The city of Oxford proudly holds the position as one of the most attractive tourist places in the UK. Understandable given its beautiful architecture, fascinating culture, historical accolades and stunning scenery. From the fame of Oxford University being the second oldest surviving University in the world, right through to its popularity as a film location, featuring in movies such as Harry Potter, there is so much to discover in Oxford. Aside from these more obvious endearing landmarks that draw many tourists to the area, there are many ‘hidden’ and often unknown facts about Oxford City that show a new light to this fascinating area.
England’s Forgotten Capital!
Amongst Oxford’s many accolades is that it was once the capital of England. During the English Civil War, from 1642 -following his expulsion from London by the Parliamentarian forces lead by Oliver Cromwell – King Charles I held his forces on Port Meadow and the royal court at Oxford. Oxford itself supported the Parliamentarian cause, but the University was a strong supporter of the king and from 1642 to 1646 he himself actually lived in Christ Church College. Parliament was even assembled in Christ Church Hall!
According to researchers at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Adolph Hitler also had in mind to use Oxford as his capital as well. Records have been found pertaining to Hitler’s plan to invade the United Kingdom and his intention to make Oxford the capital of his new kingdom. It is thought that this is the reason why Oxford was spared being bombed during the Second World War.
Did you know Oxford has more published writers per square mile than anywhere else in the world? It is only here that you can visit The Eagle and Child on St Giles (JRR Tolkien’s and CS Lewis’ Inklings meeting spot) then wander over to Alice’s Shop and see the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. A short walk to the Oxford Botanic Gardens will also take you to the bench at the back of the Garden that features in The Amber Spyglass by the famous author Philip Pullman.
Best-selling authors and works with links to Oxford include:
- Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, its sequel Through the Looking-Glass as well as the great poem ‘The Hunting of the Shark.’
- JRR Tolkien (1892-1973) author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
- CS Lewis (1898-1963) author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
- Colin Dexter (1930-Present) English crime writer known for his Inspector Morse novels.
- Philip Pullman (1946-Present) author of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
- Oxford English Dictionary – First published in 1884, The Oxford English Dictionary, published by the Oxford University Press, is an infamous descriptive dictionary of the English language.
Image Source: Flickr
Oxford has a very rich history dating back hundreds of years and there are lots of fascinating mementos spread across the city to remind us of the city’s history. A particular memento can be found on Broad Street in the centre of Oxford, where there is a cross built into a cobbled patch of the main road outside Balliol College. This cross marks the location of the site where the protestant Oxford Martyrs Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were burnt at the stake for heresy. When the Catholic Mary I succeeded her brother, the Protestant Edward VI, as Queen of England in 1553, she promptly set about returning England to the Catholic religion. It was during her reign that she had almost three hundred religious dissenters executed and consequently, was aptly given the name Bloody Mary.
The nod to a historical past is also seen amongst Oxford’s road names. In North Oxford, there are two roads about two miles apart that run in parallel with each other and connect Woodstock Road and Banbury Road. You might find it confusing that the northernmost road in Summertown is called South Parade and the southernmost road is called North Parade. The history behind this dates back to the English Civil War when Oxford was being besieged by Oliver Cromwell where The North Parade represented the King’s Northern Front, while South Parade was Cromwell’s Southern Front.
The Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is the oldest museum in world, with its doors officially being opened in 1683. The Museum also has the accolade as the first museum in the world to open its doors to the public. Among its treasures lay a huge collection of stunning pieces of art including , Stradivari’s violin, the lantern that Guy Fawkes had when he was arrested for his part in the Gunpowder Plot on 5th November 1605 and the exhibition of posie rings with inside engravings that reportedly inspired J.R.R. Tolkien for writing “The Lord of the Rings.”
Image Source: Artfund.org
‘Town’ Vs ‘Gown’!
Relations between Oxford townspeople and students have historically been notably precarious. Violent confrontations between townspeople and students have erupted in Oxford at various times throughout history with a notable riot occurring in 1209. On this particular confrontation, trouble began following the murder of a local townswoman by students. This caused a number of students to be forced to flee the city and head to Cambridge, and it is there that those Oxford students founded The University of Cambridge!
Image Source: BBC
The modern day Oxford University has a ratio of roughly even numbers of male and female undergraduates, but this has far from been the norm of previous years. Whilst the first colleges of Oxford were built in the 13th century, it wasn’t until 1878 that women were admitted to the university, 1920 when they were awarded degrees and 1974 when the last of the all-male colleges opened their doors to women.
