What weirdness lies in wait in Oxford for kids?
Looking for fantastic beasts, Roman mummies, Harry Potter film sets and Egyptian curses – why not give Oxford a whirl?
For a small city it punches above its weight architecturally, historically and in the quirky artefacts league. Amongst the ancient streets, world-class museums house herds of rattling skeletons from across time and the animal world. Join a tour of Hogwarts’ hospital ward and discover the inspiration for Rowling’s chained-up books at the Bodleian library.
Throw in day trips to Legoland’s fantasy fair and the home of the man who unearthed Tutankhamun’s tomb and and you have yourself a perfect storm of ingredients for a mini-break.
Things to do in Oxford with kids 1 – Skull based explorations
Treasure hunting at the Ashmolean Museum
Open: 10-5 daily
Where: Centre of town – Beaumont St, Oxford OX1 2PH
Booking: Walk up entry now available, but book to guarantee entry
Visited: 11-12.30 (with café)
Focus: This is Oxford University’s 400-year-old museum of art and archaeology “telling human stories across cultures and time”. In the words of the Times, it is much like buying a round the world ticket in history.
Best exhibit: The museum is reputed to have held (but sadly mislaid) Jacob’s coat of many colours, which I for one would have paid good money to see. It managed to hold on to Guy Fawkes’ lamp, unlike Guy himself.
How it found its treasure: The Ashmolean opened as the nation’s first public museum in 1683 when Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University. He had acquired his treasures from two world travelling gardeners who sent back artefacts along with their exotic plant specimens.
The collections grew with colonial expansion in Egypt and the Middle East when objects were divided between the foreign excavators. Being a bit conflicted about how it acquired its exhibits, the museum is currently “decolonising its thinking”.
We started with the Ashmolean because this is where I thought they kept the shrunken heads (they don’t – they lived in the Pitts River Museum and were taken off display in 2020) but it was number one in Time Out’s top 10 of Oxford museums so was going to have chops. There turned out to be plenty of other death and skull based treasure for the ghoulish seeker.
Follow the map
To make things a bit easier for your first timer, you can hunt out the top 10 museum highlights in a 1-hour whistle-stop leaflet-guided tour option. It’s always good to have a bit of mission to structure a visit with kids, rather than wandering around aimlessly until their legs give in. This is what we found in our allotted hour…
Guy Fawkes' lamp , Cromwell's head and canons
First stop was Level -1 with some top hitters:
- The lamp carried by Guy Fawkes on his big night, snuffed out before it hit the dynamite (Highlight 1)
- Thomas Cromwell’s face (from a quick death mask cast they popped on when he popped off)
- A selection of canon balls, next to a helmet which had clearly been pelted with similar
- The hat worn by the prosecutor at the trial of Charles I
Money, gaming and garden pigs
So far so good. Highlight number 2, on Ground Level, was a coin depicting Charles I in Oxford. Having fled London to hang out here during the English Civil War (1642–1651), you will find that he features heavily in your visit to the town.
Searching for the coin, we became distracted by the opportunity to play a shove ha’penny game from my own childhood (had I reached an age where my activities had become exhibitable?). Ignoring the fact I might nearly be fossilised, I proceeded to demonstrate my skillz in pushing coins across the board to land between the lines.
Deciding we really ought to try to find the coin, we discovered that annoyingly the highlighted exhibits had little in the way of written description explaining their story and why they were the celebrity items. Without the audio guide (which we had failed to pick up) they lost their draw and we resorted to playing “pick the most interesting thing in the room” game instead.
We found an enormous pig garden ornament that we would definitely not be ordering for our own.
Level 1 was hiding Highlight 3 in plain sight, one of the many mummies lying and standing casually around the room. Skirting original Egyptian tomb walls, leant this section an immersive element as if we were ourselves Egyptian explorers.
Be prepared for the tragic mummified child and the bizarre Roman mummy with its particularly fancy bandaging.
