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Oxford, England: from grotesques to the sublime

University of Oxford guide John Edmund at Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, England
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Our guide, John Edmund, explains that the design of the Radcliffe Camera left the lower level open to air below to keep the books dry.

What do explorers Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Walter Raleigh, authors J.R.R.Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, and Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, actors Hugh Grant, Dudley Moore and Richard Burton, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) have in common? The group also includes the first President of Pakistan, 47 Nobel prize-winners, scientist Stephen Hawking, four British and eight foreign kings and 28 Presidents and Prime Ministers, including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, as well as Cardinal Wolsey, seven saints, and a pope. All are well-known graduates, “Old Boys”, of Oxford University.

We were among the 10 million who visit Oxford each year, there to see our newly-married daughter and son-in-law, a graduate student. A stop at the visitor center on Broad Street led to an introduction to John Edmund, a linguist and graduate of Christ Church some fifty years ago who has been a guide for over 13 years. His anecdote-filled tour included early buildings along medieval lanes and the courtyard where Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy turned a tree into a ferret.

We traced the footsteps of Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Presidents, Kings, and a Pope along the medieval lanes of this fascinating city.

 

Early Oxford

Oxford is the oldest English speaking university in the world. The first records of teaching here are from 1096. Many English university students came when forced by Henry II to leave Paris during the conflicts of 1166.

Riots developed in 1209 when students were blamed for the murder of a woman in a city pub, and any student caught was hanged. The rest fled northeast to a defensible area well protected by rivers and marshes and established Cambridge University. The two schools share a sibling-like rivalry.

chapel, New College, University of Oxford
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New College is one of the oldest in Oxford, founded by William of Wykeham in 1379 with 10 chaplains and 16 choristers to sing for his soul after his death. Today the choir is considered one of the best in the world.

Academic life resumed in 1213 or 1214 when the King formally founded the University as a divinity school with charters from the Pope. Students were trained as leaders in academia, the church, or civil service, living in residence halls, and supervised by a Master.

A few of the colleges

Although each holds some sort of claim to the earliest origins, University College applied for a charter in 1249, followed by the Scottish-style Balliol in 1263, and Merton in 1264. Eventually, thirty-nine independent and highly autonomous colleges were built amidst homes and shops of the expanding city.

Founded as Cardinal’s College in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey, it was renamed Christ Church by Henry VIII in 1546. It has been home to Oxford’s official Anglican Cathedral since his reign. This was the college of thirteen British Prime Ministers and Albert Einstein. London has Big Ben, and Christ Church has Great Tom in a bell tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It is rung 101 times—once for each original student– nightly at 9:05, (9 pm Oxford time in the days before clocks were synchronized in the UK) and was originally a signal for all college gates to be closed. Its Great Hall was inspiration for the Hogwarts dining hall in the Harry Potter films, and the staircase was used in several scenes.

Characters from Alice in Wonderland by alumnus and mathematics lecturer Charles Dodgson, a/k/a Lewis Carroll, are in a stained glass window and in the fireplace. Alice Liddell, immortalized in the book, was the daughter of the dean, a close friend of Charles Dodgson.

Merton College has the oldest college quad and oldest medieval library in the world still in use. Many of the charming 11th century academic houses built before the colleges are on Merton Street.

The fortress-like New College was built around a section of the old 12th century city wall. It is one of the oldest colleges, founded by William of Wykeham in 1379 with 10 chaplains and 16 choristers to sing for his soul after his death. Today the choir is considered one of the best in the world. Only residents are allowed to climb “The Mound” a burial ground begun during the 1348 Black Death, when the bubonic plague struck nearly half the population.

 

All Souls, with elaborate twin towers and an impressive iron gate, was established to pray for the souls of English soldiers in the 14th-15th centuries, around the time of Joan of Arc.
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All Souls, with elaborate twin towers and an impressive iron gate, was established to pray for the souls of English soldiers in the 14th-15th centuries, around the time of Joan of Arc.

To be a Fellow at the academic research institution of All Souls is quite an honor. All Souls, with elaborate twin towers and an impressive iron gate, was established to pray for the souls of English soldiers in the 14th-15th centuries, around the time of Joan of Arc.

