Located along the river Isis (unfortunate name I know) at its shallowest point (first used for crossing Oxen across its Ford – OxFord) Oxford is most known globally for its university. Being the sight of such a gathering of elevated IQs one expects to find intelligent thinking, translated into intelligent living which one hopes to absorb through osmoses.
While oxford is in many ways like you’d expect, some of its ways feel very archaic and surprising for its reputation. We explore much of this through our highlights and surprises below;
Oxford is walk able, which is great. They make full advantage of this by making many of its central streets pedestrian only roads. It’s visually stunning pretty much every building we saw was extremely well maintained and about 2-3 times older than my country (NZ). The wealth of limestone Oxford discovered it was sitting on once they settled also helped to create a sense of visual consistency.
Tour the Christ Church Cathedral and Great hall (7 Pounds)
For 7pounds per adult you can gain entry to Christ Church Cathedral and University. On site you will find the great hall (the inspiration behind the Hogwarts dining room) and its peculiar cathedral with both catholic and Anglican influences – its worth checking in advance to see which areas are open on your day of visit and to join in the 2pm tour of the Church (which occurs most days). We were the only two on our tour (it was a Wednesday in the middle of winter) so the tour felt like a private tour!
Museum of Natural History and Pitts Rivers Museum (Free)
Two museums in the same building side by side. This is the kind of museum you grow up knowing museums are meant to be. Filled to the Brim of crazy and exotic artifacts.
The Natural History wing is filled with Dinosaur bones and of exotic animals including; Giraffes, Elephants, Polar Bears, Reindeer, Whales, Turtles. Its very cool!
The Pitts Rivers Museum was a private collection of rare artifacts that highlight how different cultures have developed differently in response to the natural recourses that surround them. The Museum is most famous for Its Shrunken Heads, its Voodoo Dolls and its Witch in a bottle (which wasn’t what we expected) but we were also really impressed by the samurai section, the Maori section and the impressively large Canadian crest pole.
All in all, its well worth a visit and definitely worth the admission charge (free) so do yourself a favor and set aside a few hours of ‘wow’-ing.
Walk the trail of your favorite authors
Countless famous authors spent significant time in oxford. In particular we were excited to see how Oxford influenced C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll & Oscar Wilde. Take some time hunting down their favorite haunts, it’s fascinating seeing the influence that the Oxford surrounding had on their work!
The Covered Market & Objects of Use
In the centre of the City you’ll find one of the few areas not owned by the University, The Covered market. While largely used to house produce shops, this quaint haven away from the winter cold also hosts a few clothing and household good merchants which are worth a look. Overall, the 300 year old market is in pretty good shape and feels very quaint. While you’re in the area, right next door at the rear entrance of the market you’ll find a store called Objects of Use which we highly recommend checking out. It feels like walking into a modernised 1950s filled with high quality home goods that will last forever, even if you’re not looking to buy just treat it as a museum visit.
University Set Up
One of the first questions that everyone asks as they arrive in Oxford is, where is the University? Well the question is more difficult to explain than you’d expect. Technically the university is everywhere and nowhere. That’s because while the University of Oxford supposedly owns over 90% of the central Oxford property, the university is also made up of over 30 different universities. Not just 30 campuses specializing in different study areas either, over 30 independent universities all teaching the core subjects; English, Mathematics etc, all with their own boards of directors, professors etc. Each university has a strong rivalry with each other. We found this to be very confusing and a little backward when we first arrived. It took a lot of asking around to figure it out. I wasn’t even sure your degree would say Oxford University until someone explained it to me;
Its easier to think of it like this; Oxford University is less of university but more of an examination, each of the universities are taking the same test and each of the universities are working to help get you across that line.
I don’t think I saw a single set of pedestrian crossing lights at any traffic light, how have they not thought about that yet? (just find a gap & go for it)
Council vs. University
As the university owns most of the land, this is one of the few places in the world where the university actually has more power to do what it wants than the local council!
Reputation bigger than size
Oxford may be world-renowned but its size makes it quite walk able from one side to the other. It’s quality over quantity. You’d only really need a full day to tick off your Oxford bucket list.
Over half of those who attend Oxford University are International Students. International student fees and tuition fees paying a Professor:Student ratio of 1:4ish makes this 1) an extremely expensive university to attend and 2) a very wealthy university.
Although you are unlikely to find yourself a white Christmas in London these days (with climate change and all) you are likely to still find a city that wholly embraces the season. London is a great choice of location to go celebrate the season and here are some of our favorite Christmas activities to do and see!
