The big idea

Well, that’s an easy one: the big idea is, of course, ideas! And Oxford is known for some of the biggest: literature, architecture, culture, politics, science, natural history; not to mention it being home to some of the most famous thinkers, speakers and writers in the world.

Architecturally stunning, and with nearly 40 colleges packed into a relatively compact space, it’s hard to think of any place that has inspired so many to achieve so much: a visit here can only enrich you.

A treasure trove...

So, where to begin when talking about Oxford’s rich diversity of historical, cultural and architectural treasures? How about the world’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, dedicated to the greatest civilisations on earth and offering fascinating insights into how they developed; or the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the architecture matches the wonders inside (ever fancied seeing a dodo? This is your place); and then there’s the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses some of the finest anthropology and archaeology displays in the world (and reputedly the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films). We could also talk of the Sheldonian Theatre, a Christopher Wren-designed masterpiece that’s home to the Oxford Literary Festival; or of the Bate Collection, the most magnificent collection of musical instruments from the Western world.

And then there’s the architecture: places of note including the Parish Church of St Michael of the Northgate, whose Saxon tower is the oldest in Oxford; the Radcliffe Camera, the UK’s first ever circular library; the Tower of the Five Orders; and All Souls College. Oh, and don’t forget Blenheim Palace, Britain’s greatest palace, which is just down the road. But it doesn’t end there; some of the greatest sights are actually indoors. The Divinity School is impressive from the outside, but step inside for a real treat: a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture widely acclaimed as the most beautiful room in Europe (eagle-eyed Harry Potter fans will also recognise it as the sanatorium at Hogwarts). And Keble College is home to the Light of the World by William Holman Hunt – widely regarded as one of the most famous religious paintings in the world.


Treasures? This city is a veritable feast.

The home of the book

What Oxford is most famous for is as a seat of learning and as the home to one of the greatest and most prestigious universities in the world. It’s made up of 38 colleges, each with their own individual histories, customs and personalities, and collectively responsible for nurturing some of the finest minds ever known. In fact listing its alumni turns out to be a pretty unbeatable roll-call of novelists, critics and writers: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, most famous for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Aldous Huxley, who brought us Brave New World; Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and JRR Tolkein amongst many others.
And Oxford’s literary credentials don’t end there. Its very name is intrinsically linked with words: the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford University Press – it’s even home to one of the largest bookshops in the world, Blackwell’s. And, while we’re on the subject of books, what about Inspector Morse, arguably Oxford’s most famous fictional character.

The essence

A treasure trove of ideas

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Well, anybody would benefit from a trip to Oxford, but scholars, historians, innovators and writers will definitely feel right at home.
For families, it can open the minds of younger ones to a world full of possibilities; it truly is one of the most inspiring, enrapturing, and downright fascinating places to be.

Interesting bits in the history

The exact origins of the original settlement are a bit sketchy, but suffice to say a stretch of the Thames was found where it was shallow enough to cross by oxen, and – hey presto – Oxen-ford was born. In 895 AD a fort was built at the site and over the next 400 years it gradually evolved into a town. Teaching is thought to have existed here since the 11thcentury, but it wasn’t until 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris, that it began to rapidly develop as a seat of learning. At the same time, the merchants of Oxford were flourishing and were suitably advanced to have designed their own seal – the earliest example of a municipal seal in the country.

By the 13thcentury the first colleges were built – University, Merton and Balliol – and halls of residence established to house the students. It was also at this time that the ‘town and gown’ divide began to show, which escalated into riots, with one infamous incident in the 14thcentury leading to the killing of students and ransacking of colleges.

While the university was getting established the merchants  formed a club to keep themselves wealthy and newcomers out. It was a pretty successful ruse, and resulted in a flurry of impressive buildings which can still be seen today, such as the Guildhall, St Martin’s Church at Carfax and the town walls. Radcliffe Square was established as the heart of the book world, and cloth and leather were also big industries at this time. But by the 14thand 15thcenturies, they had all but disappeared as the town became increasingly dependent on the colleges.

In 1542 the town became a city, but, just over a decade later, a dark cloud formed over Oxford as three famous churchmen – Thomas Cranmer, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley – were burned alive for defending their protestant faith by the catholic Queen Mary I.

During the civil war of the 17thcentury Oxford enjoyed exalted status as King Charles made it his headquarters. And it was in this century, in 1668, that the Oxford University Press was founded, sealing Oxford’s future as major player in publishing and providing the city with its major industry.

Georgian times saw a big war of words between Oxford and London, mostly about politics and religion (Oxford has produced numerous Prime Ministers; the city has a firm grip on the keys to Number 10) and a rich building boom, responsible for Queen’s College and the Radcliffe Library, among others.

