Return to Oxford

I’m in lock-down in Cambridge at the moment, but a few months ago I did make a flying visit to the other place, Oxford, where I studied many years ago.

 From the cultural tourism point of view, the most notable developments in Oxford recently have been the reopening of the Ashmolean Museum (in 2009) and of the Weston Library (in 2015). The Ashmolean, of course, is Britain’s oldest museum, founded in 1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities given to the University of Oxford in 1677 by Elias Ashmole, treasures acquired by him from the gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger. It’s housed in the Cockerell Building (opened in 1845), one wing of which is occupied by the Taylor Institution, the university’s modern languages faculty, where I spent a certain amount of time as a student (as an undergraduate and in my glorious two-term research career). The £61 million revamp by Rick Mather dropped a huge concrete-and-glass box into the courtyard behind the original museum, creating a spectacular lightwell/staircase that provides easy connections to every floor and gallery, plus of course a new rooftop restaurant. The display space has also been doubled in size, allowing bigger and better temporary exhibitions – I’m very keen to see the current Young Rembrandt show, but of course it’s closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I didn’t spend much time in the New Bodleian Library as a student, and just saw it as a drab pile that I had to pass frequently – built in 1937-40 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Wikipedia sniffily notes that it’s ‘not generally considered his finest work’, although it is listed as a Grade II historic building. It too has been hollowed out behind the original façade in an £80 million pound project to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material and better facilities for readers, including a digital media centre and 2.5km of open-access bookshelves. It also welcomes outside visitors for the first time; a new entrance from Broad St leads to a shop and café and spaces for free temporary exhibitions, which I strongly recommend. Journalists crowed that ‘the dreary old New Bod has become the Mod Bod’, but it is in fact now called the Weston Library.

 I’ve just seen that the University Museum of Natural History is next in line for a major revamp; in 2014-6 it was closed to fix its leaking roof (comprising over 2,500 Victorian glass tiles), and in 2020 the displays in the main court are being moved out in shifts (allowing the museum to stay open throughout) and reinstalled in new high-tech conservation cabinets. The new displays will, they say, ’address the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment’.

 Not all of Oxford’s museums are doing so well – just last month three paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci and Salvator Rosa were stolen from the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Christ Church itself had recently been in the news because cases of fine Burgundy and Pouilly Fumé had been disappearing from the cellar. Hmmmm, I wonder if there could be a connection.

 Architecture old and new

In fact though, every time one returns to Oxford after a few years away, there are plenty of new and converted buildings to catch the attention. At my alma mater, New College, the stylish new Clore Music Studios were completed in January 2019 and the Kimbel Wing (fantastic accommodation for the disabled in the original Morris Garage, where the first Bullnose Morris cars were assembled in 1912) was opened in March 2019 (I’d love to see my nephew living there one day, but that’s another story). More recently, the plans for the new Gradel Quadrangles, which received planning permission in June 2018, were greeted with general approval and even excitement – crammed in behind Savile House, where I lived in my final year, they’ll allow New College to provide rooms for all its students.

 In the future I’d like to wander north of the centre, where there’s all sorts of interesting new architecture, starting with the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, in and around the old Radcliffe Infirmary between the Woodstock Road and Walton Street. The Observatory itself is now the focal point of Green Templeton College, a new graduate college founded in 2008. The former St Luke’s Chapel (built in 1865) is a venue for events, and not to be confused with the Freud café in the former St Paul’s Church on Walton St, built in 1836. There’s new accommodation for Somerville College here, and the Jericho Health Centre and the University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, the Mathematical Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government (by Herzog & de Meuron) have also opened; the new Humanities Building was granted planning permission in 2010 but has been delayed by funding issues, with construction now expected to begin in 2021 (leaving aside any Covid-19-related complications). I love good modern architecture (and thankfully Oxford and Cambridge can both afford to pay for it), and I especially enjoy projects that fit in new buildings among historic sites like this. A little further north, colleges such as St Anne’s also have similarly striking new buildings to be examined.

