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Oxford, England

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Did You Know … ?

  • Lewis Carroll named Alice in Wonderland for the daughter of the dean of Oxford’s Christ Church.
  • Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world (1191, maybe earlier).
  • Blenheim, Winston Churchill’s birthplace, is Britain’s only private palace.
  • Oxford University Press (first book, 1478) is the world’s largest university press.
  • The Bodleian Library does not lend books; even King Charles I was refused in 1645.

School days reconsidered

Oxford is the ultimate university town, and it has been so long in the education business that it is chock-a-block with historic buildings, many in the Gothic style. No wonder moviemakers responsible for the Harry Potter series took inspiration from its colleges and filmed scenes here.

The city is 55 miles northwest of London, easily accessible from the British capital for a day trip by car or train. On the other hand, the Cotswolds begin only a few miles away, making Oxford an attractive base for a few days of sightseeing, nightlife and other diversions, both in Oxford itself and in the neighborhood. Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon are accessible from Oxford for day trips, too.

The Saxons settled Oxford first and were followed by the Normans. The city hit its stride early, in the 12th century, as a center for learning. As a result, most modern visitors are drawn by the physical appearance of the city’s 39 colleges and the lifestyle associated with the university and its students.

Bodleian Library is the most distinctive of the buildings with its round Radcliffe Camera. Other highlights include Christ Church’s quadrangle and cathedral (the cathedral is a Norman structure as old as the university) and Hertford College’s Bridge of Sighs. But strolls, often on pedestrianized streets, to and among any of the colleges are rewarding.

This small city of roughly 160,000 boasts the cultural establishments — the museums, theaters, concert halls and the like — typical of a fine school. The university lifestyle, predictably, also translates into pubs, live and lively entertainment and low-budget dining options.

The Thames, which connects Oxford to London, provides the setting for the school’s rowing events, not to mention a variety of ways visitors can enjoy time on the water. In addition, the countryside is a natural for excursions on foot, even multiday hikes that take in several of Oxfordshire’s prettier villages. Oxford provides quite a bit of flexibility for planning a trip based on personal interests.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Rent a bicycle and tool around Oxford and the surrounding area from its seat. Guided cycle tours are available as well.
  • Spend an afternoon punting on the River Thames.
  • Or spend considerably more time on the water aboard a motorized narrowboat cruiser. Measuring 70 feet long by not even seven feet wide, such a boat may sleep from two to 12 people.
  • Dine inexpensively in a local pub, and try regional ales with names like Morland’s Old Speckled Hen, Wychwood’s Hobgoblin and Wychwood’s Dog’s Bollocks.
  • Several themed hiking paths pass though Oxford. For one, the Thames Path reaches 185 miles from London to the Cotswolds. Walk part of it, or the whole thing.
  • Keep up with the students as you make your after-dark rounds of clubs and bars. Also, check out the comedy clubs.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Hear local and regional authors read from their work at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in the spring.
  • Review the collections at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, then have lunch in the museum cafe. Or, consider a similar lunch-and-culture option at Modern Art Oxford.
  • Join a walking tour. The local tourist board offers a variety of walks that touch on all sorts of Oxford connections including Inspector Morse (created by Oxford author Colin Dexter), J.R.R. Tolkien (an Oxford lecturer), Harry Potter film sites and, not least, Alice in Wonderland.
  • Climb for your elevated view of Oxford’s spires. Choices include Carfax Tower at the 14th century Church of St. Martin’s, the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre or the tower of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin
  • See a thumping rendition of Shakespeare (or other playwright) as presented by the Creation Theatre Company. The group performs in an open-air setting such as the grounds of the Unlocked Castle, a prison from 1071 to 1996. The Oxford Shakespeare Company also presents classics al fresco but in more genteel settings.
  • Fish at Farmoor Reservoir, which is described as one or Britain’s top trout fisheries.

Things to do for Authentics

  • On Sunday, attend an Oxford Coffee Concert at the Holywell Music Room. Have your coffee before or after the concert.
  • Get acquainted with the city by taking the hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
  • Then, wander this campus town admiring one set of stone college buildings after another. In the afternoon, you can walk into the quadrangles and chapels at many colleges.
  • For horse lovers, in autumn attend the Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials eight miles outside of Oxford. Planners say attendees will see some of the world’s best riders and horses in competition. See the palace, too.
  • Take a guided tour of Oxford’s most distinctive building, the Bodleian Library with its round Radcliffe Camera. The library dates from 1488.
  • Choose a scheduled river trip aboard a classic Edwardian launch.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Experience Oxfordshire at