Half-term found me heading for the West Country - Devon and Cornwall in general, Totnes in particular. I was never a hippie, whatever that was, even though a now long-departed ex-Guardsman landowner described me as such when he saw me tie-less and wearing sandals at Thame Show more than 30 years ago. Nevertheless I enjoy a day in this enduring refuge of the bohemian, the artistic and the wacky.

Ruth was purple-haired, wearing miles of multi-coloured beads, an ill-matching floor-length skirt and coat, carpet bag draped on her shoulder and a badge on her lapel announcing that it was her 55th birthday.

It was a delightful surprise to learn from our teashop host that she was from Oxford - Summertown to be precise - having escaped half a dozen years ago from what she called the "disillusionment of marriage and a no-hope job in a local government office" to do something she had been afraid to attempt years before.

"You don't have to look too closely to see this place has more than its share of women who, like me, either missed what some call the hippie era or, again like me, were too cautious when young. Now they're tasting freedom - and enjoying it," she said.

She had painted nothing more adventurous than a bathroom before taking flight. Now, in her small flat, she could splash paint on canvas with the best of them, while pottery was a skill she was learning and loving.

No, she wasn't and never had been on drugs. A joint was a family-sized piece of meat as far as she was concerned, while promiscuity demanded too much effort. Freedom and peace of mind were stimulation enough.

Had she any family? Yes, a couple of sons, both graduates, both doing well and both thinking she was a lovable if embarrassing nut. They would be down with their partners for Mothering Sunday, all four wincing at her circle of friends, which, she said, included artists of various disciplines and standards, cross-dressers, professional protesters, serial whale-savers, failed actors and religious zealots of many creeds.

We shared a pot of herbal tea (what else?), our conversation interrupted by birthday greetings, both verbal and physical, from friends that included many of those mentioned above.

Envious? No - conformity is my safe anchorage. Did I admire her living as she wanted while she still had the vitality to enjoy it? Yes.

Back in Oxford, I called at an exhibition in the Town Hall and, taking a wrong turn, encountered the city regalia - magnificent mace, shining silverware and the like.

Admiring the splendid glass-encased uniform of the official macebearer were two elderly male Royal British Legion members from west Oxfordshire. But when it came to the shoes, there was universal dismay.

"They need a damned good polish - and I think the soles are plastic. No authority in those," he sniffed.

The second bent down gingerly for a closer look.

"They're what we used to call brothel creepers when I was in the Forces," he declared after gathering his breath and returning to the perpendicular.

It caused a much younger female visitor to stare inquiringly at this footwear. The description was intriguing but clearly foreign to her.

The guide, a schoolteacher with a knack for knowing what appealed to his young charges, pointed towards the imposing gate.

"Here is the Bodleian Library where Lewis found a body on Sunday," he said.

Their faces brightened, fully appreciating an up-to-the-minute link with the fictional detective.

The 25-year-old red Porsche for sale on a north Oxfordshire garage forecourt at a little over £14,000 attracted the attention of a small group of us.

"I wouldn't have it given," said a sour-faced chap, stricken in years and leaning on his walking stick.

"I would," said his wife.

"But you would never learn to drive," he retorted.

"With those wheels, I'd soon find a driver," she replied naughtily.