We saved the best stop on our tour of West England for last as we made our way to Oxford which lies about an hour outside of London. Oxford was founded in the 12th century and is the oldest university city in the United Kingdom and only other city besides London that has ever served as the capital of the United Kingdom. Luckily, during World War II, Germany’s carpet bombing which completely destroyed many other British cities did not target Oxford, making it one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the United Kingdom. The medieval buildings that were spared led Victorian poet Matthew Arnold to call Oxford “the city of dreaming spires” which refers to the spires that rise from the many Gothic churches and individual colleges that pepper Oxford’s cityscape.
We took a walking tour of the city with Tom, a former student at the university, which focused mainly on the university itself. Thirty-eight colleges make up the University of Oxford, their combined brilliance resulting in it being ranked by many publications as the world’s number one university. Our tour took us past many of the most important colleges at the university including the University Church of St. Mary which is the oldest college in Oxford (1249), Christ Church College which is the alma mater of thirteen British Prime Ministers and home to its own Great hall which served as the inspiration for the Great Hall in Harry Potter, and All Souls College, a graduate college which accepts only two graduate fellows each year upon their performance in what has been called the “hardest exam in the world.”
One of the key components on our tour were old libraries, which are incidentally one of my favorite things to see and the most likely reason why I loved Oxford as much as I did. The first library we saw was the university’s world-famous Bodleian Library which is the main research library and one of the oldest libraries in all of Europe. It is also an excessively large library, holding over 12 million items which makes is the second-largest library in the United Kingdom behind the British Library. We took a separate tour of the library which included the Divinity School which was used as a filming location for Hogwarts’s Hospital Wing in several of the Harry Potter films. The library’s Harry Potter association does not end there, atop the Divinity School is Duke Humfrey’s Library which was the filming location for Hogwarts Library’s restricted section in several of the films.
Adjacent to the Bodleian Library is the Radcliffe Camera. The Camera is also a library in its own right, holding all the science books after the Bodleian Library became full. It now houses its own collection of books – not just science anymore – and serves as the reading room for the Bodleian and is the main building in which the University’s twenty thousand students now study. The building is restricted to students only but the outside of the building was plenty enough for me to see as I personally think it is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Oxford.
Besides the libraries and the Harry Potter connections, Oxford also has several important literary connections. My personal favorite, and it is no coincidence that the name of my blog was inspired by him, is Oxford’s connection to Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien spent much of his life teaching at the University of Oxford as a professor in a career spanning from 1925 to 1959. Tolkien left a mark on both the city and the University of Oxford and was eventually buried north of the city after his death in 1973. At Oxford, he visited the famous – and still open – Ashmolean museum, the oldest public museum in Britain(1863) which has a collection of rings with inscriptions on the inside and outside of the band and provided him with inspiration for the great ring in the Lord of the Rings.
One of Tolkien’s best friends at Oxford was fellow professor C.S. Lewis who wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Together, the two writers, along with several other famous writers, formed a literary group called the Inklings. The Inklings met often and talked about whatever they were working on at the time and would have discussed all of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s most famous works. C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian and there is a spot outside of the University Church of St. Mary – his favorite place to worship -where the idea for the beginning scenes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hit him suddenly one night. The intricately designed door and carved animals which inspired Lewis still sit outside the church next to the lamp post that Lucy first sees walking through the door to Narnia.
The Inklings often went to local pubs for their literary discussions. The most popular spot was the back room at The Eagle and the Child which they affectionately nicknamed The Bird and the Baby. We, of course, had to follow in their footsteps so we luckily procured a spot at the tiny pub in the backroom where the Inklings would have met. The Rabbit Room, as it was called, contains a historical plaque mentioning the Inklings as well as other mementos, most notably a letter written to the pub owner and signed by all the members which now hangs above the fireplace.
It being a weekend, from there we branched out to a couple of other famous pubs in the area, one of which is called Turf Tavern. The Turf is a well-hidden bar on Oxford’s campus that has been visited by Oxford students since 1381 with an interesting history to match its age: it was a hotbed for illegal activities for much of its life, mostly gambling, which eventually led to the pub being renamed to its current name. The tavern lies at the end of a winding alley-way near Oxford campus’s version of the Bridge of Sighs. Many famous people are also known to have dined at the tavern, including cast members of the Harry Potter films after a long day of shooting. It is also the reported location of where former President Bill Clinton “did not inhale” during a night out while he was a student at the university.
Later, we went to another local drinking establishment called The Bear Inn which dates all the way back to 1242 making it one of the oldest pubs in Oxford. As is the case with buildings of its age, it is one of the several pubs in the city were anybody over 6 foot tall has to duck while walking around inside. Speaking of its insides, the Bear has an interesting choice of wall decor as it is covered from head to toe with the cut off ends of neckties. An eclectic owner of the pub took such a fancy to ties that he had never seen before that he would cut the end off peoples’ ties to hang on the walls in exchange for a pint of beer. We got to the pub late so all the tables were full, but Lauren, being the extrovert she is (NOT because she was a few pints deep), noticed a table fit for five with only three occupants. She sat down and started up a conversation with the three guys and within no time at all we were telling our life stories to Phil, Ben, and Nick, and teaching them how to play drinking games like Americans. It was a perfect way to end the night and our trip to Oxford, and our experience at The Bear will be something that neither Lauren or I will ever forget.
As I said earlier, Oxford was probably my favorite stop of ours while in Western England. All the locals we met were extremely friendly, the city itself is beautiful, its history and the history of the university make it a wonderful place to visit. It is also a must visit for anybody that is as big a Lord of the Rings nerd as I am. Being only an hour outside of London also makes it the perfect destination for a day trip or weekend break that I would not miss if visiting the capital city. I cannot recommend this beautiful city enough.
For my next post, we will be going back to London to see some really incredible and exciting things so it is one that should not be missed!
- Small groups are able to go up the tallest tower of the University Church of St. Mary. It costs 4£ and provides you with an amazing panoramic view of Oxford and the Radcliffe Camera. I am glad we paid the money to do it.
- Do not pay the 8/10£ to go into Christ Church to see the planned filming location for Harry Potter’s Great Hall. The hall was too small so they had to make a replica to be able to fit all four house tables so the hall in the church was not even used. If still interested, however, every night at 6pm the Christ Church Choir performs an Evensong and a short liturgy is held that is free to get into and allows you to see all of Christ Church. The choir is supposed to be really good as well.
- The house Tolkien inhabited while at Oxford lies a little north of the center of the city. I walked up there one day but there is not much to see so it was not really worth the effort. His grave is far more worth it, though you need to take a bus to get there.