Things to do in Oxford, Oxfordshire
Oxford is renowned the world over, as the home of one of the oldest and most highly revered Universities in Europe.
The city lies at the confluence of the Rivers Cherwell and Thames, or “Isis”, as it is locally known, giving the opportunity for boating, punting and many pleasant riverside walks.
Oxford is a compact city; its main streets radiate from Carfax Tower in the centre, with most of the colleges and University buildings all within easy walking distance.
It was Matthew Arnold whose description lingers in the mind, and best sums up Oxford. “And that sweet City with her dreaming spires, she needs not June for beauty’s heightening”.
Just outside the City on Boar’s Hill is the best place to see an overall view of the “dreaming spires”, a hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable sight.
The town of Oxford is centuries older than the University, numerous coins have been found which testify to the fact that there was a settlement here in Roman times. First known as Oxenford the name derives from the ford at Hinksey, on the western side of the old town, now within the city boundaries.
Legend tells that in AD 700 St. Frideswide, a pious Mercian Princess who became a nun, established a monastery for a mixed community of monks and nuns on the site of Christ Church Cathedral. The present-day Cathedral contains a memorial to the Saint.
The River Thames divided the counties of Wessex and Mercia and Oxford was originally built as a frontier town by the Anglo-Saxon kings, and was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 911-12.
The only surviving remnants of Anglo-Saxon architecture to be seen today, are the remains of the city wall at Longwall Street, near Magdalen College and St. Michael’s Tower, at the north gate with its ‘long and short’ stone work. This is Oxford’s oldest building, and is thought to have been part of the town’s defences in the 11th century. At this time Oxford was plundered, and fought over by Saxon tribes and the Danish invaders.
Oxford Castle was built in 1071 to strengthen the town defences, under the direction of Robert d’Oilly, the first Norman governor. The tower and remains of the castle can still be seen today in Castle Street.
During the Norman period the prosperity of Oxford improved, turning it into one of the larger market towns in the country. The proximity of the town to the Cotswold Hills, where grazing for sheep was plentiful and one of England’s main sources of the wool, which brought wealth to the nation.
The cloth and leather industries prospered, and the merchant guild, in the city regulated trade. Oxford was granted its charter by Henry II in 1192.
The Scholar King
Oxford benefited by the royal patronage of Henry I, the “Scholar King”, when he took up residence in the town. In 1130 Henry built Beaumont palace as a royal residence (today the Ashmolean Museum stands on the site), it was here that Henry II’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine frequently resided and gave birth to Richard Coeur-de-Lion in 1157.
Nearby Woodstock became a favourite hunting lodge with early kings, and was the residence of Henry II’s love, Fair Rosamund, who died at Woodstock in 1176, her well still exists in the park at Blenheim Palace.
The Students Arrive
In the 12th century no university existed in England and scholars went to Paris for their education. It was Henry II after a dispute with the French King in 1167 who put a stop to this practice. In the 11th and 12th centuries Oxford became an important ecclesiastical centre, St. Frideswide’s was re-founded as an Augustinian Monastery; Osney Priory was founded in 1129 and was the third largest abbey in the country. Around these religious foundations the Schools of Divinity grew to be the origins of the University.
At this time, students started arriving in Oxford, attracted by the many churches and prestigious religious houses. No specific accommodation was available and students made their own arrangements, the shortage of housing led to poor living conditions, and overpriced lodgings.
The influx of hundreds of students, put great demands on the economy of the town and ill feeling and resentment grew up on both sides. Trouble broke out between the students and townsfolk in a fight in 1209, resulting in a local woman being killed, and a mob of residents lynched two of the students involved.
As a result of this, many students fled from Oxford in fear for their lives, choosing for their destination Cambridge, where scholars were starting to gather, eventually forming the University there.
After these horrific events, the University began to take responsibility for its students, and by 1214 there was a Chancellor who presided over the running of the University. However it was not until the mid 13th century that the first colleges came into being.
The architecture of each college is unique, but the early colleges all resembled the layout of medieval monasteries, with a kitchen, dining hall, and chapel. The lodgings were set around staircases leading from quadrangles.
Trouble Between Town and Gown
Even in these days students were encouraged to have an active social life, from time to time this led to trouble between “town and gown”.
The event which became a local legend, was St. Scholastica’s Massacre. On 10th February 1355, Walter Sprynghouse and Roger de Chesterfield were at the Swindlestock Tavern; a quarrel began between the students and landlord, when things got out of hand the townsfolk raised the alarm by ringing the bells of St. Martin’s Church.
