Everywhere and Nowhere: Oxford, the other Garden City

May 15, 2022
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OXFORD, the seat of the famous university, lies west-northwest of London across the Chiltern Hills. I had never stayed in Oxford for more than a few hours before, only ever stopping for coffee. So, this time, I decided to spend a couple of nights there and make a proper go of it.

Oxford, west-north-west of London. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top in this map and all maps and satellite/aerial views below.

It's about 80 km (50 miles) from London Bridge to Oxford across the Chilterns: not really that far. In fact, Oxford itself is on London's famous River Thames, which cuts through the Chiltern Hills to Reading and then on to London via the Thames Valley. Oxford was originally founded because of a strategic location on the junction of the Thames and the River Cherwell, with the usual castle, from which the town spread out.

Oxford Castle information sign

Oxford Castle Today

Another Oxford Castle information sign, showing the site of the original 'motte and bailey', a wooden hill-fort similar to a traditional Māori pā which was the original form of this castle, and others, as they were first built by the Normans just after their conquest of England. The really massive stone castles that endure today actually came a bit later.

At a bit over fifteen pounds a pop, guided tours only, the castle was a teensy bit expensive to go inside. It’s not that much perhaps, but these things add up. So, I just took photos from the outside. I figured that once you've seen one castle you've seen them all. (Or is that just sour grapes?)

Anyhow, here's a map of Oxford. One of the things that's really striking is just how much parkland there is in the city, something that is if anything even more obvious when the city is photographed from above.

'Map of Oxford within the ring road', OpenStreetMap, 23 November 2017, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Oxford via Google in the Satellite/Aerial view. Imagery ©2022 CNES/Airbus, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Landsat/Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, the Geoinformation Group. Map data ©2022 Google.

Even right in the middle of town, you might think that you were in the countryside, at least while facing away from the buildings behind you. It is an impression reinforced by the hedges and patches of forest in the fields which hide the buildings beyond, especially in misty weather.

A meadow in the middle of Oxford. Only the railing gives away the fact that I am not really in the countryside.

The entrance to the Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford is thus a 'garden city', an expression that's often applied to Christchurch in New Zealand. In fact, one of the most famous churches in Oxford is called Christ Church, the inspiration for our own Christchurch Anglican Cathedral and the name of Christchurch. While as it would see, the other aspects of the city are the inspiration for Christchurch the Garden City.

A sign saying Welcome to Christ Church and giving information

Christ Church

The War Memorial Garden at Christ Church

A Floral Clock (but with no hands) at Christ Church

As you can just see in the Google view above, Oxford is bypassed by two motorways, the A34 at bottom left and the A40 at top right. Neither passes through the middle of Oxford, which is a haven of peace by comparison. In this respect Oxford is completely different to, say, Auckland where the downtown mostly consists of 'Spaghetti Junction' and all its attractive qualities have been entirely given up.

If Kiwi motorway engineers, as opposed to British ones, had been put in charge of the destiny of Oxford, they'd surely have tried to save money by combining the A34 and the A40 and running them both through the great belt of country-park that scythes right through the middle of Oxford between the downtown area and the suburbs slightly to the east. But the Brits have always had a bit more class, you know.

This 1946 British government manual contains a photo of High Street, Oxford, as an example of the sort of place that shouldn’t be interfered with.

Cover of the publication Design and Layout of Roads in Built-Up Areas

Moving on from Norman castle days, Oxford's importance was renewed in the canal-building era of the early Industrial Revolution. Before the great Victorian railway boom, canals, and the upper reaches of the Thames, were used to carry industrial goods from more northern cities such as Birmingham toward London and its world port.

And so, Oxford became the Thames Valley terminus for the Oxford Canal, which had its other end near the industrial town of Coventry. These days the canals aren't used to haul pig iron or anything like that anymore. Instead, people just use them for messing about in boats.

