Oxford: Dreaming Spires, Alchemists and Sighs

Oxford, first settled by Saxons, and now populated with students, tourists, and harried residents, is one of my favorite towns in Britain – and is a different town, I think, for each person who visits. The University of Oxford dates to the 12th century, and the architecture of the colleges and town combine for a wonderful landscape of texture, shapes, and history. I could likely write about each of the spots below at length, but have gathered these together based on my daily walking commute in town. Most of these are well-known sights, but that doesn’t mean that Oxford’s hidden treasures aren’t worth seeking out – they are…I’m just not writing about them at the moment. Oxford is one of the places where going to the grocery store is a pleasure, if only based on what you can see on the way there and back.

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Aerial view of Oxford city center – photo courtesy of Wikipedia, public domain.

Radcliffe Camera
One of the most striking sights in Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera is England’s earliest example of a round library. Designed by James Gibbs and built in 1739-1749, the stone building (two types of stone were originally used) was constructed to serve as the Radcliffe Science Library. Dr. John Radcliffe left funds for the library construction in his will. Although Gibbs died in 1714, purchasing the land was complicated and actual construction was delayed until 1737. A decade later, the exterior was completed; the interior was finished in 1748. The library officially opened on April 13, 1749.
The basement story (or ground level) originally featured an open arcade, with iron grilles across the arches. The arches were glazed over in 1863 when the Radcliffe Camera became a reading-room of the Bodleian, the function it still serves.

The Radcliffe Camera.

The Radcliffe Camera

Ah, Blackwell’s. I’ve ducked into Blackwell’s many times, either to avoid hordes of tourists, or to escape from the afternoon sun, or simply because I cannot resist the lure of all of those books. Founded in 1879 by Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the original location on Broad Street is now part of a chain of shops across Great Britain. The book seller empire is still run by the Blackwell family, though the number of descendants involved in the business has dwindled sharply in the last decade. In addition to supplying books to most of the Oxford colleges (and art/posters and music), Blackwell’s at one time also published books. Whether you actually need a specific tome, or are just in the mood to browse – I can’t recommend Blackwell’s enough.

The best of browsing...

The best of browsing…

The Ashmolean Museum
I feel like I walked by the Ashmolean many times before I realized exactly what it was (in my defense, there’s a lot of distractions along Magdalen Street before it becomes St. Giles). The world’s first university museum, the institution we know today was created in 1908 by the combination of the University Art Collection and the original Ashmolean Museum.
Elias Ashmole (alchemist and antiquarian) donated his collection – a varied assortment of books, coins, stuffed animals and geological specimens – to the University of Oxford in 1677. Elias was quite a character – devoted to becoming wealthy enough to purse his own interests, which were varied, including astrology, history, science, genealogy, and social-climbing. I was delighted to see Elias Ashmole play a small role in the 2011 novel Discovery of Witches. Oxford the town occupies a much larger place in the novel.

Elias Ashmole, photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Portrait of Elias Ashmole, dodo collector, by John Riley. Original at the National Portrait Gallery, London. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The building itself, at the corner of St Giles’s Street and Beaumont Street, was built in 1841-45 and designed by Charles Robert Cockerell. Like so many of the buildings in Oxford, it is a symphony of different types of stone: Bath (Box Ground) stone on a plinth of Permian sandstone with the columns, pilasters and entablatures of Portland stone and decorations in terra-cotta. The Ashmolean is a solid representation of the classical style, with a massive portico on the Beaumont Street façade with capitals faithfully copied from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae.


The Ashmolean

Interestingly, for years this grand temple front was not the main entrance for the museum, and before the 2006-2009 renovation and expansion, the interiors of the Ashmolean did not match the grandeur of the façade. American architect Rick Mather (who sadly died in April 2013) not only put a door in the portico, but oversaw the design and construction of almost 100,000 square feet (comprising 39 new galleries) behind the Beaumont Street façade. This transformed Cockrell’s building – which was previously a narrow, one-room deep structure – into a light filled space that complements the incredible collection. (On a side note, the renovation also included the construction of a roof top restaurant – a wonderful place to have tea!)

A rooftop tea at the Ashmolean in the summer

A rooftop tea at the Ashmolean in the summer

The Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs is one of the most photographed sights in Oxford – and in a city riddled with truly old buildings – this is one of the more recent architectural delights. Designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, the bridge (what we might call a pedway here in the States) was designed to link the old and new quadrangles of Hertford College. College officials concluded it would be cheaper to build a bridge rather than a tunnel across New College Lane. Jackson wasn’t inventing anything new – like many an architect before and after him, he reached back to the Renaissance for the idea of a covered bridge (the original Bridge of Sighs is located in Venice, Italy). The bridge, completed and dedicated in 1913-1914, features arched, leaded glass windows and a central Palladian window. In 2013, composer Benjamin Skipp put together a “composition of sighs recorded by students and members of staff” of Hertford College.

The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford

The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford

Hertford College has a tumultuous history, and claims a diverse group of alums – Thomas Hobbes, John Donne and Evelyn Waugh. The earliest incarnation of the college dates to the late 13th century, when Elias de Hertford established Hart Hall. Oxford halls basically functioned as boarding houses for undergraduate students. Although though the Halls might claim appendages such as kitchens, dining halls, libraries, and tutors – they were not incorporated as colleges. In the 18th century, the college was incorporated, with relatively little endowment. Dissolved in 1816, the third and final version of the college dates from 1874.
A love of Oxford
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote: “Oxford is Oxford: not a mere receptacle for youth, like Cambridge. Perhaps it wants its inmates to love it rather than to love one another.” I like to think that Forster, who went to Cambridge, saw something in the colors and shapes of Oxford that rather than inspiring a friendless existence, inspired introspection that energized and soothed, all at the same time. I know that after fighting the after-five crowds at Tesco all it takes to soothe my nerves is the walk down Beaumont Street, past the Ashmolean, and then a stroll alongside the canal, and even my laden grocery bags seem light and insubstantial.

The Oxford canal

The Oxford canal


This post originally appeared on the Smitten by Britain website.

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  1. Beth Lowe says:

    I loved my time at Oxford, Have you seen Shadowlands. It is Oxford to the 9s. Tea at the Randolph, Pimm’s at The Summerhouse,
    The Bodean Library is my favorite place in England.

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