Our own voyages of discovery
Having scaled 3 museum Levels already, our 1 hour time limit commitment was nearly up. Abandoning the list, we headed completely off piste in the highlight hunt and instead were drawn to:
- Booted mummy-guarding birds.
- An array of pocket watches, some skull-themed.
- An ancient death mask where, post-mortem some mud and shells had been added to the deceased ‘s skull to create a simulation of the living.
- A scary-headed “cittern” handle (looking a bit like a haunted mandolin).
- A Renoir sitting small and unassumingly on the wall and generally being left in peace.
There was just time for the café and shop (always) before hitting museum number 2 which was handily “just round the corner” (when Google Maps was consulted, I was informed by those with smaller legs, that a 7-minute walk does not technically fall into this category).
Things to do in Oxford with kids 2 – animals with and without skin
Dodo Spotting at the Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum's story
Genre/ best exhibit: Established in 1860 as the University’s centre for scientific study, it houses as its celebrity exhibit the “Oxford dodo”, the world’s only remains of the extinct bird.
The Victorian Gothic building is as much a marvel as its contents, with it striking glass and iron roof. Metal and stonework have been crafted into botanical shapes and each of the museum’s 126 columns are made from a different type of stone. Around the walls, 19 statues of great men of science gaze down at you from their plinths.
Opening night fight: At the museum’s launch, a month after publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the building played host to a debate between the Bishop of Oxford upholding biblical creation and Darwin’s man, gunning for evolution. The Bishop is said to have issued taunts about his opponent’s possible ape ancestry.
Animals - with and without skin
Much like stumbling on to the set of Paddington, you will be confronted with impressive hallways, aerial skeletons and small brown bears.
Get up close and personal with a multitude of rib cages. You are practically encouraged to stroke the brown and black bears and bear-based selfie-taking is inevitable.
Exotic bird life
Not only is there a chance to glimpse the world’s only remaining dodo parts, discover birds with mad hair, blue faces and an anatomically correct but inaccurately stuffed kiwi (apparently the taxidermist hadn’t met too many and assumed the neck stretched up in the manner of a giraffe rather than snuffling nearer the ground).
Things to do in Oxford with kids 3 – Kit up like a real explorer in a museum of a museum
Take a torch not offence at the Pitts River Museum
Pitts River Museum's story
Collection origins: The Museum was founded in 1884, when the fabulously named General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers donated his archaeological collection to the University. Sourced from his own military expeditions, holidays and traders, Pitts-Rivers collected 26,000 interesting objects from across the globe. A large extension was required to the adjoining Natural History Museum to house them.
Torchlight treasure hunting
Through the archway at the back of the National History skeleton room, you will find yourself stepping back in time into a Victorian Treasure trove of exhibits from across the globe rammed into densely packed glass cabinets.
The lighting is low and the labels are both original and handwritten. Avail yourself of the torch and magnifying glass from the Information Point for the true Victorian explorer experience.
Exhibits are arranged by theme rather than time or geography, including beautification (feet and head binding) and terrifying historical dental equipment. In the accessories department you can find a bag made out of a lizard and bear paw purse.
The objects are as eclectic as they are fascinating.
Controversially, the museum literature acknowledges that the original labelling can be “derogatory and upsetting” but has been left in place to provide an insight into the minds of the original collectors. Novel, but not to everyone’s taste.
Things to do in Oxford with kids 4 – Find the bullet-ridded statue responsible for the Archbishop’s execution
Killer statues at University Church of St Mary the Virgin
Cafe: Open Daily 8.30am-5pm (5.30 on weekends)
Church: Open Daily 9.30am-5pm (Sun 12-5)
Cost: Free (£5 for medieval tower ticket)
Where: High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ (café entrance opposite Radcliffe Camera at rear)
Visited: 2- 3pm
St Mary the Virgin's story
At 800 years old, this church has lived through nearly a millennium of the nation’s history and consequentially has more than one tale to tell.
- St Mary’s was home to the first Oxford University lectures, graduations and library.
- Thomas Cranmer was tried here for heresy in 1555 by Henry VIII, before being burned at the stake.