One of the bridges across the Oxford Canal, or possibly another local stream, in Oxford's built-up area

The hostels were really expensive, so I stayed in a tent in a cheap camping ground called the Oxford Camping and Caravanning Club, near another short section of canal, full of houseboats, which ran through a nature reserve called the Iffley Meadows. The waterways of Oxford are actually rather braided, it's a bit like Venice.

A screenshot from my phone showing where I stayed. Incidentally, the name of the local pub, Isis Farmhouse, refers to the fact that the Thames is sometimes known locally as the Isis.

At the campsite, I met an older man in his seventies who was originally from York. He had retired to France for the last twelve years. Now, with Brexit, he can only stay there for short periods, so his retirement had been completely stuffed up. And yet with the strange masochism of so many Brexiteers, he thought Brexit was good for the country all the same. And I thought to myself, why would he enjoy twelve years in France and deny the next generations of British people the same?

The poor old man was now semi-nomadic in Britain, his own son charging him 50 pounds a night for Airbnb whenever he turned up in York. Fortunately, he could afford it. He had this great campervan for which he had paid 51,000 pounds. A lot of people are campervanning now, and the price of camper vans have gone up, just as it has back home in NZ.

On my first night, he made me a meal and said he had fond memories of New Zealand, and of people inviting him for Christmas dinner there. And so, I thought he was great after all.

A wharf for boat trips, at the local terminus of the Oxford Canal

Canal boats

There is also the usual collection of dead bicycles and, no doubt, shopping trolleys, which no doubt have to be fished out regularly.

Dead bicycles

Here is a short video I made:

But of course, the castle, Christ Church, parks, and canals aren't really what Oxford is world-famous for. It's the university, the oldest in Britain and the oldest in the English-speaking world, with some teaching from 1096 CE and definite establishment as a university from around 1200 CE, making it slightly younger than Italy's University of Bologna.

The saying that they have in Oxford about their university is that it is "everywhere and nowhere," with colleges scattered all over the city, which thus resembles a vast university campus in some ways, with shops in between. There are wonderful façades lining the streets and quirky old buildings everywhere.

Perhaps the most famous street view in England: looking along a gentle bend in Oxford's High Street toward the Spire of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, past Queen's College

Here is a video I made at that spot, turning around by 360 degrees:

The Radcliffe Camera (meaning chamber), a famous reading-room from the days before the other sort of camera was invented

One of the entrances to the Bodleian Library, of which the Radcliffe Camera is a part, is dedicated to a book collector called Bernhardt von Mallinckrodt, who lived from 1591 to 1664, His slightly eccentric coat of arms (which literally does have two arms coming out of the top if you look closely) does not anticipate the aeroplane propellor, but rather features a berry and three black leaves.

The Mallinckrodt entrance to the Bodleian Library. Detail from a photo by Sandro Wiggerich, 29 July 2015, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is real Hogwarts stuff, and you can see where they get it from!

In fact, the street scenes are generally amazing, and there is so much old-world architectural richness.

An old crumbly street. I thought that the pavement-cracks were interesting as well. The place is actually lived-in.

A typical pavement scene

Oxford is also home to at least ten famous museums, which I would very much like to visit if I had, oh, about ten more days to do them justice.

But the place is not all old and dusty by any means. Real people live there. So, there was a lively covered market downtown.

The Covered Market: Information Panel

The Covered Market: Interior

There was an ad for workers at the market. You'd start off on nine pounds ninety an hour, about the same as the minimum wage in New Zealand, and then if you kept your nose clean you could advance to supervisor for another 85 p an hour.

Luxury! — we used to dream of getting another 85 p an hour for a ton of added responsibility. I am being ironic of course.

They used to rely on Polish workers quite a bit in Britain, but a lot of them have left for greener pastures back home. Maybe, along with Brexit, the low pay at the bottom and high costs of living in Britain are also a factor? I also saw a protest against the more carboniferous form of capitalism.

Protest outside Barclays Bank

And a few punky signs advertising forthcoming speakers in London, and an artist called Mr Brainwash.

Sign advertising socialist speakers

Ad for Mr Brainwash

There were also more respectable cultural events being advertised.

