Oxford with kids: Things to do on rainy days

Looking for things to do in Oxford with kids on those wintery rainy days? We’ve invited an adventurous Oxford mum to share her tips – here’s what our guest author Ros from Socks and the Settee has to say about rainy days in and around Oxford with young children… 

Winter is always difficult when you have small children. Grand notions of wind-swept welly-walks in the countryside, with laughing, ruddy-cheeked children climbing trees and jumping with glee from muddy puddle to muddy puddle, may seem like a great play from the Perfect Parent Handbook.

But after mere minutes, when the waterproofs have been thoroughly bested by the British weather and the children have managed to get water into their wellies and are in danger of developing trench-foot, you’re scrambling back to the car and dashing home for a restorative hot chocolate (aka microwave-heated Nesquik) and some child-appeasing Netflix. Winter: 1, Great Childhood Experiences: 0.

So, when it’s wet or just a bit miserable out, I try to head for the town rather than the country. And I’m very lucky, because town, for me, is Oxford. Even after a decade here, the novelty still hasn’t worn off. Everything is just so bloomin’ beautiful – and once you’ve seen everything there is to see at eye-level, you can do it all again and just look up.

Of course, no outing with little people is completely hassle free, but Oxford somehow numbs the usual stresses. Something about all the amazing historical architecture, manicured lawns, exotic gardens, and herds of deer or English longhorns wandering college grounds they have called home for centuries, fosters a kind of inner peace and serenity. No, honestly – it does! Or at the very least, it allows you to feel stressed out and exhausted in the most exquisitely beautiful of settings.

A silver lining to every rain cloud…

In fact, Oxford is actually better in winter, because it’s mostly free of tourists and foreign language students, which means you have a far better chance of pushing a pram along the pavement without getting stuck at a snail’s pace behind some camera-happy tourists, or having to divert onto the road to avoid an onslaught of loudly chattering, oblivious Euro-teens.

Much of the centre is pedestrianised, which makes for a happier experience when trailing about enthusiastic under-5s who haven’t yet developed a sense of their own mortality and seem not to believe you when you tell them cars can hurt. However, the flip side of this is that the road network around the centre is a complex network of one-ways and diversions that won’t take you quite where you want to go. Major roadworks on seemingly every major axis into the city are a further deterrent to driving, as is the lack of parking – made even worse since the demolition of the city’s only multi-storey carpark. That paragon of good sense, Jeremy Clarkson, once referred to Oxford as a bus lane. And for once, he was on the money.

Luckily, Oxford has a multitude of Park & Rides so that there is one for you no matter which side you are coming from, and it’s a great opportunity for you to thrill your children with a ride on a double-decker. Getting the bus also frees you up from the tyranny of the ticking parking metre so you can relax and enjoy Oxford for all it’s worth. Unless you enjoy legging it across cobbles with a pushchair, of course.

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

We’re fortunate in Oxford to have a plethora of child friendly museums to choose from, including the famed Oxford University Museum of Natural History, complete with T-Rex skeleton and creepy pinned insects, and the adjoined Pitt-Rivers museum, complete with shrunken heads. These museums are so family friendly that they’ve made a public commitment to it on their website (crazy fools), and won the Family Friendly Museums Award in 2005.

Museum of Natural History - Oxford

The first time I took my son to the Museum of Natural History, aged probably about 2, he spent the entire time running up and down a disabled ramp. He’s come a long way since then; now he and his sister spend pretty much the entire time running in and out of the little black hut with luminous rocks in it. So – progress.

If, like mine, your children are simultaneously over-stimulated and under-whelmed by the exhibits, you can at least comfort yourself with the thought that are gaining some culture by osmosis, and at the very least that you can gain some awesome parent points in the playground on Monday. To focus your children’s attention and give added purpose to your visit you could pick up a museum trail sheet or paper and pens for sketching from the family trolley next to the welcome desk. 

The magic of hidden Oxford

Of course, you couldn’t come to Oxford without seeing something of the colleges. Since so much of the city belongs to the university, many of its most magical places are hidden from the view of the general public behind towering stone walls and wrought iron gates. Luckily, for a usually smallish entrance fee, you can purchase the privilege of visiting these exclusive realms. It could mount up to kinda pricey if you did a few, but some of them have such extensive grounds that you get your money’s worth. My personal favourites are Worcester, Magdalen and Christchurch.

Christchurch, as many of you may already know, has been used as a backdrop for the Harry Potter films, as well as Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and its Deanery Garden was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Although an admission fee is charged for a visit to the college itself, Christchurch Meadows, one gate further down St. Aldate’s, are free to access, and lead down to the river through tree-lined esplanades, making for a beautiful ‘off-season’ walk. Time it right, and you might be lucky enough to see some rowing. The ‘Bumps’ in early Spring are well worth a visit – although on second thoughts, perhaps best enjoyed without children so you can make the most of the free-flowing, potent Pimms being peddled at each boathouse.