Not to be outdone, the students retaliated by ringing the bells of the University Church of St. Mary. This was seen by all as a call to arms - bows and arrows, daggers and knives were used in the battle, in which several lives were lost.
The King, Edward III, became involved in a judicial capacity when several students fled to court for protection.
The consequences were that the University emerged with greater privileges and from then until the 19th century, dominated the affairs of Oxford. The Swindlestock Tavern no longer exists, but a plaque on the wall of the Abbey National bank opposite Carfax commemorates the event.
When Henry VIII declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, he disbanded Oxford’s Augustinian, Benedictine, Cistercian and Carmelite monasteries.
Henry had a high regard for the colleges and so they were spared. Later Henry re-founded St. Frideswide’s Priory as Christ Church Cathedral; and Oxford’s Anglican Cathedral is built on the site of the dissolved Augustinian Priory.
Execution of Three Bishops At Once
In 1555 during the reign of Mary Tudor, Broad Street was the scene of the horrific execution of the three Bishops all educated at Cambridge; Cranmer –Archbishop of Canterbury, Latimer – Bishop of Worcester and Ridley – Bishop of London.
Oxford was the chosen place for their trial, because of its stronger leanings to thecatholic faith compared to Cambridge.
The theologians of Oxford outwitted the three bishops at the trial, they were convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake.
An iron cross is set into the road in Broad Street, and a plaque on the wall of Balliol College opposite, commemorates the event.
Oxford became the Royalist capital during the Civil War. In 1642 Charles I took Christ Church as his headquarters, and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria resided in Merton. A passage was constructed between the two colleges to enable their meeting.
Colleges were taken over as arsenals and warehouses, and soldiers paraded the streets giving rise to the names, North Parade and South Parade, two of Oxfords streets in the north of the city.
The University was pro royalist but the town itself was not, but students and local residents alike were conscripted to the Royalist army. It was not until 1646 that the parliamentary army besieged the city and the King fled from Oxford across Magdalen Bridge.
The Restoration brought a calmer time, when the colleges made great advances in scientific learning.
It was during this time that John Wilkins founded the Royal Society (1660) in a room above the porter’s lodge in Wadham College. Christopher Wren, also educated at Wadham, designed the Sheldonian Theatre in 1662.
In the 18th century, the University at Oxford, like Cambridge, saw a time of fun and merrymaking, but while some were not taking life seriously, there were others who were in complete contrast. John Wesley founded his “Holy Club” while at Christ Church College - the beginnings of the Methodist Church.
The 1800’s brought changes to the University, with the introduction of written examinations. At this time Oxford educated many famous men, notably the two great Prime Ministers Robert Peel and William Gladstone. The growth of the University provided the town with further employment, when many local people worked as college servants. The other major employer in the town was the Oxford University Press.
Calmer Modern Times
During the 19th century a more modern institute replaced the old clerical society of the University. An Association for higher education of women was established in 1878 and the first women’s colleges opened the following year. Women were allowed to sit exams, but were not formally awarded degrees until 1920.
It was William Morris, later to be Lord Nuffield, who transformed the economy of Oxford. From his workshops in the centre of the city he made his first bicycle in 1892, followed by his first motor car in 1912.
The following year he moved his enterprise out to Cowley, at the time he employed 300 men, by 1938 his workforce numbered 10,000. This great success attracted other industry to the area, and Oxford’s economy was no longer dependant on the University.
Today Oxford is the chief Publishing centre outside London. One of the largest medical research complexes in Europe is based in the city, and of course Oxford is still one of Britain’s greatest tourist attractions.
Days Out in Oxford
The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is first mentioned in the Domesday Book and has one of the best views of Oxford from the magnificent tower, which was built in the 13th century. The nave dates from the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Ashmolean Museum is Britain’s oldest public museum, housing the University’s collections of paintings, glass, silver, ceramics and artefacts from the ancient world.
Other Museums in Oxford include the Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Oxford, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Bate Collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The Radcliffe Camera (closed to the public) is a rotunda, whose dome is a landmark in Oxford’s centre which was designed by James Gibb (1737-49). Inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens, it is regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful buildings.
The Camera originally housed the Radcliffe Library but today the 16 sided room on the ground floor is a reading room for the Bodleian Library.
The Bodleian Library contains the 15th century Divinity School, the 17th century Old Schools Quadrangle and an Exhibition Room.
Carfax Tower is a 16th century church tower and viewpoint.
Curioxity contains Hands on Science Exhibits for primary school children.
At The Oxford Story you can ride through the fascinating 800 year history of Oxford University.
