Towards the end of my recent holiday I had a day out in Oxford. With a birthday lunch at The Randolph Hotel, now officially the Macdonald Randolph Hotel. This hotel was Inspector Morse's favourite in-town place for refreshment, and it featured much in 1980s TV episodes such as The Wolvercote Tongue, where he clinches with a distraught lady whose unfaithful lover has just been murdered. I rather fancy that Morse's creator, the author Colin Dexter, had a soft spot for The Randolph, which remains Oxford's best-known posh hotel. I decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to treat myself to lunch there, even though I did not myself have an unfaithful dead lover on my hands. It was the 4th July - two days in front of my real birthday - but that didn't matter. I abandoned original plans to dine at The Trout at Wolvercote. Someone had told me anyway that the feel of the place had changed: it was now 'very studenty'. I wanted to go where the college masters might go.
You can't really drive into Oxford. You can try; but the place isn't friendly territory where cars are concerned, and parking is difficult. It welcomes only buses and coaches. It expects car-borne visitors to find one of its Park-and-Ride car parks, and travel into the city centre by special bus.
I've used Oxford's Park-and-Ride twice, in 2009 and 2012. On both occasions it worked as advertised, but I thought the journey into the centre slow and tedious, and there was quite a bit of waiting around for the Park-and-Ride bus to come on the way back. I find that there comes a point on any city visit when you suddenly run out of steam, your feet feel tired, and your brain has died; and you want only to head as quickly as possible back to your car, and flee the teeming cit. Standing for a bus in a long queue of equally exhausted people does not achieve that. It can in fact ruin the good impression the city should have left in the mind. I don't really like buses at the best of times, but especially not when I want to get somewhere else fast, and in comfort. Crawling along in a packed bus with misted-up windows is not my notion of a soothing occupation. I'm so glad I didn't opt for a free Bus Pass when I started to get my State Pension! I'd hate having to use it.
Anyway, twice bitten, doubly shy, I was never going to use the city's Park-and-Ride again if I could avoid it. And I had a great alternative. Oxford's railway station is fairly convenient for the city centre, and I could drive from the caravan site (near Woodstock) to Charlbury, and catch the train there. The cost of the return journey, with my Senior Railcard discount, was but £4.10.
Oxford station has undergone something of a transformation in recent years. They have steadily been rebuilding it.
Considering the vast numbers of visitors Oxford gets, not to mention the students at the University colleges, it has desperately needed spacious modern facilities. To some extent, it's now got them; but I thought they could have done more. They are presently reopening a section of commuter line to Islip, which will encourage extra passenger numbers, and I can see the place getting overwhelmed again as soon as that new line opens. Here's the ticket/shopping/refreshments/toilets concourse, at a slack time:
You can just imagine this filling up with a frustrated crowd, if they have to cancel a couple of trains.
Outside the station, there was a big bulky bronze ox - a champion beast. (Ox-ford...that's why)
Pretty good as sculptures go, I'd say. Also outside the station, hundreds of bikes, just as you see at Cambridge:
My prime objective, after lunch, was the Pitt-Rivers Museum. But first lunch. Noon was approaching. I'd more-or-less settled on The Randolph. Only an outrageously expensive or unappealing menu was going to make me think again. The hotel was easy to find. It faced the Ashmolean Museum.
That's the entrance, where the flags were flying. I studied the outside menu.
It seemed just right. In I went. It was solid and old-fashioned and comfortable, in a somewhat baronial sort of way.
To one's left, the famous Morse Bar.
To one's right, the room set aside for afternoon tea.
After asking at Reception, I found the Dining Room. I was almost the first for lunch. The place seemed vast!
A pleasant waitress greeted me. 'I'd like some lunch, please.' I said. I spoke like a baroness. No, I didn't really: I was chirpy and friendly. She showed me to a table by a window, which gave me a view of the Ashmolean Museum opposite.
Chatting a bit, I mentioned that this was to be my Birthday Lunch. I ordered a 500ml carafe of good white wine (500ml wasn't too much for a leisurely meal for one); water besides; and to nibble, a selection of little artisan breads, with butter.
The dark roll was made with rye, and had a distinct liquorice taste. Fennel, of course. Another was a type of onion bread - delicious with the soft butter. A pleasing start.
Next, minestrone soup.
It was hot and satisfying, but not outstandingly special. I thought there would be some twist, but no.
Next, my main course. I had chosen fish, in this case a fillet of halibut on a bed of spinach. It was very pretty, and very nice to consume slowly, savouring the flavours.
For dessert, crème caramel, with sultanas soaked in sauternes. Unfortunately the caramel wasn't perfectly-presented on the plate. But it was only a small defect, and the sultanas were juicy, a lovely treat.
By this time the Dining Room was filling up, but there was no hurry to finish. I looked around. These might be people staying at the hotel, or just people popping in for an expensive lunch. Two young persons, a honeymoon couple perhaps, had been there as I arrived, but by now had paid up and gone. One or two foursomes, both composed of frail elderly parents with their son or daughter, plus spouse, had sat down. Off to my left, a party of seven had arrived and were already engaged in voluble conversation, one woman in particular, who didn't notice that her cardigan had slipped off the back off her seat and onto the floor. I tried to catch her eye, but it was no good. I asked my waitress to tell her. I finished my wine. I'd have coffee or tea later, at the Museum perhaps. Now for the bill.
Yes, that's £68.46 for my lunch. But it included the service charge, and that carafe of fine wine accounted for a whopping £28.00 of it. Still, it was a lot for just a lunch, even for a nice hotel in Oxford. But I'd got what I wanted. A special Birthday Meal in special surroundings.
The Pitt-Rivers Museum was part of the Museum of Natural History. reached via a passageway next to one of the pubs frequented by pipe-smoking J R R Tolkien, the learned author of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and several other works concerned with 'serious fantasy', into which he poured not only invention but his philosophy.
Just like the schoolchildren, I enjoyed the dinosaur skeletons inside the elegant Museum of Natural History.
These two creatures below seemed to be paying close attention to the children, as if considering them for their own lunch! (Which was clearly overdue)
The entrance to the Pitt-Rivers Museum was at the rear of the Natural History museum. Another cavernous space, on three levels.
It was full of ethnic artefacts, from every primitive culture. I like exhibits like this. I find the art of so-called primitives very powerful.
All this seen, I suddenly felt I'd had enough, and headed for the station. The secret with cities is to do or see just one or two things each day you are there, and avoid making yourself tired. Really big places like London always exhaust me, even if I keep to this rule - although I probably will make the effort to go there again for a day this autumn. I haven't been near the centre of London for three years. On the last occasion, I took in the Tate Modern and the Petrie Museum. But any hint of terrorist activity will keep me away.
So what did I do for a fancy meal on my actual birthday on the 6th July? Well, I first had a lunchtime pasty at Banbury, which has its famous cross and a tucked-away example of Banksy wall graffiti (though surely not really his genuine work? Who can say):
Then some National Trust afternoon tea and cake at Canons Ashby:
And in the evening a steak dinner back at the caravan, washed down with water:
To be honest, I enjoyed all this tasty homely fare as much or more than the Randolph Hotel lunch!