Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team visit the historic city of Oxford:
Welcome to our walk today. I’m so glad you could make it. Aren’t we so lucky with the weather? It’s a gorgeous, bright early Spring day, and the sky is a pale blue, like it’s been washed clean by all the rain we’ve been having recently. There’s a little bit of a chill in the air though, still, so make sure you pull up your scarf to cover your face.
Before we enter the college, let’s take a moment to admire the building. Look at that façade. It’s medieval, I think, which you can see if you look at the rows and rows of glass-paned windows that stretch away along the high street. The sunlight reflecting off the honey-coloured stone seems to make it glow.
Meanwhile the bicycles whizz past behind us, heading over the bridge towards Cowley Road. Wow. Look how many bags that lady has balanced on her handlebars. Surely that can’t be safe? But she wobbles along quite contentedly, oblivious to the chaos she’s causing. As we watch, a man in a tweed jacket and a long, multi-coloured scarf rings his bell and overtakes her. Perhaps he’s a professor of some kind. I wonder what he teaches.
If you look to the right, you can see the imposing Magdalen College tower. Have you ever been to listen to the choir sing from the top of it on May morning? Imagine being one of those children, singing your heart out, looking down on all the people gathered in the street below. It must feel like being on top of the world.
Let’s go in to the college now, through a little wooden door. The porter — the staff member who sits in the college reception- looks up from his newspaper, smiles, and nods his head at us as we enter. He’s a kindly-looking older man with grey hair and spectacles balanced on the end of his nose. He’s proud of the place he works, and he guards it fiercely from any intruders. But it’s alright, he knows us, and he lets us in without any question.
We come out into a cobblestoned courtyard, at the centre of which stands fine old tree, bursting with pale pink blossom. A light breeze stirs its branches as we watch, shaking loose a few stray petals, which flutter like a miniature snowfall down onto the cobblestones below.
Isn’t blossom such a marvellous thing? It’s the promise that winter is finally over, that the good weather is finally on its way. Hope, that even if things feel bleak right now, it only gets better from here.
Now we cut across the courtyard, through a door, and come out into the cloister, a beautiful old courtyard with a shady covered walkway surrounding it on all four sides. Our footsteps echo as we pass each of the pointed archways, overlooking the bright green square of perfectly manicured lawn in the middle. It feels like Hogwarts in here, and with good reason- scenes from Harry Potter were filmed on this very spot.
If we step out into the little viewing space — just here – and turn our heads, we can see the stone sculptures glaring down on us from above. There, a face with a terrible upside-down grimace. There, a crowned head. And there, a gargoyle. When they were first carved perhaps they might have been quite terrifying, but it’s hard to take them seriously, now their features have been worn away by the long years. Some of them have lost noses, or ears. Poor statues. It must be hard for them, not to be frightening any more.
Let’s duck out of the cloisters and wind our way along the little flower-lined path until we come to a set of big iron gates on the right. We’ll go through these, out onto the water meadow, crossing a bridge over the River Cherwell as we do so. It’s flowing quickly at the moment, swollen from the winter rains. A couple of geese waddle down to the water and are swept downstream by the current. It looks like fun, like their own personal water ride.
We turn left and walk along the tree-shaded walkway that runs alongside the water meadow. Every so often we pass an old tree stump carved into the shape of a chair or a throne. Isn’t that cute? You could stop to sit on one, if you like.
Coming in the other direction is a young couple– students, by the look of them—walking hand in hand. One of them is wearing a jumper that says ‘Magdalen College Rowing’. They smile at us as we pass them. Like us, they seem to be making the most of this lovely day to get out and about in the fresh air.
There they are! The deer. They’ve stopped to pose for us, right in the middle of the field. See the stags with their big horns, standing guard over the rest of the herd. One is white, and one is black, and they’re both handsome as anything. Don’t they know it, though. You can see it in the way they hold their heads up proudly, as if to say ‘Look at me! Look at me!’. Let’s leave them to it. They already have plenty of admiring fans.
Shall we turn off the main route to take in the Fellow’s Garden as well? It will make our walk a little bit longer, but it’s worth it. We cross over the narrow wooden bridge and down some steps, and there in front of us is an absolute riot of colour. The daffodils are out in force right now, lining the path ahead of us. Although from a distance they just look like a solid wall of yellow, if you look closely, you will see they are actually several different colours—sunshiney gold, butter-coloured, pale cream with an orange centre.
Mixed in among them are rare snakeshead fritillaries- they’re out early this year! They’re the little purple ones that bend over in a big curve, like the flower was just too heavy for its stem. If you bend down, you can see the cool chequerboard pattern on their petals, which is perhaps where the ‘snakeshead’ part of the name comes from. It does look a little bit like scales.
There are more daffodils round the corner, where the garden becomes a gentle sloping bank. We walk along it until we come out of the gate at the end of the path, which leads out into University Parks. We can’t get out that way, so we’ll have to turn around back the way we came, over the bridge, and come out again on to the main path.
Now for the final leg of the walk. Along this part of the path you get a great view of the tower across on the other side of the water meadow. The view is particularly lovely at this time of year, because the trees still haven’t got their leaves yet, and are bare apart from the clumps of mistletoe nestled in their branches. Some people call mistletoe a parasite, because it latches on to older, more sickly trees and lives off their nutrients. But I think it has a friendlier side, giving the aging tree a bit of its dignity back by hiding all its flaws and imperfections, and adding a much-needed splash of greenery to its bare branches even in the depths of winter.
So here we are, back at the college reception. That went so quickly! I hope you enjoyed our wander around one of Oxford’s most picturesque colleges. We are so lucky to live in a city that has so many hidden green spaces like this. You can hardly believe that the hustle and bustle of the city centre is so close by.
See you next week! Stay safe out there meanwhile, and please get in touch if you have any requests for where we should walk next.