Sheldonian Theatre – The ceremonial hall of the University designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
University of Oxford Botanic Gardens – Opposite Magdalen College in Rose Lane is the oldest Botanic Gardens in Britain. Laid out in 1621 on the instructions of Henry, Earl of Danby, as a Physic Garden. Entrance is through the beautiful Italianate Gateway designed by Nicholas Stone, beautiful flowerbeds, trees and greenhouses filled with rare plants, collected over the centuries from around the world. The gardens are in a beautiful and peaceful setting, bounded on one side by the curve of the River Cherwell.
Nearby at Magdalen Bridge punts are available for hire on the Cherwell and the Thames, other boat houses are located at Bardwell Road and Folly Bridge, St. Aldates.
The famous Christ Church Meadow, painted by J.M.W. Turner, still exists and provides rural walkways in the heart of the city.
Shopping and Entertainment
Today’s Oxford, offers excellent shopping facilities, from the well-known high street names, modern shopping centres and malls to the unusual Victorian covered market in the High Street. From the University’s shop, to many small specialists, offering old maps and prints, books, jewellery and local souvenirs you will find shopping interesting in Oxford.
When it comes to eating out, you will have no trouble finding just the right place. Oxford is well experienced in catering for customers from around the world, of all ages and all tastes. There is a wide choice from coffee houses through to gourmet restaurants.
Entertainment in Oxford is as eclectic as you would expect in this university city. The Apollo Theatre is the largest theatre, where visiting international touring companies present a mix of musicals, shows and rock and pop concerts. At Oxford Playhouse, leading international, national and local theatre companies make up a varied programme of high quality drama, dance, music and opera presented in this refurbished Georgian Theatre. There are other smaller theatres where you can see Drama and Comedy from the University’s leading players. Classical music concerts are held in the Sheldonian Theatre, Christ Church Cathedral and other famous settings.
There exists an amiable dispute, about which college in Oxford is the oldest, and may be determined thus: University College had the first benefactor and indirectly, founder and the first property. Balliol College first occupied a site it has never left. Merton College had the first statutes establishing a collegiate institution.
The Official Colleges of Oxford University
All Souls College (1438) Founded by Henry Chichele Archbishop of Canterbury, to commemorate those who had lost their lives in the Hundred Years War against France, and to pray for their souls. All Souls has no undergraduate members, only graduate fellows elected for their academic distinction. The architecture of the college is among the finest in Oxford, the north quadrangle and twin towers are the work of Hawksmoor and the sundial is by Wren. The Chapel is particularly fine, for its hammer-beam roof with angels, the reredos was uncovered and restored in the 19th century.
Balliol College (1263) Founded by John Balliol was given its Statutes by his widow the Scottish Princess Dervorguilla of Galloway in 1282. Most of the college buildings are from the 19th century.
Brasenose College (1509) Founded on the site of an earlier community. The name is thought to derive from the Brazen Nose doorknocker hanging in the dining hall, which resembles an animal snout. The front, the first quadrangle and the gateway tower are all original, the hall and chapel are attributed to Wren. Past Members - Field Marshal Haig, Jeffrey Archer, and William Golding.
Christ Church (1525) known as “The House”, Founded as Cardinal College by Cardinal Wolsey on the site of St. Frideswide’s Monastery. Re-founded by Henry VIII (1546) and re-named Christ Church. Oxford’s largest and most magnificent college, incorporates England’s smallest Cathedral, which is also the college chapel. Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren contains the great bell weighing over seven tonnes, known as Great Tom. Each evening at five minutes past nine the bell rings 101 times, one peel for each member of the original college. The Cathedral is mainly a Norman building with many interesting features, the choir with its lovely Norman columns rise to delicate fan-tracery in the roof. The stained glass is by Burne-Jones and William Morris. Past Members – Thomas More, Philip Sidney, William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania U.S.A.), C.L. Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland while he was a mathematics fellow at the college), John Ruskin, John Wesley, A. Waugh, Sir Adrian Boult, and many British Prime Ministers. The Picture Gallery at Christ Church, contains a superb collection of paintings and drawings from the 14th-18th centuries. Paintings from Italy, Flanders and France, with works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
Corpus Christie College (1516) Founded by Bishop Richard Fox of Winchester. The college is the smallest in the University, but one of the most academic of all the colleges. Notable for it’s beautiful gardens and the sundial in the inner courtyard of a pelican, the college symbol and a perpetual calendar. Past Members – Thomas Arnold, John Keble.
Exeter College (1314) Founded by Walter de Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, whose intention it was to provide an educated clergy for the parishes of his diocese. The college Chapel, by Sir Gilbert Scott was inspired by the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It contains a tapestry depicting the Adoration of the Magi by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Past Members – J.R.R.Tolkein, Richard Burton, Roger Banister, Alan Bennett.
