Oxford in the rain is just the same as it always was. Wet, shiny and with laughing students rushing through the honey-coloured (sorry about the cliche but they are) dreamtowers of the colleges. I always used to walk in from Lady Margaret Hall to the English faculty library across the University Parks. You duck down a narrow path from red-brick LMH past copper beeches into the greensward of the parks.
Then I watched luscious young men in cricket whites and dallied by the Cherwell, looking for the fierce swan which used to lunge at punters. Now, I have the children who are more interested in the absence of a playground or football pitch. At the other end of the parks, you arrive at St Cross and walk past the sports ground (young men in cricket whites and still just as luscious) and science buildings (I never knew anyone in the science buildings, which I now rather regret) to the library. On my first visit, in October 1969, as an immature 19-year-old, I was as delighted to find the horse chesnuts with their shiny conkers as the library with all its books.
Down St Cross Road from the library you pass Linacre, a new college but also built in honey-coloured stone, and a row of pretty grey cottages with wisteria and blown roses drifting in their gardens. Turning right into Holywell Street, you pass New College (honey again) and its more recent (17th century) buildings leading to the chapel (the older ones are further in down New College Lane). Visitors can go in to most of the colleges, either to gaze at their smooth verdant quadrangles or to go on guided tours. "There's so many colleges, " exclaim the children as we peer in to Wadham, with its solemn stone benefactors at the facing end of the quad and its pretty-as-a-picture warden's garden, now alas without its famous copper beech (too dangerous, they had to cut it down last year); at the stately lawns of St John's over the road, sweeping from Palladian porticoes down to wrought iron gates; and cross the road to the twin baroque fortresses of Lincoln and Exeter. "Who lives here?" they ask.
Who used to live here, I think, remembering assignations, quarrels, climbing in and out of fences and gates (the Trinity gate, I recall, ripped a great hole in my tights) tapping on doors for the first time - and slamming doors for the last time, too. The poet Louis MacNeice described "all of London littered with remembered kisses": Oxford for me is littered with not-quite-remembered boyfriends. Pubs like the King's Head (food was quite good, of a chicken-in-the-basket kind) next to Wadham and the White Horse next to Trinity (got very drunk there) featured as largely as the sober purlieus of the Bodleian Library over the road.
The terrific baroque complex of Bodleian Library and Sheldonian Theatre impressed my three boys, but not as much as the Roman emperors' heads on the railings outside, a sight made famous by the adventures of Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson. Infatuated with the idea of myself as Zuleika Dobson, I was a bit less industrious in the round reading room of the Radcliffe Camera than I might have been. However, I was quite quick to nip off down to the covered market for a tea and a bacon sandwich with the others (whoever they might be).
The covered market still remains, though like all the Oxford shops it's now much ritzier. George's, the best cafe, mutated into Georgina's and more upscale food like quiche, but Brown's still dishes up fry-ups and home-made cakes.
Palm's, the delicatessen where I used to appease my north London Jewish taste-buds from the ghastly institutional food of college, is likewise fancier but still going. The WI stall - home-made jam and cakes but only on some days - seems to have faded into history and the lardy cake at the baker's, now apparently owned by Palm's, looks suspiciously low-fat. At the old-fashioned baker's it simply oozed lard and brown sugar.
The children spurn these antiquated refreshments. If it's not mass-produced and wrapped, they don't like it. We make the acquaintance of several newsagents, liberally dotted around the market and surrounding streets, before unearthing the right kind of lolly.
Back to the bookshops, now apparently all owned by Blackwell's. Where once I pored over the English classics, we head straight for the children's bookshop and then the humour section in the paperback shop. Suitably fortified by Calvin and Hobbes and the wit and wisdom of Gary Larson, it's back to Parks Road and the mysteries of the Pitt-Rivers Museum. I always loved the dinosaurs and shrunken heads and they do the trick for the children too. "This is good, " says my youngest, before issuing his stern verdict: "Too many colleges."