 Other small projects caught my eye too, for instance the McCall MacBain Graduate Centre (part of Wadham College), opened in 2012 in the former Blackwell’s Music Shop at the rear of the King’s Arms (I’ll get to pubs later, don’t worry, but the KA is also owned by Wadham). I have no idea what the Oxford Ice Factory building was when I was a student (1978-82) but it now houses the Oxford Foundry, an entrepreneurship centre opened in 2017 by the Saïd Business School, aiming to build a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs to leave society and the planet in a better state. It too has a nice café, naturally. And just a couple of blocks west, at the corner of Hollybush Row and the new Frideswide Square, the Jam Factory, opened in 2006, is a restaurant-bar-arts centre in the building where the famous ‘Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade was produced from 1903 to 1958. Immediately to the east. ie slightly nearer the city centre, I wandered around what used to be an area of breweries and other industries straddling various side-channels of the Isis (Thames) – not an area I’d ever known before, but there are still traces of the former Lion (Morrell’s) and Eagle Steam Breweries, now incorporated in fairly pricey residential developments. Immediately to the east again, Oxford Castle and the old prison are well known as a fairly upmarket regeneration area, with posh hotels and restaurants.

 Just a few pubs

And so to the pubs – I headed first to the Turf Tavern, which was my local for some years. It’s expanded, now stretching almost all the way back to New College tower, and has got more touristy, with more emphasis on food. It’s still hard to find and still has skull-bashingly low beams though. They claim that both Bob Hawke’s Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds and Bill Clinton’s ‘not inhaling’ marijuana both took place here in the 1960s; they may be right about Bob Hawke (he was later Australia’s most charismatic prime minister ever), but I’ve met people who knew Clinton at Oxford and the ‘not inhaling’ seemed to take place at private parties. They also make much of the fact that the Harry Potter crew hung out here after filming, which is probably true – some scenes were shot in New College and, for what it’s worth, Emma Watson’s father was a student there with me.

New College cloister – as in some Harry Potter film or other





New College Great Quad – as in some Harry Potter film or other









The KA (see above) is largely unchanged except for the addition of an attractive room with leather sofas next to the back bar (which lost its male-only status just five years before I came up); I found that it’s been a Youngs pub since 1991 – I have no idea what it was in my student days but would be happy to hear any ideas. The White Horse was closed for a mini-refurb over New Year but is probably not greatly changed (there’s not room to do anything much with it); and the Welsh Pony (famously basic when I was there, with amazingly cheap fry-ups) closed as a pub about twenty years ago and is now a generic seedy bar. The Bird and Baby (Eagle and Child) and Flamb and Lag (Lamb and Flag) are still there but both indelibly linked to Tolkien and CS Lewis and thus of no interest to me.

 I was intrigued to see that the local Wetherspoons (I wouldn’t drink there either, due to the founder Tim Martin being a berserk Brexiteer who made himself even more unpopular by his reaction to the new coronavirus) is called  The Four Candles – I wasn’t sure why, until someone told me that Ronnie Barker was a pupil at the Oxford High School for Boys, and the pub is now in that building (which was the History Faculty in my day). Or is it the Fork Handles…? If you don’t know the sketch you should look it up at once.

 I didn’t get there, but I was delighted to learn that the Gardener’s Arms on Plantation Road, which was my own secret pub in my final year, is now fully vegetarian – no idea what the beer is like, but I look forward to visiting as soon as possible. And we used to love going out to rural pubs such as the Plough in Noke (now closed, I believe), the Boat by the canal in Thrupp (great for bar billiards) and the Abingdon Arms in Beckley, which a friend visited fairly recently – it’s now community-owned, with good local beers, good-value meals, and a plaque stating that Evelyn Waugh ‘wrote, drank and loved here’  – which I hadn’t known. Apparently Waugh stayed here regularly with a male lover, and then honeymooned there with his first wife (who was also called Evelyn, confusingly; she left him for another man, and I can’t blame her), before spending time here to write books including Vile Bodies.

 From Oxford to Adlestrop

And finally – I’ve just read Oxford by Edward Thomas (of Adlestrop fame), which I can’t particularly recommend, it’s stuffed full of quotations and allusions to show how well educated he was (Hertford College, don’t you know) and the footnotes (in the 2005 Signal edition) don’t explain them all. The introduction stresses his Welshness, even though he’s known as a writer specifically about English countryside and nature, which is of some interest as I’m updating the Rough Guide to Wales at the moment. In fact he writes about a visit by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis, now remembered mainly as a train), who ‘for three days read aloud his glorious book to large audiences’. My last blog post was largely about Jan Morris, whose Oxford is a definitive account and a  wonderful read. Thomas does mention pubs and taverns quite a lot, and cycling, and also bonfires, which were very common in the college quads in his day but must have been extinguished quite soon after. In his opinion, the major change in his day from historic times was the advent of organised sport (especially rowing) – fives was the exception, which had been popular but had died out by his time – but it has now been revived, of course. Long country walks, not necessarily to pubs in Noke and Beckley, were also popular.