- Lady Killer statue: The brilliantly twisty south porch, built in 1637 and was designed by the appropriately named Mr Stone, master mason to Charles I (he literally has his fingers in all the pies) as a gift to the archbishop. Its ornate spiral columns, curly pediment with shell-framed Mary statue affronted the puritans of the day and the ‘scandalous statue’ was used as evidence in the said archbishop’s execution trial.
- Mary bears the scars of bullet holes made by Cromwellian soldiers.
Three museums in, we were ready for snacking. And what could be more fitting than an English cream tea in the vaults of the official church of Oxford since the 1200’s?
The gardens overlook the iconic “Radcliffe camera” as featured in any TV programme set in Oxford, a circular University Library building with no apparent means of entry for the jobbing tourist. Only pre-booked tours were available, its website informed me.
After your cream tea/goat cheese quiche and leg rest, you can climb the 13th Century gargoyle-encrusted tower which affords great views over the city, apparently (we spend our £5 on cake instead, saving our legs for stop 5).
Things to do in Oxford with kids 5 – Find books in chains and a king’s cage
Priceless books and Potter at the Bodleian Library
Open: Daily 10-1.30 or 3-3.30 (this is for 30 mins tour)
Cost: Tours are for over 11’s only
– 30 min tour £9 – Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library
– 60 min tour £12
– 90 min tour £18 – including Radcliffe Camera
Divinity School only £2.50
Where: Bodleian Libraries, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG
Humfrey’s library: In 1488 The University’s library moved from St Mary’s Church to a new home built specially to house 281 books donated by Humfrey, younger brother of King Henry V. Here they stayed for a full 60 years before being removed for burning in the Reformation as Catholic heresy.
The Bod: Half a century later in 1598, the old library was refurbished to house a new collection of 2,500 books donated by Bodley (a book millionaire whose wife’s family had made it big in pilchards) and was renamed the Bodleian or “The Bod” which makes it sound incongruously like a muscle bound gym bunny.
Not so hot: With no heating until 1845 and no artificial lighting until 1929, the number of users should not be overestimated; in 1831 there was an average of only 3–4 readers a day.
It has since had a bit of a growth spurt and now occupies a group of five buildings which together house 13 million printed items.
Use magic to entice kids on a library tour
Now, telling children you have booked them a library tour, may not fill them with awe and wonder (more of an “aw” I found).
You may however, regain their interest if you promise to show them the original chained books from the Harry Potter library scene.
As a bonus film reference, they may recognise the divinity lecture room where you gather for the tour as the hospital where Ron had his wobbly arm restored.
The quad and divinity
Start by entering the very photogenic quadrangle of buildings (free to wander through) containing the historic reading rooms, before heading into the original Divinity lecture theatre to meet your guide (its £2.50 if you stop here and don’t want to carry on to the books).
One side of the room is slightly more fancy than the other due to the ubiquitous problem with builders which transcends time, they ran out of money.
Humfrey's reading room
Film star: Entering Humfrey’s original reading room the dark wooden desks, royal portraits and and heraldic ceiling did seem vaguely familiar from the films.
- Chained books: Prior to Humfrey’s gift, the university held a grand total of 20 volumes. Books were so valuable, each equivalent to the price of a house, that they were chained to the shelves. Borrowing was not an option.
- There is a no photo rule is in the reading room, not to protect the pages from paparazzi flashes but to protect the identity of the priceless tomes within.
- As an additional layer of security, the only access to the books on the higher shelves was by asking the librarian to unlock the single spindly staircase next to their desk and retrieve it for you.
Antiquity: Until very recently, book requests were made by way of a metal capsule inserted into the type of vacuum pipe system you will have seen in Paddington 2.
King in a cage: Check out the caged reading room made up for Charles I to afford him a bit of privacy whilst he did his personal browsing in the 1600’s (literally no one was allowed to take books out, even if you were the king.)
A 30 minute tour just the right length for a family but I would have liked to check out the underground tunnel to the Radcliffe Camera on the £18 tour.
