With its honey-coloured colleges arrayed in splendour beside the river, the university town of Oxford is a seductive vision of medieval learning and modern charm.
Although there’s more to Oxford than Oxford University, the university is very much the city’s defining feature. Consistently ranked among the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, the university can trace its history back to the 11th century. Within 200 years, it had taken shape as a loose association of independent colleges, and that medieval institution remains recognisable to this day. Modern visitors flock to Oxford to explore those same colleges, housed for the most part in their original historic buildings, and to admire shared university resources such as the magnificent Bodleian Library and the world-class Ashmolean Museum.
A gloriously mellow ensemble of golden-hued wonders, Oxford unquestionably ranks among England’s most beautiful cities. In fact, as you stroll through its historic and homogenous core, it can be hard to believe you’re in modern England at all. Certain specific buildings stand out, like the domed and glowing Radcliffe Camera, and you can admire masterpieces by such great architects as Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Really, though, the joy of visiting Oxford lies in the sheer cumulative splendour of college after century-old college, each playing its own permutation of Gothic chapels, secluded cloisters, and tranquil quadrangles.
City of dreaming spires, or city of inspiring dreamers? Oxford authors have an extraordinary record for producing epic works of fantasy, imbued with dreamy, otherworldly qualities. The city would still look familiar to former dons such as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice In Wonderland, and JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, responsible for The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narniarespectively. Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame went to school in Oxford, while Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, revolves around alternative versions of the city. Even Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) was here, studying literature at Lincoln College.
As befits a city of students and professors, Oxford is one of the last bastions of the great British pub. Irresistible old pubs dotted down its central lanes and alleyways include the charmingly convoluted Turf Tavern, the Bear Inn and the King’s Arms. Some double as literary landmarks, like the Lamb & Flag and the Eagle & Child, near neighbours and regular haunts of the ‘Inklings’, a group of writers that included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Yet more lie out in the surrounding countryside, reached by idyllic riverside walks, like The Perch, The Trout and the Isis Farmhouse.