From 2005 to 2007, I was a graduate student at the University of Oxford. Not only did I have the opportunity to study at one of the great universities of the world, but I also got to live in a beautiful city, filled with history and tradition. Oxford University is the oldest university in the English-speaking world (and second-oldest in continuous operation) and is often referred to as the “city of dreaming spires”.
The town of Oxford dates back to 900 AD, as a river crossing settlement, before being transformed into a military frontier in the 10th century. Following the 1066 Norman Invasion, a monastic community was set up and became the foundation of the oldest place of formal education. There is no formal date of foundation of the university, but evidence dates back to at least 1096.
The University of Oxford was first mentioned back in the 12th century. The University was originally divided into hundreds of Aularian houses. Only one still survives, St. Edmund Hall, which dates from 1225. Colleges eventually emerged in 1249, starting with University College. These colleges were sponsored by the church in the hope of reconciling the academic knowledge of Greek philosophy with Christian theology. Today the University of Oxford is divided into 38 constituent colleges, as well as a full range of academic departments.
My college was St Edmund Hall, which is sometimes known as The Hall, or affectionately as Teddy Hall. As I mentioned earlier, Teddy Hall was founded in 1225 and has a claim to be the “oldest academic society for the education of undergraduates in any university”. Today, St. Edmund Hall is known for its sporting prowess, which is likely why I was invited to study there since my degree was in the area of sport.
For those looking to visit the University of Oxford, you should know that the university is intertwined into the city itself. Historic academic buildings sit along side of modern restaurants and businesses. I could not possibly write about all of my favorite places in Oxford; there are far too many, but I will try to highlight some of the must-see sights for anyone visiting the town.
The Ashmolean Museum – Founded in 1683, this museum is Oxford University’s museum of art and archeology. It is the world’s first university museum and contains artifacts telling the human story across cultures and time.
Bodleian Library – The main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It began in 1320 in a small room of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It expanded to its current site in 1602. Guided tours are available for those who want to visit without applying for a reader’s card.
Radcliff Camera – Now part of the Bodleian Library, the Radcliff Camera was opened in 1737 by James Gibbs. Dr. John Radcliff, a successful physician, left a large sum of money to construct the current building and fill it with books. The Radcliff Camera is featured as part of the Bodleian Library tour.
Sheldonian Theater – Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built from 1664 to 1669, this theater is a beautiful space for concerts, lectures or ceremonies (including my graduation ceremony). Tours of the Sheldonian Theater are available.
Christ Church College – If you are going to visit one college while in Oxford, it will probably be Christ Church College. It was founded in 1546, and is one of the largest, and architecturally significant, colleges at Oxford. This is also the college which was featured in the popular Harry Potter films – another reason why it is the most visited among tourists. The college is open to visitors many days of the year, and tours are also available.
St. George’s Tower at the Oxford Castle – The ruins of the Norman castle can still be seen on the western end of the city. The castle itself has mostly been destroyed, but the moat, crypt and St. George’s Tower can still be seen. Other portions of the castle were used as a prison beginning in the 18th century, but have now been turned into the Malmaison Oxford Castle Hotel. It’s a modern hotel, with esthetics that reflect both its past lives as a castle and a prison.
Covered Market – This is Oxford’s historic market with permanent stalls and shops located just off one of the city’s main streets.
Botanic Gardens – The oldest botanic garden in Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. It contains over 8,000 different plant species on just 4.5 acres.
Punting – A punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed for use in small rivers or other shallow water. The punter (that’s you) generally propels the punt by pushing against the riverbed with a pole. I usually rent a punt from Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, but there are other locations around the town as well. Punting is much harder than it looks, but once you’ve had some time to master the craft it can be a fun way to enjoy an afternoon. If you don’t want to try to punt yourself, you can also rent a punt with a guide.
Grand Café – Located on the site of the oldest coffee shop in England, the Grand Café is an enjoyable place to have lunch or indulge in a traditional afternoon tea.
Pubs – Two of my favorite pubs in Oxford are the Turf Tavern and the Kings Arms. The Turf Tavern is a historic pub dating back to 1381 and is hidden down a small alley. The Kings Arms claims to be oldest pub in Oxford dating back to 1607.
Raoul’s – I’ll end with mentioning my favorite cocktail bar in Oxford, Raoul’s. This place makes delicious fresh fruit cocktails.
Oxford is just a short train or bus ride away from London, and it is well worth a visit if you are visiting England. It is a town that perfectly combines history with modern conveniences. Of course it will always hold a special place in my heart because I called this place home for two years, but I don’t think I could ever get bored with spending time in Oxford.