Oxford is one of the most famous cities in England, with the oldest university in the English speaking world. Spending time in this historic university town offers you an insight into 800 years of university life. There are views across the city from several locations, and a showcase of incredible architecture.
Since we were staying with Daniel and Jess in Milton Keynes, in between house sits, it seemed the perfect opportunity to visit the historic university town of Oxford. Because Milton’s Keyne (65km) is only an hour away from Oxford city by car, we all decided to have a days outing to learn more of this great city.
A Short History of Oxford
Oxford dates back to the Saxon period, a period between the end of the Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The town at this time held a significant location for its position as a junction of two rivers, The Thames and The Cherwell.
It is also the oldest university in the English speaking world with teaching dating back as far as 1096. As a result, it would be fair to say, the town was secondary to the university for centuries.
Although the university is still the dominant factor in this city of 160,000 people, the IT sector is booming as well. If you are wanting to learn more of the city’s history, click on this link here ➡ Oxford History
We decided to spend around 4 hours exploring the main sights of the old historic town and have put together a list of the 9 key sights. While Oxford has 38 colleges associated with the university, we chose to visit the popular Christ Church college.
9 of the key sights we saw:
1 – Tom Tower
The Tom Tower is named for its bell, the 7 ton Great Tom. You can find the tower in Toms Court within Christ Church college or for a closer look, head to St Aldate’s.
As Oxford’s loudest bell it rings 101 times at 9:05pm (which used to be the curfew signal for university students) – one ring for each of the original 101 students of Christ Church. The other interesting fact is Oxford still sticks to ‘Oxford’ time, five minutes behind GMT, so dinner at 7.15pm actually starts at 7.20pm.
The tower was constructed 1681-82 and designed by Christopher Wren – who also designed St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The 45.75m high tower is not accessible to the public (darn!).
2 – Christ Church College and Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral (constructed between 1160–1200 ) and Christ Church College (founded around 1546) are probably the two most notable buildings to visit in Oxford.
What you may not know, is how the college acquired its name. It was originally known as Cardinal College, named after its founder Cardinal Wolsey. When Wolsey refused to support Henry VIII request to remarry, the college was renamed to King Henry VIII College. When Henry VIII made the decision to split from the Church of Rome to create the Church of England, the college was renamed to Christ College.
The college is also popular as a setting for many films. The series Brideshead Revisited used the college for parts of its production however it is now famous for the filming of the Harry Potter series. The Great Hall was replicated as the grand dining hall at Hogwarts school.
To visit the college, there is an entry cost of £8 for an adult. To avoid the long queue, it’s best to buy your tickets online. Maura did try to get Daniel and Jess in as children, but the over 18 years was the hiccup to her plan.
Did they know we were coming?
3 – St Mary’s Church
There has been a church on this site for a thousand years, standing in the very centre of the ancient walled city of Oxford. The 13th century tower and its 127 steps is open to the public from 9.30am and provides good views across the town.
It is best to visit on a sunny morning to see the Radcliffe Camera below and the surrounds bathed in sunlight.
4 – Radcliffe Camera
Camera means “Room” in Latin. This impressive building dates back to 1737–49 and is one of the most photographed buildings in Oxford, and it’s easy to see why. The building houses The Radcliffe Science Library.
Access to the Radcliffe Camera is only possible by taking a guided tour, which includes the Divinity School, Convocation House, Duke Humfrey’s Library, and the Upper Reading Room.
5 – Bodleian Library
The library is the main research library for Oxford University, and is the second largest library in Britain with over 12million items. What you may not know, is it is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, opened in 1602.
Access to the library is only possible by completing and signing a formal declaration which says no books may leave the premises, no books may be marked, and no flames may be lit in the building.
6 – Bridge of Sighs
Actually named Hertford Bridge, it joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane. A relatively new bridge built in 1914. It is said to be a copy of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Others say it appears to more closely resemble the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
7 – Martyrs’ Memorial
We found the Martyrs’ Memorial stone to be a very sombre place. This monument commemorates the Oxford Martyrs who were tried for heresy in 1539-1681 and burnt at the stake.
8 – St Michael at the North Gate
This tower is the oldest building in Oxford and once formed part of the city wall dating back to 1040. Today the tower is open to the public and due to its height offers a good view of the city.
9 – Carfax Tower
St Martin’s Tower, popularly called “Carfax Tower” is all that remains of the 12th-century St Martin’s Church. Located at the cross road of 4 major roads, Carfax Tower is the symbolic centre of Oxford.
If you love views and are not scared of heights, take time to climb this 23m (74 feet) tall tower for great views of the city. At this height, no other building in Oxford can be taller.
Other Places of Note in Oxford the Historic University Town
The University of Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic gardens in Great Britain and one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. How old? Nearly 400 years old, dating back to 1621.
The Clarendon Building is an early 18th-century neoclassical building built between 1711 and 1715. It was commissioned to house the Oxford University Press.
The Sheldonian Theatre is a Grade I listed building built between 1664 to 1669. This prestigious building is the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.
The Oxford Town Hall was constructed in 1897 and is a Victorian Grade II listed building. It has had many uses doubling as a police station, a hospital in WWI, and frequently used as a film location.
The Kings Arms on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street is a good spot for a drink and English pub food. We had a pint here to take a break from our walk – good service and good beer.
Next time you are at a lost for a day’s outing, consider the many beautiful aspects Oxford to explore. Whether you have a love of history, old buildings or need a change of scenery, Oxford the Historic University Town ticks all the boxes. Oxford is only an hour from London by train, bus or car, it is an easy to reach destination.
We have added this walk to Walkli. For a downloadable map and path description, click here ➡ Walkli Oxford
To help you plan and to enjoy your trip, we have put together a page of our favourite travel apps. Click here for the details ➡ 9 Free Travel Apps
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