“Whatever I write, my professor will say it’s inadequate and that I’m certain to fail,” the American-accented student says to his companion as they sit at the bare, wooden bar, lager glasses in hand. “Mind you, my professor always says it’s inadequate,” the student continues. Yet he doesn’t seem too perturbed as he takes another sip of Guinness.
It’s early evening in The Eagle and Child, a pub in Oxford, England, which exudes the kind of atmosphere only centuries of beer drinking and conversation, debate and gossip can bestow. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis drank together here for many years, no doubt discussing the progress of their latest literary work. And undergraduates galore must have celebrated successes and drowned disappointments within its wood-panelled alcoves.
The pub is a perfect place to eavesdrop, and I could have listened to the academic duo at the bar all evening. But it had been a long day and I needed to return to my hotel.
I’d arrived in Oxford that morning, and as my bus rolled through the English countryside, various images had come to mind: the oldest English-speaking university in the world with its college cloisters and church spires; a population of upper-class undergraduates rattling through narrow streets on old bicycles; and shallow-bottomed punts (boats) slowly negotiating the River Thames.
The punts are as popular as ever and there are bikes aplenty, though also mostly of the mountain variety. The students, however, come from all walks of life, and their jeans and tee-shirted attire doesn’t reveal their social background.
Yet the architecture meets expectations, and it seems fair that Oxford should consider itself one of the most beautiful of English cities. It has been spared high-rise developments—the steeples, church towers and domes still hold sway, unchallenged, over the skyline.
Walk these streets and you really do walk in the footsteps of giants. A roll call of Britain’s great and good, the famous and the infamous, have attended its 39 colleges. Adventurers Sir Walter Raleigh and T.E. Lawrence; poets Percy Shelley and W.H. Auden; philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith; writers Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, and the list goes on. Tony Blair became the 25th British Prime Minister to have been educated here.
Oxford was first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 912, and students arrived by the 12th century. By the 1500s, the university dominated the town. The Crown and the Church supported the University, and its power and privilege increased. This caused discontent among the locals, and matters came to a head in February of 1355 when a brawl broke out in a tavern.
Feelings must have been running extremely high as a three-day battle ensued in which more than 60 students were killed. Scholars they may have been, but street fighters, obviously not.
For the next 500 years, the incumbent mayor paraded to an annual Saint Scholastica’s Day (February 10th, she was the patron saint of the Benedictian Order) church service to do penance for his forbearers’ misdeeds.
The tourist information office leads walking tours of the town, and they provide an excellent introduction. Michael, a softly spoken, middle-aged, tweed-jacketed gent who obviously feels a reverence and love for his hometown, is the afternoon guide.
As our group of Americans, Dutch and Brits set off through the streets, Michael’s stories come thick and fast. “And just over there stands Balliol College, which claims to be Oxford’s oldest, dating from 1263…”
“On this spot in the year 1555 the Bishops of London and Worcester were burned at the stake as Protestant heretics,” he continues. I scurry after him like an eager schoolboy as he saunters down the road, swinging his battered, leather case in his hand.
We arrive outside the forbidding façade of St John’s College, founded in 1555, one of the richest in town. It owns land and property all over the country. The story goes that until recently it was possible to travel from St John’s Oxford to St John’s Cambridge, about 80 miles (128 km) as the crow flies, without straying from land owned by one of the two colleges.
We enter the Front Quadrangle, the classic design for a college. A large courtyard comprising student and tutor rooms, a chapel, a library and a dining room where the whole college eats together. Adjoining is the Canterbury Quadrangle, a masterpiece of design: slender columns, with delicate round arches, support the colonnades on two sides.
Two centerpieces that face each other across the quadrangle contain statues of King Charles I (who held court here during the English Civil War of the 1640s) and his Queen, Henrietta. The King and Queen were invited to a grand banquet to celebrate the completion of the quadrangle. It must have been quite a feast, as its cost reputedly almost equaled that of the building itself.
Michael now leads us down Broad Street, and we take a peek through the window of Blackwell’s Bookshop with its three miles (4.8 km) of shelving. From one of the largest bookshops in Europe we cross the road and enter the courtyard of one of the largest libraries in Britain. The Bodleian, founded in 1620, is second in size only to the British Library.
Adjoining the Bodleian Library is Radcliffe Square, at the very heart of the university. Taking center stage is the Radcliffe Camera named after Dr. John Radcliffe, a physician and gifted conversationalist. People would happily pay 20 guineas (about US$ 2,553 in today’s money) a day for his services. His accumulated wealth built this beautiful, circular, domed scientific library—completed in 1749, it is now used as a reading room for The Bodleian.
Just south of The Camera stands the 14th century Church of St. Mary the Virgin. (I returned the following day to climb the 127 steps of its soaring spire to gain a bird’s eye view of the city. Highly recommended for anyone with a head for heights and a passion for photography.) Michael’s tour ends at nearby Jesus College, where we walk around the dining hall gazing at portraits of famous members while an appetizing smell wafts in from the adjoining kitchen.
The next day I visit Christ Church College, arguably Oxford’s finest. Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Chancellor, founded it in 1525 intending it to be the grandest college in town. Its hall was used as a film set for the Harry Potter films.
To the south, the Christ Church Meadows extend to the banks of the distant River Thames. A riot of yellow wildflowers in springtime, it is grazed by the college’s own herd of cattle. A circular path makes for a grand stroll, half its distance being along the river, which is regularly plied by small cruisers, rowing boats and punts. While up to four passengers recline at their ease, the standing rower propels the punt by driving a long pole into the riverbed—such a civilized mode of transport.
Oxford isn’t all academia and fine architecture. It has a fine array of pubs and plenty of shopping. The street music is excellent—a blues guitarist rooted me to the sidewalk with his bottleneck playing. A cosmopolitan city, thronging with visitors, Oxford nevertheless retains a grand aura of history and tradition.
If You Go
Oxford lies 56 miles (90 km) to the northwest of London and is easily reached by road or rail.