And by the end of the 19thcentury Oxford was home to some of the leading minds of the day. The university established museums for its scientists to display their ideas and wares, and continued to develop its reputation with the wealth created by the Oxford University Press.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of

Let’s begin our journey into the history of civilisation by starting at the sumptuous, neo-classical Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street. While from the outside this grand building appears unchanged since its opening in 1845, it was actually transformed on the inside and re-opened in 2009 at a cost of over £60 million; once inside it is quite simply remarkable. It has six floors and 39 galleries and pulls off the really neat of designing the interior to allow the visitor to swirl around the building in a figure of eight, thus avoiding what they term ‘museum fatigue’ – now that’s clever!

Suitably refreshed, head left and look over the road for the Oxford Martyr’s Memorial; walk up Magdalen Street at the side and on the left, just before the start of Cornmarket Street, is St Michael at the Northgate; the tower houses an impressive collection of silver, and it was here the Oxford martyrs were locked up.

Stroll up Cornmarket Street, the pedestrianised main shopping street, and you’ll reach a junction with the High Street (‘the High’); just down on the left-hand side is Oxford’s covered market; a treat if you’re looking for distinctive shopping ideas: there’s a brilliant cake shop (check out the window displays), a chance to buy Oxford sausages (more veal than normal with a heavy spicy note), and a real laid back charm to the place. Or just up to the right look out for Carfax Tower, a well-known landmark in the city and all that remains of St Martins, a mediaeval city church. It’s worth a climb up the 99 steps for a peach of a view. At this stage, if you fancy a diversion, head a bit further along on to New Street; there you’ll find Oxford Castle Unlocked; part-remains of the Norman Oxford Castle, part-old Oxford Jail, and now a visitor attraction in its own right, with a complex of bars and restaurants.

Cross over and head down St Aldates, where you’ll find the Museum of Oxford. A little bit further along is Alice’s Shop; the original shop where Alice in Wonderland (real name Alice Liddell) bought her sweets. Opposite, go into the War Memorial Garden and you’ll see the entrance to Christ Church on your left. Christ Church is the grandest of all the Oxford colleges, and the magnificent college chapel also serves as the city’s cathedral (the only chapel in the world to serve this purpose); admire the spire – it was the first in England. The House, so-called by the residents of the college, was home to the fictional Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited; and College Hall was the inspiration for the dining room in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.

From here, head to Oriel Square, then along Bear Lane, cutting down Alfred Street and over the road into Turl Street (often referred to as ‘the turl’, after the ‘twirl’ turnstile once here). Along here there’s another three colleges – Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter – and at the end you’re at the very aptly named Broad Street. To the left you’ve got the Tourist Information Centre, Balliol College and the Museum of the History of Science (officially the first building ever to be designed as a museum, and home to Einstein’s blackboard amongst other glories), but head right and you’ve got a couple of well-known Oxford icons; Blackwell’s bookshop – over 100 years old and one of the largest bookshops in the world, boasting over three miles of shelving – and the Sheldonian Theatre, which is based on the Roman theatre of Marcellus. The stunning painted ceiling alone is well worth viewing; it depicts the triumph of the arts and science over envy and ignorance. (Wow...everywhere you look in this city there’s another reminder of the importance of ideas and the progress of mankind.)

Go past here then turn to the right and head down towards Radcliffe Square. You’ll pass the Old Schools’ Quadrangle, which houses the Tower of the Five Orders, as well as the entrances to the famous Bodleian Library – one of only six libraries entitled to hold a copy of every book published in the UK – and Divinity School, with its achingly beautiful fan-vaulted ceiling.

This is really the heart of the university and in the centre is the iconic Radcliffe Camera, now the principal reading room of the Bodleian – It was originally built to house the library of one Dr John Radcliffe (‘camera’ means ‘chamber’).

Back on the High Street, head left, past the majestic twin towers of All Souls College (University College and The Queen’s College are also on The High), before stopping for a coffee at The Grand Cafe, where England’s first coffee house opened way back in 1650. Carry on and to the left you’ll see the Examination Schools, the scene of much stress over the years, before heading down to Magdalen Bridge (pronounced ‘Maudlin’).

Magdalen college itself is in a beautiful setting (it’s here every year the choir welcomes in May Day with singing at 6am before the traditional revelry kicks off), and the bridge is a great spot for some punting.

Head back along the High, turning right just before The Queen’s College and onto New College Lane; look out for the plaque on Number 7; this is where star-watcher and later Royal Astronomer Edmund Halley had his observatory. Also along here make sure you look up and admire the so-called Bridge of Sighs (actually called Hertford Bridge, but it does look a bit like the one in Venice).

When back on Catte Street, head straight up to Parks Road to the remarkable Pitt Rivers Museum (there’s half a million objects from around the world here, all displayed by type, so you can literally see the development of ideas worldwide over time – fascinating) and the University Museum of Natural History, which is great for kids.

 After here, back up Parks Road on the left is Keble College, named after the founder of the Oxford Movement – and containing the aforementioned painting The Light of the World: follow the road round and you’ll find yourself at the top of St Giles. We recommend you take a stroll down this wide street and check out the Eagle and Child pub, it’s where the writers JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis would hang out to swap stories.

So that’s the history of civilisation done: can you imagine a more inspiring tour?

When to visit

City pics