Days off are few and far between at Oxford, so seize them while you may. Although it may seem tempting to catch up on the last few weeks’ worth of lost sleep, the rare and elusive ‘free time’ is something to take full advantage of as you reach your 8th week deadlines. There is more to escaping the bubble than going to the cinema one evening, and besides, it’s Oxford: you can sleep when you’re dead.
Your options are numerous, with varying price range, distance and difficulty. Starting in the centre of Oxford, there are at least three museums to divert you, all with free entry, although each with a guilt-inducing donation box at the door.The Pitt Rivers Museum, in all its shady glory, includes real shrunken heads in its collection, which was one of the coolest things I had ever seen when my thirteen-year-old self visited on a field trip in Year 9; the fascination still remains more than seven years later.
The Natural History Museum is pretty much a zoo where the animals are all dead – the pesky creatures can no longer hide at the back of their cages, so you’re guaranteed a good look at them. Lastly, for your perusal, we have the Ashmolean, which contains a baffling amount of history. Even if impressively old statues and utensils are not your thing, you can have a stellar afternoon walking around with your friends imitating the numerous peculiar facial expressions of many exhibits.
If you want to explore the wilderness, but only in small, manageable doses (i.e. without leaving Oxford entirely) then Port Meadow may be the spot for you. There are only so many times you can walk around Christ Church Meadow before you’ve seen all the local ducks, awkwardly bumped into rowers from your college (note use of rowing lingo) and built a solid friendship with that man who always sits on that bench.
Port Meadow is a perfect alternative, a kind of intermediate-level meadow, leaving behind the comfort and circular certainty of the Christ Church walk without reaching the other extreme, the advanced level: just a field in the middle of nowhere. There are various routes you can take in order to reach this safe wilderness depending on your taste for adventure. Walk up St. Giles, through Little Clarendon Street and Jericho if you think you might need an ice creamy boost or light lunch before you undertake this excursion.
Alternatively, if you want to engage in nature for almost the entirety of your quest, there are pathways beside both the river and the canal which lead to the meadow itself. Once you have reached Port Meadow, you can do anything, including picnicking, flying kites, chasing geese, looking at ponies, and so on. The river and canal paths just mentioned are not merely routes to Port Meadow, but indeed they can be followed as far as you like. Many students extol the virtues of the country pubs by the waterside: gastronomic escapes which nourish both the mind and the stomach.
Continuing the natural theme, the Botanical Gardens opposite Magdalen also offers a close escape; with free entry for students, the gardens are a perfect location to read or relax during the summer months whilst being surrounded by carefully cultivated nature. I’m told that the grounds are currently covered in snowdrops, so it’s well worth wandering around even in these cold months if you’re ever around there with a few moments to spare.
Harcourt Arboretum is the tree equivalent of the Botanical Gardens; both are owned and maintained by the University, so you can also get into the arboretum for free; however, it will cost you to get there. If you pick up the X40 from St. Aldate’s, you’ll reach Harcourt in just under twenty minutes for around £3 return. The Arboretum itself is a little beyond the village but it is certainly worth the trip, even if you’re not that keen on trees. In autumn it feels like you’re walking into some sort of bizarre forest rainbow. The walks, however, are interesting all year round, if a little muddy and the knowledge that you’ve actually used a bus and left Oxford (albeit only twenty minutes distant) makes it seem like a proper adventure. Also, the people there are really enthusiastic about trees.
There are loads of bus services around Oxford so you can pretty much go wherever you please. If you fancy an excursion into the Cotswolds (the ultimate advanced meadow), it only takes a little Googling to find a route that will take you there (or nearly there).
The Cotswold Wildlife Park is one such location, which takes about an hour on the S1 with a little walking either side. This is quite a serious undertaking, and certainly quite a distance from Oxford, but it promises great rewards. It is essentially the Natural History Museum, but all the exhibits are alive.
You can see many creatures including tortoises, big cats, intermediate cats, microcats, zebras and all manner of lemurs. The OxStu ran a story last term about the birth of baby penguins at the zoo, and if these adorable waddlers don’t convince you to visit, I don’t know what will.
If buses terrify you, then the train is a viable alternative, although it is slightly more expensive. It takes thirty minutes to reach Moreton-in-Marsh, which is a pleasant Cotswold town, promising country walks and a hearty pub lunch. Walking routes can easily be found online or in any Cotswold book in a charity shop. Wellies are a good idea and perhaps the promise of ice cream will tempt your less active friends to join you on a little excursion.
Finally, in spite of its virtues, the idea of nature and the great outdoors can seem utterly repulsive to many students. If fresh air gives you a violent headache then your only real option is to comfort yourself with some retail therapy – and nothing is more therapeutic than buying things for less than their original value. Bicester Outlet Centre will give you a brief respite from the Oxford workload and the burdens of your purse, as long as you fervently believe that it is better to buy something half price than nothing at all.