We arrived at Paddington Station to find our 8:40am train to Oxford already waiting for us on the platform so with breakfast in hand we boarded and found some seats, it was surprisingly busy being so early on a Saturday morning. We were off, on time. Gradually the suburbs of London faded away and little over an hour later we had arrived in Oxford.
It was literally a few minutes walk into the city centre and the Carfax Tower. Carfax Tower is the last remaining part of the 12th century St Martin’s Church. The tower is 74 feet (23 meters) high and no building in central Oxford can be built any higher than it. The clock on the front of the tower chimes the quarter hours and dates from 1898. You can climb the stairs to the roof, all 99 of them, where there is a great view of the city from the top. There is a fee to go up but it’s only a couple of pounds and the view is worth it.
Just up Cornmarket Street is where we find the church of St Michael at the North Gate. Dating back to the 11th century this is the oldest building in Oxford. The tower is the oldest part of the church and dates from 1040 and is the only original part of the building. There are a few interesting bits inside including the cell where the Oxford Martyrs were held and the marriage certificate of William Morris and Jane Burden, who were married in the church in 1859.
Towards the end of Cornmarket where it turns into Magdalen Street is the Martyrs’ Memorial. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, this Victorian memorial commemorates the Oxford Martyrs who were put to death nearby this spot in the 16th century. Three men, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake for their Anglican religious beliefs in 1555, the memorial is dedicated to their memory.
Right across the street from where we are now is our next destination, the Ashmolean Museum. This was the world’s first university museum, having been established in 1683. The grand entrance takes you into a well laid out and interesting museum with highlights including Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, the lantern Guy Fawkes carried during the Gunpowder Plot as well as many works of art by the likes of Turner, Picasso and da Vinci.
Down St Giles is the Eagle and Child public house. The pub has stood here since at least the mid 1600’s and is famous because of its literary connections. It was here that a writing group called The Inklings met for lunch on Monday’s and Tuesday’s. The group included the famous names Hugo Dyson, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Back on Magdalen Street we walk past the side of Balliol College, following the building until we turn onto Broad Street where the entrance to the college is. Balliol College was founded in 1263. We decided to visit this college as it was only a couple of pounds each to enter it. Going through the Porters’ Lodge on Broad Street takes you into the Front Quad. We were able to visit two buildings at the college, the first being the Chapel. The present Chapel is the third on the site and was built in 1857, it’s a lovely building inside with one of the stained glass windows telling the story of St Catherine, the college’s patron saint.
In the Garden Quad is the Hall designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1877. Inside portraits show past Masters and distinguished alumni. The college has produced several Nobel Prize winning scientists as well as three British Prime Ministers: Herbert Asquith, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. Several other famous politicians have studied here and include Lord Jenkins, Lord Patten and Boris Johnson.
Leaving Balliol the way we entered we’re back out on Broad Street where next door to Balliol is Trinity College. Trinity was founded in 1555 and counts three Prime Ministers, a King of Belgium and various other politicians as alumni.
Further along is Blackwell’s Bookstore, an Oxford institution that has been selling books to Oxford students since its construction on New Years Day in 1879. The shop boasts the largest single room devoted to book sales in Europe. The Norrington Room is 10,000 square foot and has over three miles of shelving.
Opposite Blackwell’s is the Sheldonian Theatre. Designed by the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, the Sheldonian Theatre was built in 1668 for the sole use of hosting graduation ceremonies. Today the theatre is used for a wide range of things from performance to conferences as well as its original purpose. At the top of the building there is a viewing gallery set into an eight sided cupola, this is open to the public.
A few minutes further on is the Clarendon Building. This was designed by Sir Christopher Wren’s pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor. The Clarendon Building was completed in 1715 and was originally home to the Oxford University Press. Its name comes the fact it was funded by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Today it is part of the Bodleian, the main research library of Oxford University.
