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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Oxford High Street

What is Oxford High Street?

Oxford High Street is the central thoroughfare lined with colleges, shops and eateries.

Oxford High Street

Oxford High Street History

Oxford’s High Street, known locally as ‘the High’, lies at the very centre of the city, offering some of the best sights it has to offer. Down both sides of the road are a mixture of colleges, shops, cafés, pubs and hotels, all with rich and lengthy histories. Walking along the High, you might pause to look into the Covered Market, opened in 1774. This delightful labyrinth of shops and cafés offers a colourful (and dry) diversion for any tourist or shopper, though be careful what time you go: at lunchtime the aisles will be full of hungry students.

On the High Street itself are all manner of historic independent shops, including goldsmiths, antiques merchants and the university outfitters, Shepherd & Woodward. The High also gives one of the best views of Oxford college exteriors and university buildings. The churchlike building at the entrance to Turl Street was once All Saints’, the official city church of Oxford from the late 19th century onwards. Deconsecrated in the 1970s, it’s now Lincoln College Library, certainly one of the most beautiful of its kind. Nearby is the impressive University Church of St Mary the Virgin with its amazing spire, and opposite that Oriel College. If you continue east along the High Street, you’ll come to Queen’s College, and opposite it University College. On your way, you’ll see a small blue plaque on the wall, announcing that this was the site where Robert Boyle, the famous scientist and inventor of Boyle’s Law, lived in the 17th century.

Just past Queen’s and University Colleges continuing east lie two cafés: Queen’s Lane Coffee House and, opposite it, the Grand Café. Curiously, both lay claim to be the oldest coffee shop in England. Queen’s Lane claims that it was founded in 1654 by Cirques Jobson, an immigrant from Syria, and is the longest-established coffeehouse in Europe. The Grand Café would beg to disagree. They argue that they stand on the site of the first coffeehouse in England, established four years earlier than its rival across the street. According to the historian of Oxford, Anthony Wood, they were opened in 1650 by someone called Jacob whose coffee ‘delighted’ customers with its ‘noveltie’. Whoever has the better claim to the title of oldest coffee shop, both establishments are today popular parts of the Oxford scene, proud of their rich histories.

Branching off from the High are further hidden treasures. Down Alfred Street sits the Bear Inn, one of the oldest and most eccentric pubs in England. Turl Street, with Jesus, Exeter and Lincoln Colleges and its view of Trinity at the Broad Street side, is one of the most classically ‘Oxford’ streets in the city. Step onto Merton Street and you’ll have the best views of the Examination Schools, where students attend lectures and sit their university exams. If you’re here in May or June, you may see them in their ‘subfusc’, complete with scholarly gown and carnation, heading nervously down the High to sit their papers. Remember to say good luck if they’re wearing a red carnation: that means it’s their last exam!

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