Ah, the City of Dreaming Spires… how I adore Oxford. For its’ covered market, its’ beautiful college quadrangles steeped in history and prestige, its’ gorgeous selection of cafes and restaurants, the Botanical Gardens, afternoon tea at the Randolph and the park and ride (banal, I know, but it makes the experience!) If I could live anywhere but where I am, I’d love to live in Oxford. It has been a very great favourite of mine since I stayed there as a 19 year old in the home of my friends’ auntie. I never looked back but I’ve been going back regularly ever since which is not difficult as it’s very close by. Oh, how I adore Oxford. So, when my Cathedrals and Cakes associate and I were discussing our next cathedral and how it needed to be one fairly close to where we live owing to it being the first one on which the baby would be accompanying, it was with great pleasure that we decided upon Christchurch in Oxford. Huzzah!
Owing to the fact that the cathedral would be closing at midday onward for a wedding (a wedding!) we decided to make hay while the sun shone and got there bright and early to explore the cathedral. We were lucky with the weather and were blessed with splendid views of the college before entering to seek out the cathedral itself. We were greeted by an absolutely lovely cathedral guide, an elderly lady who obviously knew her onions about more than a few things. What I loved most about her was her response to the fact that I am on a quest to visit all forty two Anglican cathedrals of England (and eat cake along the way!) Her reply was simply that she had completed the quest herself, many years previously when she was recently married to her husband. And not like I’m doing it, all piecemeal and when I can fit it in, no. She did it all in one big fat go. They hitched around the country with the sole purpose of visiting all forty two Anglican cathedrals! I was staggered. Usually I am greeted with wary glances and muttered disapproval when I reveal my project – but not this time! She was genuinely interested and enthused, and from that point on she was very helpful in pointing out some of the finer points of the cathedral and provided information of the lesser known variety, those tidbits of knowledge that only the insiders are privy to. When I’m old I want to be a cathedral guide and I too hope to bump into a younger version of myself to share my experiences of trudging round some of the most beautiful architecture known to God and man. What a lady she was. She was also very admiring of my baby daughter which always wins brownie points in my sphere. As an aside, Lily was asleep for most of the visit to the cathedral, but when the organist came in to warm up the pipes and started to thunderously practice and show off his talents, she was not impressed at all – and who would be with that cacophony going on?! I jest. I love organ music (have you ever listened to The Organist Entertains on Radio 2? Utterly mad and brilliant).
The cathedral is very small, and very intimate. I forget if it is the smallest Anglican cathedral in England – I think it may be, being essentially a college chapel at its’ most basic level of usage. It feels a little more like an extremely impressive and large parish church rather than a cathedral, especially when compared with the grandeur and size of a Winchester or a Canterbury. However, size put to one side, this is one impressive little space and very much capable of inspiring more than a little awe in the humble believer. Small, compact and stunning are the few words I would use to describe this beautiful church. It is more than worth the visit because you get to walk around the grounds of a world class institution of education as well as seeing a breathtaking architectural masterpiece such as the cathedral, and take in Oxford town too, which is well worth a visit in itself with plenty of bustling shops and restaurants to whet most consumer appetites. Perhaps I should get a job at the Oxford Tourist Board – I reckon I’d do them justice!
The real high points of the cathedral are the windows and the vaults. Particularly the windows. Edward Burne-Jones, one of my most favourite artists who had more than a penchant for the stained glass window, produced two absolute corkers for the cathedral. The St Frideswide window is brilliantly coloured and tells the story of the eponymous saint.The feature part of the window shows a ship of souls carrying St Frideswide to heaven – it is very beautiful and quite a sight to behold when the sun streamed through the glass. The other Burne-Jones is the St Catherine window. Beautiful as it is, the story behind it is more interesting. The face of Catherine was in life that of Edith Liddell, whose sister Alice was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. A portrait of Alice can be found within the Great Hall at Christchurch College. The window that really took my breath away however, was the Jonah window, with the city of Nineveh depicted in minute and meticulous detail. What is intriguing about the window is the only piece of stained glass in the whole thing is Jonah – the rest is painted glass, which is how the detail is achieved so painstakingly. The chancel vault is utterly gorgeous. It is made up of intricate star shaped patterns to achieve an image of heaven. Twelve beautiful pendants hang gracefully from it. Divine!
Following our trip to the cathedral, we went to a cafe which came highly recommended, called Loco. It is fresh and modern inside, and had room for us to sit with a pushchair and the staff were accommodating of bottles and babies and bum changes! This is always the mark of a good cafe in my book. However, for me there was a little heart missing from the place. Yes, I enjoyed my cake and tea. I ordered good old English breakfast tea and some coffee and walnut cake. The cake was moist and tasty and had just the right amount of coffee to give a kick of flavour rather than a punch and the coffee butter-cream was lovely. The tea was great too. But the service, though attentive, was forced and one particular member of staff was just plain rude. This was disappointing. The actual place itself lacked atmosphere, and as I said before, heart. I had a nice time, but I wouldn’t recommend it vociferously to my friends. However! After leaving Loco, we went for a brief detour to the Bodleian Library then headed over to The Rose for lunch. Ah! What bliss is this?!
The Rose is a completely different kettle of fish. This joint is pure class. It’s a classic place with a simple decor, and quite small and intimate, but we managed to find a table and managed to squeeze the baby in too. Again, staff were very accommodating, though this time you felt that they really meant it. They really wanted you there and not only that, they wanted you to have a really lovely experience eating in their restaurant. I loved that. The waitress was just lovely. The food was utterly gorgeous, cooked to perfection and extremely tasty. I had a goats cheese and caramelised onion sandwich followed by yet more cake. I was not let down. I would give The Rose ten out of ten for service and atmosphere and crank it up to eleven for food. I will most definitely be returning and could not rate it highly enough. All this, and the prices are modest. You feel that you have eaten in a top class restaurant (without any hint of pretension whatsoever) but for very reasonable, average prices. I wonder if any of you have eaten in The Rose on the High Street? What a fantastic little find!
I can however say that my day was not complete without my companion, who is a dear friend I have known for many years, when we met working at the same educational institution on the University of Reading campus. He is a cultural kindred spirit and really gets my quest to see all the cathedrals. He is a silent partner in my Cathedrals and Cakes quest, but this makes him no less important in it. To him go my thanks for helping me on my way. And of course I must thank my husband, for allowing me to gallivant around the country with another man!
What a classic Cakes and Cathedrals it has been!
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