 Adlestrop, incidentally, where his train stopped unexpectedly on an Edwardian summer’s day, is north of Oxford near Stow-on-the-Wold (which I visit from time to time), in a location now best known for the Daylesford Organic Farm. But my next objective is to finally read Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (published in 1911), another classic Oxford tale which I think will be more fun than Edward Thomas.

A virtual Trieste

Due to the coronavirus lock-down I’ve turned my hand to something more like a book review…

 I joked in the introduction to my Bradt Guide to Dresden that I’d misheard and signed up to write it because I thought they’d said Trieste. Not actually true, because after all, Dresden is stunning and I loved being there and have been badgering them to do an update ever since. And I never got to write about Trieste, in fact I’ve not been there for several decades – but I have been reading Jan Morris’s classic Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

 Born in 1926, James Morris was just old enough to join the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers (the same regiment that occupied Montevideo in 1807, as it happens) at the end of the war and served as a subaltern in the forces occupying Trieste. The city had been liberated by the Yugoslav partisans, with New Zealand troops (and the Lancers in their tanks) arriving two days later – they were led by General Bernard Freyberg VC, whose grand-daughter Annabel I later knew at Oxford, playing Gertrude to Hugh Grant’s Hamlet, with me as production manager. Morris later got one of the greatest scoops of the century, covering the first ascent of Everest, and then James became Jan, and one of our most beloved travel writers (not that she likes the term).

 She said that Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, published in 2001, would be her last book, although happily that turned out to not quite be the case; she’s also called it her favourite non-fiction book (ie of the ones she’s written herself). It’s also clear that the city is one of her favourite places, with its ‘sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place’. You could just about use the book as a guide to the physical city (as it was twenty years ago, at any rate), but it’s really a metaphysical investigation into the nature of a city that was essentially created in the eighteenth century as a highly multicultural outpost of the Austrian empire and is only accidentally part of Italy today. It’s also a meditation on nostalgia, ageing (after over five decades of visiting Trieste) and her lifelong sense of self-exile.

 She pays particular attention to the city’s literary strengths, concentrating on James Joyce, who did much of his best work here, and Italo Svevo, taken as a pseudonym by Hector Schmitz to express his joint Italian and Swabian background – The Confessions of Zeno and As a Man Grows Older are both firmly set in a very recognisable Trieste (I haven’t read either, I confess [but see below]). Robert Musil is mentioned several times (and I did once read his three-volume magnum opus The Man Without Qualities), but without going in to so much detail. And Richard Burton (the translator of The Arabian Nights, not the Welsh actor) is examined too, although he fails to light my fire.

 Morris mentions Morpurgo as a quintessentially Triestino name, but was clearly writing too soon to be aware of the name’s current literary significance – War Horse was published as a novel back in 1982, but took off as a phenomenon only after the play opened in 2007. It’s an Ashkenazi Jewish name (which Michael Morpurgo acquired from his stepfather), and I also find it odd that Morris never mentions Trieste’s admittedly small Sephardic population.

 I was also assuming that Morris had totally missed Rainer Maria Rilke’s connection with Trieste – his greatest work, The Duino Elegies, was conceived at the castle of Duino, just up the coast – but no, he gets a passing mention in the penultimate chapter. Morris often mentions the bora, the wild north wind that frequently buffets Trieste, and it was while walking on the cliffs in a bora that Rilke claimed to hear a voice calling to him with the first line of the first Elegy, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’) – which vaguely reminded me of how Morris refers several times to that moment when a conversation falls silent (often at ten to the hour, it seems), allegedly when an angel passes overhead. Anyway, I assume Morris just doesn’t much like Rilke – he was a sort of Austrian equivalent of TS Eliot, but without any of the humour.

 I’d already read Last Letters from Hav (1985), Morris’s one novel, which she thought was ‘about an entirely imaginary Levantine city’ but found that ‘between every line Trieste was lurking’. It’s not a masterpiece, and doesn’t add much to our understanding of Trieste. Thanks to Covid-19, I’ve had time to look at it again, and at a couple of other books that describe Trieste. They certainly agree about the faint melancholy and sense of displacement that pervade the city.

