Green spaces in Oxford: where to picnic, swim, and destress
The collegiate system in Oxford works brilliantly in all manner of ways: the small colleges mean it’s far easier to settle in and find a sense of community, since there are only hundreds – rather than thousands – of faces to become familiar with. You get to know your tutors fast, and they’re able to keep an eye on your academic progress, ensuring you don’t fall through the cracks; you form a close group with others studying your subject, too, since you’ll usually share tutorials and seminars.
It can, though, often feel a little claustrophobic: especially if a humanities student, with no labs to force you out of college, it’s possible to spend a week at a time barely leaving college. You can study at the college library, drink at the college bar, have tutorials in your tutor’s room within college, socialise in the college JCR (junior common room), eat in the heavily-subsidised college hall. This always feels a shame, for reasons beyond the university-wide clubs, societies, libraries, and potential friendship groups you’re missing out on. Oxford itself is a beautiful city, which it’s often easy to miss when in the flurry of term-time work and socialising, and holed-up, hermit-like, in your college.
When feeling too claustrophobic, I love to grab a friend, or some reading, and go to one of the many beautiful outside parks and gardens in Oxford, which – despite being a city – is surprisingly full of green space.
As an Oxford student, we have free access to the Botanic Gardens. These were actually the first botanic gardens in the UK, originally functioning as a place where medicinal plants were grown and used for the study of botany. There is, still, a modern area of medicinal beds, but the range of plants has been widened, including greenhouses of tropical lilies, herbaceous borders, and a rock garden. A bench there was also mentioned in the Dark Materials series! It’s a lovely place to come after a tutorial, or during a stressful week, just to take in the plants around you and destress a little. My friends and I often meet for lunch there, since it’s conveniently central – won’t take anyone too far out of their way to head there and back – and has a range of lovely places to sit and enjoy the view.
Very close to the Botanic Gardens, there’s Magdalen College, which includes a deer park (!) and wildflower meadow, as well as a riverside walk by a branch of the River Cherwell which flows through its grounds. This is a good walk to embark on when trying to come up with some thoughts for a tutorial or essay, or want to think through a problem more generally. It’s named Addison’s Walk, after Joseph Addison – who founded the Spectator! – and was favoured by authors like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, so walking there does feel like walking in the footsteps of giants.
Another college with great large grounds to discover is Christ Church: Christ Church meadow, similarly, has its share of picturesque walks, with the Broad Walk by the river a particular highlight. It’s close to the college boathouses, so often a good place to bring a picnic or have an explore if going to watch rowing (cannot speak for those who actually do rowing – in my impression the 6am starts don’t leave much freedom for wandering).
Port Meadow is probably my favourite area of green space in Oxford, though – it’s by the Thames, and is slightly further away from central Oxford than other areas. This is possibly the best place to come when feeling a little overwhelmed by Oxford, the university. It’s not connected to a college, so the risk of bumping into a tutor is significantly reduced; in general, it’s huge, so the risk of bumping into anyone you don’t want to see is minimal. During Trinity (summer) term, it’s a lovely place to bring a picnic, or have a swim, with friends: the distance and size means it feels entirely separated from the stress of the university term.
Exploring these spaces – with a friend, or alone – has always helped me when starting to feel stressed by the Oxford workload or expectations. Walking, with music, is one of my favourite ways to think about a problem set, figure out a plan for an essay, or destress after a tutorial. Picnics and swimming are good ways to experience a different side of Oxford than the libraries – even meeting friends for lunch, if in a garden, feels like significantly more of a break. Since finding these areas, I’ve found term-time stress significantly easier to deal with.