. Oxfordshire is a gently undulating county which some classify as the South Midlands. I've always deemed it to be a southern county with the notable exception of Banbury which is more of a Midlands town, being closer to Birmingham than London.
. Oxfordshire actually lies between the pastoral south and the industrial heart of England and midway between the estuaries of the Thames and the Severn. To the north are the picture- postcard rolling limestone Cotswolds (also mainly in Gloucestershire) rising to a plateau of about 500 feet above sea level; to the south lie the striking chalk hills of the Chilterns which have many beech wood slopes.
. Between the two, the basins of the Thames and Cherwell form the central plain of the county with many large arable and livestock farms. The Thames actually becomes the Isis when it passes through the county town of Oxford. This river is also the boundary with Berkshire. Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire are often described as the Thames Valley.
Origin of name: Oxenfordscir from the Old English"Oxenford" meaning a ford over a river (possibly the isis) for cattle to cross.
Name first recorded: 1010 as Oxcnfordscir.
County Motto: Sopere Aude ("Dare to be Wise")
OXFORD Brilliant covered market selling anything from venison to Versace; visit the Nose Bag for coffee, and explore Broad Street and any of the cobbled streets off it like Turls St. Gloucester Green doubles as the city bus station and a budding piazza Covent-Garden style. All this before you even mention any famous Colleges . . .
BICESTER A noted hunting centre on the edge of the Cotswolds, now equally well known for its 'Bicester Village' shopping experience.
BURFORD Quintessential Cotswold stone town with the prettiest main high street.
CAVERSHAM Now a northern suburb of Reading, but with its own unique history..
CHIPPING NORTON Chipping means market and this town has a large sloping market place - friendly enough to lure Ronnie Barker to run his antique shop which is not Open All Hours!
DORCHESTER On the Thame near its junction with the Thames and dominated by its Abbey Church and nearby walk to Wittenham Clumps with a hill fort and commanding view for miles.
GORING-ON-THAMES Beautifully nestled beside the Thames between the Chilterns and Berkshire Downs. Good setting off point for the Icknield Way and other treks.
HENLEY-ON-THAMES Has a holiday feel about it with many old pubs (excellent local Brakespear brew), a sprinkling of agreeable restaurants, good shopping and relaxing riverside strolls.
THAME A main street of exceptional width and several medieval buildings. Nearby is Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons restaurant.
WITNEY The Old Blanket Hall, built circa 1720, has a curious one-hand clock on its front.
WOODSTOCK- Check out the fascinating ancient chimney pots, one of which was clambered upon by Sir Winston Churchill as a 12-year-old.
. Benson . Chinnor . Deddington . Eynsham . Headington
. Horspath . Kidlington . Marston . Watlington .Wheatley
Thames, Evenlode, Cherwell, Windrush.
in the Chiltern Hills at 836 feet.
. Whitsuntide: The ancient village of Bampton has an all- day Morris Dancing festival.
. Early June: go to Broughton castle fete if just to see this impressive castle surrounded by a moat of water-lilies.
. June: the marquees, the blue and white awnings and bunting announce that the annual Royal Henley Regatta, dating back to 1829, is imminent. A firm fixture of the English social season, it climaxes at the beginning of July, often with a spectacular firework display.
. Late August: the annual Cropedy festival is the annual get-together of local Oxfordshire folk band Fairport Convention, and a marvellous day out with all sorts of stalls and entertainments.
. Early September: St Giles Fair, Oxford is the 5th largest fair in England, dating back to medieval times. Like other 15th-century fairs it has ceased to be a trading fair but is still held on the original site.
. Summer Music in Oxford runs classic music in classic venues (such as the Wren-designed Sheldonian Theatre, the grounds of Radley College, and Dorchester Abbey).
. 1 May: get up at crack of dawn to see foolhardy students jump into the isis off Magdalen Bridge while choristers greet the sunrise with a hymn at the top of the Magdalen tower - medieval tradition - and Morris Dancers celebrate May morning in more traditional ways.
. At 46 Leckford Road, Oxford a young, allegedly naive proto US President Bill Clinton lodged as a student in thelate 1960s.
