Oxford is first and foremost a student town. Sure, it has its more than fair share of parks and nature reserves (28 to be exact), and has a pub culture that’s also intertwined with campus life for various reasons. But the main reason Oxford is so unique is that its colleges beam with a (sometimes not so) quiet, omnipresent aura of academic quality, and unfaltering (self-)importance. Add to that that city showcases masterpieces from every major English architectural period since the arrival of the Saxons, and it won’t come as a surprise that I recommend visiting Oxford to marvel at its unparalleled architecture.
Buildings in Oxford demonstrate examples of every English architectural period , including the mid-18th-century Radcliffe Camera (the probably most widely known building in Oxford), that certainly has an attraction that goes beyond being a tourist magnet. Once home to the Science Library, it now houses additional reading rooms of the Bodleian Library, one of the many in town. During World War II, Oxford wasn’t bombed by the Germans during the Blitz, supposedly because Hitler was intending to use the city as his capital if he conquered England. Oxford also lacks heavy industry that would have made it a target, but regardless of the reasons it was conveniently ignored, and stayed mostly intact. It was still affected by the national rationing and the large influx of refugees fleeing to the countryside from London and other nearby cities. Oxford university’s colleges even served as military barracks for soldiers before deployment.
Oxford University is the oldest in the English-speaking world. The first colleges almost 800 years ago were established to translate the writings of Greek authors, and were supported by the Church in the hope of reconciling Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Since then Oxford University has earned a position among the top academical institutions of the world and proudly educated accomplished and worldwide known scientists, leaders and writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, or among the more recent graduates William Golding, Stephen Hawking, Tony Blair and Hugh Grant, just to name a few.
Despite recent controversy regarding Oxford University’s “laddish” subculture and somewhat colonial attitude towards students of the fairer sex and their safety on campus, the reputation of one of the world’s best universities remains untarnished. Now, the fact that with the nomination of Professor Louise Richardson (starting next year as vice chancellor), they’ve elected the first female to hold a post in nearly 800 years, is quite telling, and her stepping into office may trigger even more controversy, on the other hand there’s hope that with her nomination Oxford has finally entered an era of gender equality that can permeate the male dominated leadership, and bring a positive change to the contentious perception of the predominantly male environment on campus.
Gargoyles. Walking down the Oxford streets, don’t be surprised if you spot people sightseeing with their nose up in the air. Rather take the time to turn your gaze upwards and have a look at the impressive varieties of gargoyle carvings throughout the city. Gargoyles are originally carved or formed figures placed at the edge of a roof with a spout designed to convey water away from the side of the building, preventing rainwater from running down the walls and thereby eroding the mortar. Oxford gargoyles display carvings from medieval water spouts to literary references, but most of them aren’t designed to spout water, they are rather grotesques and grimaces, some quite amusing, others scary, there are even some fresh additions to the array, as recent as from 2009. Spot creative or downright crazy and out of place examples on your leisurely walk, like the one in the picture.
Harry Potter trail. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, this relatively short tour is a must. There are several locations on the university grounds that served as a backdrop or were used for inspiration for the famous Harry Potter movies. Step into the parallel universe of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, as you visit locations, like the Bodleian Library, New College and Christ Church, all used in the earlier movies. The Bodleian Library hall is recognisable by its classic gothic vaulted ceiling. I give you a hint: it was used twice in two different movies, first as the Hogwarts Infirmary in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, second as the room where Professor McGonagall teaches her class to dance in The Goblet of Fire. Another iconic location is Christ Church’s stairwell, that gave us our first impressions from inside the castle as Harry and the other first years arrive to Hogwarts Castle. It’s also the same place, where our heroes are reunited at the end of the movie.
University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum. The 2 museums are adjacent (access to the latter is only gained through the former), yet very different in their focus. The University Museum of Natural History is, as expected, a family friendly array of various artefacts. The large square court with a glass roof, supported by cast iron pillars, divided into three aisles lined with restored victorian cabinets, looks like a magnificent cross between a cloister and a train station. The abundance of natural light illuminates the displayed artefacts, ranging from dinosaur skeleton replicas, fossils, to taxidermy with “Please touch” signs. The entomological displays with live specimens on the first floor are as terrifying as they are captivating. The head and foot of a dodo displayed at the museum are the most complete remains of a single dodo found anywhere in the world.
That’s not the only reason the museum is worth visiting. The construction of the building was financed through money from the sale of Bibles, therefore not surprising that a significant debate took place here in 1860 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when delegates of the Church and science debated the subject of evolution. The church was represented by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, who had supported the construction of the museum with the intention of funding a science department for the study of God’s creations. In the other corner Thomas Huxley was a keen scientist and an avid supporter of Darwin’s theories. The two men also had been rumoured to be childhood friends. The event is often viewed as the great defeat of a literalist interpretation of the creation narrative. Yet, very few accounts of the debate survived, and it is entirely possible that (since most were written by scientists), the outcome was sensationalised in order to gain more support for Darwin’s theories.
The Pitt Rivers Museum can only be accessed through the University Museum of Natural History. It was founded in 1884 by Augustus Pitt Rivers, who in his will donated his entire life’s collection to the University on two conditions: a building should be provided for the sole purpose of housing this great selection, and a permanent lecturer in anthropology must be appointed. The original collection was a compilation of approximately 22.000 items; this has now grown to roughly half a million, mostly by donations from travellers and missionaries. The ensemble is arranged thematically, not based on the artefacts’ age or origin, and it showcases the evolution of human culture in the most fascinating way, from the very simple to the most complex.
Do you agree with my list? Subjective as it may be, I take suggestions and ravings about
other reasons to visit Oxford. Just leave a comment below or message me directly.
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