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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Short Guide to Oxford and its History


Famously one of the most beautiful English cities, Oxford is also undoubtedly one of the most inspiring. Over the centuries, travellers, students and residents have all been moved by the city’s breathtaking architecture and rich history. Poets have called it the city of ‘dreaming spires’; Thomas Hardy used it as the basis for Christminster in his famous novel Jude the Obscure; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited created a lasting vision of an inter-war Oxford of youthful extravagance; and Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials used the city as a location, drawing on the author’s own days as an English student at Exeter College.

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Oxford on Screen

For many visiting Oxford, a walk around the city will be little more than an extended case of déjà vu, a profound sense of things seen before: Oxford has been extensively used as a location for film and TV series. Those walking past Christ Church have been known to see tourists adorned in Harry Potter merchandise queuing at the gates; the college hall being one of the many locations in the city used for the film series. Fans of detective shows and whodunnits will likely feel that they know Oxford well: the much-loved Inspector Morse series and spin off shows were filmed around the city and in many of the colleges.

christ church war memorial gardens

The University Hub: Radcliffe Square

At the centre of the city is the University of Oxford. Many of Oxford’s most famous buildings are part of the university and a good place to start any tour here is in the city’s heart: Radcliffe Square. Right in the middle of the town centre, Radcliffe Square gives a good insight into some of the university’s most beautiful buildings, from the majestic walls and sundial of All Souls to the magnificent Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Library. The university’s colleges and buildings spread throughout the town, and, in many ways, Oxford is very much a university town. The university term times are notoriously short, which means sightseers to the city might witness a very different place depending on which time of year they visit. Anyone coming in term time may see students in ‘subfusc’ (the formal university garb) running to an exam; postgraduates milling around the streets clutching books; and smartly dressed academics walking to ‘formal hall’, the smart dinners held in colleges.

Tracing Oxford's Saxon Roots

A visitor outside of term time will see a city perhaps less busy but no less beautiful. Oxford, after all, is a historic and important place, dating back well over a thousand years to Saxon times. The city’s name finds its roots in this period. The Saxons called the settlement Oxna Forda (or ‘The Ford of the Oxen’), since there was a shallow part of the river here that could be crossed easily by oxen drawing heavy carts.

River in Oxford

Oxford's Historical Significance

Although Oxford is not a large city, it has a long and interesting history. It has often been a city at the forefront of English politics, not least in the dramatic time of the Civil Wars. During the conflict between King Charles I and Parliament, the king kept court in Oxford, living in Christ Church. The city survived that war unscathed, as well as the global conflicts of the 20th century. Hitler was apparently fond of Oxford, and the city avoided bombing perhaps with the intention of it being used as a capital after the war.

A Historic college building in Oxford

Exploring Oxford's Delights

In any case, you’ll have a rich and exciting day of tourism visiting Oxford's famous landmarks. Stroll through the city’s ancient streets (Merton Street and New College Lane are the hidden gems), see architectural marvels like the Bridge of Sighs, visit some of the famous and archaic pubs such as the Turf Tavern and the Bear Inn, look around the Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, go on a college tour, or punt on the river. As Oscar Wilde said: ‘Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one’.

The bridge of sighs in New College Lane in Oxford.

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