Tourist Information Office, St Aldate’s, Oxford, OX1 1DY. 0865 726871.
(posted Nov 2011): Oxford (0865 246373).
Oxford certainly lays claim to being the second senior university, the Sorbonne in Paris being the first. What is much less certain are the early beginnings of the city. Fragments of Roman and early Saxon inhabitants have been unearthed and there are some far-fetched stories about the legendary King Memphric founding it, and if it was not him it must have been Alfred the Great. St Frideswides gets the majority vote from the historians as having founded a nunnery after she refused to marry. The town then grew up around the nunnery after she died early in the eighth century.
Edward the Elder, in AD912, ‘held Lundenbyrg (London) and Oxnaford and all the lands that were pertaining thereto’. It was called Oxnaford because it was the place at which the ox-drovers forded the River Thames and then congregated at the four-forked crossroads which, in Old French, was carrefour. That name was altered to Carfax, which is the traditional centre of the city. The Danes attacked Oxford, Canute and Harold I held their councils in it and the Norman governor, Robert D’Oyly, built a fortified castle and, within the castle walls, the collegiate Church of St George. By the time of the Domesday survey it was a trading centre of standing, with its own mint and a weaving guild with a royal charter.
The great days of growth for Oxford were in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Henry II as a reprisal against France for harbouring Thomas a Becket, the exiled Archbishop of Canter-bury, ordered all English scholars to return home. Many went to Oxford because there were already a number of lecturers there teaching the wandering scholars from Europe. The first Chancellor of the University was appointed in 1214. Several parliaments were held in the town including the ‘Mad Parliament’ with its Provisions of Oxford, when Simon de Montfort and twenty-three barons signed Provisions which limited the power of the throne. Henry VIII created a bishopric of Oxford with its cathedral at Christ Church and it was there Bishops Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were martyred. During the Civil War Oxford became the royal capital. Within five years Oliver Cromwell, a man of Cambridge, became Chancellor of the University (1651-7) but it was Gilbert Sheldon his successor, who restored the University to a more settled existence – he left behind him the Sheldonian Theatre where the business of the University and many of the ceremonies are now held.
Most of the colleges and main buildings are within easy walking distance of each other. There is no need to go out to Boar’s Hill to see the ‘dreaming spires’, though it is worth the trip if you have time, but do go up Carfax Tower (open Easter to October). Carfax at the centre of the town is Oxford’s main crossroad. To the east runs the High Street, crossing the River Cherwell at Magdalen Bridge; to the north Cornmarket Street leads to Woodstock and Banbury; west the road goes from Queen Street into Castle Street to Quaking Bridge and over the medieval mill stream, and New Road goes to the railway station; and south St Aldate’s, once called Fish Street, leads to Folly Bridge, and then to Newbury and Abingdon.
The road from the railway station (there is a good service from London Paddington and on to Birmingham and Worcester, but no trains to Cambridge) is not the best introduction to the city. Start at Carfax crossroads. A step away is the information centre and from here begin walking or minibus tours of the colleges and university buildings every day from Easter until October.
If your visit is outside those dates then for a ‘do it yourself tour still go to the Information Centre as it has all sorts of guidebooks, maps and leaflets which will help you on your way. If you are very brave they will also direct you to shops which will hire you a bicycle. Punting and bikes are part of the way of life here, as they are at Cambridge. Oxford’s charm is best appreciated from wandering, perhaps on your own, around the narrow lanes and alleys, looking through arched entrances and into courtyards. Colleges nearly all have a board telling you when you may go in. During term-time it is nearly always in the afternoon, but times do vary, and you are asked to remember that there are those who are there to work and that the colleges are private places, not public parks. Save some time for the river, museums and bookshops, particularly Blackwells, but before you start do look at ‘Daily Information’, a helpful broadsheet listing daily events.