Freshers Week

The THUMP Freshers' Guide to Oxford

From dreaming spires to grubby clubs, this is the best that Oxford has to offer.

by Francis Blagburn
23 September 2016, 10:25am

Oxford is traditionally more acoustic guitar and piano than Roland TB-303, but still, as a city it doesn't do things by halves. Despite its cosy feel, it has a spirit of maximalism that's at odds with the stereotypical image of meek nerds reading worm-eaten philosophy books in dusty armchairs. Like Glastonbury, or a Teki Latex mix, there's something for everyone in Oxford, so whether you're spending your first night in Oxford Brookes' Clive Booth halls, with someone else's squad in Christ Church college or your cosy dorm room in St. Bernard's, you can guarantee that you're going to have a suitably big freshers' to kick start your life as a proper adult student person.

A Club

Club culture— it must be said—isn't Oxford's strongest point. The majority of the city's clubs range from champagne-soaked, VIP area fair to the miniature Oceana kitsch of Park End (a.k.a Lava Ignite). You'll inevitably end up in these places during your first week, drinking yourself through the cheese and helping someone whose only previous experience of boozing is their Mum's 50th to stop lolling around on the floor, but in terms of attempting to find good music, your best bet is to find a cluster of like minded people and head to The Bullingdon Arms on Cowley Road.

The Bullingdon is an unassuming venue— just a bar and a modest back room, but it hosts a solid programme of DJs, serves acceptable lager and refreshingly doesn't try to do much more than that. It may be true that student house night 'Daddy's Money' never mustered up enough layers of irony to justify its title and hasn't sprung up since last Christmas, but to the club's credit it's the only place in Oxford you'll find Joy O knocking about, or a Livity Sound showcase lined up for December. If you're let down by the Cowley institution, you'd be better off checking out The Cellar instead, where regular favourite Burning Down The House provides a solid serving of chintzy glitz and throwback disco.

A Really Good Pub

No one likes the bore who drones on about how they prefer 'pubbing' to clubbing, but if you catch one of these guys pootling around freshers' fair, pin them down and ask them what they know. Oxford's pubs are world-renowned, idiosyncratic and timeless havens of belly laughs and frothy ales, and none deserves the mantle of Really Good Pub more than The Eagle & Child. It was famously once the haunt of both J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and what makes it better is that it's not a touristy pub like some pubs that claim to have been frequented by Dickens in London. That said, if pubs with Connect 4 in them are more your thing, head to Cowley for The Star or Big Society, where the watering holes cater more explicitly for a younger, buzzier crowd.

A Decent Restaurant for Someone on a Budget

Red Star on the Cowley Road may not be an absolute shoestring budget restaurant but it's certainly cheaper than most Oxford has to offer. A selection of spicy soup dishes, noodles and delicious rice dishes, all served immensely quickly, it's a good spot for an Asahi and a full belly. Think Wagamamas but more relaxed and without chirpy millennials who keep writing on your menu in sharpie.

A Great Gig Venue

The Jericho Tavern is Oxford's iteration of every major city's classic gig venue. It's a pub with a room upstairs, and if you go there at around 7 you'll find a snarky sound guy making quips to a DIY band who've brought their own drum kit. It's Brighton's Prince Albert, it's Bristol's Louisiana, and it's Glasgow's Broadcast. Go there, get three-pints squiffy and discover some decent new music.

A Record Shop

Oxford and the wider area suffers from a dearth of record stores, but Cowley Road's Truck Store is an institution. It's one of those record stores that's become a part of the community in recent years, pairing with local Truck Festival and hosting regular in-stores, signings and other events. The staff love to talk shop (literally) and the coffee is great.

A Museum You Can Take the Person You Got off with on the First Night in Halls To

The Ashmolean may be Oxford's most impressive museum, but the Pitt Rivers is one for the heads. Situated in the North of the city up the Banbury Road, it's home to the extensive collections of 18th Century collector Pitt Rivers, who gathered together objects from other cultures with a typically colonial lack of cultural understanding or sensitivity. Rather than reordering the collection to suit modern curatorial sensibilities and grouping objects by the culture or geographical area of their origin, the museum have left it in the ad hoc arrangement Pitt Rivers originally put together. As a result all the spoons have their own section, and all the musical instruments have another one. It's a bizarre place that's as much of a museum of a museum as it is a museum of its original material. It's all very meta. Whoever you got with on the first night will be happy you took them, just don't describe it as "all very meta".

A Truly Local Spot That You'll Feel Really Smug Knowing About

The Trout is a cycle ride out of town which immediately places you head and shoulders above a lot of students who tend to remain in a bubble of about 100 sq ft. It's a pub built for its beautiful garden and it's raison d'être is the Oxford summer day. Take some friends and a picnic and you've got guaranteed good times.

A Place to Drink Coffee in Between Lectures Because You Will Suddenly Decide That You Drink Coffee Now Even Though You'd Rather Have a Squash

The Missing Bean on Turl Street is one of those nice café's that's good for both concentration and conversation. It has huge bay windows that let the sun in and you'll feel like you're in an advert for Kindle. Good cakes, good flat whites and a good vibe, and now that its 2016 you can probably go in there without being labelled a hipster.

A Good Bookshop

The Albion Beatnik in Jericho is the sort of place you'll sit in, dreaming up theories about how it continues to exist. Half tea-shop, half bookshop, its clientele tend to peruse more than buy, but the guy who owns it seems content to sit serving obscure teas from mugs and listening to a patchwork of obscure krautrock, experimental jazz and mellow classical all day every day. He's cut from the Will Self-Stewart Lee school of middle aged liberal-elite deadpan humour and might accuse you of being unsophisticated when you own up to having never had lapsang souchong, but he puts on good talks, invites actual Beat Poets like Michael Horovitz to bless the mic and stocks some really good books. It's worth more than perusing if you can cut through the air of slight pretension.

A Place to Laze About the Morning After the Night Before

South Downs was once described to me as "the best park in Europe" by someone who'd just mustered all their hungover energy to reach the oasis of a shady spot at the top of the hill, and even though it's essentially just a patch of grass, it's hard to disagree. Overlooking the city and sufficiently far out from the centre of town to make you totally forget your upcoming essay crisis, it's the perfect place to let the embers of last night's chemical cocktail finally drift away.

All in all Oxford's a unique city which will serve as a backdrop to whatever sort of three years you want to have. The highlights of the city's nightlife might be more Oliver Reed than Riccardo Villalobos, but there's more than enough house and techno to keep you satisfied while you spend three years experiencing some of the strangest and most fascinating times you'll ever have. Enjoy!

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club culture