15 things you might not, but really should, know about Oxford

Oxford. The city of dreaming spires that basks in the world renowned glories of its university patrons past and future. A city of inspiration for academics and tourists alike. A visit to Oxford makes for a busy day, a fascinating overnight stop, or an exhaustive short break.

But aside from its historic treasures, Oxford is also home to iconic brands, eclectic suburbs, and a forever evolving milieu of bars and eateries. Let us take you on our tour of this historic and architecturally outstanding city of learning.

  1. The poet, Matthew Arnold, first referenced Oxford as the city of dreaming spires in his poem Thyrsis written in the 19th century.
  2. Those same dreaming spires feature in the opening lines of the Small Faces track Itchycoo Park.
  3. Talking of music. Oxford is a hotbed of progressive and revolutionary bands across the genre. Most globally renowned is the alternative rock band Radiohead, with its roots in Abingdon (lead singer Thom Yorke went to school there) and Yorke is latterly thought to have lived in the refined north Oxford suburb of Summertown. Next in the fame line are Indie band Supergrass who sprang up from the village of Wheatley on the northern outskirts of the city. Other notable musical outputs include The Candyskins – one of the city’s early contributions to the Britpop movement. Although world domination slipped through their fingers you can now find lead singer Nick Cope writing and performing children’s songs at venues across the county – just look out for mums swooning at the epic entertainment and a quiet half hour.
  4. While we’re on the topic it would be rude to overlook the influence that Oxford’s music scene has on Oxford music festivals. The Fairport Convention at Cropredy, Truck, Cornbury and Wilderness are the biggies, but what these and the newer or smaller events have in common in addition to homegrown talent is their family friendliness. Even if you don’t like camping, the day tickets are reasonable if you want to make it part of a weekend break in Oxford.
  5. Sticking with the arts, Oxford isn’t exactly short of literary legends. You’ve been to Oxford more than once in your literary wanderings, but opt for an Oxford short break to visit the colleges, watering holes and buildings that inspired these literary greats. From Thomas Hardy (Jude the Obscure), CS Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), J.R.R. Tolkein (The Lord of the Rings), Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest), to Graham Green (The Third Man), Iris Murdoch (Under the Net), Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse) and Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials). If you haven’t read one of them, the city’s stalwart bookseller, Blackwell’s on Broad Street, will sort you out.
  6. And so to culture. Oxford city is home to at least 10 museums including the Museum of Oxford, The Story Museum and The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments. Plus the big family draw of dinosaurs at The National History Museum and the shrunken heads of its neighbour the Pitt Rivers Museum (probably better for the older ones in your brood). But it can also proudly claim that the Ashmolean Museum was the first museum in the world to be opened to the public. For all you trivia buffs, that happened way back in 1683. The museum continues its impressive rota of internationally sourced exhibitions. And for those exhausted by their visit, the rooftop cafe and restaurant will give you the perfect view of this wonderful city.
  7. We have to talk sport next. The track where Sir Roger Bannister ran his sub-minute mile in 1954 is at the Oxford University Sports Centre on Iffley Road, around a mile’s walk east from the city centre. There’s still a running track there today alongside the pitches that host many annual varsity matches and university vs club and country matches, where the greats of now and the greats of the future battle it out for the annual accolade.
  8. Oxford University Boat Club (dark blues) has won 11 of the last 16 races against Cambridge University (light blues) in the annual Boat Race on the River Thames in London. That leaves them three short of having won the most races since the event’s inauguration in 1829. No pressure.
  9. There are lots of bikes in Oxford. Nobody seems to want to put their name to a guestimate of just how many, but there’s plenty. It is the transport of choice for most students, whichever of the city’s two universities they attend, and for residents too. If you’re considering the two wheeled approach to exploring the city, there are some decent cycle lanes in and out of town. And the hilly suburb of Headington introduced its own Boris bike style scheme in 2013, so that commuters and visitors alike can glide down Headington Hill to St Clements and have a cardiovascular workout trying to get back to the top!
  10. On an even sweatier note, famous Oxonians (the collective name for city residents, university students and fellows, although in this fact focusing solely on university graduates or teachers) have collected a whopping 120 Olympic medals!
  11. Oxford University was at the heart of pioneering higher education for women. Although on paper alone the numbers don’t look great, women’s education in Oxford has been largely progressive. The university was established in the 13th century and the first two women’s colleges opened in 1879 (Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville). The first all-male colleges to admit women didn’t do so until 1974, but since 2008 all colleges have welcomed male and female students. And with a tip of the hat to feminism, St Hilda’s was the last of the all-female colleges to admit men and didn’t do so until 2008.
  12. Your BMW Mini was built in Oxford. William Morris began manufacturing cars on a mass scale in East Oxford’s Cowley more than 100 years ago. The factory’s evolution from Morris Motors to BMW ownership via World War II de Havilland Tiger Moth manufacture, put Oxford on the map as a city of industry, not just education.
  13. In between the Cowley car plant and the city centre is one of Oxford’s most eclectic suburbs: East Oxford, which extends along increasing lengths of the Cowley Road. You can take a whistlestop tour of world cuisine along this one street, though you’d be pretty full just part of the way down. From delis to cafes, bars and restaurants, this is unsurprisingly a haven for students. But it is increasingly home to hip, British foodie start-ups too.
  14. On the north side of the city is another suburban haven of students and the university’s transient academic population: Jericho. The area focused around Walton Street is wedged between the canal and the colleges of St Giles and Woodstock Road. Entertainment wise it’s largely cocktail bars with extensive and expensive drinks lists nestled alongside olde worlde pubs with a retro vibe. For arthouse cinema, the Phoenix Picture Palace is your resting place, neighbour to Brasserie Blanc (yes, you guessed it, the in-town eaterie of one of Oxfordshire’s famous faces: Raymond Blanc) and opposite one of our favourite brunch spots The Jericho Cafe.
  15. The appeal of Oxford extends far and wide. Its universities have educated lates and greats, friends and foes. But did you know that Hitler had his eye on it as the capital of England should his invasion of Britain have been successful. And that is said to be why this most wonderful of cities, small as it is, was untouched from enemy bombing during the Second World War.

Beautiful and fascinating, you’ll wonder at how this diverse and academic setting nurtures independence, promotes local and global alongside each other, and crams in the crowds of students and tourists, albeit the most transient of its population, into what is actually a very small city. Whether you’re popping in for a day from your Cotswold holiday cottage or are renting an apartment in the city. Let it woo you. You won’t want to leave but you’ll have plenty of inspiration to come back!


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