When they think of OXFORD, visitors almost always imagine its university, revered as one of the world’s great academic institutions. But, although the university dominates central Oxford both physically and mentally, the wider city has an entirely different character, its economy built on the car plants of Cowley to the south of the centre. It was here that Britain’s first mass-produced cars were produced in the 1920s and, although there have been more downs than ups in recent years, the plants are still vitally important to the area.
Oxford should be high on anyone’s itinerary, and can keep you occupied for several days. The colleges include some of England’s finest architecture, and the city also has some excellent museums and a good range of bars and restaurants.Read More
The Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library
The UK’s largest after the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library stores some 11 million book stacked up along almost 120 miles of shelves and growing fast – as one of the UK’s six legal deposit libraries, the Bodleian receives a copy of every work published in Britain.
The origins of the Bodleian go back to Duke Humfrey’s Library of 1488. The Bodleian proper was founded in 1602 by Thomas Bodley, initially occupying Duke Humfrey’s original library, although it grew so rapidly that the Old Schools Quadrangle was constructed between 1613 and 1618 to house the expanding collection. The library subsequently spread steadily outwards, occupying the Clarendon Building, Radcliffe Camera and finally the New Bodleian Library on Broad Street, built in the 1930s.
Tours of the Bodleian library
There are a variety of tours of the library, most centred on the Old Schools Quadrangle (including the Divinity School). Sixty-minute guided tours cover the Divinity School, Duke Humfrey’s Library and other parts of the Old Schools Quad, while there are also 30min tours visiting the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library. An extended tour adds visits to the Radcliffe Camera (the only way to get into the building for non-scholars) and the small medieval library of chained books in the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Tours are very popular, so it’s a good idea to arrive early on the day to reserve. Alternatively, there’s an audioguide that covers the quad and Divinity School.
The origins of the university are obscure, but it seems that the reputation of Henry I, the so-called “Scholar King”, helped attract students in the early twelfth century. The first colleges, founded mostly by rich bishops, were essentially ecclesiastical institutions and this was reflected in collegiate rules and regulations – until 1877 lecturers were not allowed to marry, and women were not granted degrees until 1920. There are common architectural features among the 39 colleges, with the private student rooms and most of the communal rooms – chapels, halls (dining rooms) and libraries – arranged around quadrangles (quads). Each, however, has its own character and often a label, whether it’s the richest (St John’s), most left-wing (Wadham) or most public-school-dominated (Christ Church). Collegiate rivalries are long established, usually revolving around sports, and tension between the university and the city – “Town” and Gown” – has existed as long as the university itself.
Exploring the colleges
All the more popular colleges have restricted opening hours – and may close totally during academic functions. Most now also impose an admission charge, while some (such as University and Queens) are out of bounds to outsiders.
One nice way to get to see the university buildings (including those that are otherwise closed to outsiders) is to attend choral evensong, held during term time and offering the chance to enjoy superb music in historic surroundings for free. New College Choir is generally reckoned to be the best, while Queens College and Merton are also good. Some colleges also rent out student rooms in the vacations (see Accommodation).
Punting in Oxford
Punting in Oxford
Punting is a favourite summer pastime among both students and visitors, but handling a punt – a flat-bottomed boat ideal for the shallow waters of the Thames and Cherwell rivers – requires some practise. The punt is propelled and steered with a long pole, which beginners inevitably get stuck in riverbed mud. Pulling over to the banks of the water for a riverside picnic is an essential part of the experience.
There are two central boat rental places: Magdalen Bridge boathouse, beside the Cherwell at the east end of the High Street; and the Thames boat station at Folly Bridge, a short stroll south of the centre along St Aldates. In summer, the queues soon build up at both, so try to get there early – at around 10am. At both boathouses, expect to pay about £16–20 per hour for a boat plus a £30 deposit; ID may be required. Punts can take a maximum of five passengers – four sitting and one punting. Call the boathouses for opening times – which vary – or if there are any doubts about the weather. Both boathouses also rent out chauffeured punts. You’ll also find rowing boats and pedaloes for rent, although these aren’t nearly as much fun.