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Landmarks of Oxford (Self Guided), Oxford

Oxford is a very beautiful city, with a rich culture and history. It offers a lot of splendid landmarks and monuments, many of them dating back hundreds of years and illustrating the historic heritage of the city. This walking tour will guide you through the most attractive landmarks of Oxford.
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Landmarks of Oxford Map

Guide Name: Landmarks of Oxford
Guide Location: England » Oxford (See other walking tours in Oxford)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Author: Linda
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Sheldonian Theatre
  • Clarendon Building
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Bodleian Library
  • The Radcliffe Camera
  • Carfax Tower
  • The Saxon tower of St Michael at the North Gate
  • The Martyrs' Memorial
Sheldonian Theatre

1) Sheldonian Theatre (must see)

Although Oxford University was founded by various clergymen and at first the colleges were for learning theology, it didn’t remain that way for long and some of the buildings were put up for other purposes than study. The Sheldonian Theatre is one of those buildings.

For many centuries graduation ceremonies were held in St Mary the Virgin on High Church. These ceremonies usually ended up as boisterous parties, not much in keeping with the spiritual surroundings. This offended the church’s ministers to the point that in 1660 they appealed to the University’s Chancellor, Gilbert Sheldon to help them build a place for the ceremonies. Sheldon, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, not only agreed to the idea, but funded the building himself.

The theater was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who turned his back on the popular Gothic style and based his plans on the 1st century BC Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. The only problem was that the D-shaped building was too wide for the supporting roof beams, so Wren used a geometrical grid pattern, invented by John Wallis in 1648, which consisted of a lattice work of timber trusses and crossbeams without any supporting pillars. The roof was rebuilt by George Saunders in 1802.

On the ceiling 32 oil-on-canvas panels make up a wonderful fresco that relates the story of Truth, Arts and Sciences kicking Ignorance out of the University. The theater today is used for other events as well as graduation ceremonies: conferences, lectures and music recitals.

There is an 8-sided lantern on the center of the roof with windows on all sides, which affords great views of the city and is open to the public.
Sight description based on wikipedia
Clarendon Building

2) Clarendon Building

You will find the Clarendon Building on Broad Street. It is part of the Bodleian Library and students often use its steps as a rallying point for protests and demonstrations.

It was built in 1715 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, who also designed six of London’s famous churches. Its main purpose was to house the Oxford University Press and was paid for out of the proceeds from Lord Clarendon’s classic “History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England”.

The building is rectangular in shape and built in the Classical style with the portico supported by four Tuscan pillars. The main entrance is arched with an arched niche above it, where there was once a statue of Lord Clarendon by Francis Bird. The statue now stands in a niche on the west side of the building, while the entrance niche is now a window.

The figures around the roof are by Sir James Thornhill. They are lead statues representing the nine Muses: Calliope (epic poetry) carrying a writing tablet; Clio (History) bearing scrolls; Erato (love poetry) playing a cithara; Euterpe (song) playing a flute; Melpomene (tragedy) with a tragic mask; Thalia (comedy) with a comic mask; Polyhymnia (hymns) with her veil; Terpsichore (dance) strumming a lyre and Urania (astronomy) holding a globe and a compass.
Bridge of Sighs

3) Bridge of Sighs (must see)

Unfortunately if you are not a student of Hertford College you won’t be able to cross the Bridge of Sighs, but you can certainly admire it from street level and add a photo of it to your collection of Oxford’s marvellous structures.

The real name of the bridge is the Hertford Bridge and it was built in 1914 by Sir Thomas Jackson. It took its popular name from the fact that it is supposed to look just like the bridge of the same name in Venice. Actually it resembles the Rialto Bridge more than anything else, but the Bridge of Sighs sounds more romantic.

The bridge is a fine example of the Quadrature of the Parabola, developed by Archimedes in the 3rd century BC – a rather difficult geometrical concept in that the area of a parabolic segment is 4/3 of a certain inscribed triangle. It all comes down to the triangle (top) of the bridge is supported by the arch (parabola) because they are of the same base length and height.

Leaving the Maths lesson behind us, the bridge is covered and glass panelled and links the college’s Old Quad with the New Quad. According to popular legend the college once closed the bridge to overweight students, forcing them to get some exercise by taking the long route from one building to another.
Bodleian Library

4) Bodleian Library (must see)

The Bodleian Library is the main research library of Oxford University and if you are not a student, you can visit it on guided tours which should be booked in advance.

The Bodleian is one of the oldest reference libraries in Europe and one of the six legal deposit libraries in the UK, which means that a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland is required by law to be deposited here.

The 1st library was founded by Thomas Cobham, the Bishop of Worcester, in the 14th century. It was a chained library – the books were chained to the shelves to stop people pinching them. In 1437 the Duke of Gloucester donated a vast number of manuscripts and the library became too small, so Duke Humphrey’s Library was built at Divinity School.

Over the years the library fell into disuse until 1598 when a Fellow of Merton College, Thomas Bodley, had the place renovated and enlarged to receive his collection of books. It reopened in 1602 and took its present-day name.

