At least we didn’t see any oxen during our six day stay there. Anthropologists and Archeologists tell us that place names are about the most persistent of terms, and Oxford is no exception to that general rule. It is surmised that Oxford was initially a place along the river where it was possible to cross (ford) with your Ox. Not that you asked.
In a previous post, I talked about our accommodations, orientation and musical moments. Now I would like to share more highlights of things to do and see there.
We only scratched the surface, I know, there is so much more to see and do.
Oxford is great for people who are aficionados of certain cultural favorites, among them Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis among the other members of the Inklings (a writers’ group of the early- to mid-twentieth century), Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Harry Potter, of course and other more obscure literary, scientific and philosophical luminaries. You could really build a visit to Oxford on any of those interests, or even just on a pub crawl!
This would be a tough call for me, of course, as I have to count Alice, the Inklings with an emphasis on all things Hobbiton and Perelandrian, as well as cool TV detectives. This is the angst of the true generalist (or Renaissance woman, if you will,) choosing among passions. So I will just stick to what we actually did. However, if you are a big fan of one Oxfordian thing or another, the visitor center has great books and walking tours for all of the aforementioned interests.
It is an organic and obvious choice to begin your Oxford explorations in Radcliffe Square. Virtually all in-town sights are within easy walking distance for a fit adult of any age. It is not the distance between things, but the sheer density of possibilities that make it hard to fit everything in, even with almost a week in town. Radcliffe Square is a genial place to find yourself, as we did on our very first day. Bordering it are several of the “must-see’s”, and we took in:
The Tantalizing but Inaccessible Radcliffe Camera
OK, so I thought it might be an observatory, but in this instance the word “camera” derives from the latin (surprise!) word for room, and that is just what this iconic landmark is. Here is where Oxford students matriculate. It is now also used as a reading room for the nearby Bodleian Library. Students may come and go, but if there is a way for the unconnected tourist to enter, we did not learn it. Still, it is a beautiful centerpiece for the square in all its roundness and with the patina-graced cupola. I was filled with an unrequited desire to enter.
The Bodleian Library
Claiming to be the world’s most famous library, the Bodleian is certainly one of the most significant, not least because it also serves as copyright protector. Thus, it houses a copy of each and every publication in the UK. As with many of the sights in Oxford, tours are offered at certain times, so getting organized for it early in the day will help you save time. I cannot claim we took that reasonable approach, however. A tour is definitely called for, as the ancient parts of the library are both interesting and beautiful.
The Sheldonian Theatre
Just another Wren Masterpiece
One of Christopher Wren’s great works, the Sheldonian Theatre is open and spacious, with a circular floor for performances, etc. We guided ourselves through relatively late in the day and felt lucky to be able to squeeze it in. Late on a weekday afternoon, we found ourselves in a circular, terrabed room flanked with large clear windos. On our own (and unobserved, our young soprano seize this first rate opportunity to test both the condition of her own pipes and the room’s acoustics. The Sheldonian is graced by another beautiful cupola, and wonderful views reward stalwart stair climbers. Let me tell you, a trip the the isles, British and otherwise, is a fitness plan in itself!
St. Mary the Virgin
This is Oxford’s official church, and is worth a visit, especially if you like old Church of England churches with their choir chancels, etc. During the reformation, virtually all of the churches were converted from Roman Catholic to Church of England. (Remember Martin Luther, Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn, right?) That divorce, as we know, led to centuries of fatal back-and-forthing in an era where religious faith and political alliance were almost indistinguihable. Oxford was the scene of martyrs on both sides of this now silly-seeming, and bloody argument. There is a plaque in St. Mary’s honoring those martyrs on both sides.
The Vault and Gardens
We enjyed tea at this hard-to-miss lunch and tea house that operates out of the basement and former church yard of St. Mary the Virgin. Unless it is really pouring down rain, take your tea outside. Yummy tea and scones, but it is hard to come by a bad cream tea in Oxford. Sitting outside, you can admire the aforementioned Radcliffe Camera and wonder how a person gets inside (without matriculating, that is.)