A few differences

Tutor, lecturer, or don are the usual academic titles, with professor usually reserved for the head of a department or, in some cases, for those requiring appropriate professional recognition outside the UK.

Undergraduate degrees are granted by the university at the end of what is usually a three year course.

Great views

chapel at Exeter College, University of Oxford, England
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Exeter College Chapel, completed in 1860, is a near replica of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

The University Church of St. Mary’s the Virgin Church was built in the center of the old walled city and the university expanded around it. Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, now known as Oxfam, was founded at the church during World War II. The Oxford martyrs were tried for heresy here. For a small fee, climb the 127 old medieval steps of the Tower (circa 1280), the oldest part of the present building. You’ll be blessed with uninterrupted countryside and city view that includes the beautiful cobbled streets of Radcliffe Square and the landmark turreted spire of the Exeter College Chapel, a near replica of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Another great view is from the Carfax Tower, the only remains of the 13th century St. Martin’s Church, on High Street.

Books, books, and more books

 

The university’s first library was in a room above the Old Congregation House, the oldest university building in Europe, circa 1320. Duke Humfrey’s medieval library (1480s), still in use as a reading room, is above the Divinity School at the Old School’s Quadrangle. It was Hogwart’s library in Harry Potter films. Humphrey’s collection of manuscripts became scattered among the individual colleges, and a century later, former student Sir Thomas Bodley reestablished the university library, stocking it with his enormous collection and other donations.

The Bodleian is now a group of libraries that draw scholars from around the world, it is second in size in the UK only to the British Library in London. All books must be preordered and read on the premises. Even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow one. To insure safekeeping, precious books were chained to shelves next to windows that provided the only light. No candles allowed!

University of Oxford guide John Edmund at Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, England
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Our guide, John Edmund, explains that the design of the Radcliffe Camera left the lower level open to air below to keep the books dry.

The dome of the drum-shaped Radcliffe Camera (chamber) is one of the best-known and most distinctive landmarks of the area. Britain’s first rotunda library was built with funds bequeathed by Dr. John Radcliffe, royal physician to Queen Anne, for science and medicine books. The design left the lower level open to air below to keep the books dry. Now used as a reading room connected to the main building by a tunnel, it is not open to public.

Since 1610, a free copy of any book registered in the kingdom has been given to the Bodleian. As a copyright library it receives over 100,000 books a year. The extended tour takes you to hidden tunnels and passageways that lead to the library’s ever-expanding collection. There are over 7 ½ million volumes occupying 118 miles of shelf space in ten buildings throughout the city.

A few more highlights

The beautiful medieval Divinity School was financed by incorporating the coats of arms of noble donors and initials of others into the elaborately vaulted ceiling.
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The beautiful medieval Divinity School was financed by incorporating the coats of arms of noble donors and initials of others into the elaborately vaulted ceiling.

The Bodleian is attached to the oldest remaining building (15th century) built specifically for the university, the beautiful medieval Divinity School. Construction was halted when money ran out during the Wars of the Roses, and the building was financed by incorporating the coats of arms of noble donors and initials of others into the elaborately vaulted ceiling.

Originally used for theology lectures and public oral exams given in Latin, today it serves for robing ceremonies and receptions. It was Hogwarts sanitarium in Harry Potter films. The Divinity School faces the Tower of Five Orders, so named for the columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture—Composite, Corinthian, Ionic, Tuscan, and Doric.

The Sheldonian Theater was the first major commission for astronomy professor Christopher Wren. The carved heads surrounding the Sheldonian are often mistaken for the apostles but are known as the “emperor’s heads”
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The Sheldonian Theater was the first major commission for astronomy professor Christopher Wren. The carved heads surrounding the Sheldonian are often mistaken for the apostles but are known as the “emperor’s heads”

The nearby Sheldonian Theater is used for meetings, performances and public ceremonies. It was the first major commission for astronomy professor Christopher Wren. The classic design is based on the Roman theater of Marcellus and the lower level is in the shape of the school crest–a half circle and square. The carved heads surrounding the Sheldonian are often mistaken for the apostles but are known as the “emperor’s heads”. Parliament was held at nearby Convocation House during the Civil War 1642-46.

weathervane, Indian Institute, University of Oxford, England
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a weather vane in an elephant with howdah design are found on the Indian Institute at the University of Oxford, England.