It was also Bodley who made an agreement with the Stationer’s Company in 1610 to put a copy of each of their books in the library. This agreement became the Deposit Law in the 19th century.

The library expanded in 1612 and 1637 and it became popular with Fellows to donate or bequeath their collections. The New Library was built in 1937 and a tunnel under Broad Street connects the Old and the New Bodleian.

The library holds a staggering 11 million books and other reading matter, 117 miles of shelves and 400 staff members. Among the ancient manuscripts there is a copy of the Magna Charta and the Song of Roland. It also houses one of the last copies of the Guttenberg Bible.
The Radcliffe Camera

5) The Radcliffe Camera (must see)

The Radcliffe Camera, despite its name, isn’t a camera in the technical term; it is the first circular library to be built in the United Kingdom. Camera is another term for a chamber.

John Radcliffe was a royal physician and when it was known that he intended to have a library built at the University to house his science collection, several of the colleges argued amongst themselves about which of them would be honored by the building.

In the end, none of them were; several terraced houses on Cattle Street, the Black Hall and some outbuildings from Brasenose College were demolished to make way for the library. Built in 1749 by James Gibbes in the English Palladian style, from the outside it appears to have three storeys. The ground floor is rusticated; the first floor is divided into bays separated by ten pairs of Corinthian columns. Above this is the lantern and lead-covered dome.

Inside the building, the first floor is actually an open gallery around the walls. There is a 2 meter-high statue of John Radcliffe, sculpted by John Rysbrack. In 1912 an underground archives room was created with a passage connecting it to the Bodleian Library.

There are over 600,000 books in the Radcliffe Camera, which is now a reading room belonging to the Bodleian Library and sadly is not open to the public.
Sight description based on wikipedia
Carfax Tower

6) Carfax Tower (must see)

Carfax Tower stands at the junction of four streets: Cornmarket Street to the north, St Aldate’s to the south, High Street on the east and Queen Street on the west. It is perhaps the exact geographical centre of Oxford.

The tower stands on the north-east corner of the junction and is the only remains of the 13th century St Martin’s Church. From 1122 to 1896 the church was the City Church of Oxford until it was partially demolished to make way for a new road. Further road widening led to the rest of the church being pulled down in 1900.

The tower is 23 metres high and no other building in the city is allowed to be higher. It has a ring of six bells that were cast in 1676 by Richard Keene. They still ring out the quarter hour, but the two quarter boys that used to strike them are no longer in use. The bells are rung on special occasions by the Oxford Society of Change Ringers.

Behind the tower you will see a solitary tombstone. It is that of William Butler who was once mayor of Oxford. He was buried here in 1865, but when the church was demolished, the tombstone was forgotten and with the tower is classed as a Grade II listed building.
The Saxon tower of St Michael at the North Gate

7) The Saxon tower of St Michael at the North Gate

The Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate is the oldest surviving building in Oxford and should be on your “must visit” list.

The tower is part of the church that stood on the site of the north gate when the city was a walled one. It was built in 1040, but the original church no longer exists. The tower was part of the city’s defences.

It was built of coral rag-stone, which is rough and very tough, but is virtually impossible to carve into pleasing shapes and wasn’t used for housing or church buildings. The Boccardo Prison adjoined the tower and in 1555 the Oxford Martyrs were kept there before being burnt at the stake. The martyrs’ cell door has been preserved and you can see in the tower, on the second floor.

The top of the tower is reached by climbing 99 steps, but it is an easy climb and well worth it for the splendid views. On the first floor you will find the former treasury where you will see some excellent examples of 16th century silver, a charter signed by King James I in 1612 and the wedding certificate of the writer William Morris and his wife, the artist’s model Jane Burden. There is also a rather repulsive sheela-na-gig, the figurine of a naked woman with an oversized vulva, which was once placed over the church doors to ward off evil.

The entrance to the tower is in the Visitor’s Reception Centre where you can buy souvenirs, postcards and guide books.
The Martyrs' Memorial

8) The Martyrs' Memorial (must see)

Since the dawn of time man has committed atrocities in the name of religion. The Martyrs Memorial on the intersection of Beaumont Street, Magdalen Street and St Giles’, is a mute testament to one of those acts.

In 1553 Queen Mary Tudor succeeded her brother Edward VI to the English Crown and restored Roman Catholicism as the main religion. In 1555 she accused The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer and two other Anglican Bishops, Nicholas Rigby and Hugh Latimer, of heresy.

It was known that she hated Cranmer, who had dissolved the marriage of her father, Henry VIII and her mother, Catherine of Aragon, thus making Mary an illegitimate child. The three men were tried and burnt at the stake, Rigby and Latimer in 1555 and Cranmer in 1566.

The Martyrs Memorial is a lovely Victorian Gothic structure that looks very much like a cathedral spire. The three statues of the martyrs were sculpted by Henry Weeks. Sometimes students tell foreign visitors that the memorial is the spire of an underground church and direct them to a flight of steps that lead, in reality, to the public lavatories.

The memorial was designed by Sir George Scott in 1843 and bears a very anti-Catholic inscription. It served as a reminder to the members of the Oxford movement of the very high price the martyrs paid for their religious beliefs.

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