Ads for classical concerts, etcetera

And there was even a modern shopping mall, amazingly enough.

Photo of a pedestrianised semi-outdoor shopping mall

But getting back to the old stuff, the city has the most ancient cafe in England, dating back to around the year 1650. Coffee was known in the Middle East before that date, but took a while to percolate westward (no pun intended).

Photo of the Grand Cafe, billed as the first coffee-house in England

There are lots of information panels that advise visitors of the significance of the old buildings and quaint alleys they are walking past.

All Souls, founded to commemorate the dead of the mediaeval Hundred Years' War. That's going back a while, now.

Outside Queen's Lane

Outside the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

That last-mentioned spot, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin which so dominates the High Street, has an amazing southern façade that reminded me a lot of some of the churches I'd seen in places like Spain and Portugal.

The South Façade of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

A slightly closer look at what is called the South Porch of the church

Though the church is Anglican in denomination, it all looks a bit ... well, Catholic. Those spirally columns, aren't they a bit like the ones over the tomb of St Peter in the Vatican as well?

That is precisely what a Protestant mob thought when they attacked the South Porch in 1642, "shooting the heads of both Jesus and his mother" as one authority puts it, leaving bullet holes that can be seen to this day, though the votive figures were stuck back together once passions had abated. Meanwhile, most unfortunately, the Archbishop of Canterbury on whose watch the Porch had gone up, William Laud, was put on trial for treason.

Among the various accusations, it was charged that Laud had erected the “very scandalous statue of the Virgin Mary with Christ in her arms, set up in front of the new Church Porch of St. Mary’s.”

Laud was not found guilty of actually breaking any law. Parliament then passed a resolution stating that, even though some clever lawyer had just got Laud off the hook, they were still going to chop off his head. So there.

A contemporary engraving of William Laud's execution outside the Tower of London

So, I decided to investigate St Mary's, as it's known for short, to see whether the place had been worth joining the long ranks of seventeenth-century martyrs over.

St Mary's welcome sign

Martyrs of Oxfordshire, alone!

I don't know about the getting martyred bit, but it was definitely impressive inside.

Interior of St Mary's

Stained Glass Window of St Mary's

As a clue to just how ancient this place is, Laud's South Porch a comparatively recent renovation (!) the church contained the tomb of the founder of Oriel College at Oxford University, Adam de Brome, who died all the way back in 1332.

'Stained glass image of Adam de Brome, in the hall of Oriel College, Oxford'. Photo dated 24 April 2002, photographer unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The tomb of Adam de Brome, still there in St Mary's after all those years!

Here is a third video I made in Oxford, of St Mary's:

Even in de Brome's day St Mary's church had some history under its belt, for it dates back ultimately to Anglo-Saxon times, a thousand years ago or more. The church tower, the one that visitors can climb for a view, dates back to the 1200s. I should have climbed the tower, which costs five pounds, but for some reason, I thought it was more expensive than that and gave it a miss.

Speaking of religious persecutions, I came across a sort of Stolperstein, as they say in Germany, a stumbling stone, describing how, in addition to his other nasty acts, mean old Edward I, the bane of William Wallace and the Scots, had also expelled the Jewish people from England in 1290, after some earlier murders and persecutions. There had been a community in Oxford till then. Even more remarkably, the Jews were kept out of England for more than 350 years, till 1656.

The old Jewish cemetery

Last but not least, local house prices seem fairly ridiculous. The property below is advertised as spacious, but it surely doesn't look like it. I have heard of sleeping in your car, but what about sleeping in a five hundred-thousand pound house that seems to be about as wide as your car is long? No doubt, it has got a lot of character: I believe people weren't quite as big in the olden days.

As for those earning an extra 85 p an hour for being supervisors, I suppose they get to live in shoebox in't middle of road. So much for progress.

Anyway, if you are planning to visit Oxford, be assured that everything I have described here is just a fraction of what there is to see and do. I was only there for a couple of days, before moving on. Next stop, the Peak District!


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