Most people know that the city of dreaming spires is also one of the U.K.’s least accessible cities to motorists in private cars, whilst also being second only to Cambridge when it comes to the volume of cyclists. Yet Oxford is also home to Inspector Morse and his legendary red Jaguar, and even if the city itself is not very car friendly, there is plenty of great driving country beyond its boundaries.
Most people visiting the city will either arrive by train or coach, and be considering picking up a car from the city centre, or they will travel up from one of the London’s airports.
- Cotswolds — arguably home to the finest villages in England, the Cotswolds is one of the most visited scenic areas in the UK, and is easily accessed by car to the west of Oxford. Try and avoid summer weekends, when many villages become too overcrowded and parking is impossible. The smaller villages are just as delightful as their more famous larger cousins! As with anywhere, a car is going to give you far more flexibility to explore the Cotswolds at your own pace. Although local bus services do exist (see below), they need careful planning, and they aren’t much use for providing connections to the many houses, gardens, and other attractions within the Cotswolds area.
- Blenheim Palace — the world-famous Blenheim Palace sits on the edge of the Cotswolds near the village of Woodstock, to the north-west of Oxford.
- Morse Country – a hire car is ideal for visiting the many haunts frequented by Morse in his various murder investigations in and around Oxford.
- Bicester Village — shopaholics will want to head for Bicester Village, just beyond junction 9 of the M40. This massive outlet shopping park is adjacent to Bicester Town railway station, which is served by trains from Oxford. However, if you are travelling out from London, you will arrive at Bicester North Station, from where a shuttle bus is available to get to Bicester Village. If you are laid down with heavy shopping, it always tends to be much easier to load up the boot of a car.
- Milton Keynes — for a complete contrast to the dreaming spires of Oxford, visit the spotlessly efficient new town of Milton Keynes, home to a virtually infinite number of roundabouts and the longest shopping centre in the UK.
- Chiltern Hills — the scenic beauty around Oxford is by no means restricted to venturing west. Drive for just 20 minutes to the south-east of Oxford, and you will hit the Chiltern Hills, home to many stunningly beautiful villages, which don’t have quite the same tourist hordes at the Cotswolds.
- Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare country — although the town of Stratford upon Avon itself has a railway station, it is much more cumbersome to get there by train than it should be, as the more direct route has long since closed.
Instead, you’ll need to change in Banbury or Royal Leamington Spa, only to loop back on yourself to end up in Stratford. With a hire car, you can explore many of the wonderful Warwickshire lanes on your way.
Even Warwick Castle, with its limited parking is still a quick sprint up the M40, rather than an indirect train journey, although if you like walking, you can go along the banks of either the River Avon or the Grand Union Canal to reach Warwick directly from Leamington station.
- Vale of the White Horse — head south from Oxford on the A34, and just beyond Abingdon you will find the start of the Vale of White Horse, which contains numerous examples of these huge equine carvings. This trail will take you south of Swindon and up to the start of Salisbury Plain.
- Downton Abbey — just south of Newbury is Highclere Castle, made famous by the multiple award-winning period drama Downton Abbey.
- Stonehenge — just to the north of Salisbury, on the southern edge of the Salisbury Plain is the World Heritage site of Stonehenge.
- Poor airport access – unless you are flying into Heathrow or Birmingham (see below), Oxford is not that well connected to London’s vast array of airports. It may well be easier to drive here, and then to use the hire car for the rest of your trip.
- City of Oxford — needless to say, as already mentioned above, there is no point in hiring a car just to drive up to the city of Oxford, as, much to the disgust of Oxfordshire motormouth Jeremy Clarkson, the city is largely designed to keep the private car out, and parking is notoriously expensive.
Many people visiting the city use the park and ride facilities instead, and Oxford has no less than five of these, covering all the main access roads.
There is little point in getting a hire car just to end up taking a bus into the city centre –you might as well arrive by train or coach, as the rail and bus stations are much more central.
- Cycling city — needless to say, Oxford is one of the best places in the UK in which to ride a bike. If you can brave it past the ring of tarmac that surrounds the city, then a good bike will give you almost as much flexibility as a hire car will, and during those hot summer weekends, it can access those parts of the Cotswolds that cars sometimes cannot reach.
- Blenheim Palace by bus — Blenheim Palace is one of those attractions where you will either want to spend several hours inside marvelling at the historic grandeur of the building itself, or you will want to go walking around the Capability Brown – designed landscape. In either case, you would just have to pay through the nose again for parking, so why bother? Plenty of local bus services are available to and from the village of Woodstock, which is adjacent to the palace entrance.
- Cotswolds by train and bus — you can head deep into the Cotswolds by train, heading out of Oxford towards Evesham and Worcester. Alternatively, take the train down to Didcot, from where connections are available through the South West Cotswolds to Stroud and then Gloucester. Plenty of bus routes are available to reach other towns and villages in the Cotswolds. Although a hire car will give you more flexibility, during the busy summer months, Cotswolds villages like Burton on the Water, Broadway, Snowshill or Stow on the Wold can be absolutely overrun by cars trying to park, so you might find it isn’t worth the hassle.
- Swindon — Swindon might not be everybody’s idea of a must see town, but if you have an interest in industrial history, this was the site of the Great Western Railway’s main engineering centre, and it was also a pioneering example of Victorian paternalistic town planning. Naturally, Swindon is best visited by train, but you would need to change at Didcot to get here.
- Airport Access – the Oxford tube offers a very regular coach service to and from Heathrow Airport. Coaches are also available direct to Luton Airport. Another option is to look for flights to Birmingham, and to take the train direct to Oxford from there (hourly, approx. 1 hour journey). However, other London airports are not so easy to get to from Oxford.
Conclusion — of course, there is no need to get a hire car just to visit Oxford itself, but that was obvious from the start. To explore outside the city, a hire car really is the best option to get the most of this region, as so many places which are worth visiting are well outside the reach of scheduled bus and train services.
Verdict – yes