Window Displays (Harrods & Selfridges)
Anyone who knows anything about London (including followers of Mr. Selfridge like us) know that London is famous for its department stores that specialize in window displays; none more famous than Harrods & Selfridges. Jenny & I managed to view the 2015 Christmas displays of both stored and are happy to report back.
This year’s Harrods Christmas window displays followed an entertainment theme with a dash of jazz night club feel. The moving displays featured both singers and dancers. Below the stage of the performers featured a subplot, mice (the cute variety) who were collecting goods and featured items that went along with the display. The highlight for us was the window that featured two teddy bears pulling open a large Christmas cracker to reveal perfume inside. Very creative.
Selfridges on the other hand took the edgier route by going galactic, displaying a window to represent each of the star signs and matching the personality and feel of the star sign with products found in store. The displays featured no moving parts but overall left the greater impression on us. Selfridges wasn’t ignoring Christmas (which was evident by the group of carol singers who filled the complete atrium stairwell) they just chose to put their own spin on things.
Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland
Part “German” market, part temporary theme park, Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland is HUGE. I’ve never seen such an impressive set of temporary theme park rides (I hazard to think of the effort that would go into relocating them). Overall the Winter Wonderland has everything you’d want from a German-esk Christmas market; gluwein, bratwurst, burgers, live entertainment, roller coasters, ice-skating, a circus and an ice sculpture museum. It’s well established and perfect for a window-shopping stroll however be warned; we found the food and market merchandise to be very expensive (the German-themed items especially seemed twice as expensive as we’d paid in the Cologne German markets). That being said, if you live in London and you’re just after a little taste of gluwein and German sausage, it’s still (slightly) cheaper than a flight to Germany, so enjoy! 😉
Street Displays (Oxford Street, Carnaby & Regent Street)
Many of the famous central streets of London receive a temporary makeover for the season so we’d highly reccomend plotting out a walking plan that takes them in; here are a few of our photos displaying the different themes:
It was on Regent Street that we discovered our favorite London Christmas Spot (thanks to our friend Tom Smallman for the awesome tip-off); Hamleys flagship toy store! We’ve never experienced anything like it. Hamleys on Regent Street is the world oldest toy store, open for 255 years; they’ve had time to perfect their craft. Filling 7 floors & a total of 5000 square metres, this is also the worlds largest toy store. You can find anything here that you can (or can’t) imagine. Its sheer selection is completed by it staff displays that highlight new innovative and fun products, many of the staff displays allow you to get hands on and try the products yourself. For me, this was the highlight of the London Christmas activities, so do yourself a favour and check it out!
Rural, Peaceful & Character-filled; Norfolk is that perfect pearl you’ve been looking for.
I speak from experience. As a tween I spent just under two years in Norfolk. My parents were volunteering in a Christian Retreat called Letton Hall & my brother Matt + I had joined them.
These were formative years for me and so 15 years later I was eager to bring Jenny back and introduce her to the old stomping ground & my long-lost friends and family. I also wanted to piece back together the patches of memory that I had.
Now these weren’t initially easy times for me; taking a child from his/her habitat – their school, their friends, their toys their trampoline can be a big deal. The kind of deal that can make or break a kid. (It is my opinion that moving with a child abroad will either helpfully force a child to become adaptable and outgoing or trap them in a reclusive cycle.) Such is the importance of making friends and belonging to a child. So I was initially very hesitant to go as a child thinking how would I make new friends? How would I entertain myself? Would I get my own room?
But looking back, boy am I glad that I went! Letton Hall is an old manor house built before Captain Cook landed in New Zealand (so predating New Zealand’s western history). Located on a 10 acre plot, packed with some woods, a manor house, a converted stables, numerous fields, secret rooms, a shed filled with bikes & a go-cart track. Letton Hall proved to be a tween child’s dream. It was a place of fantasy & adventure & as it turned out, friends. Located on site were two other families, the Carrolls and the Roothams who both had children around my age; Ben & Matthew. Additionally through various camps and volunteer families I met countless more including James & Phil.
So 14 years on I was eager to reconnect, though nervous because a lot has changed in that time. Again I had nothing to fear. Reconnecting with everyone was so amazing! John & Margaret our hosts (and family friends) were so generous and graciously organized a get together at Letton with all of our old friends!
We BBQ’d in the walled the garden, reminisced on old times, caught up on new times and had an explore for old times sake! During the BBQ Ben reminded me of a few favourite memories such as;
-Pretending we were underwater scientists leaving out underwater submarine laboratory seeking to dissect & study underwater plant-matter,
-Building forts out of hay bails
-Stunt bike riding around the go cart track
-Toy soldier avalanche rescue
-Collecting Action Men
–Night time wide games
-Endless games of pool (& our made up version Loop)
-Memorising all the words to the Gorillaz & Simpsons CDs
–That time that Matthew completely whipped me at Go-Carting & I lived in denial as I couldn’t handle being bet by someone younger haha.