Green College (1979) One of Oxford’s newer colleges, named after its founder Dr. Cecil Green (a founder of Texas Instruments), and his wife Dr. Ida Green. A graduate college with a pre-eminence in clinical medicine. The magnificent Radcliffe Observatory is situated at the centre of the college estate.
Harris Manchester College (1786) Founded originally in Manchester as Manchester Academy. After several changes of location, the college came to Oxford in 1889 and is a chartered college of the University of Oxford, for mature undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Hertford College (1282) Founded by Elias de Hertford, the college was dissolved and recreated on a number of occasions. Hertford was in the first group of colleges to become co-educational, and maintains a higher ratio of women to men than is usual in Oxford. The main college site is composed of Old, New and Holywell Quadrangles with the famous Hertford Bridge, designed by Sir Thomas Jackson linking Old and New quads. Past Members – John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Gavin Maxwell, Evelyn Waugh.
Jesus College (1571) Founded by eight founding fellows, one of whom was Hugh Aprice. The only college dating from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Intended for the education of future clergymen. Past Members – T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Harold Wilson, Magnus Magnussen.
Keble College (1870) Founded by public subscription as a memorial to John Keble, with the intention of making an Oxford education more widely available. William Butterfield designed the college, and to keep costs down chose to build with bricks. The polychromatic patterning is unique, making Keble an outstanding building in Oxford, amid the golden stone of the majority of the colleges. The college chapel is well worth visiting for its mosaic decoration and the portrait by Holman Hunt of The Light of the World.
Kellogg College (1994) Oxford’s 36th college, founded by the Kellogg Foundation in support of adult and lifelong learning in Oxford, evolving from and co-existing with the Department for Continuing Education. Kellogg College is unique in the Oxford collegiate system, placing special emphasis on part time study.
Lady Margaret Hall (1878) LMH, was the first woman’s college to open in Oxford, now co-educational. Past Members – Dame Josephine Barns, first woman President of the British Medical Association 1979-80. Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick, first woman President of the Royal College of Physicians 1989-92. Dame Barbara Mills, first woman to be appointed Director of Public Prosecutions 1992.
Linacre College (1962) A graduate college, whose name commemorates an outstanding Renaissance figure Thomas Linacre (1460-1524), a distinguished Oxford humanist, medical scientist and classicist, whose breadth of learning the college reflects in its multi-disciplinary purpose and ideals.
Lincoln College (1427) Founded by Richard Flemyng, Bishop of Lincoln. The chapel built 1629-31 is an unspoiled example of late perpendicular architecture. The library is housed in a converted 18th century church. Past Members – John Wesley who founded his “Holy Club” while at Lincoln, John Le Carre, Dr. Seuss.
Magdalen College (1458) Pronounced Maudlen, was founded by William of Waynflete. Magdalen is one of the largest and most beautiful of all the Oxford colleges. The Great Tower, which dominates the Oxford skyline, was built 1492-1509, and is 144 feet high. Magdalen is famous for its choir, best known for the ancient ceremony which takes place on May Morning. At sunrise, the choir climb to the top of the tower to welcome the spring, by singing madrigals and part of the college grace. The 15th century Cloister Quadrangle and Chapel are very fine and make an interesting contrast to the 18th century New Buildings. The college has a Deer Park, and some peaceful riverside walks, famous for the snakeshead fritillary lilies in the spring. Past Members – Cardinal Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Dudley Moore.
Mansfield College is the youngest and smallest of the University’s colleges. Renowned for combining the best of traditional Oxford with a unique and innovative personality.
Merton College (1264) Founded by William de Merton, Bishop of Rochester. Merton is one of the three oldest colleges and houses possibly the oldest working librarys in the world. Past Members – Lord Randolph Churchill, Max Beerbohm, T.S. Elliot.
New College (1379) Founded by William of Wykenham, Bishop of Winchester. The Black Death in 1348, claimed the lives of many of the church’s parish priests. New College was originally intended for the education of scholars, to replace those who had died of the plague. Today the Cloisters and Chapel can still be seen, and the lovely garden bounded by the old city wall. Past Members – Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Benn, the Rev. W.A. Spooner.
Nuffield College (1937) Founded by Lord Nuffield for postgraduate students, specialises in the social sciences.
Oriel College (1326) Founded by Adam de Brome. Oriel was at the centre of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Past Members – Sir Walter Raleigh, Cecil Rhodes, John Keble, Thomas Arnold.