. Huntercombe House was home to industrialist and philanthropist William Morris, later Lord Nuffield - the Henry Ford of the British car industry. He brought us the Morris-Oxford of 1913, over 1 'It million Morris Minors and the first MG. His stylish pre-World War 11 period aristocratic home is open on some weekends.
. Bladon, a little village just south of Blenheim Palace has quaint cottages with mullioned windows and tall chimneys, but it is also the resting place of Winston Churchill along with his mother, glamorous Lady Randolph Churchill.
. Devotees of the book and television series Inspector Page 103 of 180 Morse will have lots of interesting sleuthing to do themselves. A visit to the attractive riverside Trout Inn near Oxford is a good start. Or you can take a Morse tour.
. Successful jangly pop-rock guitar bands are something of an Oxford speciality with Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride(sadly defunct). Ash to name a few all residing in the vicinity.
. CS Lewis taught for many years at Magdalen College and his rooms became the focus for meetings of his close friendsknown as the inklings, among them JRR Tolkein.
. Jerome K Jerome of Three Men in a Boat fame is buried at Ewelme Church as is Chaucer's grand-daughter, the Duchess of Suffolk, who started the church there.
. Headington Hill Hall, now part of the campus of Oxford Brookes University, was the long-time home of the infamous tycoon Robert Maxwell.
. John Wilson buys and sells famous signatures from dead or alive "names" from his office in Eynsham.
The County of Oxfordshire apart from Caversham is governed by a two-tier structure with Oxfordshire County Council and the four district councils of Cherwell, Oxford City, South Oxfordshire and West Oxfordshire being the sum of two parts. Caversham comes under the unitary authority of the Berkshire town of Reading.
THERE'S SOMETHING VERY agreeable about Oxfordshire: its a neat, ordered and very together county. This is the place to escape to from the metropolitan rat race - it's one of those places that's near but far enough away from hell. Although you can't really mention Oxfordshire without mentioning Oxford in the same breath, somehow the multi-spired city and mellifluous county vibrate to different rhythms.
Oxford city is out on a limb, somehow quite different from the rest of Oxfordshire. Known as the 'City of Spires' most of which belong to the university, Oxford's colleges lie within fairly easy walking distance and are some of the best-preserved architectural treasures of Britain - some of which you can tour through. It's not surprising that film and television companies seem to be filming here nearly month-on-month. Think of the cultural sleuth Inspector Morse played by the excellent John Thaw traipsing around Oxford, in the impressive Randolph Hotel or alongside the beautiful Christchurch Meadows. His TV-based home though wasn't in the city of Oxford but in Baling in Middlesex! Shadowlands, which told the story of the famous Oxford professor C. S.. Lewis (who gave us those delightful and ageless stories in The Chronicles of Narnia) and the deepening relationship with New York writer Joy Gresham, was filmed at Magdalen College with its 15th- century chapel, and the Sheldonian Theatre. A walk through the Botanical Gardens in the city centre - said to be the oldest in Britain - is a must and from here you can try your luck at punting on the river (no blazer or Victorian poet termed "that sweet city with her dreamy spires" is worth a detour 3 miles outside Oxford to Boar's Hill. On a clear day Oxford's spires really do shimmer. Go to Banbury and you feel a sense of isolation with the Oxford-on-Isis and a closer affinity with Stratford-on- Avon. I have personal memories especially around
Banbury (my mother worked there). The nursery rhyme also cannot fail to come to mind: "Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross To see a fine lady upon a white horse". But you might be surprised to know that 'fine' doesn't mean in her finery but relates to a member of the Fiennes family (pronounced Fine) who live at nearby Broughton Castle which is open to the public in the summer. As for the cross at Banbury, the original one was destroyed by Puritans in 1602 and was replaced by a Victorian variety. Banbury is also well known for its scrummy Banbury cakes - a 350-year-old recipe for small sponge cakes lined with currants, spice and honey and wrapped in a pastry case.
Today when I think of Oxfordshire I think of the Civil War and Charles I, and those clusters of neat, compact little towns like Chipping Norton, Kidlington, Bloxham along the eastbound A roads. Of course the county is also associated with more modern warfare as the sprinkling of American Air Force bases testifies (though these are closing down now that the Cold War has been put on ice, so to speak).
