I laughed when I saw the man in the fish costume, but at least he was warm. The wind was whistling down Cornmarket Street and it seemed a large percentage was sneaking up the legs of my jeans. It’s always good to be back in Oxford, the last trip was in glorious July sunshine but this was a whole different kettle (or costume) of fish. At least no snow settled until my final morning but thewind chill increased steadily with each day.
With recent dramatic events I thought airport security would be heavier and slower but I sailed through Tenerife South and Gatwick and a speedy coach had me in Oxford in time for a few late beers at The Britannia near my Headington guest house. Heavy rain and a good, if standard, choice of real ales awaited me, Monday is their promotion night of 2.49 a pint, just softening me up for the more expensive stuff to come. My first look at town the next morning after the first of my daily 16 mile bus trips out to my mums care home in Wantage. The fields and rivers reflected many days of heavy rain but the bus still rattled along at a fair crack. Mum was in good form physically but her memory was hazier than ever.
Back in Oxford the sun popped its cold head out as the paths were being gritted and I was entertained by street musicians and the fish man. One old bloke was playing guitar and his fingers must have been plucking cold, mine certainly were. Later that night back in town for a few beers I noticed even more rough sleepers and beggars than ever in the shop doorways, a team of students were administering hot drinks and snacks which tempered my annoyance that students were being offered “discount” at the increasing number of money exchange shops. Over the next few days I managed to meet up with lots of old friends including a Co-Op office reunion out at The Evenlode at Eynsham but the dark brooding winter warmer ales I was after were proving elusive. A 4.5 Rudolphin from Whale Ale was the darkest and best I got.
Aside from the dashing around I did manage to indulge myself with a visit to the Ashmolean Museum, the last time I called was in a school party many, many years ago. What a brilliant place it is, now with a more modern outlook and very user friendly, a far cry from the unwelcoming vault of history that I recalled. The imposing frontage was offset by a couple of large sculptures and a large lobby opened out into a sweeping stairwell that rose through the six floors with links to the 60 odd galleries. It’s a good trick keeping the sense of grandeur whilst making it easily accessible to enquiring minds – they have got the mix spot on. I peeked in at the café on the basement level, nice home made cakes and snacks, then I took the lift to the rooftop restaurant and was wowed by the bright and warm layout. The weather meant the open air terrace was sealed off but through the glass surround I got a tease of the views of the spires of the city and the Randolph Hotel opposite.
The food was up market and expensive but very imaginative, how about rabbit leg (14.50) or guinea fowl (16.00), and to tie in with their William Blake exhibition there were special menus from his era including duck, black pudding, and bacon at 21 pounds for three courses. I noticed the drinks included bottled real ales like Loose Canon from the Abingdon Bridge brewery, not a session drink at 4.65 for a 330 ml measure. It would be a great place to go for a special meal, I might squeeze my piggy bank for an open air meal if I pass through in the summer. The museum is free but they suggest a donation of 4 pounds and the collecting tubs had a lot of big notes in them. I only had time for a whirlwind tour, the next time I will set an afternoon aside.
Meanwhile outside it was getting colder, returning to town from the Rose and Crown in North Parade later that night the wind and sleet was cutting through me but at least I had some good ale inside me after wobbling down ice hockey memory lane with landlord Andrew Hall. My last night was a mini crawl of the city centre with some old drinking friends. It was Friday night and town was packed with students and locals, The Chequers was our starting point, as it had been some 30 plus years ago, it hasn’t changed much, quite reassuring as other pubs have become trendy or supermarkets. The Wheatsheaf in the next alley was loud and rocking with heavy metal and classic rock, tattoos and piercings were on display, and that was just the women. Last call was The Bear, much smaller, much posher, but with good beer and a roaring fire to warm us up.
It was an early start on Saturday with Headington tinged with a dusting of snow for my return journey via Gatwick, I thought I was going to witness some air rage as the couple next to me on the plane rared up at the people in front who had reclined their seats. The stewardess defused it by moving my neighbours to a spare area leaving me to stretch out over three seats and free to enjoy the welcoming views of Tenerife as Mount Teide emerged through the clouds.