Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Dreaming of Oxford

Oxford is known as the city of spires and boasts an enormous concentration of amazing architecture and lots of bicycles. This famous seat of learning comprises of thirty-nine colleges, the buildings of which can be found dotted throughout the city. Entrance to the colleges is via grand portals overlooked by grotesque gargoyles, each with a porter’s lodge. Once inside this leads to a quadrangle with an immaculately kept lawn and floral beds, the whole surrounded on all sides by the college building.

The oldest college is University College (usually referred to as Univ), which was founded by William of Durham in 1249. Up until the 16-th century it was only open to Fellows studying theology. A special building in the college houses a statue by Edward Onslow Ford of the poet Shelley, a former member of the college who was expelled for writing ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, and then sending it to anonymously to all the heads of the Oxford colleges.

The Sheldonian Theatre, an imposing building also well worth a visit, was once described as ‘one of the architectural jewels of Oxford’ and can be found on Broad Street in the centre of Oxford. Its perimeter walls and railings incorporate thirteen heads on stone pillars, and these are known as ‘The Emperors’ Heads’, although with all the scholastic brains available in Oxford no one seems to be able to explain whom they are. They may represent Janus, who was both the god of doorways and of the New Year. The Sheldonian was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and funded by and named after the Archbishop Sheldon, its design being moulded on the Marcellus Theatre in Rome. The Sheldonian is mainly used for university meetings and ceremonies, but at other times for classical recitals and plays.

Oxford has 130,000 inhabitants and due to the usual problems with parking, as with most cities, it can be best seen by bicycle. It boasts a plethora of restaurants and old pubs that serve pub lunches, real old ales, chocolate beer and in some cases ‘scrumpy’. This beverage is an acquired taste, a cider that lacks any fizz and looks as though one should flush it away rather than drink it!

One pub that is well worth a visit is The Turf Tavern a historic pub with wooden beams that is located just outside the old city walls. This is always a popular hangout for students and tourists alike. Another, dating from 1650 is The Eagle and Child, popularly known as ‘The Bird and Baby’. In the 1940’s and 1950’s this was the meeting place of a group called ‘The Inklings’, which included C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien who met there to discuss literature, writing and life in general.

For those of you in search of the more modern watering hole there is always Raouls’, in Walton Street with its endless list of cocktails to choose from. ‘QI’, (Quite Interesting) on Turl Street, (based on a quiz of the same name, where points are awarded for being interesting or funny) has an objective of being ‘…a place where you can have a decent conversation'. QI is a café-bar, bookshop, and members' club is a good place for morning coffee, food and has an underground vodka bar!

One pastime every tourist should try whilst in Oxford is ‘punting’; an age-old tradition where a long canoe shaped boat is propelled down the rivers of Oxford by means of a long pole. An interesting concept for many a new punter until he finds his/her pole stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river and is left frantically clinging to the pole whilst the boat continues its course further down stream.

Continuing on the boating theme there is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, which takes place along the River Thames from Putney to Mortlake, a distance of four and a half miles. Every year, since 1829 the two rival universities have competed against each other with their strongest team of eight rowers, for the honour of the water. The rivalry between the two universities is an age-old matter and continues long after the boat race has finished in every conceivable manner under the sun.

The indoor market on the High Street in the centre of Oxford was designed by John Gwynn and is a fun place to shop. There you can buy meat, fruit and vegetables, bread, and hand made cakes, browse through boutiques, or just sit and enjoy a coffee in one of the several small coffee shops. The market, which dates back to 1772 aimed to remove the then messy market traders off the High Street and by being enclosed, offered shelter from the elements.

The Ashmolean Museum is well worth a visit and housing a diversity of archaeological specimens, paintings, and relics. But if that seems a bit tame the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has some marvellous dinosaurs and a dodo! The museum often has interactive exhibitions aimed at kids.

If you want to get the best views of Oxford and the surrounding area from above then it is worth climbing the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The church is found on the High Street in the centre and is the best vantage point.

© Alison Day 
First published in the Connections magazine #12 Summer 2006 

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