Many Americans arriving at Oxford ask, "Where's the campus?" If a local looks amused when answering, it's because Oxford University, in fact, is made up of 35 colleges sprinkled throughout the town. To tour all of these would be a formidable task. It's best to focus on just a handful of the better-known colleges.
A word of warning: The main business of a university is, of course, to educate -- and this function at Oxford has been severely hampered by the number of visitors who disturb the academic work of the university. So visiting is restricted to certain hours and small groups of six or fewer. Furthermore, visitors are not allowed at all in certain areas, but the tourist office will be happy to advise you when and where you may take in the sights of this great institution.
An Overview -- For a bird's-eye view of the city and colleges, climb Carfax Tower, located in the center of the city. This structure is distinguished by its clock and figures that strike on the quarter-hour. Carfax Tower is all that remains from St. Martin's Church, where William Shakespeare once stood as godfather for William Davenant, who also became a successful playwright. A church stood on this site from 1032 until 1896. The tower used to be higher, but after 1340 it was lowered, following complaints from the university to Edward III that townspeople threw stones and fired arrows at students during town-and-gown disputes. Admission is £2 for adults, £1 for children. The tower is open year-round, except for from Christmas Eve to January 1. April to October, hours are 10am to 5:30pm daily. Off-season hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 3:30pm. Children 4 and younger are not admitted. For information, call tel. 01865/792653.
Which College to Choose? Oxford or Cambridge? -- Not everyone can go to both Oxford and Cambridge, so which should you choose if pressed for time and can spare only a day outside of London? We'd opt for Cambridge over Oxford because Cambridge more closely lives up to the image of what an English university town is like.
Although the university dominates central Oxford, it is also an industrial city known for its motor industry. Its 120,000 permanent residents seem to keep to themselves and go about their lives trying to evade the thousands of tourists descending on their inner core. Of course, Oxford has some of England's greatest architecture, some excellent museums, and great student pubs. On an ideal itinerary, it should not be crossed off the list.
Then there is Cambridge. It's really an agricultural market town, a more tranquil and secluded place, set at the doorstep of the Fens, a vast area just north of the city that's a strange but fascinating terrain of reclaimed marshland and quaking bogs. In addition to its architecture and university, Cambridge allows you to preview the life of East Anglia, still one of the country's bucolic landscapes as painted by John Constable.
Unlike the city of Oxford, Cambridge is more compact and can be more easily walked and explored on a rushed day trip. You can go "punting" on the River Cam; explore "the Backs," that green swathe of land straddling the river; and walk the 1km (1/2-mile) parade of colleges from Magdalene to Peterhouse. Not bad for a day's outing. You may so fall in love with English university towns, you'll decide to stay in England for that extra day so you can take in Oxford after all.
Punting the River Cherwell -- Punting on the River Cherwell remains the favorite outdoor pastime in Oxford. At Punt Station, Cherwell Boathouse, Bardwell Road (tel. 01865/515978; www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk), you can rent a punt (flat-bottom boat maneuvered by a long pole and a small oar) for £12 to £14 per hour, plus a £60 to £70 deposit. Similar charges are made for punt rentals at Magdalen Bridge Boathouse, Bardwell Road (tel. 01865/202-643; www.oxfordpunting.co.uk). Punts are rented from mid-March to mid-October daily 10am until dusk. Hours of operation seem to be rather informal, however, and you're not always guaranteed that someone will be here to rent you a boat, even if the punt itself is available.
Begun by Cardinal Wolsey as Cardinal College in 1525, Christ Church (tel. 01865/276492; www.chch.ox.ac.uk), known as the House, was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. Facing St. Aldate's Street, Christ Church has the largest quadrangle of any college in Oxford. Tom Tower houses Great Tom, an 18,000-pound bell. It rings at 9:05pm nightly, signaling the closing of the college gates. The 101 times it peals originally signified the number of students in residence at the time the college was founded. Although the student body has grown significantly, Oxford traditions live forever. There are some portraits in the 16th-century Great Hall, including works by Gainsborough and Reynolds. There's also a separate portrait gallery.
The college chapel was constructed over a period of centuries, beginning in the 12th century. (Incidentally, it's not only the college chapel but also the cathedral of the diocese of Oxford.) The cathedral's most distinguishing features are its Norman pillars and the vaulting of the choir, dating from the 15th century. In the center of the great quadrangle is a statue of Mercury mounted in the center of a fishpond. Many scenes from the Harry Potter films have been shot with the cloisters, quads, and staircases of Christ Church standing in for Hogwarts, making this a popular stop for kids of all ages. The college is open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm; Sunday 1 to 5pm, charging £4.90 for adults or £3.90 for students and seniors; free for children under 5.
