Oxford in the Thames River Valley is just two hours from London. The town draws more than 9 million visitors a year, and for good reasons. Who wouldn’t be inspired by the spires of the 34 colleges (Kings, Jesus, Balliol, Magdelan, Brasenose, Christ Church, Hertford, Merton) that comprise Oxford University which attracts scholars from around the world.
More than 8000 students have been chosen to become Rhodes scholars at Oxford, established by the trust of Cecil Rhodes in 1902.
We spent our first days in Oxford as we began our 2015 winter travel to Britain and France. We’d been to Oxford before, but wanted to return since Oxford is easy to navigate and the location of many cultural and historic sites.
The morning we arrived, we dropped luggage at our Abingdon Road guest house, hopped back on a bus and returned to Carfax Tower, the junction of four major streets: Cornmarket, Queen, High, and St. Aldate. From this intersection, you can reach most of Oxford’s colleges, churches, museums, libraries, bookstores and monuments.
Our first ‘cultural’ visit was to the world-famous Bodleian library.
The Bodleian Library contains manuscripts and documents collected over the last 400 years. Duke Humpreys, Duke of Hampshire, brother of Henry V, donated a collection of manuscripts to Oxford in 1602. At the time, Oxford did not have a library. An agreement was signed in 1610 to provide a copy of each book published in England to the Bodleian which now has more than 3 million books.
The second floor of the Bodleian is the Humphrey Library, closed to the public, but open for scholars researching medieval history.
The library has gone through many expansions over the last four centuries, including the Radcliffe Camera, a donation by Sir Michael Radcliffe, former student, physician, and personal physician to Queen Anne. Radcliffe also donated funds for an infirmary and observatory in Oxford.
A short walk from the Bodleian library is Oxford’s most famous museum, the Ashmolean, also founded by a former 17th century Oxford scholar
Ashmolean Museum is Britain’s oldest university museum, a gift from Elias Ashmole who provided the first documents in 1667. The Ashmolean collection stretches from Roman artifacts to Italian Renaissance, French Impressionists, and collections gathered from travelers and scholars to Asia, the South Pacific, and Europe. The collection includes works by Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, Picasso, Titian, and Cezanne.
Today the Ashmolean presents a variety of cultural activities including concerts, lectures, special exhibits, and speakers. A featured exhibition at the Ashmolean opening in March of the British painter and printmaker, William Blake.
Oxford isn’t only about preserving the past in books, art, architecture, and religious life. It also has a popular appeal as a setting for movies and TV shows, especially the BBC mystery series Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, and the latest, Endeavour, about Morses’ early years in the Thames Valley police force.
Walking along High street or in the courtyard of Christ Church, you expect to see John Thaw (Morse), Kevin Whately (Lewis), or Sergeant James Hathaway.
Randolph Hotel – Morse’s pub
Across from the Ashmolean on Beaumont Street is the stately Randolph Hotel. The Randolph’s pub is now known as Morse’s pub since several episodes of Inspector Morse were filmed here from 1987 to 2000. A plaque in the pub acknowledges the place where Inspector More and Detective Lewis discussed the intricacies of their murder cases over a pint or two of ale.
Of course, we had to have a pint and sit in front of the fireplace where Morse and Lewis had debated the intricacies of the murders they were trying to solve (they always did, often with convoluted twists that only brainy Morse could unravel).
We bought a guide-book and CD of the Morse and Lewis series. Walking around Oxford, we found several locations where scenes from the series were filmed. One was the Kings Arms pub. During our visit, we noticed many Oxford MBA students celebrating passing their first tests.
Over lunch of fish and ships and a pint of ale, we talked to students from the UK, US, New Zealand, and Australia. All were loving their year at Oxford. Don’t blame them.
The grad students said there was an old Oxford tradition that students don formal wear: black robes, starched shirt, and white tie for a formal ceremony celebrating passing their first exams. But they have to carry mortar boards, which they may wear at graduation in the summer.
We loved celebrating with them.
One evening, we attended Evensong at Christ Church, a candlelight evening service of adolescent boys wearing floor length white robes and scarlet vestments singing hymns a capella in Latin and Italian. Very inspirational.
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