OXFORD: CITY OF SPIRES
At first visitors like us are surprised to find no single campus and we soon realize that its 38 distinguished colleges are scattered throughout this walkable historic town. Too daunting a task to see them all, we concentrate on locating the earliest.
Lavishly embellished with gargoyle spigots and dramatic grotesques; towers and turrets; meticulous garden quads and even age-old climbing wisteria, we locate University 1249, which expelled Shelley for his unruly behaviour; Balliol, 1263; Merton, 1264; Exeter, 1314; Queens, 1340, where astronomer Edmund Halley studied and Jesus College founded by Elizabeth I. St Hilda's was one of the first colleges to enroll women…in1893!
Considered the most beautiful with its pastoral riverside location, deer park and Addison Walk, Magdalen college's square medieval bell tower still rises above High Street. Here, Roundhead rebels captured Charles I during the Civil War. Opposite, we find the Botanic Gardens established in 1621 to grow medicinal plants, as well as 'to promote the furtherance of learning.'
The university's Bodleian, one of Europe's oldest libraries, houses 50,000 Latin manuscripts, 11,000 rare items like a marriage contract on papyrus from 600 BC, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary-the first published in English-and over 5 million books! Seating ourselves on the Divinity School's archaic wooden benches, our guide tells us that for many years, oral examinations for all colleges were held in this hallowed chamber, the venerable teaching and examination room established in 1427. "There's evidence that teaching went on here at Oxford as early as 1096," she smiles, "And on through the ages, 5 Kings, 25 British Prime Ministers and esteemed writers such as Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein studied in reading rooms upstairs." The Bodleian added circular 18thcentury Radcliffe Camera ("camera" meaning "room" in Italian) in the square next door.
Considered the most aristocratic of all the colleges, Christ Church College's 12th century Norman cathedral serves all of Oxford; its Tom Tower great bell tolls each evening at 9 o'clock. As well, other academic institutions around the world have replicated some of this college's distinctive architectural features.
In addition to academics, this magnificent college has long been connected with children's literature and more recently, with movie making. Years ago, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was written here. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights were set throughout this college. And we visit wizard world during our enchanting afternoon, locating spots where magical scenes for JK Rowling's Harry Potter series were filmed: around Tom quad, the 1000-year-old cloisters and spectacular 16th century staircase leading to high-ceilinged Great Hall, the inspiration for Hogwarts Great Hall.
Established in 1683, Britain's first public museum helped educate this scholarly community. The Ashmolean was originally built to house a remarkable collection of curiosities donated to Oxford University by Elias Ashmole. Nowadays, five floors of galleries exhibit extensive, wondrous collections including Egyptian sculptures; Michaelangelo's drawings; antiquities from Knossis and Pisarro's Portrait of Jeanne.
Oxford also exudes English history all along its winding cobbled streets. At the junction of four ancient routes in the town centre, the remains of 13th century St. Martin's church rises 23-meters. Climbing the tower's 99 narrow stone steps, we gaze over Oxford's spires, and identify Saxon Tower dating to1040, the city's oldest structure. Afterward, we stroll the remains of Oxford Castle near the birthplace of King Richard and brother John. The Martyr's Memorial recalls Catholic Queen Mary's burning of three Anglican Bishops in 1535. And, as devoted fans of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, we make a pilgrimage to his posh bar in the Randolph Hotel across the street.
A bus later takes us to the 17th century Trout Inn just outside Oxford, another of the detective's favourite haunts. Seated on its sunny terrace sipping Pimms, we watch mallards cadge tidbits, gaze into the rushing Thames and visualize Morse seated at the next table. Our server observes, "Long before being featured in the Morse novels, the Trout was a popular hangout for earlier writers…like C.S. Lewis." And in gardens across the river we sight a sculptured lion, Aslan from his Narnia tales!
Back downtown, the Victorian-styled Town Hall's museum provides two small galleries that teach us about Oxford's development since its 810 founding. In the modern gallery, we take four virtual bike rides around town, reviewing sites we'd already encountered on foot, a perfect way to wrap up our informative stay in Oxford.
WHEN YOU GO:
Photos by Chris & Rick Millikan:
1a. & 1b. Overlooking Oxford's spires from 13th century St Martin's stone Tower aka Carfax Tower in the city centre.
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