Oxford is best known for its world-renowned university. One of the charms of exploring Oxford is simply walking around town to explore the historic architecture associated with the colleges. Here are my highlights of a day out in Oxford.
Our first stop is Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford building that was constructed from 1737 to 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library at Oxford University. The building is named after John Radcliffe, a doctor who left a considerable sum of money, in his will, to the university for the express purpose of constructing a library of science. In 1850, the science collection was moved to a newly built science library, and the Radcliffe Library of Science changed its name to the Radcliffe Camera to reflect its new function as a reading room (“camera” meaning “room” in Latin) for the Bodleian Library. Head on over to our second stop, the Bodleian, the main research library at Oxford. Not only one of the oldest libraries in the world but also the second-largest library in the United Kingdom, after the British Library. If you’d like to go inside, both a mini tour (30 minutes) and a full tour (60 minutes) are available. Check out their website for more details.
If you’re going to Oxford, you have to tour at least one of its historic colleges. Pick one or two that you’d like to see, or better yet, book a tour with a local blue-badge guide who can get you into multiple colleges. I took a tour, and the guide’s thorough knowledge of the Oxford system, the buildings, and the history helped me to much better understand a university that is far different than anything we have in the United States. Generally, students live, eat, and attend tutorials (which is the main way in which students are taught) at their college, but the university runs lectures, laboratories, examinations, and libraries and grants degrees. Faculty and students belong to one of the colleges, and students apply for admission to a specific college, rather than to the university as a whole. My choice for the best college to visit is Trinity. Trinity College (officially the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity) is one of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope, a member of Parliament and wealthy landowner, in 1555. The college currently has 400 students holding a wide variety of majors. Trinity College, like most of the colleges at Oxford, is open to visitors, but each college charges their own entrance fee.
Another lovely academic institution to visit is Merton College, which was founded in the 1260s. Merton contains one of the university’s oldest quadrangles, named Mob Quad, built between 1288 and 1378, which was designed to provide accommodations for members of the college. Merton’s most notable alumni include poet T. S. Eliot, theological and philosopher John Wycliffe, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, four Nobel Laureates, and writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who was also a professor of English language and literature from 1945 to 1959. However, it’s not all academics at Merton; while I was visiting, I took in a cricket game and watched students punting (propelling a flat-bottomed boat in the shallow river), which is a favorite pastime here in Oxford.
Don’t miss the unique columns at the entrance!
Another location that’s a must-visit when in Oxford is the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church has been a Christian place of worship for over 1,000 years. When Oxford University was first being formed in the 13th century, students and scholars used the church as a meeting place, lecture hall, and a place of worship. Oxford University’s library and treasury were once even housed in the church. In 1420, Oxford University moved its facilities to other buildings, but the church retained its prominent position in the community and university life.
University Church is known for several important historical events. In 1556, Thomas Cranmer, who was the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, was put on trial for heresy at University Church. His trial was organized by the Roman Catholic government, led by Queen Mary, who detested Cranmer for his part in helping her father, King Henry VIII, create the Church of England and remove her mother, Catherine of Aragon, as Queen, in favor of Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was found guilty and was burned at the stake just around the corner from the church. Two decades later, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, preached many of his most important sermons at University Church. Even though he was educated at Oxford, he denounced many members of the university for “laxity and sloth”, he was never invited to preach there again.
Our last stop is a literary one, but it has more of a whimsical and sweet nature. Alice’s Shop is a location right out of Lewis’ Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland series. The author (whose real name was Reverend Charles Dodgson) was a retired Oxford professor who decided to write and illustrate a story for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College. That book became Alice and Wonderland. One of the scenes that Carroll wrote about in its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, was a small grocery shop, called “The Old Sheep Shop”, which Alice frequented to purchase candy. Today, that shop is named “Alice’s Shop” and is frequented by visitors who want to experience a piece of literature, and perhaps, purchase some Alice in Wonderland gifts as a souvenir of the historic city of Oxford. Wouldn’t they make a unique Christmas or birthday gift!