Sunday, 2 August 2009

Stay in Oxford and See the World!

Well it's that time of the year where you can hardly move for the tourist melee in the centre of Oxford.

Each year it becomes more of a battle to negotiate the narrow mediaeval pavements with large tourist groups steaming along or stopping en mass suddenly in front of you and spilling out onto the road, seemingly oblivious to the buses thundering towards them down The High. TEFL students are particularly lemming-like and street unwise and I am amazed we do not see more serious injuries and fatalities to mar their overseas trips as they walk both in the road and across the road without looking.

Now don't get me wrong - Oxford is very definitely a special place that ought to be shared and many of our foreign visitors are charming and lovely, (not to mention much needed economically). However I can't help wishing there were some means by which they could be taught a bit of road sense and general cultural etiquette before disembarking from coaches and being let loose by language schools. Walking along in an orderly 'crocodile' of not more than 2-3 abreast with one chaperone per 20, particularly for our younger visitors would be a great start, short of pedestrian lights, mirrors and indicators! And some cultural pointers such as 'How to queue', when to say 'Please' and 'Thank you' and how not to talk at the top of their voices all the time, bounce balls off shop windows and to turn their mobiles off in libraries and museums would also greatly enhance their experience of Oxford and Oxford's experience of them.

Though of course it is hard to instill British cultural values into visitors when they are bound to observe our own locals showing complete disrespect/disregard/ignorance of same!

Narrow streets aside, Oxford does suffer some serious drawbacks in catering for such large groups of people, no matter that it should be a past master at such.

1. Very few restaurants/cafes/pubs are equipped to cope with groups of more than 10 without prior booking so you invariably see groups of aimless and disappointed overseas visitors traipsing from one to another in the evenings trying to find a space where they can all sit, eat and share their day together.
2. There is no decent large open space in the city centre where they can be dropped off by coaches to mill around and wait for tour guides with plenty of seats, loos and other useful facilities.
3. There is no left luggage facility for the day visitor (which I find extraordinary, considering at least 50% of visitors are day visitors).
4. Our public toilets (bar those in the Town Hall only open when the Town Hall is) are squalid and a disgrace for a city of international repute.

So many international cities have addressed these basics, I shudder to think what visitors must make of Oxford. And don't get me started on the hideous architecture they have to behold in the midst of the beautiful dreaming spire stuff they have really come to see. And to think Hitler purposefully didn't bomb Oxford in WWII as he loved historic buildings so much. Sadly our 1960/70s planners proved far more ruthless in this regard.

Whatever the disadvantages of so much life teeming through our streets every summer though, tourists certainly bring vibrancy, buzz and colour to the city and I doubt we would have two fabulous 24 hr coach London services and exotic eateries springing up all over the place were it were not for their influence.

When asked about my own travels, I often reply; 'well there's really no need to, sooner or later the world comes to Oxford to save me the job!' And I do have a pet theory that at least 80% of the world's population-with-passports will probably pass through this cosmopolitan mecca at some point in their lives.

Some people take the fear that other cultures might 'take over' a little too far though...


Steve said...

I have to say that most public toilets in the UK are "squalid and a disgrace"; the ones at my own place of work certainly are. Again this is down to lack of ettiquette and consideration of the people that use them. People seem so oblivious these days of the feelings or needs of the very people around them. I think tourists / strangers to our towns often throw this into sharp relief. It's one thing to behave badly because you don't know any better, quite another to do it because you don't particularly care... maybe somebody needs to write (or rewrite) a Rough Guide To Oxford?

Wisewebwoman said...

You know Laura, we have no public toilets that I've ever seen in Canadian cities, certainly at rest stops on highways and in airports, terminals etc. but nothing 'public' like we had back in Ireland or in England. I always remember those as smelly filth-holes and was warned by my parents of infectious diseases that could be caught INSTANTLY if I had to use such a device. Men were fine as they could STAND.
Worst case scenario had one getting pregnant from something inhabiting the toilet seat. There was the neighbour's niece's best friend and that had happened to her.
You stirred up a pot of memories, my dear!!
My dad loved Oxford and would wander around it for days talking to workmen who laboured long and hard at its maintenance and once finished would start all over again.

Lucy Fishwife said...

Growing up in Oxford, and cycling to school from the Cowley Road to leafy green North Oxford, I would invariably get stuck behind a large language school group two days out of five. Once I was struggling through on my bike (in, I might add, fairly obvious English school uniform) and the group leader said "Is this your first visit to Oxford?"

garfer said...

If you want to know what hell is come up to Edinburgh during the Festival.

Nota Bene said...

They probably think the lack of facilities is 'quaint' reinforcing the view that we all live in thatched cottages in England....

Steerforth said...

A clean public loo is the hallmark of civilisation. I think that countries should be graded by their loos rather than GDP or GNP. That's what really matters.

Annabel Gaskell said...

Although I'm a near local (Abingdon) I don't go into Oxford much, but I took my daughter to the Pitt Rivers last Friday.

We got off the Park & Ride at the bottom of St Aldates and walked through Christchurch meadow and the college, up and round the back of the Radcliffe camera etc and apart from one large group of Germans and loads of Japanese tourists at the St Aldates end, it was pretty empty and calm - but it was 0945.

By the time we walked back into town to do some shopping it was heaving and horrible. Wherever you go though, Debenhams (a British department store) is the place for decent loos!

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Steve, I agree public toilets get heavy use (and abuse), though the best kept ones with attendants, working locks, lights, hooks on doors, mirrors and cleanliness I feel do inspire better treatment. With soft music and pictoral tiles, even more so. The loos on London's Embankment are a delight for example, and yet doubtless receive as heavy use as in any other tourist hotspot.

WWW - wow - no public toilets in Canada - what do they use???? Though when I say 'public', I do not of course mean 'communal' with no walls or doors. Even the worst still possess cubicles!

Lucy, awwww. You should have played along and said 'Yes' to see what happened next! You could have been a Mystery Shopper for the tourist experience.

Garfer - I LOVE Edinburgh during the Festival (albeit sadly not coming up this year). Although feel sad at how commercialised and organised it is becoming as it was far more fun when there was more sponteneity attached and the Hub to loaf around in between shows. You can be quite stuck on really wet days for places to hang out now.

Notabene - well some seem to be reverting to middens it is true. We could have a Henry VIII 'Great house of easement' over the banks of Oxford Castle I suppose.

Steerforth, I couldn't agree more. Well said that man.

Thanks for dropping by Annabel. And thanks for the useful tip. Though I agree with Steerforth that we should have public WCs to be proud of - preferably accessible for 24 hours to keep our streets clean and civilised (though we may need some draconion drinks laws drafted in to aid as well - Oxford's a horribly drunken city.)

The Sagittarian said...

I tended to avoid UK loo's when I was there, mainly because I was too mean to spend the penny!

JamaGenie said...

In the defense of public toilets in the UK, in a two-week trip around the South of England (which included 6 days in London), perhaps I was lucky, but the WCs I used were always spotless (or nearly). Oxford wasn't on the itinerary (can't remember why now), but definitely will be next time, which *won't* be in August.

While in your lovely country, unlike most Americans I saw, never forgot that I was a GUEST and acted accordingly. Which perhaps is why I was always mistaken for a Canadian?

Anonymous said...

I have been saying this for years. If other towns can do it, what makes Oxford unique? The idea that "We live here' or "We work here' and are thus favoured with insight.
It's that begrudging attitude that toilets are a privilege and not a necessity of life... I possess it, and I can't let you have my privileges. This is uniquely an Oxford thing in all fields.
In USA etc.. all shops and stores have beautiful facilities..I believe it's a LAW...