Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

Oxford, in my mind, is probably as equally well-known as a university town as it is for the television series about the fictional detective, the opera-loving, often morose, Inspector Morse. 

Despite its strong connections to Oxford and the university – Colin Dexter, the author of the novels that the series is based on, worked at the University of Oxford for more than twenty years – Morse, a brilliant and perceptive detective, surprisingly did not receive a degree from any of the city’s famous schools.

I don’t remember much about Oxford from my only visit in the early 1970s but watching the series, which was filmed around the city and the university, made me long to return and do a proper tour.

I found a free 2-hour walking tour with Footprints Tours  (If you have a good time, leave us a tip. If not, it was nice to meet you! their website declares) and met the group at Oxford City Center – an easy, 15 minute walk from the train station.

I was late joining the tour and was surprised to hear the guide’s American accent. It felt disorienting to be on a tour of Oxford, England and hear the accent I left in New York. That’s not to take anything away from the guide, who was very enthusiastic, or the tour, which was chock full of history, insider information, and not one boring moment.

Oxford – a short back story

Oxford started humbly, very humbly in AD900 as a river crossing. The name comes from the Old English words (ox/ford) which mean a place (ford) for oxen (ox) to cross. Today, it is a city of approximately 160,000 and home to the University of Oxford, the oldest English-speaking university in the world. The university has been around since at least the 12th century, its earliest colleges – there are 30 of them in all – since the 13th century. 

A Few Places to See

The Sheldonian Theatre: Located on Broad Street, The Sheldonian got its name from Gilbert Sheldon, a chancellor at the University of Oxford. The theatre was designed by Sir Christopher Wren (who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral among other notable buildings). Construction started in 1664 and continued until 1669. The Sheldonian is used for lectures, concerts and graduations. 

Oxford The Sheldonian Emperor
The Sheldonian ‘Emperor’

Thirteen heads, called herms, or termains, philosophers and emperors, each wearing a different beard greet visitors to the Broad Street entrance to the Sheldonian. It’s unclear what they mean or why there are thirteen of them.

Oxford, Radcliffe Camera
Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera: Built between 1737 and 1748, the Radcliffe Camera (Latin for vaulted room or chamber) is a science library. The library got its name from John Radcliffe, a medical doctor who left the funds for its construction. 

Oxford Hertford Bridge
Hertford Bridge

The Hertford Bridge over New College Lane connects Hertford College’s administrative offices and its students’ accommodations. A popular landmark, it is referred to as the Bridge of Sighs. Just past the bridge, on the left, is the entrance to the alley to Turf Tavern.

Christ Church College: Known officially as The Dean, Chapter and Students of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford of the Foundation of King Henry the Eighth, Christ Church is the only academic institution that is also a cathedral. Part of the University of Oxford, Christ Church is the alma mater of politicians, including several British prime ministers, scientists, philosophers, academics and entertainers. 

“Find us if you can, and you’ll be back.”

Turf Tavern: Walk down St. Helens Passage, a narrow alley off Hertford Bridge, and you’ll arrive at The Turf Tavern, an Oxford institution that has been around in one form or another since the 13th century. Once a malt house, a cider house in 1775 and an inn, The Spotted Cow in 1790, it became the Turf Tavern in 1847.

Among the well-known who have passed through its doors – I hope none of them bumped their heads on the low beam near the bar – are Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, Oscar Wilde, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Burton. 

The Bear Inn: Dating to 1242, the Bear Inn is the oldest pub in Oxford. It is also well know for its collection of ties from the early 1900s. You can find it on the corner of Alfred and Blue Boar Streets.

I could have spent an entire day walking around Oxford and probably not see the same thing twice. It is a beautiful city with spectacular buildings from all of England’s architectural styles. 

Oxford Travel Essentials

Oxford is accessible by train from London’s Paddington Station, and by coach from Victoria, Marble Arch, Notting Hill Gate, Shepherd’s Bush.  


Linking this week to Travel Photo Thursday hosted by Nancie at Budget Travellers Sandbox, Ruth at Tanama Tales, Jan at Budget Travel Talk, and Rachel at Rachel’s Ruminations.

Budget Travelers Sandbox

34 comments on “Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

  1. The British really do make great TV series! On my first visit to England, I took a day trip from London with a tour group and one of our stops was Oxford. I was thrilled being in the middle of all that history, great architecture, and academic ambiance. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to go to school there. Thanks for the tour.

  2. You’re welcome, Cathy! I agree, the Brits do know how to make great TV series. Almost everything about their shows makes them interesting to watch.
    I hear you on Oxford and going to school – it was always my dream, not sure how I ended up in NA. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I remember my last stay in Oxford, when I was speaking at one of the scientific conferences. As the academics, we were privileged to live in The New College. Even though this was only September I was freezing. I can tell you this (with a British accent): it was bloody cold! In the past the poorest students could not afford the heating in their rooms thus they were freezing every winter. I can’t even imagine how cold it was.

  4. I love Oxford. And Cambridge. Can’t decide which one I like best. Oddly, it didn’t occur to me to apply to university here (or anywhere in Britain for that matter). Have no earthly idea why now.

  5. This looks like a wonderful day trip from London. I’ve always wanted to visit Oxford so I’m glad for this virtual tour. I love all that architecture and history. And how cool is that tour group you went on 🙂 Beautiful photos, Marcia.

  6. Lovely photos, Marcia! We visited Oxford briefly on a Harry Potter tour a few years ago as some of the scenes from the movie were filmed there. It seems like such a lovely city that I would love to return ans spend more time!

  7. The city is beautiful. Every time I read about it, I get more enthusiastic about a possible visit. You know, I have never taken one of those free tours offered in many cities. Sometimes, I pack my itineraries too much and do not have time for something like that. However, I think it would be a great opportunity to learn more about a place.

  8. I love Morse! And i would happily spend an afternoon in some of the snug-looking pubs he hangs out in. Now i want to go to oxford!

  9. I have never been to this part of the world. Great captures. I like to see such old buildings. Your post serves as a good guide.
    Thank you!

  10. It will be, no question about that. But since my first visit to Oxford happened long before I started watching the show, they’ll always be associated.

  11. It really is, Ruth. My preference is usually to research beforehand and walk around on my own but I did’t have time to do that. It wasn’t a bad deal at all. I learned a lot and enjoyed it too.

  12. It was funny, Jan. I wish now that I had stayed and chatted with her a bit after the tour. Maybe next time.
    I did enjoy Oxford and will go back the next time I’m in London.

  13. It is, Mary. There’s quite a bit to see so maybe you should plan a two-day visit. Next time, I’ll definitely do the university tour. Your kids will probably like the Harry Potter tour as well.

  14. I agree: both Oxford and Cambridge are such beautiful cities, it’d be difficult to choose. Didn’t make it to Cambridge this time, not sure how I missed it since it was on my list. I won’t forget it next time.
    I did apply. I was so sure I’d get in, I didn’t have a backup school. Was very disappointed.

  15. OMG, Agata, you must have been so uncomfortable! I hate feeling cold. Good thing you didn’t have to live there.
    I hear my relatives say that all the time – It’s bloody cold!

  16. Such a wealth of history and tradition!! I would love to visit someday, especially after reading your article. I can’t believe the how old the Bear Inn is, I really want to visit that one day soon. So quaint and charming!! Thank you for a lovely tour!

Comments are closed.