Things to do in Oxford with kids 6 – seek out ancient colleges and comedy stonework in Oxford city centre
Oxford City Centre
Dominated by its 38 ancient colleges, the town has charm and beauty. Nothing seems to be more than a 7-minute walk away along a yellow-stoned street. There are fields for picnics and rivers for punting in the summer, but this being April, we took a rain check and added these to our return list activities.
Circular buildings and look-o-like Venetian bridges
- the bridge look-o-like of the vitreous Venetian Bridge of Sighs joining the 2 sides of Herford College,
- the cylindrical Radcliffe Camera / library,
- and the crenelated streets filled with bicycles. I kept expecting Morse to cycle round the corner at any moment.
Medieval colleges and comedy stone faces
The University Colleges are historical sites in their own right. The chapel at Christchurch was designed by Cardinal Wolsey. You can book a tour of most of the colleges either in advance or through the porter.
On this occasion, we peeked through open gates and spied on another world of garden parties and high living. Next time we’ll pay the porters and be brave enough to go in.
Balloon dogs and pink roof at the shops
- At one end of town you will find the Westgate Shopping Centre with high end fashion, possibly the only parking in town and huge yellow and red balloon pop art dogs by Whatshisname (actual name, not just making this up) which add a splash of colour.
- There is a handy Sainsbury’s here for those meal deal picnics you will need to buy to feed the family whilst saving the bank.
- The streets of the town are sprinkled with Harry Potter shops and there are plenty of opportunities for passing yourself (or your child genius) off as a graduate with a pretend Oxford University sweat shirt.
- A pretty-in-pink roofed covered market is open on Sundays.
Things to do in Oxford with kids 7
Egyptian curses at Highclere Castle
Open: Sunday 10th July 2022 – Monday 5th September 2022. Closed Fridays and Saturdays
Also open for special high tea style events
Cost: £75 family ticket for 4 (£57 without Egyptian rooms)
Where: Highclere Park, Newbury RG20 9RN
Visited: House entrance 12.30-2.30 time slot
- Upgrades: In 1679, the original medieval palace built by the Bishop of Wykeham, was rebuilt as Highclere House by an ancestor of the current Earl of Carnarvon. It was further upgraded to castle status in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament.
- Good Samaritan: During World War I the castle was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and in WW2, as a home for evacuated children.
- Roomy: The website lists the castle as having 250-300 rooms to explore – maybe they got bored of the “count the rooms” game or kept forgetting what number they were up to and having to start again.
A 40 minute drive out of Oxford will lead to a treat for all the family. Walk in the steps of both Downton’s Lady Mary and the man who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The house has a split Upstairs/Downstairs personality. Upstairs you can play at being the lord/lady of the manor in the Downton Abbey film set. Downstairs, become an Indiana Jones style discoverer of yet more Egyptian treasure.
Upstairs - Downton Abbey
Strangely, making your grand entrance into the house, the interior is smaller than you would expect (the exact opposite of a TARDIS). The film crews are clearly adept at creating the illusion of space.
The main house, being someone’s home for most of the year, contains less labelling than you would generally expect so the historical significance of the contents may elude you. Although there are guides on hand to answer any questions. There are some fascinating photographs from the 1890’s taken in Egypt and Zanzibar by previous Carnarvons.
Downton filming locations are, however, indicated:
- You can imagine sipping a brandy in the library next to a photo of Hugh Bonneville.
- Poke about amongst the character’s boudoirs dotted along the upstairs corridors, expecting to bump into Anna or Bates at any moment.
- Imagine yourself being invited to breakfast in the dining room, or, even better, Christmas in the Gothic Hall. You can add these dining and accommodation as options if you have a larger budget than we did.
Outside, stroll the lawns (with or without period parasol) and enjoy extensive views over the hillside. Meander down, but sadly not on to, the Roman themed folly.
Underground - Egyptians!
