- Oxford

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Oxford is one of those English anomalies, a small town that has become a popular tourist destination, giving it a bustling feel in the crowded central core, and pockets of calm just a few feet away. Duck into a college "quad", or square, and the din of Oxford's streets suddenly disappears, to be replaced by a sense of timeless calm.

The history of Oxford is twined around the growth of Oxford University, though Oxford citizens had what could charitably be described as a love/hate relationship (little of the former and a heaping helping of the latter) with the students who have flocked to the Oxford University colleges since at least the 12th century.

The colleges of Oxford University are studies in contrast, ranging from the early medieval grandeur of Brasenose to the Tudor Christ Church, and the more modern lines of Keble College. Each Oxford College is different, each has its own distinct personality.

Although most visitors come to Oxford because of the architecture and history of the University, it would be a mistake to overlook the rest of Oxford's diverse attractions. From world famous museums like the Ashmolean, to simple pleasures like poling a punt along the sleepy Cherwell, Oxford repays a visit many times over. As you explore the city of Oxford with us, we hope that you will come away with a new appreciation for this delightfully attractive city.

Oxford University

"Where's the University?" That is one of the most common questions of visitors to Oxford, particularly North American visitors who may expect a carefully laid out campus like those they see at home. But Oxford University is not a homogenous whole, rather it is a collection of independently founded colleges, each with its own history and its own administration.

Going back to the origins of Oxford University, there were no buildings at all. The "university" really consisted of students gathered about individual Masters (teachers). These students lived in academic halls, or sometimes, in the house of the Master.

Many of the older colleges were regional in nature. Jesus College drew its students from Wales, Queen's College from Cumberland and Westmorland, and so on. Another point to remember about the older colleges is that they were religious foundations, not simply academic. St. John's College was founded to educate Cistercian monks, New College to supply clergy to replace those who had died in the Black Plague.

The founding date of the university presents equal problems. Although the University has claimed an association with Alfred the Great, this seems quite unlikely. The oldest colleges are Merton, Balliol, and University College, dating back to the mid-13th century.


Oxford is one of the most popular tourist destinations in England. There is good reason for this popularity, as the city remains relatively small, and the attractions of the University and other historic buildings are clustered within easy walking distance around the medieval core of the city. For a quick orientation, consider taking an inexpensive walking tour or open-top bus tour and stop by the Tourist Information Centre on St. Aldates.

Here are some of the main attractions:
  • Ashmolean Museum
  • Blackwell's Books
  • Bodleian Library
  • Carfax Tower
  • Oxford Botanic Gardens
  • Oxford University Colleges
  • Punting on Oxford's Rivers
  • Radcliffe Camera
  • Sheldonian Theatre
  • St. Mary the Virgin Church

Oxford Museums

Oxford has many more wonderful museums to explore and enjoy. Here are a few of the best.

Ashmolean Museum Beaumont Street.
The Ashmolean is one of the great museums in the world - and it can lay claim to be Britain's first official museum. Indeed, at the time of its founding, the term "museum" was unknown. The Ashmolean was originally based on an idiosyncratic collection of natural history specimens. In the mid Victorian period the growing collection was split into natural and man-made divisions, with the former being used to create the new Oxford Museum of Natural History. The Ashmolean then turned to building up its collection of archaeological specimens, including a large donation of Anglo-Saxon antiquities from Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and new artifacts from Egypt, the Middle East, and Rome. The collection grew so large that new buildings had to be erected, and the present Ashmolean was built next to the University's art collection on Beaumont Street. In 1908 the collections of the Ashmolean and the art gallery were merged.
Admission: free. Open: Tuesdays to Saturdays: 10am to 5pm Sundays: 2pm to 5pm. Bank Holidays: 2pm to 5pm (But not all Bank Holidays - contact the Museum to be sure it is open before visiting) Tel, Oxford (01865) 278000

Bate Collection of Musical Instruments In the basement of the Faculty of Music building on St. Aldates.
A hugely enjoyable jumble of historic musical instruments including early keyboards, percussion, woodwind, and brass.
Open: afternoons Mon-Fri.

History of Science Museum Broad Street.
Scientific instruments and devices through the ages, including clocks, cameras, and medical equipment.

Museum of Modern Art Pembroke Street.
Changing exhibits of international 20th century art.

Museum of Oxford St Aldates.
Covers 2000 years of Oxford history, archaeology, and architecture, including extensive exhibits on the University.

Pitt Rivers Museum Parks Rd.
Prehistory, ethnology, and the arts of all periods and cultures. This is one of Oxford's most popular museums.

University Museum Parks Rd.
Next door neighbor to Pitt Rivers (see above), this collection covers natural history, including gemstones, dinosaurs, and other fossils.

Near Oxford

Blenheim Palace Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
Can one really call Blenheim a "house"? This place is massive, overwhelming, ostentatious, and amazing for all that. A gift from the grateful Queen Anne to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Designed by Vanbrugh, and completed by Hawksmoor, with grounds by Capability Brown. Winston Churchill was born in a small room just off the main entrance. Take your time, there's an awful lot to take in.
Open: mid March-end October, daily 10:30-5:30, Tel, 0993 811325/811091

Oxfordshire County Museum
While you're visiting Blenheim Palace, take in this nearby museum, also in Woodstock. The museum is housed in a 16th century house, and contains rural crafts, in addition to a superb "Oxfordshire through the Ages" exhibit.
Tel, 0993 811456

Didcot Railway Centre Didcot, Oxfordshire.
Didcot houses the steam engine collection from the old Great Western Railway in the original engine shed. Check ahead for the dates of their Steamdays, when the old warhorses come out of the shed and take you for a ride.
Open: daily Easter-end September 10-5, Tel. 01235 817200, Fax 01235 510621

Broughton Castle 2m SW Banbury, on B4035.
Home of the Fiennes family for over 600 years, begun about 1300 as a fortified manor. Maintains its medieval roots, though much of the decor is Tudor.
Open mid May-mid September, Wed., Sun. 2-5, and Thurs. In July and August, Tel. 0295 262624

Waddesdon Manor 6m NW Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on A41, National Trust.
Created by Baron Rothschild beginning in 1874, a French chateau sprouts in the Vale of Aylesbury. Contains an opulent collection of the family's French treasures, including Sevres porcelain, carpets, paintings, and furniture once belonging to Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV.
Open April-mid October, Thurs.-Sat. (and Wed. July-August) 1-6, Sun. and BH Mon. 11-6, Tel. 0296 651211

Thames Path
This long distance walking trail follows the Thames River for 180 miles from its source to London. Around Oxford the trail passes the remains of Godstow Abbey, whose most famous resident was Rosamund de Clifford - "Fair Rosamund" of legend - supposedly poisoned by Eleanor of Aquitaine after she discovered that Henry II had taken Rosamund as his mistress. The Thames Path crosses peaceful water meadows and wanders through lovely waterside villages, making for a delightful outing for an afternoon or a full day.

Destination guides by kind permission of Britain Express

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