Image Source: ox.ac.uk
The Home of the Real Alice in Wonderland!
Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) spent the majority of his life in Oxford and it became the place where this multi-talented mathematician got to know his 4-year old muse Alice Liddell. Her father, Henri Liddell, was the dean of Christ Church College and with Carroll being a close friend of Henri and his family, he spent much time with Alice so much so that she inspired his writing and as such Carroll immortalized her in his book, “Alice’s adventure in Wonderland”. In modern day Oxford, there is still a reminder of this wonderful story in the form of a shop where Alice along with her older friend used to buy sweets or chocolates. “Alice’s Shop” located in 83, St Aldates is just across from Christ Church and also appears as the Old Sheep Shop in the second book about Alice “Through looking glass”.
Image Source: Flickr
The Black Plague!
Oxford was hit hard by the Black Death and during the 17th Century the doctor of Christ Church College prescribed potato peels for most meals as a means of keeping the disease at bay. Eventually having eaten only potato peelings every meal it is said that the students of the college could finally take it no longer and so they protested and the diet was abandoned. If you look carefully at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Great Hall in Christ Church College, you can still see the graffiti ‘no peel’ burned into a door. However whilst many took this ‘graffiti’ as a visual sign of the students protests, it turns out that this was merely an Oxford urban myth; the “peel” referred to in the graffiti is, in fact, a protest in reference to Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister in the 1840s!
Image Source: Flickr
The Four Minute Mile!
Sir Roger Bannister was a medical student at Oxford University and credited as being the first person in history to break the sub four minute mile barrier at Oxford’s Iffley Road sports ground in 1954. He was just 25 years old and was competing for the British Amateur Athletic Association and completed the race in 3:59.4. This record was very short-lived as within a month the Australian runner John Landy had broken Bannister’s record, nevertheless Bannister had already made history as the first to break the unbreakable record.
Image Source: The Guardian
British Prime Ministers!
Oxford University has the distinct accolade of having educated 26 British Prime Ministers including:
- Sir Robert Peel (Tory) famous for landmark social reforms such as the Factory Act of 1844, which limited working hours for children and women in factories.
- Herbert H Asquith (Liberal Coalition) famous for taking Britain into World War One.
- Clement Attlee (Labour) famous for introducing the British National Health Service and nationalising one fifth of the British economy.
- Anthony Eden (Conservative) his term as Prime Minister was overshadowed by the Suez Crisis in 1956 and he resigned after little more than 18 months in office.
- Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) famous for the privatisation of state-owned industries and utilities, reform of the trade unions and reducing inflation at the cost of a dramatic rise in unemployment.
- Tony Blair (Labour) famous for devolution in Wales and Scotland, peace in Northern Ireland, and the war in Iraq.
- David Cameron (Conservative) famous for privatisation of state-owned industries and utilities and mixed successes with polices such as The Bedroom Tax and Right to Buy.
The Old Tom!
Did you know that Oxford is 1 degree west of the prime meridian and therefore, five minutes behind Greenwich meantime? This is displayed by Old Tom, the bell in the tower of Christ Church Cathedral which strikes a unique 101 times at 9.05pm every evening. Originally, this was the curfew time for students in the city and the bell rang to signal their return back to college. Whilst times have changed, this tradition still lives on.
Image Source: aboutbritain.com
The Infamous Shark House!
In the suburb of Headington, just east of Oxford you will find the famous Shark House – a house with a 25-foot long headless shark protruding from the roof! The shark was commissioned by Bill Heine, the owner of the house, in August 1986 as a comment on Cold War Politics. He has been quoted as saying, “The shark was to express someone feeling totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation….It is saying something about CND, nuclear, power, Chernobyl and Nagasaki.
The sculpture, is reported to weigh around 200 kg and is 25 feet (7.6 m) long and made of painted fiberglass. It is named Untitled 1986 which is written on the gate of the house, and was erected on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. You can find the shark house at 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford, OX3 7AQ.
Image Source: The Telegraph
First Rule of a Tour Around Oxford…. Always look up! You Never Know who is Watching!
As you walk around the Colleges, be sure to look up once in a while. There are many gargoyles adorning the buildings. They come in all shapes and sizes, from shapes of faces, to animals, whilst some are of entire people. Be sure to keep a keen eye out for some more humorous ones… there have been sights of a cheeky one picking his nose and another one going to the bathroom!
Image Source: Vanessa Jackson
Want to know more about the fascinating history, stories and culture behind Oxford? Download the free Obelisk Tours App and enjoy the Oxford Tour!