The clichés of Oxford as a city of dreaming spires, punting and ivy-clad college quads have been somewhat thrown into sharp relief over the last few years. The Remain-voting, Brexit-rejecting students are now a liberal and politically engaged bunch, as likely to be seen earnestly discussing Russian mid-20th century politics over a wheatgrass smoothie as they are to be found drinking their seventh pint of the afternoon at the Turf.
This sense of change has spread throughout the city. Craft beer is replacing real ale; multicultural diversity the pale uniformity of a couple of decades before. East Oxford is now no longer a strange wasteland but a hugely desirable area, where two-bedroom terraced houses regularly sell for half a million pounds. And North Oxford, always the preferred hideaway for the wealthy, commands prices of staggering enormity. If you’re not an oligarch, forget it.
There remains, however, one way to sample the North Oxford lifestyle for a short period of time, at rather less bank-breaking expense. The Old Parsonage, which is situated both a short walk from the centre and at the beginning of the Banbury Road, has long held a reputation as being the city’s best boutique hotel, combining top-notch comfort with a sense of the historic, to say nothing of excellent food and drink. Yet a few years ago, rumours were circulating that it was a trifle tired. Whispers of ‘resting on its laurels’ were heard. Fully booked night after night, it nevertheless seemed as if other hotels – not least Malmaison, lurking inside the old prison – might be poised to take its crown.
Thus, it was time for a full refurbishment, and so, a couple of years later, it’s no surprise that the Parsonage is once again as sumptuous and luxurious a set of digs as anyone might wish for, whether the visiting parent or a famous actor. It was of little surprise that we saw the great thespian Roger Allam there, presumably in residence while he films the new series of Endeavour. The rooms are now an exercise in stylish and discreet comfort; the junior suite that we inhabited was well-proportioned, had the sort of bed that one would happily stay in for a week and a wonderful view over a small courtyard to the rear overlooking St Giles church. There can be few nicer places to stay in Oxford at the moment.
Yet, just as the city around it changes, so does the Parsonage. Although it would be a mistake to think that it has entirely altered its identity – there’s not much danger of its being referred to as ‘The New Parsonage’ any time soon – there have been many tweaks and evolutions, not least the creation of a splendid private library for guests on the first floor, where one might retire to read the papers with a cup of coffee, or something stronger.
Although, going against the grain, we didn’t manage to sample one of the espresso martinis that one might enjoy as a nightcap there, we did head downstairs to the restaurant for an excellent lunch, which proved that, once again, innovation and evolution work splendidly in the right context. Rabbit pie and scampi pasta were both superb, and, washed down with a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, made for the sort of repast that Oscar Wilde, himself once briefly a resident of the Parsonage while a student, would have enjoyed. We can, after all, resist everything except temptation.
It would be too strong to describe the Old Parsonage as entirely 21st century. It still has its antique charms – not least a fascinatingly eclectic collection of many early 20th century art, proudly displayed in the comfortable dining room – and the clientele remains more well-heeled couples than young hipsters. Yet, as Oxford and those in it take stock of this brave new world, so its leading hotel manages, once again, to reinvent itself in the best and most stylish of ways. For which relief, a very great deal of thanks.
First Great Western offers advance single fares from London Paddington to Oxford from £12. Visit www.gwr.com for more information, or call +44 345 7000 125.