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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Magdalen Bridge in Oxford

What is Magdalen Bridge?

Magdalen Bridge is a Historic crossing named after a neighbouring college.

Magdalen Bridge

Magdalen Bridge History

Magdalen Bridge is one of the most famous sights in Oxford and arguably its most famous bridge, with the view overlooked by the bell tower of Magdalen College. From the bridge, you can admire both the college and a picturesque stretch of the River Cherwell as it flows by the Botanic Garden. Magdalen, one of the wealthiest and largest colleges in Oxford, with its own deer park, lends its name to the bridge, but a crossing over the Cherwell existed in this spot long before the college was founded.

In 1004, mention of a bridge here was made by King Ethelred in a charter granted to a priory in Oxford. By the time of the Tudors, a stone bridge was standing. It was a very large one too: at 460 metres and with 20 arches, it was similar in size to the modern crossing. That medieval structure became increasingly unsuitable in the 1700s, being too narrow for traffic and badly damaged by floods. The current bridge, designed by architect John Gwynn, was built in the 1770s and ’80s. Sadly, Gwynn’s original plan for decorative sculptures and sphinxes was not carried out, leaving the bridge impressive but a little plain.

Magdalen Bridge’s central location makes it a very popular launching off point for the quintessential Oxford experience of punting. A boathouse under the tower provides the punts – and professional punters too for nervous beginners! In the summer months, this stretch of the Cherwell is full of groups navigating the river, often enjoying picnics in the sun.

Magdalen Bridge is also the location for one of Oxford’s most eagerly anticipated yearly events: May Morning. This lively celebration of the first day of May has a history stretching back hundreds of years. Starting at dawn, the High Street is filled with early risers or late-night revellers. Many come to the festival still smartly dressed from the preceding evening, since some colleges hold dinners or parties the night before the celebration. Magdalen Bridge is the centre of the event with Magdalen College Choir launching the day with a hymn from the top of the tower. Morris Dancers entertain the crowd before everyone heads off for a large breakfast in the town’s cafés and restaurants, open especially early in honour of the event.

With the sun shining, May Morning is one of the highlights of the year and many film-makers have been inspired by it, including Richard Attenborough. His 1993 film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, prominently featured May Day celebrations at Magdalen Bridge.

Whether it’s May Morning or any other day, Magdalen Bridge never fails to offer a picturesque and memorable sight.

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