-Dressing up as superheroes (complete with my love heart boxers) and selling pictures of ourselves for money to friends and family.
Additionally there were some unfortunate events such as playing hide and seek in the woods with Matthew accidentally crouching over a wasp nest eek! Sorry Matthew.
Other than the wasp nest they were all memories that warm the heart. Such a perfect evening, well pleased! It felt like going home.
Which in a way it was…
Now firstly you need to know that Letton is located in little town called Shipdham, which is very very small. There are thousands of little towns like this across the UK, maybe even 10s of thousands. So it was actually quite by chance that we ended up in this town for the significant period of time that we did. Now here is the crazy part; many years later Mum & Dad headed back to the UK for a visit. While they were there they decided to dig a little deeper into our family tree… Amazingly it turns out that some of our ancestors originated in Shipdham! They were paupers and headed to London to make a name for themselves before eventually boarding a ship for NZ. Crazy hey?
We really were heading home!
Now it goes without saying that if you are in the UK and looking to coordinate a camp or retreat for a group then most definitely consider Letton. Its gorgeous, its mysterious, its fun. Letton hosts both faith based & secular groups so if Christianity isn’t your thing that’s ok. You can find Letton Hall’s website here.
Alternatively Letton hall, which is run on volunteering steam, is always looking for volunteers – especially if you’re in the building maintenance or hospitality trade. Its not easy but rewarding. From our time volunteering @Letton we extended our friend & family network abroad. Many of our Letton friends came to visit us in NZ over the subsequent years which was amazing. So if you’re looking to take a sabbatical like us make sure you make contact with them; it might just be what Letton and you are looking for!
Finishing up in Warsaw we flew back to the UK and made our way by overnight bus up to Edinburgh for another volunteering opportunity and a chance to check out the world famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
We’d booked in to lend a helping hand to Jane & Roger, Edinburgh locals with some gardening/maintenance needs. Little did we know the wider extent of the work; we we’re pleasantly surprised. Jane and Roger are very community minded and for over two decades have been looking for ways to better their town Penicuik. This has come in many ways; they’ve been running a Saturday shop out of their house selling organic and fair trade products at cost price (to help make it accessible), when the local cinema closed they got together with their local community development trust and have been holding both recent and classic movies in their town hall. They contribute to a local Saturday café/market that provides people with affordable meals and snacks – a great place to meet your fellow locals. The opportunity that really caught our attention however was the Lost Garden of Penicuik.
About 4 years ago, the local development trust decided to switch gears and look for a place that they could set up a community garden. After some initial scouting around they were alerted to an old deserted walled garden in the estate of the local manor house (which had burnt down and bankrupted the owners some decades earlier because of a refused insurance payout and bad investments).
Since the bankruptcy of the family, the garden had been leased out a couple of times, the last leaseholders using it to store coal and grow Christmas trees before going bankrupt themselves, leaving the Christmas trees to grow untamed filling the garden. Covering the stairs and raised terrace also.
So when the trust arrived, through the magical wrought iron gates, it truly felt as though they were walking into Narnia. Overgrown, they waded their way through limbs and branches to discover a boundless potential and the remains of derelict walls, greenhouses and a fountain buried under dirt and time.
The garden holds so many stories, many of which they have been able to piece together by eye witness accounts of former garden keepers children and public records but many still remain mysterious.
The trust has over 40 volunteers and has a 50-year plan to restore the garden piece by piece and produce bountiful organic crops for the surrounding town. 4 years in they have already made significant headway, literally producing tonnes of food, building composting bathrooms, the beginnings of a woodwork school for local teenagers and many, many varieties of vegetables.
So if you’re in Edinburgh and looking for something a bit different and a lot helpful to do with your time, check it out, the visit alone will leave you beaming with the potential.
We had an absolute fantastic time in Northern Ireland this week. So much to see and do, Northern Ireland is definitely a hidden gem of the United Kingdom. Despite it’s checkered history we felt very safe and welcome, we’re definitely keen to return soon for further exploration. Below you’ll find brief summaries around some of the activities and attractions we enjoyed the most.
Bushmills Distillery Bushmills is the oldest licensed whiskey brewer in the world. At 7.5Pounds pp this made for a great indoor activity on a rainy day. We loved being taken through the active brewing plant (which is something we didn’t see in the Guinness Storehouse or the old Jameson’s distillery), the heat, the smells the bubbles, the barrels and the bottling all added to this visit. You end the tour by being able to claim a free drink from the bar which they didn’t go cheap on, offering you a rang beverages including the 12year old single malt only available for purchase at the plant.
