Oxford Introduction Walking Tour, Oxford

Oxford Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Oxford

A small city in central England, Oxford was first settled by the Anglo-Saxons circa 900 AD and was initially known as Oxnaford, meaning "ford (river crossing) of the oxen". In the later centuries, Oxford played an important role in the history and development of Great Britain. Much of the city revolves around its prestigious university, established in the 12th century, being the oldest in the English-speaking world. This self-guided walk will take you through Oxford's most interesting and beautiful attractions, such as Magdalen College, Carfax Tower, the Botanical Garden on the River Cherwell, and more.
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Oxford Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Oxford Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: England » Oxford (See other walking tours in Oxford)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.5 Km or 2.2 Miles
Author: Linda
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • University Church of St. Mary the Virgin
  • Radcliffe Camera
  • Bodleian Library
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Sheldonian Theatre
  • Martyrs' Memorial
  • Ashmolean Museum
  • Oxford Castle
  • Cornmarket Street
  • Carfax Tower
  • Tom Tower
  • Christ Church Cathedral
  • Magdalen College
  • University Of Oxford Botanical Garden
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

1) University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (must see)

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin is the largest parish church in Oxford. It stands on High Street and is surrounded by colleges, which is why it is so popular with the students and professors.

The first church on this site was built in 1086 and when the university was founded in the 13th century, it was considered to be its first building. In 1320, a two-storey edifice was constructed on the north side of the chancel; the ground floor was the university’s Convocation House and today it houses Vault Café. The upper floor became the university’s first library, with books donated by Thomas Cobham.

The church’s Baroque porch was designed by Nicholas Stone. Its 13th century tower affords excellent views, and is open to the public. The steeple is reputed to be the most beautiful in England.

In 1555, the Oxford Martyrs were tried and condemned inside this church. You will notice that a section of the pillar opposite the pulpit is missing. This was cut out to support a small platform where the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, stood while withdrawing his recantation of his Protestant faith, before being taken out and burnt at the stake.

At the end of the 15th and the early 16th centuries, most of the church was rebuilt in the Perpendicular style, only the tower and the spire remained untouched. Out of the 12 statues, 11 were replaced in 1894 by George Frampton.

Into the 17th century, the church was used for graduation ceremonies, until the church officials got fed up with the very un-Christian parties held afterwards, and therefore they had the Sheldonian Theatre built to host the ceremonies instead.
Radcliffe Camera

2) Radcliffe Camera (must see)

The Radcliffe Camera, despite its name, isn’t a camera at all in technical terms, but the first circular library built in the United Kingdom. Camera is yet another term for a chamber.

John Radcliffe was a royal physician, and when his intention to build a library at the University to house his science collection became known, several of the colleges argued among themselves about which of them should be honored with the building. In the end, none of them was in fact.

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 not open to the public.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Bodleian Library

3) Bodleian Library (must see)

Bodleian Library is the main research library of Oxford University, and if you are not a student, you can visit it on a guided tour 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 United Kingdom, which means that a copy of every book published in the UK 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, after the Duke of Gloucester donated a vast number of manuscripts, the building proved 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 grew popular with Fellows to donate or bequeath their collections. The New Library was built in 1937 and today 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 here is a copy of the Magna Charta and the Song of Roland. It also houses one of the last copies of the Guttenberg Bible.

***Harry Potter Tour***
Hidden away in the Bodleian Library, the Duke Humfrey’s reading room revels in a magical atmosphere. Boasting imposing high walls and an intricately painted ceiling, even the smallest of Harry Potter fans will fail to ignore this eye-catching beauty. Presented as the main Hogwarts Library in the film series, it is most memorable for the scene in The Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry uses his Cloak of Invisibility to sneak into the restricted section of the library. We see Harry creeping around here before he is given away by a screaming book.
Bridge of Sighs

4) 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 being supported by the arch (parabola) because they are of the same base length and height.

Leaving the Maths lesson behind, 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.

***Harry Potter Walk***
Conveniently easy to spot behind Oxford’s very own Bridge of Sighs, the ancient (almost 200-year-old) giant Oak Tree, featured during a duel between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, can be seen in New College Cloisters. And while the cloisters themselves are closed to the public, a photo of the tree can still be snapped from the roadside!
Sheldonian Theatre

5) 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 at 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. Apart from graduation ceremonies, today the theater is used for other events too, such as 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.
Martyrs' Memorial

6) Martyrs' Memorial

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.
Ashmolean Museum

7) Ashmolean Museum (must see)

The Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street is a wonderful “Aladdin’s Cave” of a museum to visit, and it sure is to delight everyone.

Created in 1678 to house the cabinet of curiosities donated by Elias Ashmole, this was the first university museum in the world. It moved to its current location, built by Charles Cockerall to accommodate the growing collection, in 1845.

The museum holds a wealth of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, drawings by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, as well as several watercolors by Turner.

Many of the archaeological artifacts are from Ashmole’s private collection and those of John Tradescant the Elder and the Younger, both of whom were naturalists, botanists and travelers.

