduled to re-open in October as the Weston Library following an £80m refit.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Oxford Tube (oxfordtube.com) and Oxford Bus Company (oxfordbus.co.uk) run frequent services to Oxford from London and Heathrow. First Great Western and Cross Country trains run to Oxford from stations including London Paddington, Bournemouth, Birmingham New Street and Leeds (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).

Staying there

Oxford's newest hotel is the Vanbrugh House (01865 244 622; vanbrughhousehotel.co.uk), an imaginative conversion of an 18th-century town house with the old city walls running through its basement restaurant. Doubles from £159.

More information

Oxfordcityguide.com

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