Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:36 am
I’m not easily given to hyperbole; I’ve told you that a million times. But it is genuinely hard to think of a British town that can be quite so achingly beautiful as Oxford. Perhaps I should qualify that by saying that I refer to the few square miles of the city centre where, quite frankly, there’s something wonderful round each corner. You can lose yourself, simply wandering in and out of colleges, pubs and the odd museum or two, soaking up the atmosphere, architecture and history. If you’re a movie or TV buff, you can hunt down film locations to your heart’s content, not least those familiar to fans of Morse, Lewis or Potter. Those of a literary bent can immerse themselves in scholarly shrines associated with the likes of Tolkien, CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Philip Pullman – and so on. You could go punting and sip Pimm’s. Or go to the pub; did we mention pubs?
Travel writers and bloggers are fond of nominating their top ten most historic, architecturally magnificent, gastronomically satisfying – or whatever – places. I’m sure some do this without even being paid to gush. Whatever your angle, you can’t beat a good list. So, before the complaints come flooding in, let me say that other fabulous towns and cities are available. But while yesterday you may have visited (in no particular order): Bath, Burford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Chichester, Dunfermline, Durham, Edinburgh, Lavenham, Liverpool, London, Ludlow, Salisbury, Shrewsbury, St Andrews, Stamford, Stirling, Tenby, Warwick, Wells, Winchester, or York – today – today, we’re going to do a bit about Oxford.
Oxford, Matthew Arnold’s “city of dreaming spires”, has more than 1500 listed buildings from every period of history since the 11th century. It grew as a river crossing – a ford for oxen – in Saxon times at a strategic position beside two rivers, the Thames (known locally as ‘the Isis’) and the Cherwell. The crossroads of the old town is known as the Carfax, a word derived from the Latin (or French) for ‘crossroads’, or ‘four forks’. Though known as the home of Britain’s oldest university, dating from the 13th century, there was also considerable industrial development in the 20th century. The University dominates the town, however, and is the largest employer in the county. It consists of some 39 colleges and the first one, University College, was founded in 1249 (though Merton and Balliol colleges dispute this). Many, though not all, of the colleges can be visited and many have beautiful, peaceful, gardens and grounds as well as stunning chapels and halls. Stepping inside, the hubbub of a busy city falls away and you are conscious of entering a privileged, wealthy, protected, bubble. It is certainly far removed from the reality of most people’s lives, yet paradoxically, it often seems quintessentially English. Whatever ‘English’ means. Even so, Oxford must seem alien and daunting to most undergraduates, particularly those arriving from a UK state comprehensive school. I suspect products of the public school system, the Etons, Charterhouses and Harrows, find things a little easier.
However, Oxford has always had an international reputation and 40% of its students come from overseas. So, its colleges have educated and nurtured world leaders and scientists as well as home-grown talent. Oxford and Cambridge universities have a tendency to produce politicians, too. Twelve of the UK’s 23 Prime Ministers since 1900 were educated at Oxford: Herbert Asquith (Balliol), Clement Attlee (University College), Anthony Eden (Christ Church), Harold Macmillan (Balliol), Alec Douglas-Home (Christ Church), Harold Wilson (Jesus), Edward Heath (Balliol), Margaret Thatcher (Somerville), Tony Blair (St John’s), David Cameron (Brasenose), Theresa May (St Hugh’s) and Boris Johnson (Balliol).
Oxford is an easy city to wander in. You can take a guided tour, of course. Or do what I have done and buy a brief printed guide with a map in it from the Tourist Office in Broad Street. Some of these have suggested walking tours in them. That way, you go at your own pace, pick and choose what you want to see and break off for refreshment when you need. Don’t forget to take a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe (some of the college libraries are older), and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library. Don’t miss world class museums, such as the Pitt-Rivers and the Ashmolean – the world’s oldest public museum; or the Oxford Botanic Garden – the UK’s oldest botanic garden. And pubs; did I mention pubs? Anyway, here’s a few suggestions.
