The Halloween drizzle makes the lights of the shops flare a little brighter and the dark shadows of Oxford’s Gothic urban fabric take on a ghoulish presence. We’re here essentially due to poor planning - our intended destination, Cheltenham, being too far to travel for the lateness of the rising hour even accounting for the end of daylight saving. It matters not - occasionally a demon to get to - today we are in luck and we sweep into the centre without the spectre of jammed up streets.
Market town dwellers like us are easily impressed and the clicking of foreign tongues means we are not alone in our admiration of this learning environment. Oxford has history woven into the landscape and there is a whole infrastructure here to entertain the visitor for the day. Whether it’s eclectic commerce you are after - not too many places can boast a printed music emporium - or the façade of centuries of architectural endeavour, this compact city has an array of haunts to keep you coming back for more.
Young minds must be fed on a varied diet of art, literature and music and the smorgasbord of choice is spirited in through the medium of street advertising. There is a lot happening and posters keep you updated with local events in a way that Iphones haven’t quite learned yet. We meander - deliberate wrong turnings keep us in unfamiliar and unexpected territory. Outside the Pitt-Rivers Museum massive phantom prone trees, roots uselessly clutching smoggy air, occupy concrete plinths. This is “Ghost Forest” - Angela Palmer’s metaphor for deforestation and climate change and there is no more apt day to see it, despite the mud underfoot.
The Bodleian Library’s season stretching Summer exhibition is ending and we swiftly waft around the collection of scientific instruments, examinations of Stonehenge archaeology and diagrams of napkin-folding that sprang forth from the incredibly expansive mind of John Aubrey - a seventeenth century Fellow of the Royal Society of London whose “wit was always working” apparently.
Morning turns to afternoon and thoughts turn to lunch: Oxford takes its cafe society very seriously and a snack is all we need so we bag a table at Patisserie Valerie: a chain yes, but this outlet inhabits an ancient building, which lends it a more authentic air. The two “Croques”: Madame for Monsieur and Italienne for Madame are topped with beautifully browned bechamel and a well dressed side salad cuts through the cloying cheesiness. The teens’ Eggs Benedict sport a rather suspect “glow in the dark” hollandaise, but with runny yolks and smoked salmon: who’s complaining?
We cannot escape without passing the counter where the apparition of tantalising pastries hover screaming at us to take them. We are unable to resist and our boxed pudding flies out of the door with us.
The ethereal being of Oxford is made flesh in very real scenery of the Northern Thames Valley - the rattling of chains diminishes as we make our exit.