Around the corner on New College Lane is the famous Hertford Bridge, more commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs due to its similarity to the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Considering the age of most buildings in Oxford the bridge is a fairly recent addition only being completed in 1914. It was designed by architect Sir Thomas Jackson in order to connect the two sections of Hertford College.
Just after the bridge is the small St Helen’s Passage on the left, we follow it and find the Turf Tavern. The bar area dates back to the 17th century but the buildings foundations go back even further to the 13th century. On one side the pub is bordered by a remaining section of the old city wall, having been strategically built just outside the wall so it could host illegal activities such as gambling. It was here that Bill Clinton allegedly smoked marijuana but “did not inhale”, and also where Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawk set a Guinness World Record for consuming a yard long glass of ale in 11 seconds. The pub has also been featured in several episodes of the popular TV series Inspector Morse.
We come back on to New College Lane passing New College, the college was founded in 1379 and counts Virginia Woolf, Hugh Grant and Dennis Potter as alumni. The road turns into Queens Lane. As we walk down on our left is St Edmund’s Hall. Founded in 1278 it contains the last surviving medieval hall at the University of Oxford.
We are now on the High Street passing Queens College, a little further up we come to the church of St Mary the Virgin. Built in the 13th century, but with foundations going back to 1086, St Mary the Virgin is said to be the first church of Oxford University. You can climb the towers 124 steps to get some lovely views of the city including a great view of the Radcliffe Camera.
All Souls College is just down Catte Street and was founded in 1438. Some of its famous alumni are Sir Christopher Wren, T.E. Lawrence and George Nathaniel Curzon.
One of Oxford’s most instantly recognisable buildings is the Radcliffe Camera. It was built in 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library, today the building is a reading room for the Bodleian Library, second only in size to the British Library in London. The building was funded by Dr. John Radcliffe who left money to the university in his will. The Radcliffe Camera has been used as a location for the TV series Inspector Morse and has also been written about by J.R.R. Tolkien in “His Dark Materials”.
Across the High Street we walk down Magpie Lane and on to Merton Street going past Merton College. Merton College was founded in 1264 and counts J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Elliot, Crown Prince Naurhito of Japan and Kris Kristofferson as alumni.
Coming back on to the High Street we pass Magdalen College which was founded in 1458 and has taught the likes of Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Dudly Moore, Sir John Betjeman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and King Edward VII.
Opposite are the Botanical Gardens. Covering some 4.5 acres these are the oldest botanic gardens in Britain, dating from 1621. The gardens were previously dedicated to the study of medicinal plants and today house examples from over 90% of the higher plant families. It is thought that the gardens were the inspiration for the gardens where Alice in Wonderland encounters the Queen of Heart’s servants painting the roses red.
Walking back up the High Street we turn left on to Rose Lane following on to Christ Church Meadow Walk. This short but pretty walk takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre for a while.
Continuing on the path we pass the imposing Christ Church College which was founded in 1522. Like its sister college, Trinity, it was traditionally considered the most aristocratic college of the university. It is also the second wealthiest Oxford college after St John’s. The college has appeared in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and famously the Great Hall was used for filming scenes in Harry Potter. As well as producing thirteen British Prime Ministers other famous alumni include Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein, John Locke and William Penn.
Leaving the calm of Christ Church College we walk up St Aldate’s and follow it until it becomes High Street, just across is the Covered Market. Officially opened in November 1774 it was built as a place to put the stalls from the main streets of Oxford. Filled with a variety of stalls it is probably most famous as being the original location for Ben’s Cookies.
The final part of our Oxford day out takes us down Queen Street, through Bonn Square and into New Road where we eventually find Oxford Castle. The castle dates back 1000 years and has been both a home and a prison. The original castle was severely damaged during the English Civil War but was still operating as a prison up until 1996. Today it has been transformed into a hotel and leisure complex. The crypt has been preserved as has the grassy motte outside of the castle which dates from the 11th century.
Our day out finished here with a well deserved drink in one of the bars before we headed back to the train station for the journey home to London. Have you been to Oxford? What did you get up to.