Wednesday 10 April 2013

Old Oxford Running Route

Click here for route map
Length 7.6 km (4.7 miles), terrain flat

Pictures courtesy of the creative folks at Flickr Creative Commons. Thanks! A few others are from me.

For more running routes, see Route List.

Oxford, the ancient college town, is one of those special places unlike any others. The old town streets are lined by old Gothic colleges and churches, legendary pubs, monuments, playing fields and libraries. Each college, behind its guarded gatehouse, harbors one or more courtyards surrounded by carved-stone dormitories, great halls, chapels and arcades. Each one is a secret world unto itself, with students and professors moving about within their own private clubs mixing academics and fun.

You'll probably be clearly reminded of Hogwarts, and the reality is almost as charming as the Harry Potter fiction.

Nobody even knows when the first college was founded here, or exactly which one was the first. Teaching has been going on in Oxford for at least 900 years, and many of the college buildings date from the 1300s, and the school ranks among the top universities in the world. The town has been a magnet for great thinkers for many centuries, including 47 Nobel Prize winners, countless political leaders, scientists, writers and philosophers.
Students on their way to matriculation ceremony, photo by Lawrence Lew
I've long harbored a hidden dream of one day studying in such a place, to be -- just for a little while -- a member of the private club. Whenever I get to Oxford, I feel envy when I see the American students and guest professors who were somehow handed the immense privilege of spending some time behind those ancient walls.

But a few business trips in the area will have to do for me. I have had to see the town in the evenings, and -- as ever-- I did it with my running shoes on, to see as much as I could.

The Oxford Old-Town Route
Here's a route that takes-in a lot of the most interesting sights, leaving the many other untrodden lanes for your later discovery. This route loops through the old town, visiting parks at the north and south ends of town, with a bit of zig-zagging through the cobblestone lanes of the university neighborhoods.
Over the rooftops of Oxford, photo by Lawrence Lew
Our starting place is at the north end of the old town, on St. Giles Street, in front of the Lamb and Flag student pub. I was turned onto the Lamb and Flag when I first visited Oxford, meeting an ex-colleague there for a pleasant evening on their relaxed back terrace.

Across the road is the Eagle and Child, another eminent student pub, famed for its literary circles (Tolkein, C.S. Lewis). So keep them both in mind for a good after-run liquid refill.

Turn to face the Lamb and Flag (facing east) and run past it on the right side through the opening in their facade. Run along the quiet little footpath, with its stone wall and trees. The path merges into Museum Road for another block until it ends at Parks Road.

Turn left (north) on Parks Road and run past the Natural History Museum and its ancient tree roots on display along the street-side.

You will pass neo-gothic Keble College on the left (not nearly as interesting as the real gothic buildings of other colleges), and then a traffic light. Just past the traffic light, on the right side, you'll see an entrance into the Oxford University Parks, through the wrought-iron fence.

NOTE: The 70-acre park closes at night. In the winter, it can be closed as early 5 p.m., but by April it stays open till 8 p.m., and in the summer as late as 9:30 p.m.

Turn to the left and follow the perimeter path parallel to Parks Road, heading north. The path will soon hit the north end of the park, where it turns right to continue heading northeast, past the cricket fields and their Victorian pavilion. Hopefully, you'll catch some players out for a practice game.
Along River Cherwell in the park, photo by Blackberry Horse
The park ends at the River Cherwell, where you circle a natural-looking pond and start heading south along the riverside, enjoying the lawns, trees and footbridges.

At the south end of the park, turn right to run along that edge of the park and exit at the gatehouse at the southwest corner.

Turn south immediately on St. Cross Road. You'll now run past fenced-off university recreational fields on both sides. After 400 meters, after crossing scenic Holywell Street, the street becomes Longwall Street, with a long stone wall along the left side, bordering the Magdelen College deer park.

We just passed the main entrance to University College, just down Holywell Street. University College is unique in that it includes ancient city walls within its grounds, giving it a castle-like atmosphere.
Town walls in University College Garden, photo by Ann & Peter Macdonald

A NOTE ABOUT VISITING THE COLLEGES: The colleges are private and have a watchman at each entrance, otherwise I would have included a few college loops in this run. But most of them sell entrance tickets to tourists during the daytime for a few pounds. If you're lucky, you'll be able to sneak into a few if you are only there in the evenings: I visited University College, Magdelen and St. John's in this way, just stealing a peek at academic life in Oxford.

