Of Quads and Dreaming Spires – Oxford, England.
When we arrive in Oxford, it dawns on me that I am a walking example of the stereotypical Asian tourist, except with a very big twist. My partner in crime is Ángela, a Spanish exchange student I met back in January. Armed with our big cameras and speaking primarily in Spanish, we went from college to college, confounding many of the locals along the way.
Our first stop is Christ Church College, the largest of the Oxford colleges and home to the city’s cathedral. In its storied history it has produced no less than 13 British prime ministers and a whole host of other notable alumni.
When Ángela and I step inside we discover an intimate courtyard punctuated by the sound of a bubbling fountain. All the colleges in Oxford are laid out in a series of rectangular courtyards named ‘quadrangles’ (or ‘quads’ for short), and Christ Church is no exception.
Turning left from the small courtyard takes us through a building and into the Great Quadrangle, which is popularly known as ‘Tom Quad’. Dominated by Sir Christopher Wren’s imposing Tom Tower – so named because of the great bell that is housed inside – it measures 264 by 261 feet, making it the largest quad in all of Oxford.
Once considered the smallest cathedral in England, Christ Church Cathedral was built mainly between 1160 and 1200, during the late Norman period. The present-day structure is an alluring mix of heavy Romanesque and soaring Gothic; look up at the nave’s vaulted ceiling and you will see a beautiful example of the English Perpendicular style. Among the panels of stained glass there is also a depiction of St. Thomas à Becket’s murder at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.
On our way to the high street we take in more of the grounds of Christ Church. In the next quad there are records of the college’s rowing triumphs etched in chalk. Twice a year the colleges of Oxford compete in a rowing race to see who can win to become the ‘Head of the River’; ‘Torpids’ are held around the beginning of March whilst ‘Eights’ are held in May. With its Georgian architecture this courtyard – named Peckwater Quad – would not look out of place in Bath.
At the very heart of Oxford lies Radcliffe Square. Named after John Radcliffe, an Oxford student who went on to become physician to the King, it is organised around the circular library known as Radcliffe Camera. Designed by architect James Gibbs in the English Palladian style, it was inaugurated in 1749 as an extension to the nearby Bodleian Library.
Directly opposite the ‘Rad Cam’ is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where you can ascend the tower for a small fee. After some tight squeezes and what seems like a never-ending spiral staircase, the reward is a stunning panoramic view of the city centre. From this vantage point it is easy to see why Oxford is nicknamed ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’.
If you happen to be in the tower around lunchtime, you need not go very far to get good food. Ángela and I had lunch at the café adjoining the church – it did a mean chicken breast with salad and roast potatoes – but the best part is that you can sprawl across a picnic blanket on the lawn outside.
Having had our fill of food and vitamin D, we stroll over to the other side of Radcliffe Square to see the works of two of England’s greatest Baroque architects.
Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre (completed in 1668) marked a significant departure from the Gothic style of the older university buildings. It was purpose-built to replace the University Church as the main venue for graduation ceremonies after they became ‘too rowdy’. Just next door is the Clarendon Building (1713), designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor to house the famous Oxford University Press.
Just a stone’s throw away is the Bridge of Sighs, a fanciful-looking footbridge connecting the two halves of Hertford College. Having only been built in 1914, it is a relatively recent addition to the city’s historic architecture.
The thing about exploring Oxford is that it’s highly possible to develop “college fatigue” – where you go from quad to quad and things begin to look the same. So unless you are a big architecture enthusiast, it’s good to choose carefully. It’s also useful to plot their locations on a map so you don’t need to waste time backtracking through the centre.
On the eastern end of Oxford’s high street stands Magdalen College and its landmark tower. Established in 1458, it is often thought to be one of the most beautiful of the Oxbridge colleges. There is even a deer park within its grounds but on this occasion we are rather more interested in its romantic 15th century cloister. Look out for the signs pointing to the dining hall – in its finery it looks like something straight out of an old period film.
At Magdalen we also witness a math lesson on the grass in front of the 18th century New Building. This is where C.S. Lewis had his rooms when he was teaching as a fellow here.
Our last hour in Oxford is spent searching for an elusive promenade along the River Cherwell. Unlike Cambridge water does not flow through the heart of the city, and while you still can go punting it’s nowhere near as fun as doing it on the River Cam. Constantly frustrated by dead-end streets, fences and signs denoting private property, we were on the verge of giving up until we spotted a great avenue of trees leading from the southern edge of Christ Church College. It turned out that the water at its end was none other than the Thames, the same river that flows past the Houses of Parliament in London.
In the water there are flocks of Canadian Geese and we stay for a while, listening to them cluck and honk. I explain to Ángela that they were introduced from North America and are a proud national symbol of Canada. Of course, that’s where half my family is from. “Son canadiense.” I put a fist to my heart and she laughs.