Balliol College on Broad Street has been featured separately on A Bit about Britain. It was founded by John de Balliol in 1263, has occupied the same site ever since and claims to be the oldest college in Oxford, and the world. Its buildings are predominantly Victorian, however. Balliol’s widow Dervorguilla of Galloway established a permanent endowment and their son, John, was King of Scotland – chosen, and then booted out, by Edward I of England (which caused all manner of unpleasantness). Dervorguilla has her own, fascinating, story. While you’re outside the college, look for the cross on the road marking the spot where the Oxford Martyrs perished.
Not far from Balliol, on Beaumont Street, is the Ashmolean. It was founded in 1683 and is Oxford University’s museum of art and archaeology, with objects dating from 8,000 BC. Particular collections include ancient Egypt, the only Minoan collection in Britain, Anglo Saxon artefacts (including the wonderful Alfred Jewel, a relic from when the King was hiding in the marshes of Athelney) and contemporary artwork from around the world.
Just round the corner on St Giles is the Eagle & Child pub – well-known for its associations with regulars JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who used to call it ‘the bird and baby’. They also used the Lamb & Flag opposite, as did Thomas Hardy. Both pubs are owned by St John’s College, which takes up the east side of St Giles, and have been featured separately on A Bit About Britain. Take note for when you’re thirsty later.
Back on Broad Street and it’s hard to miss the alluring curve of the Sheldonian Theatre. The Sheldonian is the University of Oxford’s theatre and principle place of assembly, used for ceremonial occasions, including graduations, events and performances. It is also a tourist attraction, offering a panoramic view from its cupola. It was built in 1664–7, entirely funded by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Warden of All Souls. The architect was a young Christopher Wren, at that time Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, with as yet little practical experience of building. Inspired by drawings of Roman theatres, he adopted their D-shaped plan. However, the open arena of Rome was unsuited to the English climate and had to be covered. To do this without introducing load bearing columns into the central space, which would ruin the resemblance to an ancient theatre, Wren designed a roof truss able to span the required 70 feet, a technical achievement which gained him great credit in scientific and architectural circles and made the roof of the Sheldonian a landmark in roof construction. From below, his technical ingenuity is concealed from view by a magnificent painted ceiling.
Nearby, you’ll find Oxford’s so-called Bridge of Sighs (Hertford Bridge). This was completed in 1914 and links two halves of Hertford College. It has become something of a landmark and is much-photographed. Never intended to be a replica of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs, it looks more like a considerably smaller version of the Rialto Bridge.
If you turn up Parks Road, you’ll come to Wadham College. Wadham was founded in 1610 by Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham. Nicholas Wadham, a member of an ancient Somerset family, died in 1609 leaving his fortune to endow a college at Oxford. Dorothy, a formidable woman of 75, fought all the claims of Nicholas’s relations, lobbied at court, negotiated the purchase of a site and drew up the college statutes. She appointed the first warden, fellows and scholars, as well as the college cook, and was so successful that the college was ready to open within four years of her husband’s death. She added considerably to the endowment from her own resources, and kept tight control of its affairs until her own death in 1618, although she never actually visited Oxford to see her creation. Later in the 17th century, Wadham became a focus of scientific interest within Europe and a regular meeting place for contemporary geniuses who, after 1660, became the Royal Society. Famous alumni include Sir Christopher Wren, Thomas Beecham, Michael Foot, Melvyn Bragg and Rosamund Pike.
Just up the road is the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884 and the archaeological and anthropological museum of the University of Oxford. The collection includes some 500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, and from all periods of human existence. Unlike most ethnographic and archaeological museums, the objects are not arranged by geographical or cultural taxonomy, but by type: musical instruments, weapons, masks, textiles, jewellery and tools are all displayed to illustrate diversity in solving common problems in different eras and by different peoples.
Behind the Sheldonian is the Bodleian Library, its ochre-coloured exterior unmistakable. The Bodleian is the largest of several libraries within the University of Oxford collectively and confusingly known as the Bodleian Libraries. Together, the Bodleian Libraries hold over 13 million printed items. In the 15th century, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Henry V, gave the University his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts. The University decided to build a new library for them over the then new Divinity School, which was built between 1423 and 1488. The library was begun in 1478 and finally opened in 1488. However, the collection was destroyed by the Dean of Christ Church in 1550 when he removed all the books, some of which were burnt, as part of an attempt to purge the English church of all traces of Catholicism. Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613), a diplomat and Fellow of Merton College, came to the rescue. He had married a rich widow (whose husband had made his fortune in pilchards) and decided to “set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students”. The Bodleian Library opened in 1602, incorporating the earlier 15th century library. Known to many simply as ‘the Bod’, these buildings are still used by students and scholars from all over the world.
