It sounds a particularly testing dilemma: how do you preserve one of Britain’s most admired and hallowed cities while also injecting new life into it? Well, for the past few years, Oxford has been doing just that. Thanks to a dextrous juggling act between the ancient and the cutting-edge modern, several bold new features have been deftly added to this antique town. Of course, Oxford already presented an enormous wealth of things to see and do (many of the attractions are free, too), but the new sites add a great sense of zest. I spent an absorbing short break checking them out.
First, I headed to Oxford Castle. It seems extraordinary now that this central, historic complex – which predates the university – was until recently an almost unknown part of the city. A Norman castle with a Saxon tower in its midst, it was, from 1071 right up until 1996, the city’s main prison. And for much of the 20th century, it was largely ignored by the outside world. Yet in 2006, the former prison reopened as a “new” quarter with cafés and restaurants, as well as the O3 modern art gallery, a sleek Malmaison Oxford hotel, and an imaginatively devised museum area wryly named Oxford Castle – Unlocked.
Entrance to the latter is by guided tour, which has been cleverly put together to appeal to children as well as more earnestly interested adults. As our guide led us around the buildings, his commentary brought the gruesome past to life, while the interactive displays in the cells (including some of the hard-labour devices the Victorians used) brought us face to face with the brutalities confronted by the inmates here.
Tour over, I checked into the Malmaison hotel section of the one-time prison, marvelling at the marriage of original jail features – stark walkways, iron staircases, standard bedrooms uncompromisingly fashioned out of three former cells – with chic comforts and designer decor of black, red and taupe. The net effect is enormously atmospheric, if at times unsettlingly so – but those quailing at the thought of spending a night in a lock-up can opt to book into a more conventional room in the prison governor’s wing.
Next stop, the Ashmolean, Britain’s oldest public museum and a veritable grande dame of Oxford sights. Since the mid-19th century, this cultural treasure-trove has been housed in a majestic neoclassical building designed by Charles Robert Cockerell – and from the façade, you might be forgiven for thinking nothing at all has changed here. But as you enter, you realise that a revolution of light and space has taken place. In November last year, a £61m development was completed. Designed by Rick Mather, this has replaced the back of the museum with what is in effect a glass box. It contains 39 state-of-the-art galleries and is topped with Oxford’s first roof-terrace restaurant.
I felt almost as if Doctor Who’s Tardis might have come into bearing here: the actual footprint of the museum has not increased, but through clever use of walkways and varied heights of display spaces, the exhibition area has doubled. All of which has allowed the Ashmolean to rethink and refresh its exhibitions, linking cultures and ancient artworks and showing a great many previously unseen textiles and objects. I spent a good half-hour in the Japanese gallery alone, where a traditional teahouse has been recreated among fabulous displays of lacquerware, ceramics, prints and more.
I moved on to Modern Art Oxford, a gallery where radical change has been achieved on a modest budget. By transforming a side yard and loading bay into a new display and café space, this small but dynamic institution has significantly increased its size and added a colourful social venue. In the summer, the new space functions as a bar and coffee shop, with furnishings commissioned from contemporary artists (this year’s look is by Richard Woods). On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, it also hosts a lively events programme, with jazz, blues and more. In autumn and winter, the café moves to the lobby, leaving this new space for smaller shows – and from October, The Yard will be featuring sculptures and installations by Simon and Tom Bloor.
From prison cell to contemporary art, my head was whirling. So in search of tranquillity, I headed out of town. Oxford offers wonderfully easy access to rural retreats – and within a 10-minute drive from the city centre, I reached the village of Kingston Bagpuize. Here Fallowfields hotel is a gracious country house with a terrific restaurant and a wonderful outlook across its own farmlands. I dined on locally raised beef and vegetables from the kitchen garden – relishing the unexpectedly rich variety of Oxford old and new.
This weekend, Oxford Open Doors gives free access to many of the city’s oldest and newest buildings. Sites include Oxford University’s newest college, Kellogg College on Banbury Road, and the ancient church of St Ebbe’s on St Ebbe’s Street. More information and booking on 01865 251022; oxfordopendoors.org.uk .
Where to stay
Doubles from £140.
What to do
* Oxford Castle Unlocked, 44-46 Oxford Castle (01865 260666; oxfordcastleunlocked.co.uk ); daily from 10am; admission £7.75.
* Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street (01865 278000; ashmolean.org ) Tue-Sun 10am-6pm; main collection free.
* Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street (01865 722733; modernartoxford.org.uk ); Tue-Sat 10am-5pm (Thur, Fri and Sat until 7pm); Sun noon to 5pm; free.
* VisitOxford (01865 252200; visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com ).