The exhibitions display antique coins, books, engravings and geological specimens. The beautiful collection of Greek and Minoan pottery and artifacts from Ancient Egypt and Sudan are from the estate of Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who unearthed the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete.

The rest of the collection is a superb potpourri of curios, including Oliver Cromwell’s Death Mask, the lantern used by Guy Fawkes when he attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the Alfred Jewel, the Abingdon Sword, and Lawrence of Arabia’s ceremonial Arab head-dress.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Oxford Castle

8) Oxford Castle (must see)

Oxford is justifiably proud of its heritage and spends a lot of time and effort on the upkeep of its ancient buildings, as you will see when visiting Oxford Castle. This partly ruined Norman castle stands on the outskirts to the west of the town, just off New Road. At the beginning, it consisted of a wooden motte and bailey castle, but this was replaced by stone buildings in the 11th century.

During the war between England and Normandy in 1135-1153, the castle was used by King Henry I’s daughter, Empress Matilda, as a base during her bid to win the English crown from her cousin, King Stephen. Stephen surrounded the castle with siege-engines, but Matilda escaped and the castle’s occupants surrendered before a battle could get underway.

During the 13th century the defenses were improved, the Round Tower was built and the chapel restored. King Henry III used it as a prison. The castle was mostly destroyed during the English Civil War, and was continued to be used as a prison after the end of the war.

In 1888, the prison was expanded and became HM Prison Oxford until 1996, when it closed for good. Today, only the motte and St George’s Tower remain of the original castle.

The buildings of the prison have been converted into a luxury hotel, offices, a shopping center and the heritage complex. In the courtyard there is an open market and often theater performances are held here.

The castle also offers guided tours with guides in costume dress who will explain the castle’s history, as you climb to the top of St George’s Tower, visit the crypt and the motte with its vaulted Well Chamber.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Cornmarket Street

9) Cornmarket Street

Cornmarket Street (aka Cornmarket or The Corn, for short) is a major pedestrian thoroughfare in Oxford, sided by Carfax Tower in the north and Magdalen Street in the south. The street was pedestrianised in 1999.

To the east it has the small Golden Cross arcade of small jewellery and craft shops in a historic courtyard, leading to the Covered Market. To the west is the indoor Clarendon Shopping Centre that connects an L-shape to Queen Street.

26–28 Cornmarket is a 14th-century timber-framed building, surviving half of the New Inn completed in 1386. It belongs to Jesus College and was investigated and restored in 1983.

The largest department store in Oxford at 50 Cornmarket Street was established in 1738 by Boswells of Oxford. In 1928 the shop opened a new main entrance on Broad Street, but still retains an entrance on Cornmarket.

The tower of the Church of England parish church of St Michael at the Northgate is the oldest building in Oxford. It is of Saxon origin and dates back to cc. 1000–1050. The church was named after the medieval gate of Oxford's city walls that spanned the north end of Cornmarket.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Carfax Tower

10) 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 to the east, and Queen Street to the west – which is probably the exact geographical centre of Oxford.

The tower stands on the north-east corner of the junction and is the only remnant of the 13th century St Martin’s Church. From 1122 to 1896, this had been 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 stands 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 the mayor of Oxford. He was buried here in 1865, but when the church was demolished, the tombstone was forgotten and, together with the tower, it is now classed as a Grade II listed building.
Tom Tower

11) Tom Tower

On your first evening in Oxford you may will be surprised to hear a bell ringing out 101 times at five past nine. Something is strange here and the next morning you will seek out the source of this oddity, which is to be found in Tom Tower over Tom Gate, on St Aldates, the main entrance of Christ Church. It leads into The Great Quadrangle, more popularly known as Tom Quad - one of the quadrangles of Christ Church and the largest college quad in Oxford.

The bell tower was designed by Cardinal Wolsey in 1532, but when the Cardinal fell from power, the building remained unfinished. A 150 years later, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to finish the tower and his designs kept to the original late Gothic style, even though it had been out of fashion for a long time.

The work was carried out by master stonemason, Christopher Kempster. The tower is square with an octagonal lantern topped by an ogee dome, which has been copied many times over the centuries.

The bell inside the tower is called Great Tom. It weighs over 7 tons and is 1.52 metres high and 2.13 metres across the base. It is unclear exactly when the bell was first cast, but early records name it Mary and until 1545 it hung in Osrey Abbey, upon which it was moved to St Fridewide’s Church and renamed Tom.

It had been recast three times before it was moved to Tom Tower in 1682. The final recasting before its installation was carried out by Christopher Hodson.

As to the hour it chimes its 101 peal: Oxford time was once calculated five minutes after Greenwich Time. This isn’t unusual, as most towns had their own time until 1848, when Railway Time was officially adopted, based on Greenwich Time. The 101 peals were once a signal for the college’s original 101 students to return before the gates closed. It remains to this day a part of college tradition.
Christ Church Cathedral

12) Christ Church Cathedral (must see)

Christ Church holds a rather unique position of being both a college chapel and the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford. Until the 20th century it was also the smallest cathedral in the United Kingdom.

