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A VIEW OF OXFORD front      help

the sheldonian
To walk through Oxford is to walk through history. Scarcely anywhere else in England is so much history, tradition and such a wealth of fine architecture to be found in a comparitively small area.
What does the word Oxford conjure up? For many it evokes visions of the University, the dreaming spires, rowing eights, punting, Inspector Morse. Oxford is all of this and much more.
Mathew Arnold (1822-1888), the poet, described Oxford as:
And that sweet City with her dreaming spires,
she needs not June for beauty's heightening.

Oxford takes its name from a ford where oxen and people could cross the Rivers Isis and Cherwell. The stretch of River Thames, which runs through Oxford, is often called the Isis.

The town is of Saxon origin, although very little dates from that period. Most of the buildings date from the 1400s and later. The street names in Oxford give a hint of previous layout. Paradise Street, originally the site of a beautiful medieval walled fruit garden where the monks would go for relaxation and exercise, was a haven amongst the drab surroundings, Deadman’s Walk, so called because funeral processions would use it to reach the Jewish cemetery (now the Botanic gardens). Turl Street, meaning a turning gate in a hole, takes its name from a gate in the Oxford City wall, which was sited at the north end of the street. The Plain, which means an open space in the midst of houses, is so called because St Clement’s Church, originally on this site, was demolished in 1830 leaving an open area. Carfax, the crossroads in the centre of Oxford is derived from the Latin quadrifurcus, meaning four forked.

Many distinguished figures from history are associated with the town. They include scientists such as Roger Bacon, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley, Harry Moseley, Christopher Wren, literary figures such as Lewis Carroll, Matthew Arnold, T.E. Lawrence, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, political figures such as Margaret Thatcher and religious figures such as John Wesley and John Wyclif. There's a little more about them at the bottom of this page.

Roger Bannister first ran the four-minute mile at the athletics track on Iffley road. Charles 1 made Oxford his capital during the civil war. William Morris, (Lord Nuffield) the founder of Morris Motors began production of the Morris Oxford in his garage at Longwall Street in the heart of the Oxford.

The University is a collection of 35 colleges which all operate independently. It began life as a number of religious communities. One of the earliest was the Convent of St Frideswide, which existed in the eighth century. Until 1320, when the University acquired its first building, teachers would hire rooms for their lectures and charge students an attendance fee each term. Students lived in halls; at one time there were 120 of them. Later, some of these halls became colleges. Colleges were permanent communities, with common property and a common head. Endowments were often made to set up colleges, and as the number and wealth of the colleges increased, so the number of halls declined.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there was great friction between the townsfolk and the University or the Town and Gown as they are called in Oxford, as well as between rival student factions. The earliest riot was in 1209 and they were commonplace until the great riot and massacre of St Scholastica’s Day in 1355. There was a disagreement between the landlord of a tavern and some students, which resulted in the students setting fire to the town. The townsfolk retaliated by plundering the students’ hostels and 63 students were killed. As a penance, 63 burghers, representatives of the townsfolk, were made to pay a fine on the anniversary of the riot for 500 years. The burghers had to form a procession to St Mary the Virgin, the University church, to pay the fine to the Vice Chancellor. This continued until 1825.

College Custodians are known locally as Bulldogs. They are a type of university police force and are instantly recognisable by their bowler hats. The clock on Tom Tower at Christchurch is set to local time, which is five minutes behind GMT. Every evening at 9.05pm GMT it rings 101 times. This was the original number of students, and the bell rang to call students back into college for the night. Students had to be in college before the bell stopped ringing. Of course, nowadays, it is merely rung for tradition.

Rowing is one of the great sporting traditions of Oxford; each college has its own rowing society. Throughout the year, crews can be seen training on the river, in Eights, Fours and Sculls. The coaches usually cycle along the towpath shouting instructions through magaphones. Rowing is not just the preserve of the colleges, there is also the City of Oxford Rowing Club which caters for the Town. The main rowing events of the year in Oxford are the Torpids in late February, the Head of the River in late March, Eights at the end of May and the City of Oxford Rowing Club Regatta, which is usually in late August, and of course The Boat Race, held each year in London between Oxford and Cambridge.

The Oxford of today caters for all types of people. There are a wealth of eating places, cafes, and numerous art galleries and museums. The river is still an important part of the city both in terms of recreation and nuisance. The river frequently floods causing damage to the low-lying areas to the west of the city. But in the summer both tourists and residents like to take punts out, picnic on the riverbanks, watch the university boat races, or walk the towpaths to a riverside pub.

Roger Bacon (1214-1294) - English philosopher and scientist who placed great emphasis on the importance of mathematics and experimental science, was interested in optics, chemistry and astrology, and foresaw the practical possibilities of the telescope, lenses to correct vision, gunpowder, and mechanical navigation and flight.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) - Irish physicist and chemist. Boyle’s Law states that if the temperature remains constant, the volume of a gas varies inversely with the pressure.

Robert Hooke (1635-1703) - English scientist. Responsible for the law of elasticity, improved and invented many scientific instruments including the balance spring for watches, the universal or Hooke joint, and many meteorological instruments. Also designed several London buildings following the great fire of London.

Edmund Halley (1656-1742) - English astronomer, best known for his study of comets. Halley's Comet is named after him.

Harry Moseley, (1887-1915) - English physicist whose law formed the basis of modern atomic and nuclear physics.

Christopher Wren (1632-1723) - English architect responsible for the rebuilding of London following the great fire of 1666. Best known for St Paul’s Cathedral.

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) - pen name of the author Charles Dodgeson. Lecturer in mathematics at Christchurch College, wrote children’s classics such as Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) - English poet and critic. Most famous poems are The Scholar-Gypsy, Thysis, and Dover Beach.

Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) - English soldier, archaeologist and author. Known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia. Famous for raising a successful rebellion of the Arabs against the Turks during World War I.

John Ronald Renel Tolkien (1892-1973) - English author, professor of medieval English literature. Wrote The Hobbit, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Robert Graves (1895-1985) - English poet, novelist and critic. Professor of poetry at Oxford University. Wrote many historical novels using an unconventional viewpoint to interprete his characters in books such as, Claudius, and Homer’s daughter.

Margaret Thatcher (1925- ) - First woman Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. Seen by some as changing old-fashioned work attitudes and by others as imposing unpopular policies.

John Wesley (1703-1791) - Founder of Methodism - a branch of protestant Christianity although no longer a poular sect.

John Wyclif ( - 1384) - English Theologian and reformer. Prepared the first complete English translation of the Bible.

William Richard Morris (1877-1963) - Began building bicycles, and made his first car in 1913. He introduced automobile mass-manufacture to Britain at his Oxford factory.

Copyright and Permission: Karen Starr 2002

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