Exploring Oxford and Oxford University:
Oxford is world famous for its prestigious and exclusive university, but you don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate this magnificent place.
A city of tall ‘dreaming spires‘, Oxford is a very popular tourist destination. Set against the Cherwell and Isis rivers, the fine architecture of its spectacular historical buildings, lovely riverside walks, lawns and meadows are some of its key attractions. The city is every bit as magnificent as one sees in postcards, books or movies.
The first scholars who founded England’s first university came from France in 1167. Given the ongoing French-English rivalry, it’s ironic that one of Britain’s premier educational institutions, and its oldest, was founded by the French. Oxford University is made up of 39 colleges, most of these founded between the 13th and 16th centuries.
There’s so much that you can see and do here and most of Oxford’s attractions are either free or inexpensive to enter. One of the best ways to get an orientation of this magnificent university town and all that it has to offer is to do a Hop-on Hop-off tour. The bus circuit will take visitors to all of Oxford’s sightseeing attractions.
The following are some of the types of tours that you can do:
- official guided walking tours
- audio and d.i.y. tours
- open top bus tours
- ghost tours
- chauffeured, cycling and day tours
If this is your first visit to Oxford, it’s suggested that you start with an introductory tour of Oxford, The University and City tour. If however you’ve been to Oxford before and already have reasonable knowledge of the university then you could consider going on one of their themed tours. You may be interested in the Oxford Film Sites and take the children to see where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed, or check out the locations for the Inspector Morse series. You’ll find yourself spoiled for choice with the huge range of attractions, activities and events on offer.
The city is very neatly laid out and it’s easy to find your own way around. Tony is quite familiar with Oxford university so we did our own walking tour. Following are just a few of the buildings that we took note of:
Bridge of Sighs
This is Oxford’s own version of the Venetian Bridge of Sighs. It’s quite bizarre to see a “Bridge of Sighs” in Oxford, given the history behind the original Bridge in Venice. There’s no way that the students of this prestigious institution can be considered ‘prisoners’ and what is there to sigh about if you’re fortunate enough to study here?
The bridge, constructed in 1913, links the Old and New buildings of Hertford College. It was never the intention to build a replica of the famous Venetian bridge. Although called the Bridge of Sighs, it looks more like the Rialto Bridge.
If museums are your scene, a visit to the Ashmolean Museum is a must. Outside of London, Ashmolean is considered to be one of the best of British museums.
Opened in 1683, the museum originally housed the collections of John Tradescants senior and junior. During their travels to the Orient and the Americas, they collected curious stuffed animals and artifacts. After their death, the collection was acquired by the antiquarian, Elias Ashmole. Mr. Ashmole donated the collection to the university and also had a purpose-built building constructed for the exhibits on Broad Street, now called the Old Ashmolean.
Well, stuffed animals and artifacts alone would not draw in crowds these days and the Ashmolean’s famous exhibits nowadays include famous paintings and drawings of the grandmasters like Bellini, Raphael, Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, etc. There are also Greek and Roman carvings, Eastern arts, musical instruments, etc.
The Ashmolean is a university museum and the exhibits are owned by a department of the university. So where does the Museum get its funding from. Interestingly, the National Lottery. The National Lottery raises money for a range of causes for the benefit of communities across the United Kingdom. From every pound spent on lottery tickets, 28p goes directly to good causes allocated between the following categories: arts, charities, health, education and the environment, heritage and sports. So when you’re next in Oxford, you may consider buying a lottery ticket and who knows you might just get lucky!
Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre
The Sheldonian Theatre was the first building designed by Christopher Wren between 1664 and 1669. It was funded by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University.
Wren was a key figure in the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666. This impressive architect was responsible for building 52 new churches, including his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although Wren had never been to Italy, he was very much influenced by Baroque and Renaissance architecture, as evidenced by St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is believed that Wren’s source of inspiration for the Sheldonian was taken directly from the U-shaped Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. The classical style subsequently influenced the architecture of other Oxford buildings.
The Sheldonian is the venue for Oxford University’s grand graduation ceremonies. The theatre is available for hire for public concerts and meetings, but I’d imagine strict assessments are made by its curators.
Radcliffe Camera (camera meaning room in French), Oxford’s most distinctive building was constructed between 1737-1749 with funds bequeathed by Dr. John Radcliffe, a physician. The building was originally intended to house a new library and designs were called for from several leading architects. James Gibbs’ elegant design won this competition. He was also responsible for the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London.
This domed Baroque rotunda is now used as the main reading room of the Bodleian Library (building with spires to the right). There some 600,000 books in underground rooms beneath Radcliffe Square. Unfortunately Radcliffe Camera is not open to the public.