There’s a part of me that had always pictured England to be exactly what Oxford and Bath are – quaint, picturesque, small English towns that seemed designed for typewriters, tea and wildflowers in mason jars, high ceilinged libraries, reading on a windowseat, watercolours by the riverbank, books, tea-stained handwritten stationery and letterpress – in short, my teenage aesthetic catnip and the sort of place I always envisioned myself feeling at home.
There’s a magic about these two towns in particular – among all the places I went to during this long gallivant across the English countryside – that feels quintessentially English. Sure it’s touristy, sure, it definitely feels like two places where England is determined to put its best face forward, but the simple act of wandering around and soaking in the vibe, architecture and atmosphere of these places felt like the child inside me was being allowed to finally explore the fantasy version of England I had imagined my whole life.
Soft power and media is an incredible thing, I suppose.
Oxford was a good first-experience-of-England stop because it brought me directly to my wistful, nostalgic roots (and no small amount of His Dark Materials fangirlism). It’s a beautiful city rooted in the feeling of scholarly pursuits and riverside wandering, all centered around university halls, colleges and marks of famous alumni. My fantasies didn’t account for multiple groups of high school students in lanyards and Asian tour groups scoping out the world class university facilities for their 5 year old offspring, but that’s just a characteristic of summer, I’m told. These are towns where your best bet is to just wander through the town — including being shooed out of colleges you weren’t supposed to enter. But definitely also accidentally spend 3hrs in the Waterstones at the town centre reading (because man, is that bookshop particularly wonderful).
I definitely recommend walking tours for both cities unless you’re a history student or English history buff because, let’s face it, most of us are too tired to memorise fact books.
Bath – which I know primarily from a good number of Austen novels but also, notably, one of three World Heritage Cities in the world – definitely has more of a ‘summerside town’ vibe, albeit one embedded within gorgeous Georgian architecture and planning. It’s truly picturesque – though, as our walking tour guide pointed out, design was concentrated in making the façade of the house aesthetically pleasing and things were allowed to go a bit wild out back. You can’t go to Bath without checking out the The Circus and the Royal Crescent, but I also recommend hiking up the hills past the town to the Bath Skyline (marked on Google Maps) where you can look down at the rolling hills and city spread below.