Pembroke College (1624) Named after 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Chancellor of the University of the time, was originally intended to supply places at Oxford for boys at Abingdon School. Past Members – Samuel Johnson, Michael Heseltine, American Senators, Fulbright and Lugar.
Somerville College (1879) Founded by Mary Somerville, to provide an opportunity for women to gain a higher education at Oxford. The college has a reputation for cultural diversity. Co-educational since 1992. Past Members – Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher.
St. Anne’s College (1879) Founded as the association for the education for women, it progressed to the Society of Home Students, then to St Anne’s Society in 1942, finally in 1952 St. Anne’s College. In its centenary year the college was among the first to open its doors to men.
St. Antony’s College (1950) Founded as a graduate college, to provide an international centre within the University, where graduate students from all over the work can live and work together.
St. Catherine’s College (1962) Founded by Lord Alan Bullock, the only Oxford undergraduate college to have been built since 1945. The origins of St. Catherine’s date back to 1868, when a non collegiate society was formed as a means for the less well off to study at Oxford.
St. Cross (1965) Founded as a college specifically catering for graduate students in all subjects. The traditional style buildings are located in St. Giles.
St. Edmund Hall, or “Teddy Hall” as it is affectionately known, can trace its history back to the 13th century. The sole survivor of the medieval Halls, that provided undergraduates with accommodation and tuition before colleges began to do so. The name derives from St. Edmund of Abingdon, who resided and taught in a house at the western end of the present front quadrangle. Full college status was granted in 1957. Past Member – Sir Robin Day.
St. Hilda’s College (1893) founded as a centre for woman’s education, it became a full college of the University in 1960, and was the last college solely for women, the first male students being admitted in 2008.
St. Hugh’s (1886) Founded by Elizabeth Wordsworth the great niece of the poet. The name chosen, was that of Hugh of Avalon, canonised in 1220, in whose diocese Oxford had been. Originally a woman’s college St. Hughes has admitted male students since 1986. Past member Barbara Castle.
St. John’s College (1555) Founded by St. Thomas White, a catholic Bishop in the reign of Queen Mary. The south wing of the back quadrangle in the Classical style is attributed to Inigo Jones. Past members – Archbishop William Laud, Robert Graves, A.E. Houseman, Kingsley Amis, Tony Blair.
St. Peter’s College – Situated in New Inn Hall Street, Oxford.
Templeton College is a graduate college specialising entirely in Management Studies.
The Queen’s College (1341) Founded by Robert de Eglesfield, Chaplain in the household of Edward III, and his wife Queen Philippa, in whose honour the college was named. The statue we see today, above the entrance, overlooking High Street is of Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The splendid buildings are among the finest classical architecture in Oxford, designed by Wren and Hawksmore. The library contains a collection of rare books and magnificent carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Past members – Edmund Haley, Rowan Atkinson, Brian Waldon.
Trinity College (1555) Founded by Sir Thomas Pope, a Privi Counsellor of Mary Tudor. Trinity’s history is reflected in the variety of its buildings. It has an interesting Chapel designed by Christopher Wren, containing a rich alabaster tomb of the founder, and a carved screen and altarpiece by Grinling Gibbons. Past Members – William Pitt the Elder, Jeremy Thorpe, Terence Rattigan.
University College (1249) endowed by William of Durham, claims to be the oldest College in Oxford University, and known to its students as “Univ”. The buildings we see today mostly date from the 17th century. Percy Byssh Shelley was expelled from the college for distributing a paper called “The Necessity of Atheism”. After his death by drowning in Italy, the college accepted a memorial to the poet. The romantic white marble statue can be seen in the building to the right of the porter’s lodge. Past Members – Dr. J. Radcliffe, Clement Atlee, Bill Clinton.
Wadham College (1609) Founded by Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham. The college is remarkable for its original Jacobean architecture, and the magnificent hall and chapel, can still be seen today. Past Members – Sir Christopher Wren, Michael Foot, Melvin Bragg.
Wolfson College (1966) Founded with benefactions from the Wolfson and Ford Foundations. A large graduate college situated in north Oxford beside the River Cherwell.
Worcester College (1714) Founded by Sir Thomas Cookes on the site of a medieval monastery, some of whose buildings still survive. The finest of the 18th century buildings is the library, with its nine tall windows rising above the cloisters. The college has beautiful gardens and a lake. Past Members – Richard Adams, Rupert Murdock, John Sainsbury.
Tourist Information: The Old School, Gloucester Green, Oxford Tel: +44 (01865) 726871
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Fun Things to do in Oxford For Adults
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Oxford is easily reached by train from London Paddington, Slough and Reading. Services normally run twice an hour during the day; the journey from London takes under an hour.