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Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

It’s hard to know where to begin; Oxford is just amazing. Architecture, history, authors, movies, it’s all around you. Whether you are familiar with Oxford through the Morse TV show, Harry Potter, Narnia, Discovery of Witches or all of the above they barely scratch the surface of this city that hosts the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

We were in Oxford to housesit for a sweet, elderly dog named Maisie. It was January and it was very cold. Colder most days than it was in Iceland! So glad I had my thermals and my big coat.

We chose to start off our exploration of the city with a walking tour. While this was a great way to see many of the famous buildings and hear about the history of university, we were somewhat limited in the acreage we could cover even in 2 hours. Definitely worth the time and money, but it didn’t help me get oriented to the city or university as a whole. Later in the stay, I took the Hop-on-Hop-off bus and that was a much better way to see many of the city sights, learn about the history, and save the walking for specific sights like the Ashmolean museum.

Mark and I got fairly proficient in using the very fine public transportation system. No cars (or parking) in the city center, so hop on the double-decker and off you go.

View from the Top

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, has a tower you can climb to get a nearly 360 degree view of the city center. The narrow viewing area is 90 feet high, topped by a spire of another 101 feet. There are lots of stairs and its one of those narrow medieval circular stairways. I’m glad I did it, but I might not have tried if I knew it was going to be so cramped (with two-way traffic as well). Be sure to check for opening times. Climbing the tower requires a ticket, £5 per person.

The Many Colleges of Oxford

The University has 44 independent colleges. This system is very different than anything I’ve heard of in the US, but it’s apparently been working well for centuries. Each college has it’s own set of buildings with residences, lecture halls, dining halls, libraries, and more. Some have areas that are open to the public, some do not. Each one has a unique history, notable alumni, and impressive architecture.

British Railways map of Oxford Colleges

Teddy Hall – Special Access

We were very lucky to meet-up with a new friend, Stephen, who – as a retired faculty member – gave us a special tour of St. Edmund Hall AKA Teddy Hall. While relatively new as a full-fledged college, the hall dates from the mid-13th century as an academic society. This college is generally closed to the public, so it was a real privilege to be able to peek inside the different buildings. They have two libraries: the “old” library above the chapel and the “new” library that is a repurposed church.

More Amazing Buildings

Besides the colleges, there are many more incredible structures. You may recognize some from various films and TV. We had recently re-watched the first season of “A Discovery of Witches,” where much of the action takes place in Oxford, specifically the Bodleian Library. One regret is that we did not get to tour inside the Bodleian, tickets were sold out the entire time we were in town. Plan ahead!

Did I Mention Famous Authors?

One of the stops on our walking tour was the Narnia door, said to inspire C.S. Lewis. You can’t see it in the picture, but there’s also a lamppost nearby. The Oxford Botanical Gardens has several sculptures paying homage to local authors such as Lewis Carol and Phillip Pullman.

And More Old Things

So far, the Kings Arms is the oldest pub we’ve visited having been in business since 1607. (Though it’s not even close to being the oldest pub in the UK!) Not to be outdone, the Queen’s Lane claims to be the oldest coffee house in Europe, est. 1654. Mark said the coffee was quiet good.

We didn’t get to even half of the museums in Oxford, since that could take a week itself. We did visit the History of Science museum and I spent a lovely day at the Ashmolean Museum, while Mark went to the coast. The science museum had a special exhibit on Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” with tie-ins to objects that might have inspired the author. The Ashmolean reminded me of the British Museum on a much smaller scale. Treasures from across the globe and across history. Supposedly they have one of the few taxidermized Dodo birds, but I couldn’t find it.

Up Next, North to Scotland


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