The Divinity School was designed specifically for lectures, oral exams and discussions on theology. It featured in one of the Harry Potter movies as the infirmary and can be used for weddings. The main feature is its elaborate and intricate fan-vaulted ceiling. Duke Humfrey’s Library, directly over the Divinity School, is equally astonishing; alas, photography is not permitted.
Head south through the arch out of the Bodleian quad to Radcliffe Square and the Radcliffe Camera. This building was built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Now, it’s used as library reading rooms.
Passing Brasenose College on your right, head toward the elegant 14th century spire of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. There has been a church on this site for about a thousand years. By the 12th century, St Mary’s was at the heart of the growing university community; it was where students and academics gathered for special occasions, as well as for services, and academics (the Congregation) assembled to vote on matters of the day. The oldest part of the church that remains is the tower, begun in the 1270s. The decorated spire is one of Oxford’s best-known landmarks. It can be climbed by visitors for a small fee and offers great views (it is free to visit the church). Before the Bodleian, St Mary’s was the first home for the university’s books. In 1555, the trial of the three most famous Oxford Martyrs – Hugh Latimer, once Bishop of Worcester, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury – took place in St Mary’s. The church is beautiful, with stunning stained glass and several notable memorials. Possibly the most thought-provoking is a modern one, however, dedicated to 23 Oxford martyrs of the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant.
On the opposite side of the square from Brasenose is All Souls College. All Souls was founded by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry VI, in 1438. It doesn’t have any students. Its purpose is to allow graduate fellows to undertake further studies and pray for the souls of all the faithful departed. The entrance exam is said to be one of the hardest in the world and is followed up with an interview. Past fellows include Christopher Wren, TE Lawrence, Leo Amery, Cosmo Lang, AL Rowse, Keith Joseph and John Redwood. Many college buildings, including the chapel, date from 15th and 16th centuries. The Codrington Library was completed in 1751.
Every hundred years, All Souls holds the ritual of ‘hunting the mallard’, in commemoration of the chase after a huge wild duck which flew from a drain during 15th century building works. Archbishop Chichele is said to have had a premonition about the duck in a dream – as you do. The last commemoration took place in 2001, late at night and allegedly after much drinking and eating, when some of the finest minds in the world marched around their college behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole.
West along High Street and south at the Carfax Tower brings you to Christchurch Meadows and the War Memorial Gardens. It’s a lovely spot, with water features and bright flowers.
Christ Church College, ahead and on your left, is huge. It was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, but was originally going to be Thomas Wolsey’s Cardinal College. In 1525, when Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, Wolsey gained permission from the Pope to close down the Priory of St Frideswide on the site and found Cardinal College in its place. (Frideswide was a Saxon princess and healer who became the Patron Saint of Oxford.) Anyway, Wolsey fell from grace and died, and the College was re-founded by Henry as Christ Church. However, the old monastery church was retained and this morphed into the college chapel. In 1546, Henry moved the first Bishop of Oxford into the church, thereby creating a unique institution: a college chapel that is also the Cathedral for the Diocese of Oxford. Christ Church Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, dating from the 12th century, and also one of England’s smallest cathedrals. Unusually for a cathedral, its centre stalls face inwards, in collegiate style. Its interior is breathtaking; the stonework almost glows and the stained glass is stunning, bathing people and things in coloured beams of light. The Becket Window in the Lucy Chapel dates from 1320 and is one of very few images of Becket to survive. There is still a shrine to St Frideswide. But perhaps best of all is the remarkable stone vaulted ceiling in the chancel, which is 500 years old. Quaintly, the Cathedral keeps old Oxford time, which is five minutes later than ‘normal’ time, so a service that starts at 6pm Oxford Time is 6.05pm GMT or BST.