Dunluce Castle This would have been one EPIC castle back in its day, on its own rocky outcrop [formerly] complete with drawbridge and an underground cave boat entrance, this castle is what little boys dreams are made of. The views are stunning and the history rich and its even featured in a few movies! Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge Part of my job back home is working on a high ropes course but even I had a few goose bumps crossing this bridge. It’s about a kilometer walk each way to this bridge which provides some gorgeous views and a rare look at a local bird colony. The bride cost 5.70pound pp or free if you’re a National Trust Member (of which Jenny & I as of a few days ago are).
Giants Causeway Its such a marvelous mystery, a freak of nature, made all the better by the local’s mythical stories that surround this place, a must do for any visitor to northern Ireland. We made the most of our new National Trust memberships (forgoing the 9pounds pp – which includes parking, entry into the exhibit hall and audio guides, with our membership we also forwent paying the optional additional 2.5pounds per person for the return bus fare down to the rocks). Now tips: 1) Don’t believe the signs saying that the giant’s car park is full, forcing you to park further away, we ignored these signs and found ample parking. 2) If you wanna do it on the cheap, technically the cliffs are free to do if you don’t partake in anything on the package deal (i.e. no audio guides, parking elsewhere, not going to the exhibition centre etc), totally legit. Dark Hedges I didn’t know anything about the Dark Hedges, still don’t really, other than seeing an awesome misty photo of them on Pinterest. They are however very cool, very eiry and perfect for your next facebook background picture. They are also pretty difficult to find, so if you do end up going to carrick-a-rede bridge ask the parking guys there for directions, they had a whole pile of handy pre-printed directions which saved us heaps of time.
I was so pleasantly surprised by Belfast, it’s a lovely place. I hear they have poured a lot of money back into the city in the last few years to reattract tourism (after the troubles) and it shows! Much like Galway however, if you’re visiting on a Saturday, know that they are a Saturday sleeper-in-er town, don’t expect anything (other than St. Georges Market) to be open before 11:30am.
City Sightseeing tour vs. Black Cab
Coming to Belfast we’d heard all about their famous black taxi tours. We however found ourselves having to decide between said tours or the City Sightseeing bus tours. It was actually quite a hard decision, we ended up opting for the bus tour and we’re glad we did for the following reasons: 1) In their fame, the black cab tours have become expensive – 10pounds pp, with a minimum 30pound cost. With a 3rd person we probably would have opted for the taxis but at 21pounds for the both of us, the bus tour saved us around 18NZD. 2) the bus tour commentary was awesome, providing great humor and insight into the city. 3) the bus was hop on/hop off for 48 hours meaning we could semi use it as a bus service to get around – with the taxis, after your hour and half tour is over, that’s all you get. 4) finally the height of the bus meant that we were able to see over the police barricade and catch a glimpse of one of the infamous orange marches in procession. St. Georges Market Voted the best indoor market in the United Kingdom, St Georges Market did not disappoint! Filled with food produce, meals, candies, painters and local craft that change from week to week. They also have quality live music every opening day. So if you’re in the neighborhood Friday-Sunday, avoid FOMO and go check it out you wont regret it. Hurling Such a fascinating game! We really got into the action which highlighted a Irish heritage or warriors who showed profound skill and bravery. If you managed to find a game (which its hard to do because the GAA website is vague), its well worth it 3pound pp, money well spent. Victoria Square We don’t often promote shopping malls on here, but Victoria square caught us by surprise being all shiny and new, bubbling over with quality stores and restaurants. This place also provides a free panoramic view for visitors in their giant glass dome that towers above the centre.
The Troubles We all know the troubled history between the Republic of Ireland and that of the Unionist Northern Ireland. From an outsiders perspective it seems such a shame that one people of one land can’t get along and be united. On our journey into Northern Ireland I found myself having to check my united Ireland fantasies at the door, we was taken aback by how proud the north were about being united with Britain. These guys had more [Brittish] flags per square inch than I’ve ever seen!
Driving across the border provided no signs or checkpoints letting you know you’d arrived but many of the signs were clear as day for us; Kilometers changing into Miles, Euros at petrol station signs converting into Pounds, republican flags changing to the brittish flag and probably the most poignant to me was the town that we’d come to know as Derry from the Rep. of Irelands road signs became Londonderry (the London part had also been spray-painted over).