A Pokey Home for Old Masters -- Almost overlooked by the average visitor is an unheralded little gem known as Christ Church Picture Gallery (tel. 01865/276-172; www.chch.ox.ac.uk), entered through the Canterbury Quad. Here you come across a stunning collection of Old Masters, mainly from the Dutch, Flemish, and Italian school, including works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The gallery is open May to September Monday to Saturday from 10:30am to 5pm, Sunday 2 to 5pm. From October to April hours are Monday to Saturday 10:30am to 1pm and daily 2 to 4:30pm. Admission is £2 for adults or £1 for students and seniors.
Pronounced Maud-lin, Magdalen College, High Street (tel. 01865/276000; www.magd.ox.ac.uk), was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, bishop of Winchester and later chancellor of England. Its alumni range from Wolsey to Wilde. Opposite the botanic garden, the oldest in England, is the bell tower, where the choristers sing in Latin at dawn on May Day. Charles I, his days numbered, watched the oncoming Roundheads from this tower. Visit the 15th-century chapel, in spite of many of its latter-day trappings. Ask when the hall and other places of special interest are open. The grounds of Magdalen are the most extensive of any Oxford college; there's even a deer park. From July to September it is open daily noon to 6pm; from October to June daily 1 to 6pm. Admission is £4 adults; £3 seniors, students, and children.
A Quiet Oasis -- The oldest botanic garden in Great Britain, the Botanic Gardens (tel. 01865/286690; www.botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk) opposite Magdalen, were first planted in 1621 on the site of a Jewish graveyard from the early Middle Ages. Bounded by a curve of the Cherwell, they still stand today and are the best place in Oxford to escape the invading hordes. The Botanic Gardens are open March to October daily 9am to 5pm (until 6pm May-Aug); November to February Monday to Friday 9am to 4:30pm (last admission 45 min. before closing). Admission is £3 for adults, £2.50 for students, and free for children 11 and younger.
Founded in 1264, Merton College, Merton Street (tel. 01865/276310; www.merton.ox.ac.uk), is among the three oldest colleges at the university. It stands near Corpus Christi College on Merton Street, the sole survivor of Oxford's medieval cobbled streets. Merton College is noted for its library, built between 1371 and 1379, which is said to be the oldest college library in England. Though a tradition once kept some of its most valuable books chained, now only one book is secured in that manner to illustrate that historical custom. One of the library's treasures is an astrolabe (an astronomical instrument used for measuring the altitude of the sun and stars) thought to have belonged to Chaucer. You pay £2 to visit the ancient library as well as the Max Beerbohm Room (the satirical English caricaturist who died in 1956). Call ahead for information. The library and college are open Monday to Friday 2 to 4pm, and Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4pm. It's closed for 1 week at Easter and Christmas and on weekends during the winter.
New College, Holywell Street (tel. 01865/279555; www.new.ox.ac.uk), was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester and later lord chancellor of England. His college at Winchester supplied a constant stream of students. The first quadrangle, dating from before the end of the 14th century, was the initial quadrangle built in Oxford and formed the architectural design for the other colleges. In the antechapel is Sir Jacob Epstein's remarkable modern sculpture of Lazarus and a fine El Greco painting of St. James. One of the treasures of the college is a crosier (pastoral staff of a bishop) belonging to the founding father. Don't miss the beautiful garden outside the college, where you can stroll among the remains of the old city wall. It's an evocative, romantic site. The college (entered at New College Lane) can be visited from Easter to October daily between 11am and 5pm, and in the off-season daily between 2 and 4pm. Admission is £2 from Easter to October and free off-season.
The Old Bodleian Library
This famed library on Catte Street (tel. 01865/277000; www.bodley.ox.ac.uk) was launched in 1602, initially funded by Sir Thomas Bodley. It is home to some 50,000 manuscripts and more than five million books. Over the years, the library has expanded from the Old Library complex to other buildings, including the Radcliffe Camera next door. The easiest way to visit the library is by taking a guided tour, leaving from the Divinity School across the street from the main entrance. In summer there are four tours Monday to Friday and two on Saturday; in winter, two tours leave per day. Call for specific times.