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My Oxford Travelogue

Knowing that I had a rare chance to stroll about one of the most storied cities in all of literature, and presented with a glorious summer day in which to do so, I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to play hooky on Saturday morning to avail myself of a self-directed tour of Oxford. (map)

This is the city known for Rhodes scholars and the Oxford English Dictionary, among other things. The University itself is over 800 years old, as attested to by documentation dating from the year 1188 C.E. The city itself is even older: the medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth lists Oxford among the cities of King Arthur’s realm, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 912 C.E. mentions the town

Bridge of Sighs

I strolled into city center from St. Catherine’s College, site of the conference, located at the eastern edge of town. After crossing the River Chaswell, replete with waterfowl and those charming pole-driven “punt” boats, I skirted the old city wall, which vividly reminds one of Oxford’s medieval past.

Before heading down Broad Street, one the city’s two main commercial thoroughfares, I turned off to the left to peek into New College Lane, marked by one of Oxford’s best-known landmarks, the so-called “Bridge of Sighs,” a 19th Century construction modeled after the original in Venice. Just past the bridge is the house where the famed astronomer Edmond Halley lived and had his observatory from 1703-42.

Returning to Broad Street, I continued past Trinity College, cafes, and several shops operated by the celebrated bookseller Blackwell’s, which is primarily responsible for Broad Street’s nickname, “Oxford’s Street of Books.” I stuck my head in the door of Blackwell’s main store but dared go no further, as bookstores have been (and always will be) irresistible magnets for my time and money.

After one long block, Broad becomes George Street and intersects St. Giles’ and Cornmarket streets. Here stands the Martyr’s Memorial, erected in 1841-43. It marks the spot where three Protestant bishops, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake in 1555-6 for their adherence to the Church of England during the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor (aka “Bloody Mary”).

Saxon Tower

Adjacent to Martyr’s Memorial is Oxford’s oldest surviving building. The Saxon tower of the Church of St. Michael at the North Gate is nearly 1,000 years old and once formed part of the city walls. After craning my neck up at both of these landmarks, I continued down George Street past more shops, bookstores and quaint British pubs including The Grapes, a period piece of mirrors-and-mahogany. This brought me within sight of Oxford Castle.

Oxford Castle was built in 1071 C.E. as a residence for the king and regional administrative center — including a “gaol” that was ostensibly the most feared prison in the country. It is said that passers-by could hear the moans and groans of those within, doubtless a strong psychological incentive to the citizenry to remain in the authorities’ good graces!

It was owned by the Crown until 1611, and King Charles I used Oxford as his capital when he was driven out of London during the English Civil War of the 17th Century. This historical significance and symbolism may well have influenced Hitler, who purportedly intended to use Oxford as his English headquarters. St. George’s Tower, the castle’s only remaining structure, is now part of what must surely be one of the most unique urban renewal projects anywhere, with apartments, a hotel, shops, restaurants and an open-air gallery for live theater, jazz, opera and the visual arts.

Thames River

I had resolved, at the outset of my tour, that if I couldn’t see London, 50 miles downstream, I would at the very least see the Thames River, so before doubling back into the center of town, I went down to the water’s edge … just so I could say I’d done so!

It was appropriately picturesque, even if there weren’t any collegiate rowing crews plying the oars of their sculls. The standard complement of waterfowl — including the elegant swans for which the river is known — quietly paddled by some pricey-looking condominiums (known as “Fisherman’s Wharf”) on one side and some upscale cottage-style homes on the other. Obviously, like waterfront property everywhere, it’s what is referred to as “desirable residential real estate.”

Turning north on St. Aldate’s Street, I went by Christ Church, arguably the most majestic of Oxford’s 45 colleges … and through a veritable mob of tourists of all ages and countries. (While the day had started out quietly, it was now approaching midday, and the tourists were in full force, including a seemingly infinite number of field trip excursions of schoolchildren of every conceivable nationality). Founded in 1525 by Thomas Wolsey as Cardinal College, it was refounded as Christ Church in 1546 by Henry VIII following Wolsey’s fall from Royal Favour.

Its chapel, Oxford Cathedral, is the world’s only college chapel designated as a cathedral. Tom Tower, above the main gate, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and houses the bell Great Tom. Cast in 1680, it weighs nearly seven tons and and rings 101 times every night at 9:05 p.m. to commemorate the original number of Christ Church scholars.

After stopping in a couple of souvenir shops on High Street, the main business drag, for the requisite t-shirts and coffee cup, I made my way into the venerable and much-storied University Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

I paid a couple of pounds for the privilege of a steep and fairly strenuous climb up some 127 winding stone steps leading to the top of St. Mary’s Tower, which gave me an opportunity to take some shots of the city’s roof-line and the rolling countryside beyond, as well as the Radcliffe Camera next door.

Radcliffe Camera

“Camera” was the medieval name for a room. Built between 1737 and 1749 and designed by James Gibb, the Radcliffe Camera is England’s earliest example of a round reading room. It still serves that purpose for the Bodleian Library, with its underground storehouse of 600,000 books.

It had become a hot day, and I’d been doing a lot of walking through a lot of crowds, which encouraged my descent back down to the church, where it was comparatively cool, dark, quiet and sparsely occupied. However, had it been the following day things would’ve been very different. The University sermon is preached here every Sunday, and visitors are informed that at one time this church was Oxford University.

It has a colorful, even lurid past, including an exterior statue of the Virgin and Child which so offended Puritan sensibilities that one of Cromwell’s outraged troopers shot the heads off them in 1642. Although the heads were restored twenty years later, the statue still bears the scars of bullet marks.

St. Mary’s interior

This church was the site of the heresy trials at which Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer were condemned to death, and over the centuries it has witnessed sermons delivered by a veritable who’s-who of preachers, from John Wesley to Desmond Tutu.

Finally, after contemplating the turmoils of English civilization, past and present, I felt the urge to sample something of Oxford a bit more sylvan before returning to campus. So, I continued east on High Street to the Botanic Gardens, the Magdalen Bridge (with more of those charming punt boats) and finally a stroll down the Broad Walk past Christ Church Meadow to an enchanting glade on the lower Cherwell opposite St. Hilda’s, a sequestered locale that seems somehow apropos for the only one of the four women’s colleges in Oxford that has refused to become co-educational.

It was with a feeling of having seen only some of Oxford’s most obvious attractions that I made my weary way back to St. Catherine’s.

Truly, as one guidebook noted, the city does not flaunt all of its charms, many of which are tucked down narrow, winding alleyways — and even then are unlikely to be signposted. But it was still a treat to be able to at least skim around the city for a day, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my indebtedness to two very special ladies, Kathryn Lappegard and Marian Fortmann, who underwrote the expense of the trip. Without their help, I could never have reaped the benefit of either the scholarship or the tourism which was afforded me by their generosity.