We’ve had the pleasure of being able to chat through some of Ireland’s history with many of the locals we met on our trip. It became obvious to us how fresh many of the wounds were on both sides. Both sides had strikingly different though no less valid views to one another. While I think all can agree that peace is now what they wish to seek I believe it will take some time for the nation to process and forgive the violence. I also think it will take some time to process how to move forward as two distinctive cultures living together side by side.
When we initially arrived in London back on the 28th of April we did a quick scopes around of the local landmarks to see what we’d like to see and do.
Two lists quickly arose;
- Cool and affordable/free: National gallery, museums, Selfridges, The Wallace Collection, Sandemans walking tours, Borough Market, Jack the Ripper walking tour and the Walkie Talkie Sky Garden.
- Very cool, very unaffordable: The Lion King Musical, the London Dungeons & The Tower of London.
At 50Pounds for the both of us to enter the Tower of London (this is around $100NZD – i.e. a lot!) us thrifty travellers found this a hard pill to swallow. By goodness though, its tower of London! You can’t tick off London and not tick of the crown jewels and the fortress that encases them. To justify the cost for us though, our lives would either have to be profoundly changed or we’d have to find a better deal.
The latter of which miraculously happened. I don’t quite understand how it happened; all I know was that that it was generous and awesome:
Nick & Sara, our awesome WorkAway hosts from back in Buckinghamshire came up with a solution; they would generously trade in some of their unused Tesco (local British supermarket) vouchers in exchange for Tower of London tickets. Somehow you can trade in Tesco vouchers for up to 4 times their value for certain attractions. So they managed to trad in 12.5pounds worth of vouchers for 50pounds worth of Tower of London tickets…awesome! So there we go, Tower of London with a big thanks to Nick & Sara!
So onto the attraction; it was cool, I’d give it a 7 out of 10, not quite 50 pounds worth but solid. Lets expand upon some of the highlights and lowlights:
Yeoman Warder Tour (colloquially: Beefeater Tour)
(Included in Gate Price)
This was great; the Yeomen are good fun with a good sense of humor & showmanship set alongside some fascinating history. We highly recommend going on one of these tours, which depart every half hour. There doesn’t appear to be a maximum group size but this isn’t a big deal as they are very good at projecting their voice. A yeoman warder tour will bring the history alive and make you feel justified in handing over your pounds.
While overall I feel like the Wallace Collection had a better array of medieval armour, Tower of London had some pretty awesome unique pieces you’ll struggle to find elsewhere. Two pieces stood out to me in particular:
1) The large suit of armour attributed to the infamous King Henry the VIII – this was the first suit of armor that I’ve seen whose owner I recognize, furthermore, seeing its size really brought the infamous king to life!
2) Those really stubby angled cannons with the huge cannon balls you see cannonier’s use in Age of Empires II & III, boyhood gaming brought to life, Epic!
I love watching royal guards pretty much do anything; marching, standing at ease, playing music & tower of London is pretty much as close as you can get. My personal favourite royal guard related pastime though has to be watching the guards whose hand-me-down bear skin hats are too big for their heads, covering their eyes: Here were a couple of great examples from our visit.
Pop Quiz: where else can you see the largest cut diamond in the world? Nowhere! So if jewels are your things, this is where you need to go. I wont lie, its pretty big…but also strangely miss-able – I think its because I’m so accustomed to stones that big being fake. There are a few really nice pieces in there, my personal favorite was the Queen Mother’s crown which being jewel encrusted was stunning.
No one likes to focus too hard on the negatives so I’ll be brief.
– The sickly feeling of looking at too many jewels and golden chalices, which inevitably prompts philosophical thoughts around inequality & the qualifying merits of a sovereign.
– Level 3 then 4 of the while tower become increasingly bizarre (apart from the gorgeous surprise chapel – which should really be in the highlights).
– There’s myth that says should the ravens ever leave Tower of London that it will fall, but it seems they keep a few of them in cages, which feels like cheating to me.
– I didn’t see the throne featured in Sherlock.
– Go to the nearby Waitrose (another supermarket chain) and collect yourself a couple of 1 pound reduced to clear sandwiches – it’s a long day at the tower, you’ll get hungry, you’ll see the lunch prices and you’ll remember already spending 25pounds per person to come in.
– Go the crown jewels early on; the line appears to get longer throughout the day.
– Don’t feel bad about taking a few trips down the crown jewels travelators, they simply move too quick to get enough detail the first two times.
– If you know you’re coming a long time in advanced, consider booking a ticked to the Ceremony of the Keys which is apparently cool (and free) but has around an 8 month waiting list – we’ll be able to confirm its coolness at the end our waiting list.