The lost/found/lost treasure
Pay an extra £5 to visit the 6 rooms where the Carnarvons keep their Egyptian treasures, fittingly in the basement. Read the story of the life of Egyptian treasure hunters in the early 1900’s and their incredible discovery of the glittering tomb of the boy king.
The butler did it: On return from Egypt, the intrepid explorer was not entirely clear he was allowed to keep his new souvenirs, so they were hidden in the walls of the house. Only in the 1970’s when the butler informed the current owners of their secret location were the historic artefacts re-discovered for a second time and brought out for display.
What is there to see?
- Along with smaller real artefacts from the digs, there are larger replicas of the Gods, a golden throne and the infamous blue and gold death mask itself. We enjoyed the golden sandals with individual toe covers (toes protection was very important for afterlife walking).
- There is even a recreation of the tomb as Carter and Carnarvon would have found it (well almost – through letter box style windows in a black wall, anyway).
- The mummy’s curse: We hunted high and low for reference to the Curse. There is only 1 mention in a newspaper article. It is widely known that Carter died within 6 weeks of the discovery. A lesser-known detail is that he died from an infection sustained shaving in the exact facial spot where the layers of Tutankhamun’s death mask are inexplicably thinner (cue entry for theme from Twilight Zone).
- The house is only open for limited periods throughout the year so plan ahead.
- A vintage coffee van serves drinks on the lawn in the shadow of the house and other lovely cafes are dotted around the out buildings.
- No photography is allowed inside so you’ll have to see the show or the house itself (or one of Lady Carnarvon’s many books) for a butchers.
Things to do in Oxford with kids 8 – visit fantasy worlds in the land of Lego
Fly with virtual dragons at Legoland
A 1 hour drive away from Oxford visit a Lego world. More than just a model Lego village, Legoland is also a surprisingly tropical theme park with decent rides.
Wander through a variety of fantasy/historic kingdoms according to your child’s taste – go Viking, Egyptian (in keeping with the general theme for the weekend), Pirate, Ninja or Medieval in zone.
Best bits of Legoland
- Best rides: We love the Viking ride with its water-based free-floating caskets and the Pirate log flume with its vertical drop / mini tidal wave finish. Top tip – the walk-n human-sized air driers have the ability to save the chilly day after a ride (or rain) soaking.
- Spookiness: Head to the Haunted House for the feeling of the ceiling rolling beneath you
- Unexpected fear: Mia’s horse riding ride is a lot more scary than the cutesy horses outside would have you think – you saddle up and spin at high altitude with very little strappage.
- Alternative dimensions: If you have a strong stomach, head for the moving bench ride in a virtual world and fly with dragons amongst the volcanos of Mystica (will not be doing this again).
- Sharp shooters: Shoot ‘em up in an ultra-violet Egyptian Pharaoh ride (and just for more Egypt generally).
- Go giant Lego animal hunting. The Mythica zone has particularly rich pickings, although climbing inside the crocodile’s mouth outside Ninja zone is also very popular.
- Check out the make-your-own creative zones around the park and in the shop if you want to keep it.
- Embark on a model mini-world tour in Lego village – great for spotting places you have been/want to visit.
- Check your rides are open: Not all rides are open every day of the year – on our most recent visit the Viking Ride was closed for maintenance, and in November, the pirate log flume was out of action. Google these ahead of time and change your dates if necessary.
- Go on bonfire night for fireworks in the shape of Lego bricks via the wizardry of magical 3d specs.
- Best pace to rest your legs: Go for the tables outside the chip shop in Mystica overlooking the gigantic red dragons and water fights, or on the benches on the decking in front of the hotel looking out on to the lake. Almost peaceful.
- Check out my 27 top Legoland tips here.
Summary of things to do in Oxford with kids
Both high and low brow entertainment are on offer on a trip to Oxford with kids, with surprising quantities of Egyptians, Charles I, palm trees and more bones than you can shake a femur at.
I challenge you to find anywhere with such an eclectic mix of activities and artefacts. Sterling effort, Oxford for kids, top of the class.
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