Probably the most famous British city after London, Oxford (pop. 135,000) is a small-scaled but immensely beautiful city. It is understandably inundated with tourists in summer.
Oxford University is one of the world's most prestigious academic institutions (along with its local rival, Cambridge), and is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Countless celebrities are on the list of its alumni. Some of the most famous include, chronologically, John Locke, William Penn, Christopher Wren, Adam Smith, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, JRR Tolkien, Indira Gandhi, Margarett Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rupert Murdoch, Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean), Michael Palin and Hugh Grant. All in all, Oxford has produced 47 Nobel prize-winners, 25 British Prime Ministers, 23 Presidents or non-British Prime Ministers, 6 saints, 86 Archbishops, 18 Cardinals and 1 Pope.
Oxford's economy is not limited to third-level education and tourism. Car manufacturing has been going on since 1912, when William Morris established the first mass-produced car factory in the country in the district of Cowley.
The town is surrounded by two rivers, the Thames (also known locally as Isis) and the Cherwell, as well as the Oxford Canal and numerous lawns and meadows, conferring Oxford a very pastoral atmosphere. Carfax Tower (the name comes from Latin quadri furcus, i.e. "four forks") marks the city centre, at the junction of High Street, St Aldgate's, Queen Steet and Cornmarket Street, which divide the city in four quarters.
The Saxons founded "Oxanforda" in the 8th century. It became a military frontier town between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex , and was fortified by Alfred the Great to protect it from Danish raids.
The university's history starts in 1167, when the English students were expelled from the Sorbonne University in Paris and established a new academic centre in the backwater that was Oxford at the time.
The students didn't go along well with the local townspeople, and clashed several times, like in 1209, 1330, and most famously in 1355, when 63 students and 30 townspeople were killed in the St Scholastica Day Riot. King Edward III brought in troops to quell the riot and, supporting the students, imposed a fine of one penny per student killed to be paid by the mayor and citizens at every anniversary of the riot. This practiced did not come to an end until 1825 !
The university was divided into independent colleges in the 13th century. The first three were the the University College (1249), Balliol (1263) and Merton (1264). At least three new colleges were created in the ensuing three centuries. Nevertheless, the first college admitting women did not open until 1878, and women were not actually awarded a degree until as late as 1920.
In 1790 the Oxford Canal connected the city with Coventry, and in the 1840s the Great Western Railway and London and North Western Railway linked Oxford with London. As a result, Oxford experienced a rapid industrial growth, with the first car manufacture opening in 1912 and the printing and publishing industries becoming well established by the 1920s.
Recent immigration has given Oxford a notable cosmopolitan character, especially in the Headington and Cowley Road areas with their many bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs, ethnic shops and fast food outlets. 13% of the population is now 'non-white', with 5% of South Asians, 2,5% of Afro-Caribeans and 1.8% of Chinese. This does not include the numerous short-term international students of the university and English language schools.
The main reason to visit Oxford is for its fabulous university which comprises 39 colleges, ranging from the three original ones from 1264 to the latest to open in 1957.
The most illustrious or popular colleges are Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Pembroke, Merton, Magdalen (pronounced 'maudlin'), Queen's, St Edmund Hall, University, Brasenose, All Souls, Jesus, Trinity, Balliol and the New College.
Other remarkable buildings include the circular, Palladian-style Radcliffe Camera, the 14th-century Church of St Mary the Virgin, the 15th-century Bodleian Library, the 18th-century Clarendon Building (the ceremonial center of the university), and the Sheldonian Theatre (built by Christopher Wren).
Oxford pride itself on having the country's oldest museum, the Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683. It boasts one of the largest collection of arts and antiquities in Britain after the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. Starting with its fantastic neo-classical facade, the displays range from European and Middle-Eastern antiquities from the Paleolithic to the Victorian era, Islamic and East Asian arts, Western paintings, sculpture and musical instruments (including works by Michelangelo and Raphael and one of the world's best Stradivarius violin).
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is housed in an elegant neo-Gothic edifice, and has the largest display of dinosaurs outside London.
The Pitt Rivers Museum has archaeological and ethnographic objects from all over the world, from Japanese Noh masks and a Tahitian mourner's costume collected by Captain Cook, to Inuit fur parkas and decorated moccasins.
Also among the best outside London, the Museum of Modern Art exhibits 20th-century art (photography included) with works by many pioneering artists.
The Museum of Oxford (open Tue-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12noon-4pm; admission £2.50) tells the story of the city and university through the ages. It has an eclectic array of exhibits from a mammoth's tooth to Roman pottery, and from recreated historical interiors to a 'Morris Minor' car.
If you are interested in learning more about the world-famous Oxford English Dictionar, how textbooks for learners of English are made, or the history of printing, head for the Oxford University Press Museum (open Mon-Fri 9:30am-5pm; admission free)
Harry Potter & Oxford
Fans of the teenage sorcerer will recognise scenes from the film in some of Oxford's buildings, like the Hogwarts dining hall (Christ Church College), Hogwarts Sanatorium (Bodleian Library) and Hogwarts Library (Duke Humfrey's Library).
How to get there
Oxford is located 90km north-west of London, at the junction of the M40 with the A40/41 and A34 motorways.
There are direct train connections between Oxford and London Paddington (1h, £15.90) or Birmingham (1h15min, £19). Trains to the Southwest require a change at Didcot Parkway (15min, £3.50).
There are suprisngly many bus companies serving Oxford. National Express has coaches to London (1h40min, £11) every 15min, to Heathrow airport (1h10min, £16) half-hourly, Gatwick airport (2h, £21) hourly, as well as at least one daily direct service to Bath (2h, £8.25), Bristol (2h45min, £12), Birmingham (1h45min, £9.50), and Cambridge (3h25min, £16).
Stagecoach has buses all around the Southwest. The Oxford Tube service goes to London Victoria via Sheperd's Bush, Notting Hill Gate and Marble Arch for £10.
The Oxford Bus Company's Oxford Express bus runs to London (£10) every 20min, while 'The Airline" goes to Gatwick airport (£20) hourly, and Heathrow airport (£15) half-hourly.
Train timetables & reservations