Oxford – City of Dreaming Spires (and lots of bicycles)
AN ENGLISH CLASSIC | Sharon Henry
The city of Oxford has contributed a great deal to the world. There’s the Oxford English Dictionary, Alice in Wonderland, Stephen Hawking, the annual University Boat Race, plus the most elegant of men’s footwear, the laced Oxford shoe.
Oxford is known as the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ attributed to its landscape of spire-topped buildings. I’ve decided to nickname it ‘The City of Bikes’ simply because bicycles are everywhere. Not so much in traffic, but parked and attached anywhere that a bike lock will wrap around.
Dark Clouds Gather
On a ‘sunshine and showers’ day, typical of English weather we’ve climbed the 14th century Carfax Tower in the city centre. The bird’s eye view, ninety-nine steps up is pretty spectacular overlooking rooftops and down on matchstick people below. It’s the perfect spot for taking photos and getting a sense of the ‘dreaming spires.’
Dark clouds have been threatening all morning and finally the heavens open forcing other visitors up here to dash for cover. We brave the weather (well we have climbed 99 steps to get here) and within a few minutes the rain breaks and have free reign to move around without bumping others elbows.
Something Fishy Going On
Featured on the brochures, apart from universities is the Covered Market. Amongst the stalls are flower stands, clothing boutiques and saliva-inducing pie shops, all indoors under one roof. The island girl in me is drawn to the red fleshy tuna on display at a fishmongers priced at £24.95 per kg. My word, what an expensive batch of fishcakes they’d make. Back home on St Helena the equivalent costs £4.20 – and we think that’s expensive.
The high street has a mixture of shops, cafes and universities catering to what seems to be a bustling community. The ratio of young student-types (amongst the tourists) gracing the streets is noticeably high. In fact, full time students enrolled in the city’s 38 universities collectively make up 24% of Oxford’s population.
Unfortunately today most universities are closed to visitors because exams are in progress. We do manage a peek through a few courtyards and marvel at the awesomeness of the learning environment. If this doesn’t inspire your inner ‘Hermione,’ you’re in trouble!
Speak To God
We like places with free admission and pass through the doors of the University Church of St Mary. There’s been a church on this site for 1,000 years. It’s beautiful in here and seated on a pew is the best way to appreciate the stained glass windows above. The walls and floors have a number of memorial tablets including 17th century physician John Radcliff, famous in his time who has a hospital, observatory and the Radcliff Camera named after him.
Oxford is a city small enough to explore by foot with places of interest just a stone’s throw from the next. There’s a maze on Rose Lane that forms part of the Botanical Gardens. It’s not big enough to get lost but I think it’s a delightful find.
The streets of Oxford itself is like a maze and each cobbled lane or alley offers gothic gargoyles, historic buildings and of course bikes, lots of them.
We seek out the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ so called for its unintentional resemblance to the original in Venice. This one’s actually named the Hertford Bridge, and is an overhead walkway linking two parts of Hertford College. Funny that this is quite a tourist attraction.
Harry’s Stomping Ground
Definite tourist attractions made famous by the Harry Potter films are the Bodleian Library complex and Christ Church College. (Admission is charged to these sites). Fans can spend a day chasing the young wizard’s shadow around these locations that provided backdrops for JK Rowling’s magical world of Hogwarts.
A Potter fan since the first book in ’97 I’m disappointed that Christ Church’s dining hall is closed. I’d been looking forward to seeing the ‘Great Hall’ and daydreaming a candlelit dinner with Harry and friends.
Close to the bus stop is the Museum of Oxford at the Town Hall so we take a quick tour to round off our day trip. It’s small and free, showcasing the town’s history and gives a quirky look at former residents. Like James Spader, England’s first hot air balloonist and Alice Lindell who grew up at Christ Church and inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Oxford is an hour from London by train or just under two by coach. With so much history it’s well worth a visit although we only scratched the surface with our day’s excursion.