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs
It is just to look at, but another of the iconic sights right around Radcliffe Square.
The Ashmolean Museum
Should there be any lingering doubt in your mind, yes, we are out as culture-vultures and try to visit museums (at least one) wherever we find ourselves. The Ashmolean has a huge collection, and, in addition to seeing some of the art highlights by Gainsborough, Manet and some of the other greats, we took the time to look at the exhibition Love Bites featuring the work of the early political cartoonist, James Gillray.
To me, few breaks are more refreshing than a picnic lunch in beautiful green surroundings. We treated ourselves to delicious sandwiches from Olives, a deli in the High Street that claims to be the favorite of students. I believe it. Not only were the extremely tasty sandwiches hand made on very fresh baguettes, but the service was fast, efficient and courteous. We earned our calories, but saved a few by washing our bread and meat down with water, instead of beer, for a change.
The Botanical Gardens are no mere decorative resting spot, but a teaching garden. As a home gardener, I enjoyed strolling the arboretum-like setting, noting the plant varieties and appreciating all the work involved in growing and keeping such an oasis of herbal learning. Besides that, it is a great way to slow the pace and take a break from indoor activities.
Well, yes, you can see the colleges. Most are restricted in terms of when you can enter, however. Do not take this personally, as these are old-fashioned, residential colleges. Some are free, but the most popular do charge admission. It is very easy to spend a lot of money on admission to attractions, so it is good to know that if you go to a religious service at any of them you can get into the cathedral or church, and see the adjacent grounds for free. Here is our particular sampling:
I won’t go into detail about this famous college. Although we did not pay to visit the college itself, we did see the public gardens on a walking tour, including the wonderful herbaceous borders and expansive lawn that inspired Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodson) as he wrote Alice in Wonderland. We did, however attend Evensong, crossing the quad and getting into the Cathedral for free. Check out my Onward to Oxford post for that adventure.
Boasting the most extensive grounds with a lovely riverside walk and deer park as well as lovely cloisters, Madgalene College is a real treat to go through. Mid-week, it was not at all crowded and we took our time with the best-written self-guided walking tour I have ever encountered. I especially enjoyed seeing the cloisters, the dining hall, and the river walk. For the literary crowd, Oscar Wilde was a student there, and JRR Tolkien would certainly have visited friends there, although his association with Merton College is based on firmer footing.
Drum Roll: Pub Crawl
At our “Funky Crowley Flat” Air BnB, guests may color in and opine on their pub visits. Postcards available at tourist information center.
At our “Funky Crowley Flat” BnB, guests may color in and opine on their pub visits. Postcards available at tourist information center.
You could base your entire visit to Oxford on a pub crawl, which we did not do, although we visited a few as a mother/daughter dyad. Daughter Autumn did do a pub crawl or two with people met along the way (here a nod to our BnB host, Adam, who is in the same age range and showed her around a bit). English pubs are more drinks- and less music-oriented than Irish ones, and I missed the craic. But the food can be good, and it is always nice to have somewhere besides a tea house to pop into in case of rain. The beer selections were always pretty extensive, and the warren-like establishments are fun to sit and sip in. Just ask for the wireless password and you can save your data plan. (Or Face Time with your SO instead of an expensive call.)
Last but not Least: Oxford Castle, Unlocked
Our guide in the guise of a real wild woman from the day.
We fit this site in on our last morning in Oxford. It is a little bit off the beaten path of the colleges, but provides a fun and rich historical background to the town of Oxford itself. Our tour guide was a wonderfully entertaining young reenactor, costumed as a real criminal from the time when the castle was a prison. At the top of the tower is another great and different view of the “City of Dreaming Spires”. It was a hit with both of us for being both entertaining and historically accurate. The Castle has been renovated in recent years, with the museum holding only a portion of the Castle itself. The rest of it is now a fancy hotel. Check it out if you want to sleep in a Castle/prison!
I doubt that I have managed to chronicle everything we did in Oxford, but this is a good representative sample. Watch for a future post on our day trip to Bath, which deserves its own space.