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History & Heritage

History & Heritage

Home to the oldest university in the country and filled with beautiful old buildings, Oxford is a city simply brimming with history. Famously described as “a city of aquatint” by Evelyn Waugh, exploring the streets of Oxford can sometimes feel like stepping back into an earlier time. With so much history and heritage to discover, we investigate the city’s past and look at the best places for visitors to experience and learn about Oxford’s history.
 
The history of Oxford is impossible to separate from that of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the United Kingdom. The exact foundation date of the university has been lost in the mists of time, but it has certainly existed since before the 12th Century. Since that time, the university has grown and now dominates the city. In modern times, a walk through the centre of Oxford is like a walk through the history of the university, with its colleges, accommodation and academic departments making up much of the city centre. In total, there are 38 colleges in the university, each with its own fascinating history to explore and discover. You won’t be able to just wander around the colleges, however, most offer tours of their halls, libraries, chapels and quads. Christ Church is the university’s largest and most visited college, while Lady Margaret Hall is famous as the first college to admit female students. All Souls College is an imposing gothic building from the 15th century which is well worth a visit. Magdalen College is one of the city’s most famous colleges and has a wonderful chapel, extensive grounds, and even its own deer park!
 
Beyond the colleges, visitors to Oxford will find that many of the other interesting and historic buildings in Oxford are associated with the university. The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, first opening in 1602. Now part of the Bodleian Libraries, the stunning Radcliffe Camera is the earliest example of a circular library in England; a truly spectacular and unique building. Another distinctive landmark in Oxford is Hertford Bridge which spans New College Lane to join together two separate parts of Hertford College. Locals know the bridge as the Bridge of Sighs after the famous bridge in Venice.
 
However, one of Oxford’s most important historic buildings is not actually connected with the university; Oxford Castle is a Norman medieval castle found near the town centre. Only partly ruined, the Castle is still an impressive sight and now hosts events throughout the year.
 
While simply wondering the streets of Oxford is a wonderful historic education, if you want to learn more, the city is also home to a selection of wonderful museums. The Ashmolean Museum is the best known of these, however, the other museums in the city are also well worth a visit. The Museum of the History of Science is home to an impressive collection of early scientific instruments while the Museum of Oxford brings the city’s history and heritage to life. Finally, the weird and wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum is packed with ethnographic and archaeological items from across the world including musical instruments, weapons, masks, tools and fabrics.

Oxford has been home to many of England’s most famous and important writers, and there are many buildings and sights with important literary connections scattered around the city. The Eagle and Child pub on St Giles Street is famous as the meeting place for ‘The Inklings’, a local writers’ group that included both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. And if you’re a fan of C. S. Lewis, you can visit his house The Kilns (by appointment only) in the nearby village of Headington. 

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