Oxford – University Town
Oxford can be a perfect day or overnight trip for tourists visiting England, since this “city of dreaming spires” is only a short train ride or drive from London. Oxford is the home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Exploring the buildings and grounds of some of Oxford University’s colleges and enjoying the beauty of this riverside city is a pleasant way to spend part of your vacation.
Today it is almost impossible to think of Oxford without the many colleges that dot its landscape, but the city’s beginnings predate the University and go back to Saxon times.
It is believed that St. Frideswide, the patron saint of both the city and the University, founded a convent in Oxford around the year 700. By 912, Oxford was important enough to be occupied and fortified by Edward the Elder, King of the West Saxons. If you visit or walk by St. Michael at the Northgate Church, you will see its tower that dates back to the 11th Century and once formed part of the fortifications for the old city walls.
Oxford Castle was built in 1071 by Robert D’Oyly, a Norman baron who fought alongside William the Conqueror. The castle eventually became acounty jail and then a prison. Closed in 1996, the castle-prison experienced the ultimate in urban renewal, metamorphosing from a crossbar hotel to a luxury hotel. The swanky hotel complex includes apartments, restaurants, and a heritage center that helps visitors learn about castle and prison life.
Some visitors are surprised to find that Oxford University does not have one central campus. Rather, the University consists of 39 separate colleges located throughout the city. For an institution so steeped in history, it also may seem strange that historians cannot peg down a precise date for the University’s founding. Higher education in Oxford was happening by the early 11th Century when religious orders such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans established houses of study in the city.
The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin served as the University’s first “lecture hall” as well as a place of worship for students and teachers. As the student population grew and rich men wanted to leave legacies, separate colleges were founded. The three oldest colleges–University, Balliol, and Merton– were established between 1249 and 1264.
Most colleges permit sightseers, although admission times, charges (if any), and group minimum and maximum numbers vary; colleges restrict entry to certain buildings and rooms. Exams, conferences, and holidays may change these schedules, so it is best to check before your visit.
The Sheldonian Theatre (completed in 1668) was one of Christopher Wren’s first architectural commissions. Gilbert Sheldon, who was Chancellor of the University, put up the funds and chose the then-Professor (of Astronomy) Wren as the designer.
Wren’s work was inspired by the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. The Sheldonian Theatre is still a primary site for University ceremonies and meetings; it is also a showcase for music recitals and other performances.
Well known author JRR Tolkien received an honary doctorate in Literature at the Sheldonian Theater and spent two years working on the Oxford English Dictionary at the Old Ashmolean Museum next door. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien lived in Oxford for over 50 years. He graduated with a first-class degree from Exeter College in 1915 and wrote The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings while a Professor at Oxford.
Another Italian-influenced construction is the Hertford Bridge, which is commonly referred to as the “Bridge of Sighs.” Linking the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College, the pedestrian overpass more closely resembles another Venetian construction, the Rialto Bridge. It was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson; completed in 1914, it is one of Oxford University’s newer additions.
A covered market has existed in Oxford for over a thousand years. View multiple panoramas of the Oxford City Covered Market, favorite places of JRR Tolkien, 60 of Oxford’s pubs numerous colleges and much more on a Virtual Tour of Oxford. Be sure to visit our pages on Christ Church College and University Church of St Mary the Virgin for more pictures and information.
Getting to Oxford from London
Travel from London to Oxford is quick and easy. Trains leave London’s Paddington Station every hour for the one hour trip. Travel by bus is the least expensive option and will take approximately 90 minutes with many service options. Driving the 60 miles between the two cities is the third recommended option—a cab ride would be too expensive—but only if you’ve already rented a car as it will take as long as a bus and is more expensive.
by Katie Calvert