Messing About in Oxford, England

“Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

Thus sayeth Mae West, and I think you and I can guess the topic hovering behind that sentence. But here’s another thing worth doing slowly: Oxford, England.

Oxford is “that sweet city with her dreaming spires,” as poet Matthew Arnold put it. It is a sweet city, as I learned when I lived there for several years as an American expatriate, but spires are only one of the reasons.

Oxford’s sweetness flows from more than pointy parts of buildings, but those other sources will reveal themselves only if you take your own sweet time. Otherwise, they’ll stay invisible if you blast through town looking only for beautiful masonry and feeling traveler’s angst that you can’t make it to Bath by Tuesday.

You see, Oxford is frequently visited and seldom savored. For many tourists, Oxford is but a day-long side trip from London, crammed with must-see buildings-with-spires, led by tour guides anxious to move you on to the next spire or gargoyle or stained glass mosaic.

Do the typical tour if you must, but do this when you’re done: Take a deep breath, forget about Bath and come with me. We’ll see things that are more than sights; they’re glimpses into Englishness and paeans to slowness.

As the title says, we’re going to be “messing about.” Messing about is the anti-tour. It’s going hither and yon, beyond the touristic pale. In some travel quarters, it’s considered utter insurrection.

In that rebellious spirit, you can use this guide for your visit or some armchair travel. Either way, it offers up lesser-known glories of Oxford – and who can’t stand a few more glories in their life?

English glories were not the reason I moved to Oxford in 2001: I was offered a job at Oxford Brookes University as its director of communications. For three years I lived and worked and walked in the heart of Oxford. I walked everywhere because I was carless, by design. I used the train or bus when I visited London or Edinburgh or took a hike in the Cotswolds. I could do this because in England, mass transit is massively present.

When I left England to return to America, I felt like Henry Thoreau must have when he said, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” He came to know his hometown in Massachusetts – and life – intensely well, simply by walking around, and thinking, and walking some more. I did travel a good deal in Oxford, and it opened my eyes to English culture.

We swim in culture every moment of every day, but we often don’t see it. It’s like paddling through the crystalline water of the Caribbean: You know it’s there, keeping you afloat, but all you see is fish and coral and the sandy bottom. Walking around Oxford helped color the cultural water in which I was immersed.

Within a few weeks after moving to Oxford, I found myself slowing down, in both locomotion and perception. As a species we notice what’s fast, thanks to evolution, especially if it’s coming toward us lickety-split.

But in England I began noticing what’s slow. Like croquet, the antithesis of ping pong. Like punting, the antithesis of powerboating. In fact, I began seeing antitheses everywhere. Like putting a few cattle on a commons, instead of paving it. Like caring for an old city wall, instead of razing it.

After three years I returned to America changed, loaded not with curios, but curiosity. My curiosity had been piqued by what I saw at pedestrian speed.

So can you spare a little time to take a walk?