Christ Church is packed with history. Tom Tower dominating Tom Quad was designed by Sir Christopher Wren; Tom Quad is the largest quadrangle in Oxford. The Great Dining Hall was the seat of the parliament assembled by King Charles I during the English Civil War. Several parts of the College have featured in films, including Harry Potter, and The Golden Compass. The stairs leading to the Hall will be familiar as the place where Professor Minerva McGonagall greeted the new students. Among Christ Church’s notable alumni (apart from thirteen British prime ministers) are King Edward VII, William Penn, Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis, WH Auden, Richard Curtis, John Ruskin, Hugh Trevor-Roper and David Dimbleby.
There’s a pleasant walk between Christ Church Meadow, where rare English longhorn cattle graze, and Merton College’s sports’ field, to the Botanic Garden.
Merton College claims to have been the first fully self-governing College in the University, founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, sometime Chancellor of England and later Bishop of Rochester. Mob Quadrangle is the oldest quadrangle in the University and dates from c1288-91. Mob Library, built 1373-8, is the oldest continuously-functioning library for university academics and students in the world. The Gatehouse dates from the early fifteenth century, when Henry V granted a royal licence to crenellate, which allowed for the construction of the battlement tower above the present-day Lodge. Merton Chapel dates from the late 1280s; the transepts were added in the 14th and early 15th centuries and the tower was completed in 1450. The lectern dates from 1504 and a screen by Christopher Wren was added in 1673. Notable alumni include JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, Naruhito, Emperor of Japan, William Harvey and Sir Thomas Bodley (of Bodleian Library fame).
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. It was founded in 1621 as a physic garden growing plants for medicinal research. Before Edward I expelled England’s Jews in 1290, it had been Oxford’s Jewish cemetery; there is still a footpath today called Deadman’s Walk south of Merton College which probably marks the route from the synagogue where Christ Church is now, outside the city walls to the burial ground. Today, the Botanic Garden contains over 6,000 different plant species in 4 ½ acres adjacent to Merton Field and the River Cherwell. You can wander along paths between flowers and the river, where punts glide gently along. There are herbaceous borders, a rock garden, walled garden and glasshouses. In the lower garden is a bench where, in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the characters Will and Lyra meet between their respective worlds.
Opposite the Botanic Garden is Magdalen College (generally pronounced ‘maudlin’ – but stick with Magdalen when referring to Mary). The college was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor. He wanted a college on the grandest scale, and his foundation was the largest in Oxford, with 40 Fellows, 30 scholars (known at Magdalen as ‘Demies’), and a large choir for his chapel. Waynflete lived to a great age, dying in 1486, by which time Magdalen was well-established and wealthy. It soon became one of Oxford’s most prominent colleges, visited by kings and princes such as Edward IV, Richard III and James I. Famous alumni include Thomas Wolsey, Edward Gibbon, Oscar Wilde, TE Lawrence, CS Lewis, AJP Taylor, Dudley Moore and Ian Hislop. Buy lunch in the old kitchen and eat it by the River Cherwell. There is a lovely circular walk by the River Cherwell and, in the opposite direction, deer can be seen in parkland from the path.
Heading back into town, you might find the Turf Tavern, one of Oxford’s favourite pubs, down an alley near the Bridge of Sighs. Its website says, “The Turf Tavern has opened its doors to serve ales and appetisers to England’s literary elite, politicians, presidents and movie stars since 1831. The only one who never left is our Rosie, the resident ghost who still waits for her lover to return.” The foundations of the Turf are actually said to be medieval and it is claimed that it was established outside the city walls in order to be beyond the jurisdiction of the colleges. The pub is also where future Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke set a Guinness World Record for knocking back a yard of ale in 11 seconds. Other celebrity quaffers have included (in no particular order) Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Emma Watson, Ernest Hemmingway, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Blair, CS Lewis, Stephen Hawking, David Cameron and the author of ‘A Bit About Britain’s History’.
After a quick pint at the Turf, you might want to meander back to the Bird & Baby or the quieter Lamb & Flag.
You should find all of the places mentioned here listed under Places to Visit, with links to websites giving details of opening times and entrance fees.