Carvings of Hindu demigods, tigers, and elephants and a weather vane in an elephant with howdah design identify the nearby Indian Institute. It was built in 1882 during the British Raj with private funds from India and Britain for training Indian civil servants. There was great controversy and protests by the Indian government when the department was moved to the New Bodleian in 1968 and the space was used for offices and the History Faculty, which specializes in European history.

The Kings Arms Tavern, known as the KA, opposite the Indian Institute, is said to have the highest IQ per square foot of any pub or bar in the world.
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The Kings Arms Tavern, known as the KA, opposite the Indian Institute, is said to have the highest IQ per square foot of any pub or bar in the world.

Hertford Bridge links the college’s old and new quads. Commonly called the Bridge of Sighs, after the colorfully nicknamed Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice, it is much like Venice’s Rialto Bridge.

Bridge of Sighs, University of Oxford , Oxford, England
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Bridge of Sighs—- Hertford Bridge is commonly called the Bridge of Sighs after the colorfully nicknamed bridge in Venice.

Nearby is the former home of Edmund Halley, the Professor of Geometry who predicted the return of the comet that bears his name.

Look up and you may see mischievous looking creatures peering down from some of Oxford’s centuries-old sandstone buildings and towers. Good, evil, royal, or sometimes vulgar, they are Oxford’s grotesques. Some of the best are found on the New College tower and the beautiful Magdalen (pronounced mawd-lin) College’s cloister, where they are said to have inspired C.S. Lewis’ stone statues in The Chronicles of Narnia. Visit college’s deer park.

The Golden Compass (2007), the Inspector Morse series, Young Sherlock Holmes, and the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies were filmed in Oxford. Popular special tours such as the Inspector Morse, and Pottering Around Oxford with Harry, and CS Lewis & JRR Tolkien, can be arranged. (See website below)

Around town

Stroll down narrow cobbled passageways behind Hertford College by the ruins of the medieval city walls to the timber-beamed Turf Tavern, a favorite of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Inspector Morse of the British television series. Relax in the beer garden with a pint of Old Peculiar, Speckled Hen, or Old Hooky.

Blackwell’s Book Shop Blackwell’s Book Shop, Oxfam Charity Shop, and the cobbled cross in center of the road where the Anglican martyrs were burned are all on Broad Street.
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Blackwell’s Book Shop Blackwell’s Book Shop, Oxfam Charity Shop, and the cobbled cross in center of the road where the Anglican martyrs were burned are all on Broad Street.

Blackwell’s Book Shop, Oxfam Charity Shop, and the cobbled cross in center of the road where the Anglican martyrs (Bishops Latimer and Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury) were burned under the rule of Queen “Bloody Mary” are all on Broad Street.

Ashmoleon Museum, University of Oxford, England
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The Ashmoleon Museum is the oldest purpose built public museum in the UK and one of the oldest in the world.

In 1632 Elias Ashmole donated a cabinet of curiosities to the university, and the private collection was opened to the public for a fee. Founded in 1683, the Ashmoleon Museum is the oldest purpose built public museum in the UK and one of the oldest in the world.

See the world’s most complete dodo remains at the University Museum of Natural History and shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The Museum of the History of Science houses the world’s finest collection of historic scientific instruments and the University Botanic Garden is the oldest in the UK.

Covered Market meats, Oxford, England
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Butchers still hang their wares outside their stalls at the historic Covered Market.

Be sure to stop by the shops and eateries at the historic Covered Market. Butchers still hang their wares outside their stalls.

Sample a traditional Cornish pasty (meat pie) at a take-away stand. Find a cozy pub, like the Eagle and Child, where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien met as part of a literary group known as the Inklings. It is said the ideas for Lewis’ Narnia books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were formed here.

Cornmarket and Ship Streets, Oxford, England
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Cornmarket and Ship Streets, Oxford, England

While in the area:

Go punting or take a river cruise on the Avon.

BMW’s Mini is made in Oxford, England. For information on plant tours email oxford.plant-tours@mini.com or by phone at 01865 825 842 or fax at 01865 826 750.

Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, is just 8 miles away.

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