Friday was my final day in Oxford. And so, consummate foodie and lover of books that I am, I thought I would offer a few comments about libraries and restaurants in Oxford.
I spent most of my time working in Harris Manchester College’s Tate Library. The college started life as an institution to train Unitarian ministers and the library is literally crammed with ephemera celebrating past generations of British Unitarian luminaries. A large statue of James Martineau dominates the librarian’s desk on the lower level—by the entrance—and there are two stained glass windows devoted to prominent Unitarians. Their portraits are everywhere as well, as are the portraits of some leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, with whom the British Unitarians have a relationship that stretches back almost two hundred years.
I was given a desk on the second floor, which is really a loft overlooking the stacks, to work at. It was near a window that allowed me to see the goings on in the green space at the center of the college campus. I was also able to pile a large number of books and archival material on it, which was great since it meant that I wasn’t constantly going back to the stacks looking for things.
The main library in Oxford, the Bodelian, is a non-circulating library. You can’t check anything out of it. However, you can request stuff to a particular reading room and then read and keep it there. There are huge number of reading rooms throughout the library—the library itself being a massive collective of buildings, ranging from medieval to modern, that occupy much of the city center—and I visited or worked in a couple of them.
Mostly, I found myself in the Bodelian’s rare book reading room (in the Weston building). I am doing research into Robert Wedderburn and much of the material connected to him qualifies as rare (it is over 200 years old). In addition, I spent an afternoon reading in the Radcliffe Camera which is a beautiful round brown stone building with an elaborate ceiling and desks and bookcases arranged in star like patterns around its center. I also visited the famous Duke Humfrey’s Library. I should have spent an afternoon reading there—just because—but I only figured that out on my last day. It is the original library reading room and it is gloriously archaic. The ceilings are painted with the portraits of various nobles, the books on the shelves are all hidebound volumes from centuries past, and everything is made out of beautiful wood.
Throughout my time here I mostly had lunch in the Oxford Covered Market. It is an 18th century market that has a bunch of small food stalls and restaurants as well as shops selling everything one might need to cook a meal—a butcher, a cheese shop, a fishmonger, a vegetable and fruit stand, and even a fabulous kitchenware place called Objects of Use.
Over the course of my visit I had jacket potatoes at the classic British lunch counter called Brown’s Cafe, pizza at Santorelli’s Pizza, a pie, potato, and paneer pie at Pieminister, curry at Sasi’s Thai, greek food at Georgina’s Cafe, and noodles at A Taste of China. The pizza was certainly the standout. It stacks up well against any pizza anywhere. If you are in Oxford and are only able to get one meal in the market it is certainly the spot to go. The only place I wouldn’t go back to is the Thai place.
Dinners I largely had at my AirBnB. My host advertised herself as having a kitchen but she made it very clear she didn’t actually want her guests to cook in it. So, I mostly had meals of smoked salmon with goat cheese and some vegetables on toast. In addition, I ate out a few nights, primarily when I was working late. On my first night in town, I had dinner at the Victoria Arms, a wonderful pub on the riverbank. My meal was a piece of sole with potatoes and some broccolini. It was delicious.
I also ate at Edamame, Oxford’s beloved family run Japanese restaurant. When I got there I saw a deceptively long line. It moved quickly and within about 30 minutes I was seated at a shared table with a recent college graduate and her mother, they were having a celebratory week together before the young woman moved to Cambridge. The food was nice, though not quite as good as the line or reputation would have led me to believe, and my sushi and small plates certainly gave me some fuel and inspiration to plow through another couple of hours at the Tate.
I had two other evening meals out. One was at a family run French place called Pompette. It was about a 40 minute walk from the Tate and I visited it on my way back to my AirBnB. My meal consisted of an artichoke, served with a delicious spread of goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, a salad, and fish soup. The fish soup was a classic French broth. I thought it was one of best such soups I have had, inside or outside of France.
Pompette, like the Magdalen Arms, was pretty economical—far cheaper with the weak pound than a similar meal would run in Houston. That was not the case for the Nut Tree Inn. It was my splurge for my time in Oxford (and honestly until I get back to London). It is a Michelin star rated gastropub and my meal was appropriately wonderful. I had a tasting menu and rather than trying to describe it, I am going to just link to a sample tasting menu here.
As my description of the libraries might suggest, Oxford is a scholar’s heaven. The food wasn’t bad either. There’s a lot more research I could do there and, so, perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to go back. Next, though, I will be posting about my time in Prague rather than offering further reflections on the beautiful university city.