A huge day exploring Oxford planned today. This will be interesting, with a ripped calf muscle. Just as well I come from hardy stock where “walk it off” is a family mantra. My sister once famously “walked off” ever increasing pain until her appendix burst…but I digress.
Oxford is well serviced by cycling paths and park & ride services: it’s the bikes for us. With its beautiful honey coloured limestone, it’s immediately familiar as the setting for many film locations. It’s easy to see why, apart from the fact that it looks like fairytale place, with 1,500 listed buildings from each major periods of British history, it’s a period setting goldmine.
Settled in the 10th century at the crossing of the rivers Thames and Cherwell, Oxford’s importance grew as a military front between Mercia and Wessex. For a moment there, I’m in Vikings – so this is of where they speak. Oxford’s most famous attraction is no doubt the Oxford University, not just the one place, but 38 colleges of different specialties spread throughout the city. Established in the late 12th century, it was the first university in the English-speaking world, growing through the centuries up until the 14th when it overtook production of cloth and leather to become the town’s most important economic marker.
In later centuries, Oxford also was the setting for King Charles I court when he fled London during the civil war. During his four year stay, he established the Christ Church College and the Divinity School. Oxford also played a major part in the Great Plague of London when it was the seat of parliament under King Charles II.
In its most recent incarnation, Oxford boomed again in the early 20th century with printing, publishing and car manufacture. Luckily though, despite industry and WWII, the city stands largely intact. Interestingly much of the war damage was avoided because Hitler intended to make the city his capital in England.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that in addition to education, the main industry today is tourism. For many, myself included, it’s also an opportunity to see some of the Harry Potter film locations and to follow in the footsteps of famous authors JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll: this is the birthplace of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Alice in Wonderland.
We set out on foot to complete a self guided walk around the city, taking in the top sights including the endless colleges, the Bodleian Library, the beautiful Bridge of Sighs, built to resemble the Rialto Bridge in Venice, but (as the locals say) best reflective of the sighs of students passing through it, on their way to exams. We see the Sheldonian Theatre,
the site of many university ceremonies, the covered market, opened in 1774, which is unfortunately closed today being a bank holiday.
The Cherwell river, today full of punts, provides a welcome break.
We end the first part of the day at The Eagle and Child pub, a favourite Tolkien and Lewis hangout.
They even have a Rabbit Room! Pretty exciting for Chris who’s a huge Tolkien fan. It has to be fish and chips, doesn’t it, in an old English pub?
After lunch it’s time to get into a little more detail. There are some things we missed along the way, including the doorway that was the inspiration for Lewis’ Narnia: a wooden door carved with a lion’s head, flanked by two fauns.
It would be remiss of us to to come to Oxford and not tour at least one of the Colleges. Being a Potterhead, it has to be Christ Church College, with its beautiful dining hall, the inspiration for the Great Hall in the Potter films.
The staircase leading up to the Great Hall, with it’s beautiful vaulted ceilings was also a setting in the first film where the first year students are met by Professor McGonagall before being sorted into their houses.
Scenes from the Golden Compass were also filmed here, and the real Alice ran in these halls: her father Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) taught and lived here for 47 years.
The dining hall in Christ Church College is truly beautiful. Pre-victorian, it’s the largest Hall in either Oxford or Cambridge, seating up to 300 people. It boasts a hammerbeam ceiling and portraits of its many prior members, including 13 Prime Ministers educated at the College. None of them move though…
Also a feature is the beautiful quadrangle known as Tom Quad, so named for the 17th century installation of a 6 tonne bell, the Great Tom, that still stands proudly in the centre tower today.
Another famous filming spot, although I’m not sure why they didn’t use it specifically, is just past the Bridge of Sighs where Draco and Harry had a brief exchange.
We pop in briefly to the Bodleian Library, also another film location (the restricted books library) but it’s closed on arrival. I’m not the only Potterhead here, judged by scores of children of all ages (discreet cough), in all languages, excitedly whispering “Harry Potter” repeatedly.
You could easily spend days exploring Oxford but eventually our day comes to a close and it’s time to cycle home.
Remarkably, I made it with my dodgy calf. It did put up a fabulous protest about 2 hours in, but in good family tradition I walked it off. There was much to distract me: hundreds of photos to take!
We find out later that today was the hottest bank holiday in history.