 Claudio Magris is another Trieste author referred to in TATMON – his great book Danube, which I’ve referred to when writing about Romania and Bratislava, was published in 1986 (and in English in 1988), but the rather slimmer set of essays published as Microcosms appeared in 1997 and in English in 1999, just in time for Morris to refer to them. The first essay is about the life of the Caffè San Marco and the last about the Public Garden, both mentioned by Morris. One discovery is the poet Juan Octavio Prenz, born in Argentina in 1932, who lived in Trieste from 1979 until his death in 2019 and was a typical example of the multicultural Triestino beloved of Morris, as well as of Musil and Magris.

 Last year I also read Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules, published in 1995 and mentioned by Morris – passing through on his tour around the Mediterranean, his take on Trieste was similar to hers and that of other writers, although he paid a bit more attention to the food and the women, in addition to Joyce, Svevo and Burton.

 Morris mentions Abbazia (now Opatija), just down the coast, but misses a trick by not noting that Nabokov described (in Speak, Memory) going there as a child in 1904, when it seemed like a haunted version of Menton. And it seems odd, given what a major cultural totem the eponymous fizz now is in Britain, not to mention that Prosecco is just 8km north of Trieste, and less than 1km inland from Archduke Maximilian’s castle of Miramar, which Morris knows well. The populace of Prosecco is over 90% Slovene, calling it Prosek, and most of the wine is now produced 100km away to the northwest.

Last tram to Opcina

Of course, this wouldn’t be Unraveltravel without a mention of public transport –  wrapping up the book in the summer of 2000, Morris mentions ‘tracks laid for a magnetic tram service’, which I found a bit baffling – maybe she meant the tram up to Opicina (see below) which has electromagnetic emergency brakes as well as rheostatic and air brakes? But no, it turns out that an experimental bus (not a tram), powered by magnetic induction from rails laid in one of the city’s busiest streets, ran briefly in 2000 but fell foul of a new city government and was soon abandoned.

 Opicina (Opčine in Slovenian) is the main crossing point to Slovenia, but the  connections are notoriously awful. It’s up on the Karst, the limestone plateau that similar formations around the world are named after, and direct trains from Venice to Ljubljana stay up there rather than dropping down to Trieste and crawling back up again. The link from Piazza Oberdan in Trieste is a fascinating tram-funicular hybrid, with automated cable-hauled tractors giving a boost on the steepest section; this terminates in the centre of Opicina village, 1.2km short of the railway station (an extension was opened in 1906 but closed in 1938). In any case this has been out of action since a collision in 2016, with a replacement bus service, although it will supposedly reopen early in 2020. Fingers crossed!

Help us to help you

And finally – as I said, half the world is currently shut down due to the new coronavirus and Covid-19. Lots of people and businesses are in trouble, but one of the worst affected is the travel industry. I do most of my writing for Bradt Travel Guides, which is the only major British travel publisher to still be wholly independent. It’s a company that has always tried to make travel work for the greater good, not just helping tourists have a good time, but encouraging education (in both directions) and trying to boost tourism in smaller, off-beat destinations rather than the obvious honeypots (and I’m proud to have played a small part in this). The Slow Guides series, focussing on community involvement and active/sustainable travel, is particularly welcome. To get through the lean times, and to encourage people to start thinking of what they might do afterwards, they’re now offering a 50% discount on all books (so, as they say, a guidebook will cost less than a luxury pack of loo roll).

 Click here and enter code DREAM50. I don’t know when this offer will end, but don’t leave it too long! And yes, there is a Bradt guide to Trieste and its surrounding province.

[August 2020 – I have now read The Confessions of Zeno, and it is a modernist masterpiece – and funny too. Zeno really is an awful character – a self-centred hypochondriac procrastinator who has a terrible attitude to women – but the novel is written from his viewpoint at the time of the story, his later viewpoint during World War I (when he has unexpectedly turned out to be a very good businessman after years of failure), and that of his psychoanalyst who claims to be publishing Zeno’s letters as revenge for stopping treatment. It’s the psychoanalytical background that to me makes the novel seem very Viennese, akin to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities which laid bare the sickness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire immediately before World War I. The last production I saw of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (online, during the Covid-19 lockdown – with Kate Royal making time stand still as the Marschallin) featured Dr Freud sitting by the couch taking notes, which I though was an inspired touch.]