Though not one of the most impressive from the outside, Worcester College, (on the corner of Worcester Street and Park End Street, slightly on the outskirts of the centre towards the train station), has beautiful gardens with a lake, hanging trees, wooden bridges, and a charming cricket pavilion that I have found very useful as shelter for a winter picnic in the past!

Fields of green and shadows numberless

Magdalen (pronounced maudlin) also has spectacular grounds to explore, with meandering pathways, a deer park full of tame muntjacs, gnarly old trees, and thrones carved out of old tree trunks. At the lower end of the High Street, it is a bit of a trek, but what a trek! You can either take the High Street, with its bijoux boutiques, the covered market, concentration of colleges, The Church of St.Mary the Virgin (with a nice cafe to the rear) – or take the Broad Walk across one edge of Christchurch meadow and rejoin the High Street just opposite Magdalen via Rose Lane. (Note – the exit onto Rose Lane is via a very narrow rotating gate, requiring pram folding; one to bear in mind if you don’t want to interrupt nap time for example!)

Embrace bad weather and make it part of the adventure!

Embracing the rain in Oxford on open top tour bus

(Ignore the look on my daughter’s face – she always looks like that. This is fun – really!)

Finally, if you want to see as much of Oxford as you can in a short space of time and are brave – or completely bonkers – I thoroughly recommend a tour on an open-top bus,  even if it’s drizzling.  The canny tour company give out disposable cagoules (in a very fetching red), and you get to take in the whole city centre in under an hour – with commentary. (Alternatively, you can hop on and off and spend some time exploring – 24hr or 48hr tickets available). Plus, the children love the excitement of being on the top deck of an open-top bus with the wind and rain in their faces!

Can’t wait to visit Oxford with the kids? Here are the best places to eat, wee, run around, drink or shop:

There is so much to say about Oxford that I couldn’t possibly cram everything into a single blog post, but below are a few extra child-friendly tips for your visit…

Best place to eat:

Pizza Express, accessed via the Golden Cross Gate entrance on Cornmarket Street. I know what you’re thinking; you can eat pizza anywhere. However, this particular Pizza Express is pretty huge, which means that staff can seat you away from other customers and you don’t need to worry so much about disturbing anyone. It’s also a Grade II Listed building and has original 12th century wall paintings to offer.

Best place for a snack:

Without question, Ben’s Cookies in the Covered Market (and it’s en route to Magdalen college). Served warm from the oven and still slightly doughy inside – Ben’s Cookies should come with a warning. Once you’ve tried Ben’s, any other make of cookie you have in the rest of your whole life will always be slightly disappointing.

Best place to use the loo for free:

Debenhams. Enter via the side door on Magdalen Street and take the elevator to the top floor for a direct route that saves you negotiating escalators, crowds, and multiple distractions within the shop itself. They also have a baby-changing room with a chair for breast-feeding if you feel shy about doing it in public; though the smell from the nappy bin can be a little over-powering, so personally I’d just go for breastfeeding wherever you want to. Oxford can take it. And if they can’t feel free to challenge their lefty liberal credentials.

Best place for a run-around:

University Parks, toward the north end of the city is a large open space with plenty of room for children to run amok, and paths to avoid muddy shoes if weather is particularly inclement. If you’re really lucky, you might catch a game of Quidditch in action. Seriously, this is a thing practised by our country’s finest young minds.

Best pub:

The centre doesn’t really cater for little people pub-wise, but head north up St. Giles and take the left fork along Woodstock Road, and there’s a pub called the Royal Oak, which has wonderful nooks and crannies, a log-fire, a good menu, strawberry beer on tap, and a bookcase full of board games. I’ve always felt very comfortable and un-judged on the few occasions I’ve taken my children there for lunch – even the time my son was sick on the floor.

Best shops:

Oxford boasts two enormous bookstores, both with good cafes that are well used to tiddlers – Blackwells on Broad Street, and Waterstones on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket. A good option in case of heavy deluge – as long as you can brazen out the glares from staff as your offspring man-handle stock you have no intention of purchasing. And let’s face it, we’re probably all pretty adept at that, right?

Which other places would you recommend in Oxford for families with young children?

Ros Letellier

Ros Letellier

Ros is an education marketing professional and Guide leader, though her most important job is as mum to timinou, and tichoux. She loves nature, fire (controlled of course), and camping (aka drinking outdoors). With children who are essentially real-life Bart and Lisa Simpson, she has developed a suitably thick skin and generally just embraces the chaos and beauty of parenthood.
Ros Letellier

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