Oxford

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Start your bike tour in the city of dreaming spires and inspiring minds

Oxford is the most famous University City in the world and its colleges give it a uniquely scholastic feel. Over 800 years old, Oxford’s rich history makes for some inspiring buildings; the Bodleian library, Christ Church Cathedral and its Bridge of Sighs are just a few highlights. And it’s not all history and academia; Oxford’s young student population, fantastic restaurants and modern shops give this ancient city a youthful feel.

The history

Oxford has been an established town since the 9th century. Its name derives from the term ‘Oxanforda’- part of the river were cattle could safely cross, ‘Ox’ as in cow and ‘ford’ a shallow crossing. Its first colleges were built during the 13th century and in 1209 the first dispute between ‘town and gown’ – townspeople and students – took place after a local girl was murdered.

In 1878 the first women were permitted to study at Oxford, but they weren’t awarded degrees until 1920. During its distinguished history no fewer than 26 British Prime Ministers have been educated at the university. It has survived riots and reform; its history is as inspirational as the list of scholars it has produced.

The Colleges

Oxford University is not only the most famous educational institution in the world, but also one of the oldest – tracing its origins to 1096. It is a collegiate university made up of 38 colleges and private halls, and is home to around 15,000 students.

Dating back to the 16th century, Christ Church is possibly Oxford’s most famous college, and also the home to Oxford’s Cathedral. Christ Church meadow has inspired generations of artists and poets, and the imposing Tom Tower tolls its bell 101 times every night to call in the college’s dons. The spectacular dining hall is likely to look familiar too, as it is used in all the Harry Potter films.

Magdalen college (pronounced ‘Mord-lin’ in Oxford and ‘Magda-len’ in Cambridge) has its own deer park and sits opposite the university’s famous Botanical Gardens. Magdalen was founded in 1458 and its cloisters and chapel make it fascinating to explore. One notable college tradition is observed on May 1 every year, when the choir sings to celebrate the dawn from the top of the college’s tower.

All of Oxford’s colleges have their own unique charms, from the medieval grandeur of Balliol and Merton to the modern architecture of St. Catherine’s.

Out and about

When the Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 it became the first public museum in the world. Redeveloped in 2009, it now is a stunning mix of old and new. And visitors should also make time for the Pitt Rivers museum, found inside the university’s Natural History Museum, an atmospheric and spellbinding collection assembled by the anthropologist Augustus Pitt Rivers and founded in 1884.

Also worthy of a visit is the 11th century Oxford castle, which was converted into a prison in 1785. Today it is a luxury hotel and restaurant but you can still visit its ancient dungeons, Saxon tower and crypt.

Oxford Botanical Garden is set on the banks of the river Cherwell. In is Britain’s oldest botanic garden and contains 5000 different plant species. With its splendid glasshouses, beautifully manicured lawns and array of exotic plant life it’s a calming wilderness in the heart of the busy city.

Inspiring fame

Over the years Oxford has been the inspiration to novelists and filmmakers alike.

Lewis Carroll created the famous tales of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland here. Other notable novels written here include The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This stunning city has provided the backdrop for a number of movies including Harry Potter, the Golden Compass, Shadowlands and even an X-Men movie!

Relaxing

From Indian and Thai cuisine to great British pub food, Oxford has no shortage of places to eat. Jamie Oliver’s restaurant ‘Jamie’s Italian’ on George street serves delicious Italian-inspired dishes and the rooftop restaurant at the Ashmolean offers some stunning views.

Cornmarket Street is great for shopping – or just grab a coffee and watch one of the local street performers. The pubs often have live music and there are plenty of cinemas and theatres if you have chance to catch a show.

If you want to take a break from cycling then there are many other ways to explore this fascinating town. Boat or punting trips on the river Thames, open-top bus tours and entertaining guided walks will give you a good introduction to the city’s rich heritage.

Oxford’s parks, its meandering river and the beautiful botanic garden all give this stunning city a sublime touch of calm. With a surprise around every corner and so much to see and do, Oxford is steeped in history and tradition yet is also a cosmopolitan and vibrant place to visit.