After 200 more meters along Longwall Street, it ends at the High Street. We need to go to the right here, but let's take a short detour to see some other cool stuff.

So turn left on High Street and run past beautiful Magdalen College with its arcaded courtyard on the left side and you'll come to the stone bridge over the River Cherwell. If you look down at the river, you'll see lots of punts, flat-bottomed boats that are poled along the river.
Punters on the Cherwell, photo by clare & ben
Cross to the south side of the bridge, and turn around to run back into town. The botanical garden is immediately on the left, next to the river (also charges an entry fee).

We'll now do a bit of a zig-zag through the old town, to get our first closer look at some college buildings. Run west on High Street until you get to Merton Street, where you turn left and follow this cobblestoned lane as it turns to the right, going past Merton College, perhaps Oxfords oldest college, its buildings erected in the 13th century, and a variety of other ancient stone houses.

You'll see a gothic church coming up on the left, Merton College Chapel. Just past the church, turn left into the little garden, through the wrought-iron fence.

Run south between the buildings for just 100 meters, then you'll come to a big open lawn used as athletic fields, Merton Fields. Turn left here to run back eastwards along the south edge of Merton College. This is one of my favorite spots in Oxford, despite having the nickname "Dead Man's Walk". The stone-wall is lined with flowers at the right times of year.
Dead Man's Walk along Merton Fields, photo by myself
The path will pass some cottages, then turn south at Rose Lane, following the eastern edge of the field.

Run to the southeast corner of the field, but continue southwards after the field ends, where you get back to the River Cherwell. You will now pass Magdelen Fields on the left.

Follow the river southwards through the fields, maybe passing a punt or two. This area is called Christ Church Meadows. You'll probably see some rare British long-horn cattle out in the meadows, and maybe a few picnickers. Run south until the path starts turning to the right, where the Cherwell flows into the wider Thames.
Beautiful lighting over Christ Church Meadows, photo by James Hetherington
Run northwest along the Thames (water on your left side), with its racing sculls and motor boats. (There is a whole line of college boat houses along the path to the south.)

After just 200 meters along the Thames, at the western end of the meadows, you'll see a path heading north back along the western edge. Turn right onto that path.

After just 250 meters, the meadows end and you will come to the gothic stone buildings of Christ Church College. Christ Church is one of the most famous Oxford colleges. Its great hall was copied for the one in created for the Harry Potter films, and its chapel is the only one with cathedral status.

Turn left at the college to exit the meadows at St. Aldate's Street.

Now turn right to head north on this fairly busy street, passing the Christ Church College main entrance, with its domed gate-tower.

Continue to Oxford's main intersection, Carfax, and its old tower, where the High Street and its loud buses head off to the right.
Carfax tower, photo by Jose M. Vazquez
Let's take another scenic zig-zag here, and turn right to run down High Street for a few blocks, past the shops, banks and pubs. You'll pass St. Mary's Church on the left.

At the far (east) end of St. Mary's, turn left onto the narrow alley, Catte Street, and head north.

Behind the church, you will come into a big square dominated by the round, domed Radcliffe Camera. These buildings belong to the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and biggest libraries in the world. Past the round building, you'll come to the main gothic library building on the left side, where you can run quickly into its courtyard and take a look.
Dramatic shot of Bodleian Library, photo by Blogomentary
Continuing north on Catte, you'll see the "Bridge of Sighs" (nicknamed after the original in Venice) a raised passageway connecting two university buildings on the right side. The last time I went by there, there was a pro-Tibetan demonstration going on.
Demonstration in front of the Bridge of Sighs, photo by myself
At the next intersection, turn left to run west on Broad Street, past the Sheldonian Theatre and a science museum.

Where Broad Street gets narrow, at the little graveyard, turn right up Magdelen Street East to run past the back end of the St. Mary Magdelen Church and then the gothic spire of the protestant martyrs monument.

Continue running northwards for 300 meters along St. Giles, passing a few more colleges on both sides of the street, as well as the Ashmolean Museum, and you will be back at the Lamb and Flag again. Didn't I hear that they serve some good ale there?


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  2. Great blog, thank you, found it whilst searching for running routes in Lugano (will try out the run to Gandria today!). I live in Oxford and can recommend the yearly Town & Gown 10k which starts at Uni Parks and goes through town

  3. Thanks! And enjoy Gandria and Lugano!