Its history predates the Norman Conquest, when a shrine was built on the site in memory of St Frideswide, a much-persecuted 7th century priestess, who seemed to have spent most of her life guarding her chastity from the amorous attentions of King Algar, one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms of Saxony.

By 1122, the cathedral had been part of the St Frideswide Priory, but in 1520 the buildings and lands were confiscated by Cardinal Wolsey who wanted them to build Cardinal College. Five of the bays in the western part of the nave were demolished to build what is now Tom Quad, before Wolsey, in his turn, was ousted by King Henry VIII, who had Christ Church College built on the foundations.

The rest of the cathedral was built in the Perpendicular, or English Gothic style, with the five bays of the eastern part of the nave, the choir and the tower keeping the original Norman appearance.

The wonderful rose window, in the Botanical style, features ten petals around the central glass. Other windows of note are the Becket Window, dating back to 1320, which survived the Reformation, and the Jonah Window, depicting the City of Nineveh, created in 1632.

The shrine of St Frideswide has been restored and stands before a beautiful stained glass window with 16 panels that tell the story of her life. If you look closely at the 16th panel, you will see a water-closet, which certainly didn’t exist in the 8th century and is a give-away to the window’s Victorian creation.

The Cathedral Shop, where you can buy souvenirs, books and CDs among other gift items, is housed in the 12th century Chapter House. While browsing the shelves, take a look at the vaulted ceiling where you will see 13th century medallions depicting the Saints.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Magdalen College

13) Magdalen College (must see)

The most beautiful of all Oxford University’s colleges is undeniably Magdalen College. Founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, the Bishop of Winchester, it stands next to the River Cherwell and the Oxford botanic garden, surrounded by picturesque grounds, such as the Meadow, Fellows Garden and the Grove where deer graze during winter and spring. The famous Addison’s Walk links the Meadow to Fellows Garden, which in turn is linked to the college by a bridge.

The college is built on the site of St John the Baptist Hospital, which was dissolved in 1457. Some of the hospital buildings were reused by the college, and the kitchens survive today as the college bar, the Old Kitchen Bar. New construction began in 1470 with the erection of a wall around the site by mason William Orchard. He also worked on the Chapel, the Hall, and the Cloister, including the Muniment and Founder's Towers, with work completed around 1480.

Magdalen Tower is a well-known landmark; since the reign of King Henry VII, the college choir sings at the top of the tower at 6am every May Day. The Great Quad was built in 1474, but the north side is relatively new, having been rebuilt in 1822. The New Building dates back to 1733. The newest part of the college, the Grove Buildings were put up in 1990.

Today, Magdalen is one of Oxford's wealthiest colleges and one of the strongest academically. The college has taught members of several royal families, including King Edward VIII of England, in 1912–1914; Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan, in 2000; and Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, first in line to the throne of Brunei, in 1995. More recent Magdalen alumni included Malcolm Fraser, the former Prime Minister of Australia, and John Turner, the former Prime Minister of Canada.

The 19th century poet and playwright Oscar Wilde read "Greats" (undergraduate course in literature) at Magdalen, from 1874 to 1878, and graduated with a double first. C. S. Lewis, writer and alumnus of University College, was a Fellow and English tutor at Magdalen for 29 years, from 1925 to 1954. He was one of the Inklings, an informal writing society that also included J. R. R. Tolkien and would meet in Lewis' rooms at Magdalen.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
University Of Oxford Botanical Garden

14) University Of Oxford Botanical Garden (must see)

A stroll through the University of Oxford Botanical Garden sitting on the banks of the River Cherwell, to the north east of the Meadow, is something you wouldn't want to miss.

Founded in 1621 as an herb garden full of medicinal plants, this is the oldest botanical garden in the United Kingdom and the oldest scientific garden in the world. Its founder, Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby, was a Knight of the Garter.

The four and a half acres of land on which the Garden lies was once part of a Jewish cemetery until the Jews were driven out of Oxford in 1290. To raise the land above flood level, 4000 cartloads of earth and manure were needed.

There are over 8000 different species of plant-life here, set out in three sections. The Walled Garden, surrounded by the original stone walls, contains the hardiest plants, set in long narrow beds, arranged in botanical order. The oldest tree on display here is the English Yew, dating back to 1645.

The second part of the Garden is given over to the Glasshouses, for the more fragile plants, and it includes the Alpine House, the Conservatory, the Fernery, the Orchid House, the Palm House, the Succulent House, and the Tropical Lily House.

The last section of the Garden, simply called Outside the Walled Garden, was founded in 1947 from the allotments belonging to the Fellows of Christ Church. In this part you will find the Autumn Border, the Bog Garden, the Glasshouse Borders, the Herbaceous Borders, the Merton Borders, the Spring Walk, the Vegetable Beds and the Water Garden.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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