Where else can you take your child to see a dodo bird but Oxford?
A friend asked for advice on where to go this weekend, with a couple of caveats: it must be child-friendly and an hour or two by train from London. My first thought was Oxford, my favorite city in the whole world.
Oxford might not be your first thought when it comes to family-friendly outings. But even though I don't have small children, I've seen lots there that would delight a young child. Beginning, in chronological order, with the dinosaur eggs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. What child wouldn't like to touch a dinosaur egg? There are also some nice dinosaurs there, rivaling those at London's Natural History Museum, and of course the famous Dodo, the only remains of the extinct bird anywhere (and only the beak and feet, since the rest of the original stuffed bird were lost in a fire).
Dino eggs at the Natural History Museum
Which brings us to Alice in Wonderland. Alice Liddell was the real-life friend of Charles Dodgson, who was the head of the Maths Department at Christ Church College. Across the street from Christ Church, where Alice's father was the Dean, is a little shop called Alice's Shop, with sweets and child-appropriate gifts, which the actual Alice frequented.
And if it's more modern literary heroes you're fond of, Christ Church was the film location for one of the Harry Potter films. Take a tour and you'll see the Dining Hall from the film, as well as the grand staircase featured in the films. (I'm not a Harry Potter buff, so I can't tell you which ones.)
The Bodleian Library Divinity School, also known as Hogwart's infirmary.
The Bodleian Library also has a Harry Potter connection: The Divinity School stands in for the infirmary in the film. At the entrance to the library on Catte Street, you can purchase tickets for tours of the library and Divinity School. I'd recommend taking the 30 minute tour, which gets you into the main room featured in the film, or if your child is too antsy for even that, just ask to walk in and look around. (This was also where King Charles I held court while in exile during the Civil War, so parents may find the room adjacent to the Divinity School interesting, but you have to take a longer tour to see that.)
The museums at Oxford are among the best in the world, but they're also family friendly. The Museum of the History of Science, located around the corner from the Divinity School, has all sorts of gadgets, but my favorite exhibit is the chalkboard where Einstein wrote down his Theory of Relativity. The Ashmolean is filled with ancient artifacts, including Greek and Roman statues which may bore children, but on weekends there's usually family-friendly activities planned. There's a nice cafe too, if you're hungry, and entrance, like most of the museums in Oxford, is free.
The Pitt Rivers is hands down my favorite museum. Filled with items from the collection of Victorian archaeologist and ethnologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, it's got something for everyone, from shrunken heads to ancient writing implements to musical instruments from other cultures. Best of all is how the collections are displayed, in Victorian cabinets—you can open the drawers underneath and discover more!—with original handwritten or typed labels. The Pitt Rivers is a meta-museum, with the museum itself an artifact of the Victorian era. It's located inside the Natural History Museum building, accessed by walking through doors in the back.
Oxford Castle was used as a prison until 1996, and then was remodeled as a tourist attraction geared toward children. (Don't worry, it has plenty of history to interest grownups as well, though you might want to read up on King Stephen and Empress Matilda.) Now it calls itself Oxford Castle Unlocked and is located very near the multi-story carpark at Westgate.
Punting on the Cherwell
For the child in all of us, there is nothing like punting on the River Cherwell. Just underneath Magdalen Bridge, on the other side of Magdalen College (look for the tall tower down High Street, leading away from the city centre) you can find the punt hire. You can either try your hand yourself or hire a chauffeur, which I highly recommend—at least for landlubbers like myself. Sit back and admire the river and the Botanic Gardens as you float by, while your child laughs at the swans and geese racing the river craft.
If your older son or daughter is familiar with Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, be sure to visit the Botanic Garden and search for Lyra's bench, where her name is carved. It's located exactly where the final book says it is:
She led him past a pool with a fountain under a wide-spreading tree, and then struck off to the left towards a huge many trunked pine.
There was a massive stone wall with a doorway in it, and in the further part of the garden the trees were younger and the planting less formal. Lyra led him almost to the end of the garden, over a little wooden bridge, to a wooden seat under a sprawling low-branched tree.
The Botanic Garden is just across from Magdalen College. The entrance fee is £4.50 for adults, but children are free.
You can also tour any of the colleges for a small fee, provided they aren't closed for student exams or some other reason. This may or may not interest your child, with the exception of Christ Church, which is a must for any Harry Potter fan.
All Soul's College, seen from the top of University Church of St Mary's
For great views of Oxford's "dreaming spires", you can't beat University Church of St Mary, right on High Street just beyond the beautiful Radcliffe Camera, if you're coming from Catte Street. (You might not want to tell your child what happened here—the trial of the three martyrs, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, was held in this Catholic church during the reign of Queen Mary, and later they were burned to death at a spot on Broad Street, near Balliol College.) For a small fee you can climb the tower and squeeze around the viewing platform (it's very narrow, with a high ledge, so short children may not be able to see over without a boost). And if climbing towers turns out to be a real turn-on for your child, go climb St Michael's tower on Cornmarket, which dates from Saxon times, and Carfax Tower, which is "only" from the 12th century. Better than any climbing wall, with proper steps!
The Bridge of Sighs, on New College Lane
If your child is impressed by architectural oddities, be sure and point out the Bridge of Sighs, right across from the entrance to the Bodleian Library. And if you pass underneath the Bridge of Sighs you can point out to your budding astronomer Sir Edmund Halley's house just on the other side, where Halley's Comet was discovered.
By now even the hardiest young tourist will be tired. Take them to Covered Market (between High Street and Market Street) and find a sweet shop or a bakery, or stop for hot cocoa in one of the cafes. Look through the windows at the cake decorating shop, where fabulous cakes are on display, and if your child has been extra good, you can buy her a lovely child-sized cake for a few pounds.
A celebration cake at The Cake Shop in the Covered Market
To get to Oxford, take a train from Paddington in London or drive up the M40 to Junction 8, then take the A40 to the Thornhill Park and Ride. There's also a nifty bus called the Oxford Tube, which stops at several locations in London and departs from Gloucester Green in the centre of Oxford.
Here's a map that shows carparks in Oxford, but I find it useful to have at hand while walking around the city centre. If you arrive by train, I'd go first to the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers on Parks Road (about a 20 minute walk), then head down Parks Road past Broad Street, admiring the Bridge of Sighs along the way, and then in to the Bodleian to check out the Divinity School. Then continue down Catte Street to High Street and turn left toward Magdalen College. From there, walk back down High Street to the intersection with St Aldates, turn left and visit Christ Church (you'll aim for the tall Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren) and Alice's Shop. To visit the Castle, go back to High Street, turn left, continue on Queen's Street past Castle Street until you see the large castle mound on the left. From there the train station isn't too far.
Likewise, if you arrive via the Oxford Tube, it lets you off in Gloucester Green and from there you're right in the heart of Oxford—my very favourite place to be.