24 Mar What to do in Oxford when it rains
When the weather takes a turn for the worst, exploring a new city can seem intimidating. But with a few pointers in the right direction, it doesn’t have to be. Here’s my guide to what to do in Oxford when it rains – proof that the city of spires has much to enjoy, even if it is a little soggy.
Ah, the good old British weather.
If there’s one thing you can’t rely upon in the UK, it’s the weather. And you can either grumble about it, or you can get on with it. Fortunately, we’re both in favour of the latter.
We could have waited for the perfect forecast before heading off on our last mini adventure. But given the winter we’ve had, we could be waiting a while. So in our usual fashion, when Storm Ciara decided to threaten our best-laid plans, we decided to say “sod it” and go any way.
Our plan was for a day out in the historic city of Oxford. Although it’s alarmingly close to home, I’d embarrassingly not visited since I was a child and Ben hadn’t headed here in more than ten years. We decided it was high time for a return visit. Thankfully, we packed a brolley.
We needn’t have worried about the weather. There was more than enough to keep even the most intrepid explorer busy on a blustery day. With more than it’s fair share of cosy coffee shops, magnificent museums, academic architecture and enticing eateries, Oxford is a small city that punches well above it’s weight.
Here’s my guide to enjoying Oxford, even on a wet day.
Start with a cuppa at Jericho Coffee Traders
There’s no better way to start your day than with a brew or a breakfast. For a particularly fine cup of coffee and delicious Danishes, try Jericho Coffee Traders. Our first port of call on arrival in Oxford, this snug spot on the High Street proved to be an excellent place to warm up and brace ourselves ready for the weather outside.
Head to the Ashmolean museum
Having had our fill of pastries, we made our way out into the rainy streets of Oxford. We meandered our way past some of it’s most beautiful Colleges toward the Ashmolean. As one of the most renowned, and ancient, University cities in the world, the Oxford Colleges are fascinating places to explore on drier days. You might not want to make it the mainstay of a wet day, but a wander in this direction at least provides a glimpse of some of the spectacular architecture from under your umbrella. Be sure to head past the Bridge of Sighs, one of the most recognisable sights in the city, before you dip inside the warmth of Oxford’s most prestigious museums.
The Ashmolean is a treat on any day of the week, let alone on a wet weekend. It’s one of those delightful museums that has something for everyone, and more than enough exhibits to leave you feeling ready to return and explore even further. Close to the entrance you’ll find an astonishing array of Roman sculpture and Egyptian antiquities, but head upstairs and you’ll find unexpected treasures. There are several rooms dedicated to landscape paintings and as well as the Dutch Masters, a huge array of ceramics and textiles from South-East Asia and collections of jewellery and silverwork that you can easily spend hours indulging in.
We enjoyed a good few hours here, and could happily have spent more, but the rest of the city was calling.
The Ashmolean museum is open 7 days a week, 10am-5pm with free entry – although they recommend a donation of £5 per visitor.
Browse in Blackwell’s bookshop
There was one place I knew I wanted to visit in Oxford, above all else. And it wasn’t an obvious choice.
As someone who hadn’t visited the city for the best part of 25 years, I had very fond memories of visiting Blackwell’s to browse the books with my aunt as a child. All I recalled was the sense that I’d never seen quite so many books in one place. Or felt like there was quite so many to choose from. As two bookworms trying to make the most of the city on a wet day, a trip to Blackwell’s seemed an excellent idea.
Let me explain. Blackwell’s is no ordinary bookshop. It’s a labyrinth of temptations – if you’re a book lover like me. Step inside the modest frontage of the store and you might be mistaken for thinking that this is nothing more than your usual High Street bookseller. But you’d be wrong. Keep heading deeper into the store and away from the street and room after room of tempting reads appears. Better still, head downstairs to be astonished by the absolutely vast basement level – packed with seemingly every publication under the sun and even a stage.
Whether you’re interested in picking up a read or two, or not, it’s worth a trip inside to experience the sheer scale of the biggest bookseller in this academic city. I challenge you not to leave without an enormous reading list.
Enjoy a literary lunch
By now we were starving, and a hearty pub lunch seemed a good idea.
Ben was determined we head to the Eagle and Child, one of the cities most famous pubs thanks to it’s literary connections. Reputedly the haunt of authors including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I was a little concerned that it might now be a tourist trail attraction rather than the cosy kind of hideaway I was hoping for.
Thankfully, the Eagle and Child remains an absolute delight of a pub (great choice Ben!). It’s tiny front rooms are reminders of a bygone era, largely gone from all but the most rural of pubs in Southern England. The narrow building is a labyrinth of welcoming rooms, and within a few moments of our arrival I realised this was the perfect spot for lunch. Pie is the pick of the day here, with half a dozen or so to choose from. Those we tried we excellent.
Having soaked up the beer, gravy and atmosphere in the Eagle and Child, we braved the now bucketing rain for our next stop, the Bodleian Library.
There are three options to potentially explore here; the historic library, the Radcliffe Camera and the modern Weston Library. The Radcliffe Camera and old Bodleian Library are famed for their exquisite architecture (as well as being prestigious seats of learning) and can be thoroughly explored on a tour. You’ll need to pre-book, so if you’re visiting more spontaneously like us, allow yourself some time to stroll around the exteriors of these beautiful buildings instead. Provided it’s not pouring down (!), this really doesn’t disappoint. They’re just as stunning on the outside as the inside.
For a free treat at any time, pop across the street to the Weston library. This modern arm of the Bodleian is where you’ll find a constantly changing programme of fascinating exhibitions that are open to the public. We spent an enjoyable hour soaking up the latest offerings.
Planning a visit? Check out the Weston Library’s events and exhibitions calendar here.
Coffee at the covered market
Once you’ve had your fill of intellectual attractions, a little mooch around the shops might seem appealing. You could head to the city’s contemporary Westgate shopping centre. Or for an alternative that’s brimming with charm, head to the covered market like we did.
You’ll need to look for the discrete signs that point to the narrow doorways. The covered market is an indoor market of the oldest traditions, but it’s now home to a wonderfully diverse selection of businesses that make it well worth a wander. Scattered amongst the traditional grocers and butchers stores you’ll find hipster coffee shops and ramen bars. There’s a handful of independent clothing retailers, old-school cafes and cobblers shops. It’s full of people – especially on a wet day – young and old, locals and visitors.
Oxford’s covered market has somehow managed to preserve the best of it’s traditions as well as move with the times, staying relevant and bustling. There’s a welcoming atmosphere here, and I’d highly recommend stopping for a brew or two. We loved Columbia Coffee Roasters – Ben for the extensive choice of speciality coffees and brewing options, me for the giant slices of carrot cake. Either way, we both enjoyed sitting on their ‘terrace’ and watching the world go by.
Was it worth it on a wet day?
We were delighted to find that exploring Oxford in the rain didn’t dampen our spirits or take away from our enjoyment of this historic city. If this trip proved anything, it’s that wet weather shouldn’t discourage you if you’re considering a day out or a city break – provided you bring an umbrella! For us, it was a helpful reminder than adventure can sometimes be just outside of your front door (or closer to home than you realise).
We’ll certainly be heading back here come summer, and treating damp winter days as more of an opportunity than before.