Believe it or not, Oxford is an island. Because the city sprang up at the point where the River Cherwell joins the Thames, the whole place is essentially built on a flood plain. There are downsides to this, like the existential risk of flooding if you live in Wolvercote, Hinksey or Iffley Village, but happily, it leaves us with loads of parks, green spaces and semi-wildernesses to explore. Many of them have the added bonus of one of the city's rivers running through them.
Larks in Parks
If you’ve ever seen a photo of Oxford’s dreaming spires, the likelihood is that you were looking at the view from the top of South Park. The name is actually misleading. South Park, which lies on the hill running from St Clement’s to the back of Oxford Brookes, is the largest park serving East Oxford. It’s a lovely expansive space, full of not very much. There are some big trees and, if you have a look in the morning before work, the occasional fitness boot camp run by fearsome looking men in khakis. Other than that, it’s mostly just open parkland perfect for dog walking or kite flying (but not football, because of the hill). It also doubles as Oxford’s only large-scale concert and festival venue. In 2001 local lads Radiohead played a celebrated set there and in recent years it has been home to Common People Festival, headlined in 2016 by Primal Scream, Public Enemy and Duran Duran and in 2017 by the legend that is Sean Paul.
Headington Hill Park, South Park’s smaller and quieter neighbour, is just on the other side of the road. There are lots of interesting trees to be found there, as well as a slightly unexpected mansion called Headington Hill Hall (formerly owned by Robert Maxwell, now part of Oxford Brookes). You can find a Daily Info review, complete with notes on the flowers to look out for, here.
The University Parks, which straddle one bank of the River Cherwell, are Oxford’s most famous. They date to the mid-19th century, when the University first seriously started to make moves into North Oxford. Nowadays they play host to its grass court tennis and cricket pitches, and you might even find a game of Quidditch being played there if you pick your times right. The Parks were known to generations of Oxford teenagers for having CCTV cameras hidden in the trees, while generations of students celebrated the end of their exams with a leap off its High (Rainbow) Bridge. Open daily year round from dawn until dusk, they are your best bet for morning jogs and five-a-side sports.
The suburb of Cutteslowe, at Oxford’s northern edge, is notable for two main things. The first is its dismal history of socially segregationist spiky wall building. The second is Cutteslowe Park, which is altogether a bit nicer and an especially good day out for kids. There are cricket pitches and tennis courts, an aviary and a lake. The kicker is its model railway, open every other Sunday and good for every inch of its hair-raising 762 feet ride. The driver is around the same size as the engine carriage, and wears an excellent hat. Recommended.
Walks in Wild Places
The north-west corner of the city is almost entirely taken up by Port Meadow, a stunning, ancient stretch of untouched common land running between Jericho and Wolvercote. [ed: I'm biased, because I grew up by Port Meadow and some of my earliest memories are being taken to the Walton Well Road bridge to wave at the trains (the drivers used to honk back). Still, there's a strong argument that the meadow is the best place in Oxford.] In wet years it turns into a giant glittering lake populated equally by kayakers and water fowl and on hot days its rickety wooden bridge is occupied by intrepid teenage swimmers going for a dip.
When coming from Jericho, cross the bridge and follow the Thames path north towards Wolvercote. The Perch, a nice thatched pub in the beautiful hamlet of Binsey, is a good stopping point for a restorative pint. Make it a bit further and you will find the ruins of Godstow Abbey, before arriving in Wolvercote to be serenaded by peacocks on the terrace of the Trout.
The opposite side of the city also has a wilderness to call its own, in the shape of Shotover County Park. To get there, you'll need to follow Headington's Old Road past the ring road and carry on going up the fairly punishing hill, but you'll be rewarded at the top by some pretty views over Oxfordshire and 117 hectares of rambling woodland to explore. Look out for the natural sandpit and the excellent sandcastle opportunities it provides. There are also reports from the Daily Info office of snake sightings in the woods and confirmed accounts of bluebell outbreaks every spring.
Only in Oxford
There aren't many cities which can boast about having a deer park less than 10 minutes walk from the centre of town, but thanks to Magdalen College Oxford is one of them. The meadow behind its main buildings ("the Grove") is home to a herd of fallow deer. Admission to the college (free for Oxford students, local residents and their guests) also gives you entrance to the Grove. The deer are separated from the main path but have been known to approach visitors on the other side of the fence and eat bits of apple. On occasion, you may find the entire herd fleeing from one side of the park to the other to avoid the attentions of an overeager stag.
When you're done with the animals, you only need to cross the road to look at some pretty plants instead. Just opposite Magdalen is the entrance to the Oxford Botanic Garden, which is marked by Romanified versions of Kings Charles I and II looking down from their imposing stone perch. At 400 years old, the Garden is the oldest in the country and the third oldest in Europe. It holds thousands of species that you can read all about here, including 1,200 in its riverside glasshouses alone and more than 20 types of tropical water lily. Whether you're there for the nature or simply want to read a book and watch some novices punt around in circles from the bank, it's well worth a visit.
Finally, there's Christ Church Meadow, the lovely tranquil flood meadow that sits slap bang in the centre of the city at the point where the Cherwell meets the Thames. The land is college-owned but completely free and accessible to the public during the day. Visit for a lunchtime picnic and find yourself staying to admire the herd of longhorn cattle that was supposedly a gift to the university by Bill Clinton.
The Full List
These, and many more green spaces in and around Oxford, are listed below. If you have any nice photos, please share them with us! Send them to [email protected] and we can credit you on our website.