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Arts and culture in Oxfordshire

Magical museums

Arts and culture in Oxfordshire

See creatures from the past in the Museum of Natural History

At the heart of Oxford is its world-renowned university, and many of the city’s museums and art galleries are linked to this seat of learning.

A classic example is the Ashmolean Museum in Beaumont Street, named after 17th-century collector Elias Ashmole who gave his curiosities to the University in 1677. The longest-established public museum in the world, it first threw open its doors in 1863. From the outside, its columned façade is unmistakable but a £61m revamp has transformed the interior into a stunning contemporary gallery space with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and skylights which throw shafts of light onto the dramatic central stairwell. Its incredibly rich and diverse collections range from Egyptian mummies to pre-Raphaelite paintings to contemporary art.

Wandering around, you will come across objects from 8000BC, paintings by Picasso, drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael, and ceramics from all over the world. When in need of a breather, choose from the informal basement cafe to the more glamorous roof-top restaurant with views across the city.

Children and adults love the Pitt Rivers Museum for its bizarre collection of treasures, from shrunken human heads to a magnificent Tahitian mourner’s costume collected during Captain Cook’s second voyage in the 1770s. Its three floors of treasures also include masks from Africa, Melanesia and North America, magic objects such as amulets and charms, jewellery and body decoration, tools, weapons and musical instruments. It was founded in 1884 after General Pitt Rivers, an expert in archaeology and anthropology, gave his collection to the University. Many of the objects in the collection, which has mushroomed from 26,000 objects in 1884 to more than half a million, were donated by the earliest anthropologists and explorers.

Physically overshadowing the Pitt Rivers on Parks Road is the Museum of Natural History, which displays many of the University’s geological and zoological specimens. The imposing neo-Gothic building’s most famous features are dinosaur skeletons, the Oxford Dodo and insects collected by Charles Darwin. One of Oxford’s biggest cultural treats is its superb architecture including the University’s 38 colleges, much of it dating back to the 13th century. The most beautiful features are often tucked away behind the high walls of the colleges but many are happy for you to wander in and admire their ‘secret’ quads and gardens.

Children and adults love the Pitt Rivers museum for its bizarre collection of treasures, from shrunken human heads to a magnificent Tahitian mourner’s costume collected during Captain Cook’s second voyage

Beautiful architecture

Oxford Castle and Prison

Oxford Castle and Prison reveals a darker side to the city’s history

The best way to see the city is through one of the many walking tours, ranging from those themed around the civil war, gardens or gargoyles and grotesques to film sites, Harry Potter and night-time ghost story rambles. That said, there are plenty of treasures spotted easily from the city’s narrow and often cobbled streets with evocative names such as Dead Man’s Walk, Turn Again Lane and Magpie Lane – such as the Bridge of Sighs over New College Lane. This iconic bridge, which joins two parts of Hertford College, is thought to have acquired its moniker due to the sighs of students anxious about exams or love in centuries past.

Another architectural gem is University church, St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. This stunning building backs onto Radcliffe Square, where you can enjoy a drink or bite to eat in or on the garden terrace of its Vaults and Garden Café. The Bodleian Library holds more than 12 million printed items, including rare books and manuscripts. Tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books are lent to readers and even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645.

Guided tours include both The Bodleian’s Weston Library building in Broad Street and the original Library across the street, where visitors are allowed to see inside those historic rooms. These include the 15th-century Divinity School, medieval Duke Humfrey’s Library, and distinctive dome-shaped Radcliffe Camera, which dominates Radcliffe Square. It is also worth looking around the Museum of the History of Science, also in Broad Street, for its fascinating collection of scientific instruments from centuries gone by. At The Story Museum in Pembroke Street, step into a three-storey wonderland of colourful and interactive displays which celebrate children’s literature, before browsing the shop or lingering in the cafe.

Make sure you leave enough time for Oxford Castle and Prison which reveals a darker side to the city’s history. A guided tour tells of how the castle was a prison from the 18th century to the mid-1990s and gives access to the foreboding St George’s Tower and castle mound where unfortunates were hanged.

Tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books are lent to readers and even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645

Performing arts

Arts and Culture in Oxfordshire

Watch a performance at the Oxford Playhouse

Oxfordshire’s culture is not all about history – there is also an incredibly vibrant visual and performance arts scene. Theatres include the Oxford Playhouse and Burton Taylor Studio in Beaumont Street and The New Theatre and Old Fire station in George Street. Others include Pegasus Theatre in Magdalen Road, which focuses on productions for young people, while Summertown’s arts centre is the North Wall in South Parade. Oxfordshire is also lucky enough to have its own travelling theatre company, Creation, which performs in outdoor venues from Oxford Castle and Headington Park to the Said Business School and the BMW plant in Cowley.

