Adventures In England 2: Oxford

by AnomalousArtist

The city of Oxford is a living museum rich in detail and diversity. If you are planning a trip or are just interested in knowing more, read on!

I first traveled to Oxford through a UC Berkeley travel program in 1996 in which I studied Arthurian legends at Worcester. I was looking for a travel destination that was less about fun in the sun and more about fun in the brain. I had never been outside the United States and so I was very nervous about where to go and what I'd do when I go there. As a single tourist, traveling as part of a "class" seemed ideal to me; accomodations and meals were factored into the price of the experience, there would be people waiting for me when I arrived who'd notice if I was missing, there would be an itinerary set up by experts and there would be the possibility of making some new, like-minded friends. And yes, plenty to stimulate the brain!

I didn't know much about Oxford before I arrived and nothing could have prepared me for what I found when I got there. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, particularly if you happen to be there around sunset when all the buildings turn a glowing gold color.

The city is rich with history and culture, there are references to famous literary works everywhere and it's also a very COMFORTABLE place to stay.

I've been back to Oxford three times over the last several years and I never get tired of it. I've listed just a small portion of the delights the city has to offer in the hope that it will inspire a future traveler to seek out this wonderful, subdued destination.

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1) What is Oxford?

Located about 50 miles northwest of London, Oxford is, today, primarily a university town, known for being the oldest university in the English-speaking world.  It's also known for the "tutorial" method of teaching, where professors meet with students an hour a week for one-on-one tutoring. 

The city was named, literally, after the oxen fords, the oxen crossings that date as far back as the 900's.  It was originally planned as a castle city but the castle eventually became a chapel for housing monks.   Some remains of the original castle exist today and you can map the circumference of the castle with a guide if you like.

In the 1200's Oxford became the city of colleges it is now; each college is unique visually and in discipline and attracts students and tourists from all over the world.  In winter there are museums, concerts and performances; in spring and summer there are plenty of outdoor common areas, shops, sports, pubs and street fairs to explore, including opportunities to go punting on the Thames. 

I've been to this beautiful city twice for 3-week stretches and two more times for one day visits and haven't even scratched the surface of what the city has to offer, but I've listed some of my favorite locations in Oxford below.

2) Christ Church

Christ Church and cathedral (on St. Aldate's, you can't miss it!)  is one of, if not THE largest colleges in Oxford and certainly one of the more iconic.

 Popular of late for being/inspiring the setting of the dining hall  (and stairs leading up to it) at "Hogwarts" in the Harry Potter movies, Christ Church is also famous for being the home of Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice In Wonderland," who was a Don at the school. 

If you have any interest in  "Alice" you definitely want to visit this beautiful college--small symbols and locations relevant to Carroll's books are everywhere, inside and out, and there's even the famous "sheep shop," a boutique featured (in reverse, of course!) in one of the illustrations from "Through The Looking Glass," across the street.


Christ Church is one of the main destinations for tourists coming to Oxford so you might want to plan your visit early or later in the day to beat the crowds.

Tours are generally self-guided--you get a map and some information for a small fee and off you go.  You can spend as much time as you like and you'll WANT to, particularly in the immense open quad (featured in "The Golden Compass") and the expansive, awe-inspiring cathedral, but don't miss the gallery! 

3) Magdalene College

One of the most beautiful colleges in Oxford, Magdalene (on High Street as you head out of town) was founded in 1458 and continues strong today.  Famous alumni include Oscar Wilde, Andrew Lloyd Webber and many know it as the college where C. S. Lewis ("Chronicles Of Narnia") was a Fellow for 30 years. 


The grounds and buildings of the college are lush and immense; the jagged spires are iconic and visually stunning against the sky.  The cathedral inside, in gray, icy tones, is eye-popping. 


4) Ashmolean and Natural History Museums


Despite there being so much to see and all the walking that a good visit to Oxford requires, no visit would be complete without exploring some of the museums in town. 

The Ashmolean (on Beaumont Street) is a wonderful home for exhibits that cover a lot of cultural ground without actually being all that big; it's like a mini version of the amazing, but often overwhelming British Museum in London.  Here you'll find exhibits from all epochs and geographies to observe and study; last time I was there they had an exhibit on restoration techniques and ethics that was pure gold.



The Natural History museum is a big, open, indoor space a little bit outside of Oxford on Parks Road.  It houses dinosaur bones, bats, mummified creatures and taxidermy animals (including an actual Do-do bird, caught before the species went extinct).  There are also lots of...bugs!   (*Note, this museum is apparently closed for roof repair in 2013)

5) "The Eagle And Child"

Aka, "The Bird And The Baby," this rather famous traditional pub dates back to the 1600's and was a place where J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and fellow "Inklings" club members used to discuss their works in progress.  If that isn't enough to tempt you the traditional food and ales are in keeping with the finest in pub cuisine.

6) Sheldonian Theatre

Designed by Christopher Wren and built in the late 1600's for ceremonies and graduations, this unique horse-shoe-shaped building is not only a treat for the eyes but a great place to see a concert of classical music; check the website for current events. 

Near the famous Bodleian library, where rare ancient books are stored, the "back" of the Sheldonian building (which looks like the front from Broad St.) is surrounded by 12 big, frightening heads on posts.  I've never gotten a straight answer as to WHO these heads are supposed to be depictions of, and I was told they aren't originals (they were replaced in the 1970s) but they still create a fascinating image for tourists to snap pictures of. 

7) Port Meadow (aka, "my heaven")

I saved this one for last because it's not necessarily a popular tourist stop for anyone but myself! 

When I was staying at Worcester College I would often walk north on Walton Street, out of the noise and bustle of the city, and relax on the serene, flat grasses of Port Meadow.  It was particularly heavenly around sunset on a warm night.  Horses and cows run free in this gated meadow and there was something of fantasy in watching horses running, walking and mingling with each other peacefully as the sun slowly sunk behind them each evening.  Eventually I worked up the courage to walk amongst these great quadrupeds and enjoyed their quiet company for a long time.  I did get attacked by horse flies once, but other than that I consider this location one of the most quietly beautiful I've ever run across in my journeys, and whenever I wish I were somewhere else...I'm usually wishing I was there!

8) Final tips

Oxford is easily accessible by bus or train from London's Paddington Station even at peak times, I found, and the ride takes between 1-2 hours depending on how many stops the train makes (check the schedule, they sometimes have non-stop runs).

If you are planning a full visit or even a one-day stop-over to Oxford, be sure and do some homework on-line and find out what's new, different and happening when you arrive--there are street fairs, performances, masses and lectures happening all the time.  Hotel accommodations in the actual city aren't that plentiful and can be a little noisy at night, when the clubs open.  You might also want to consider the time of year you visit--it's a working college campus and can be filled-to-bursting with students during the school year.

I hope my brief preview of this astounding destination inspires you to consider a visit the city of spires and shires!

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Updated: 05/24/2013, AnomalousArtist
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MikeRobbers on 05/24/2013

Nice travel page and lots of helpful tips. Just like you put yourself, Oxford is a living museum, indeed!

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