Witney, 10 miles west of Oxford, on the Windrush, is a mellowed stone-built town on the edge of the rich Cotswold Oxford Down sheep-rearing area. It is world famous for its blanket-making and has attractive Cotswold merchants' houses. Cogges. just outside Witney, is a little hamlet with many strange little twists and turns, and fine old houses with a Benedictine church, manor house and museum. Another wool centre, Burford, 20 miles west of Oxford, is one of the most beautiful Cotswold towns. Its steepish high street is lined with every variety of golden Cotswold stone house sloping down to a fine old bridge over the Windrush. Halfway down the high street is the twin-gabled 15th-century Tolsey House, where the wealthy wool merchants once held their meetings. You can just about picture it as you go inside the museum to find out about the town's bustling past. Woodstock, 8 miles north of Oxford, is well worth a visit
and not just for next-door Blenheim Palace. The centre has
many lovely old stone houses and an elegant town hall which has a good antiques fair most weekends. It also boasts a pub, the Bear, going back to the 13th century If you go to Great Tew, north of Woodstock, you will be rewarded with one of the most traditional pictures of rural England. The village displays delightful cottages of thatch and stone with the old village stocks and the manor house rebuilt in its original gardens. Just around the corner lies Deddington near the river Cherwell. This small town is dominated by its honey-coloured local stone buildings - many rich with Civil War associations.
Henley is perhaps the most famous of Thames resorts thanks to hosting one of the highlights of the English Social Season - the Royal Henley Regatta. The elegant 18th-century bridge linking Oxfordshire to Berkshire has carved masks of Father Thames and the goddess Isis. Beneath the bridge at Regatta time in July fashion and beauty vie with athletic prowess from all over the world as world-class rowers slug it out.
A prehistoric reminder of Oxfordshire's past is the Bronze Age stone circle three miles north of Chipping Norton known as the Rollright Stones. Only Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire are more important. The main circle is about 100 feet across and the stones vary from a few inches to 7 feet in height.. A place of such antiquity and mystery with names such as the King's Stone and Whispering Knights is naturally steeped in legend. In Saxon times Dorchester-on-Thames became an impressive cathedral city. The abbey still has a remarkable Jesse window with carved stone figures and richly illustrated glass telling the story of Mary's 'family' and should be visited (as should the Abbey tea house where the local ladies make the finest teas for miles around). Henry VIII visited Binsey Church (off the unglamorous Botley Road, Oxford) to seek a cure from the well there for his leg ulcers (and supposedly his syphilis) as well as at the King's Pool by the pretty watercress-bed stream that run through Ewelme. This village has the oldest primary school in the country attached to some medieval cloisters. Oxford started life in Saxon times as a frontier town guarding Wessex against Danish attacks. It boasts the oldest university in England. Oxford University developed along with the town from the 12th century. 'Town and gown' did not always get on together however: in fact in 1355 there was a massacre. Fortunately relationships are somewhat better today. From medieval times wool became a mainstay of the county and Witney has been a blanket- making centre since the 14th century. Local history meets local folklore at Minster Lovell, a charming little Windrush village near Witney. Here lie the peaceful ruins of the ill-fated Lovell family. Francis Lovell was a powerful 15th-century aristocrat who supported King Richard HI in the Wars of the Roses but went into hiding when his fortunes fell; he was uncovered in a secret room in 1708 by workmen doing alterations to the house. They were confronted by the sight of a mouldering skeleton at a table with pen and paper.
Oxfordshire featured in the Gunpowder plot of 1605 because at Chastleton, about 4 miles from Moreton-in-the- Marsh, there is a superb Jacobean House where conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot met. During the English Civil War Oxford became the headquarters of King Charles I. It was besieged and finally surrendered to the Roundheads in 1646. Several fierce battles were fought in the county between Roundheads and Cavaliers, including Cropedy Bridge (1644).. Chastleton again featured in the county's history as it also has the bible given to Charles I on the. day of his execution. Blenheim Palace was built by architect John Vanbrugh for John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough after he won the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Sir Winston Churchill was born in the palace in 1874. In the 20th century the car industry took off in the county with over 1.5 million Morris Minors made (in Cowley) and the famous MG sport scars (in Abingdon over the border in neighbouring Berkshire).