There are also plenty of cinemas, including Odeon theatres in George Street and St Giles plus the Curzon at the newly-revamped Westgate Centre in the city centre. If arthouse is your passion, head for the Phoenix Picturehouse in Walton Street or the Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley Road. The best spot to take in contemporary art is Modern Art Oxford on Pembroke Street, packed with paintings, photography and sculpture plus a bright, modern cafe serving coffee, lunches and cakes.

Bookshops and colleges are transformed into book-lover’s heaven for two weeks each April when the Oxford Literary Festival takes over the city. The event, which has been running for two decades, attracts big names such as Lord of the Rings actor Ian McKellen, Chocolate author Joanne Harris, Girl With A Pearl Earring writer Tracy Chevalier and playwright Alan Ayckbourn.

No round-up of Oxford events would be complete without a mention of the vibrant Cowley Road Carnival. This takes place in July, with 45,000 revellers packing out the East Oxford street to watch the colourful procession. In partnership with the Oxford Arts Festival, the two-week celebration offers talks, performances and workshops for all ages and spans music, theatre, art, literature, comedy and film. There’s a chance to watch more than 50 live music acts and browse the 70-plus stalls offering street food, arts and crafts. Guests have included Hollywood film director Sam Mendes, poet and novelist Ben Okri and BBC arts correspondent Will Gompertz.

Bookshops and colleges are transformed into book-lover’s heaven for two weeks each April when the Oxford Literary Festival takes over the city

Choirs, classical music and festivals

Arts and Culture in Oxfordshire

Foodies will love the annual Big Feastival!

Oxford has many of its own excellent choirs, classical music composers and musicians and has long been an essential stop-off for world-class ensembles. The two main venues for music recitals in the city centre are the Sheldonian Theatre in Broad Street and the Holywell Music Room in the grounds of Wadham College, off Holywell Street.

The Holywell Music Room, built in 1772, is famous for its amazing acoustics, while the Grade 1-listed Sheldonian, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in the 1660s is generally acknowledged to boast one of the most beautiful interiors in the music world. It is also the official ceremonial hall of the University, where time-honoured traditions such as matriculation and graduation ceremonies take place.

The rest of the county has plenty of arts-related venues and events, including the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon and the Vale & Downland Museum in Wantage which tells the story of the Vale of White Horse. The Wallingford Corn Exchange, Cornerstone centre at Didcot, Mill Arts Centre in Banbury and Theatre at Chipping Norton all have a busy schedule of theatre and arts. If here in the summer, you’ll be in time for the biggest and most popular of the county’s rock music festivals including Wilderness at Cornbury Park near Charlbury in West Oxfordshire. This annual event is an upmarket fusion of music, theatre, comedy, arts and talks underpinned by critically-acclaimed food stalls.

Cornbury Park’s 5,000 acres of ancient woodland and deer parks mean festival-goers can also try skinny-dipping in the lake, archery or horse riding. Famous faces spotted there have included former Prime Minister David Cameron and New York disco queen Grace Jones. The other big-name music event is Cornbury Music Festival, so-named because it started off at Cornbury Park but has moved to the Great Tew Park estate near Chipping Norton.

Foodies won’t want to miss the Big Feastival held every August at the farm of Alex James, best known as a former band member of Britpop band, Blur. James, who makes his own award-winning cheese, centres the Chipping Norton-based event around food and it has featured many celebrity chefs such as the late Antonio Carluccio and Rick Stein.

Other regular music festivals include Truck near Abingdon in July and Towersey near Thame. Be sure to have your black tie or ballgown handy if you pop into July’s Henley Festival, recognized as ‘the poshest music festival’, it offers a chance to let your hair down to live music. Henley is also the setting for Rewind each August, an open-air blast of 1980s nostalgia.

The final word should go to what is described as a piece of Oxfordshire’s music history – Fairport’s Cropredy Convention near Banbury is a magnet for folk music lovers and regularly packs out its farmland venue for three days during August.

Everything you need to know about Oxfordshire

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The best things to do in Oxfordshire

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The best nightlife in Oxfordshire

Image credits: ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/John Cairns; Geraint Lewis/Oxford Playhouse; Justin Goff/The Big Feastival; Oxford Castle and Prison; Oxford University Museum of Natural History

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