DESPITE having one of the most distinctive skylines on earth, there are very few places from which to relax and soak up the grandeur of Oxford’s panorama of spires, domes and oddities.

Sure, you could join the crowds and climb a tower, but if you want to kick back and soak it all in, choices are seriously limited.

The opening of the rooftop garden and terrace at the Courtyard by Marriott Oxford City Centre changed that.

Friendly and unpretentious, gleaming new, and with a very respectable cocktail list, it had the potential to be the city’s hottest destination for a sundowner. And it has 360 degree views to die for, with vistas over the city centre to distant Christ Church, across leafy West Oxford and the mish-mash of Oxford Castle.

It was the crowning glory of a £30m, four-star 140-bed hotel filling a huge gap in the city’s tourist offering,for reasonably priced but high quality rooms in an enviable central location. And you don’t even have to sleep in an overpriced, possibly haunted, former prison cell.

Its timing, however, was unfortunate.

No sooner had the place begun to assert itself, than the world came to an abrupt halt as coronavirus hit.

Now the Courtyard is back – and cautiously making up for lost time.

“The timing was unfortunate,” admits manager Kaushik Subramanian, as he points out landmarks from the rooftop bar.

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“But we are open and welcoming people back. This is a pretty unique spot and the views never stop being amazing. More people need to know about it.”

He is right, a straw poll of friends showed that even those who had heard of it, didn’t know they were allowed up there. We’re missing a treat.

So extraordinary is the space, that the Courtyard has teamed up with the city’s Prana Yoga for fresh air classes on its roof – for ‘downward facing dogs’ among the Dreaming Spires.

With much of the joy taken out of foreign holidays, the Courtyard is keen to cash in on our newfound love of staycations – not only from Brits, but Oxfordshire folk who are being invited to rediscover the charms of the city while staying in style away from home.

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And why not. After all, why should the tourists have all the fun?

With not much else in the diary, and inconvenient quarantines popping up all over Europe, I took the plunge and decided to take a true staycation – half an hour from home.

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Tucked away on Paradise Street, next to the old Lion Brewery – now fancy apartments – it may be just a few minutes from the Westgate in one direction and Park End Street in the other, but is an oasis of calm.

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Separated from the castle complex by the Castle Mill Stream, it gazes out at the rustic stonework of St George’s Tower and the pretty Quaking Bridge. When we arrived, a lad expertly wielding a fly fishing rod was whipping fish out of the stream, before throwing them back. While not strictly legal, it was, at least encouraging to see how clean and healthy the water is.

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Coronavirus has not gone away, of course, and measures are reassuringly solid at the hotel with temperatures measured on entry and the now standard array of face masks, hand sanitizer all on show without it appearing too clinical – refreshing after all that perspex.

The room was a beauty; slick and minimally stylish, looking straight out at St George’s Tower and the castle. Only the brutalist eyesore of Macclesfield House – a former county council office and contender for Oxford’s ugliest building – conspired to taint the view, though is mercifully largely masked by the green beacon of Castle Mound, with its crown of bemused-looking tourists.

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Alice in Wonderland-themed goodie boxes left in the rooms, with ‘Drink Me’ gin and bottles of tonic for me, and Alice-shaped iced cookies and rubber ducks for the kids, were a thoughtful touch.

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The prospect of an afternoon spent sipping gin & tonic, watching the new, top of the range TV, and gazing out of the window at this altogether new perspective on a familiar scene was tempting – as was the offer of goodies from the 24-hour tuck shop in reception.

But the city beckoned. And where better to start an exploration of the old hometown than an Oxford Tour Bus.

A seat on the open top deck gave many more new vistas on the familiar cityscape, with cheeky peeps through college windows and glimpses over walls at quads and gardens. The surprisingly fun and enlightening tour was enlivened by previously unheard stories about the city’s ludicrously long, convoluted and frequently dark history.

The stories turned more gruesome still at Oxford Castle Unlocked – another fascinating spot most Oxford folk have only walked past.

The complex goes back to Norman times, but the rugged St George’s Tower is linked to an earlier Saxon gateway – the original West Gate, no less. Best of all is the candle-lit crypt.

Visitors are regaled with history – from founder Robert D’Oyly the elder, through to the imprisoned Empress Matilda and the pointless destruction of the English Civil War – which did for so many of our great castles (see also Wallingford, for a tale which will leave you crying at what was, and could still have been, without that ugly, bloody episode).

If anything, the castle’s more recent history as a place of incarceration and execution is even more gruesome. Incredibly it was a working prison as recently as 1996.

You can experience life as a lag (for a few minutes at least – which is more than enough) by getting yourself measured and snapped for your mug shot, trying out the treadmill and getting yourself slammed in a padded cell; a terrifying experience.

From the top of the tower there was a clear view back to the hotel and the vertical garden of its roof terrace – a reminder that it was almost cocktail time!

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Drinks were served on the roof while the cheery Kaushik pointed out distant towers.

Dinner was downstairs (yes, there’s a lift) in the funky Kitchen & Bar Restaurant. While it has the potential to be a buzzy bolthole, we almost had the place to ourselves – with just two other tables occupied.

Hopefully things have since picked up because it’s really very good indeed.

Despite a necessarily slimmed down menu, there were some great choices. Favourites were a starter of firm springy grilled halloumi with jalapeno yoghurt, a beautiful plate of garlic prawns and chorizo, and excellent steaks topped with fried eggs served with crispy baked fries and watercress salad. Puddings of blueberry cheesecake and chocolate mousse crowned it off. The very height of comfort food – and washed down in style by an excellent Argentinian Malbec from the extensive wine list.

After a fabulous cooked breakfast the next morning, the hotel’s operations manager Louise Bird showed me around a new extension –taking over historic buildings which were once a horse hospital – caring for dray horses retired from the next door brewery.

Part of the complex sits on an island, surrounded by waterways. An old waterwheel hangs over a weir surrounded by restored mill buildings – another secret side of our city.

But that’s the beauty of Oxford: there’s always something new to explore. Now we also have somewhere great, and reasonably priced, to stay and eat.

Why travel anywhere else?


* Courtyard by Marriott Oxford City Centre

* 15 Paradise St, Oxford OX1 1LD. Call: 01865 306900. See

* Prices vary: check with the hotel.

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* ‘Picnic Punting’ packages are available in which hotel chefs work with local suppliers such as Rectory Farm, to package up perfect picnics with seasonal Oxford produce, to take on the river – or just tuck into in a park.

They include tangy Oxford Blue cheese from Wychwood Fine Foods, little gem lettuce from LJ Betts, delicious Delphi falafel, posh Scotch eggs, real Melton Pork pies, high end sausage rolls, rich and nutty tahini and hummus, piri piri green olives, Cotswold handmade meringues and Luscombe organic lemonade – all in a traditional wicker basket. All you need is the weather!