By DIANE SLAWYCH, Special to QMI Agency
OXFORD, England -- If you want to walk in the footsteps of some of the world's greatest figures, in almost every field, hop on a train in London, then head northwest for 87 km and get off at Oxford. The City of Dreaming Spires is perhaps best known as the home of Oxford University, whose illustrious alumni have included everyone from Albert Einstein and J.R.R. Tolkien, to Dudley Moore and even Canada's 14th Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.
Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and has been in continuous use for more than nine centuries. And here, as elsewhere, they are gearing up for the start of another school year. More than 21,000 students from more than a 140 countries and territories will soon be arriving. But they won't be the only ones milling about the university grounds. Many of Oxford's 38 colleges are popular tourist attractions and open to the public year-round.
The colleges contain everything from an important collection of Old Master paintings (at the Christ Church Picture Gallery), to a world famous library (the Bodleian, which has a Gutenberg Bible), and the first major work by noted architect Sir Christopher Wren (Sheldonian Theatre), who later went on to complete his masterpiece -- St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Add to that, gardens and river walks, and choir performances -- Oxford has three internationally renowned choir schools. A few colleges worth visiting and some notable alumni who have studied there:
Christ Church College
Long before it became known as a location for Harry Potter films, Christ Church was the college where Albert Einstein, Sir Christopher Wren, author Charles Dodgson -- who wrote Alice In Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll-- philosopher John Locke, and 13 British prime ministers studied. The largest and one of the most popular colleges, you'll want to see the portraits in the 16th-century Great Hall including works by Gainsborough; the city's largest quadrangle; historic Christ Church Cathedral -- England's smallest cathedral; and listen for Great Tom, the seven-ton tower bell that still chimes 101 times each night at 9:05 to sound the curfew that was imposed on the 101 students in residence when the college was founded in 1546.
Many consider Magdalen to be one of the most beautiful of Oxford's colleges. Set amid 40 hectares of green space including woodlands and river paths, it's certainly one of the wealthiest and lives up to its reputation as an artistic college.
This is where author-playwright Oscar Wilde read "Greats" (a classics course) in the 1870s, and where actor, comedian, composer and pianist Dudley Moore earned a scholarship to study music. It's believed the college's gargoyles and carved figures may have inspired C.S. Lewis' stone statues in The Chronicles of Narnia, while the deer park which overlooked his office (Lewis was a fellow of the college) was likely the inspiration for the fawn in the Narnia series. See the medieval chapel with its 15th-century tower and the beautiful cloisters. During university term you are welcome to hear the choir sing Evensong (most days). Opposite the college is the beautiful Botanic Garden -- Britain's oldest -- founded in 1621.
T.S. Eliot studied at Merton, one of Oxford's original three colleges. Founded in 1264, Merton has the oldest medieval library in use. J.R.R. Tolkien is said to have spent many hours here writing The Lord of the Rings. He went to Exeter College (where there is a bust of him) and later became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
One of the college's treasures is an astrolabe, thought to have belonged to Chaucer. The college boasts "the most extraordinary" collection of medieval stained glass in Oxford. The windows on both sides of the chapel choir and the glass in the tracery of the east window are still in the positions for which they were designed in 1289. Also worth noting is Oxford's oldest quadrangle -- Mob Quad, and a resident ghost, rumoured to have no feet after the floor level changed.
The Bodleian Library, one of the oldest (dating to 1602) and greatest public libraries in the world, is the largest university library in the U.K., holding more than 9-million printed items on 189 km of shelving and seating for up to 2,500 readers. Among those who have studied here include five kings, 40 Nobel prize winners, 25 British prime ministers and countless famous writers such as Wilde, Lewis and Tolkien. The priceless collections include the papers of six prime ministers; a Gutenberg Bible; the earliest surviving book written wholly in English; a quarter of the world's original copies of the Magna Carta; and almost 10,000 western medieval and renaissance manuscripts.
Also worth seeing: The 17th-century sundial designed by Wren at All Souls College, where the front quad is largely as it was 500 years ago; Evensong at New College and the Bridge of Sighs (a copy of the Venice original); the William Morris tapestry The Adoration of the Magi at Exeter College. Elsewhere there's an atmospheric crypt at St. Edmund Hall, stunning gardens at Brasenose, and Pre-Raphaelite murals of Oxford Union. For a good view, climb Carfax Tower in the town centre.
More famous alumni
Sir Walter Raleigh, Graham Greene, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto (former prime minister of Pakistan), Hugh Grant, Robert Graves, Harald V (current king of Norway). Ken Loach (filmmaker), William Morris, Mr Bean, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (who invented the Web) and at least 47 Nobel Laureates.
NEED TO KNOW
Some colleges are free to visit, while others charge a small fee. Wander around on your own or take one of the university's guided walking tours, which run daily, morning and afternoon, year-round except Dec. 25-26. Tours depart from the Oxford Visitor Centre. Check visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com/tours. Like any good university town the huge variety of good eateries runs the gamut. Try a quick lunch at The Buttery, then unwind over a scrumptious dinner at Macdonald Randolph Hotel.
For summer accommodation at the colleges, Keble College is an accredited B&B. Lincoln College owns and operates the Mitre Rooms, and St. Edmund Hall ("Teddy Hall") operates the Isis on Iffley Rd. For more, go to the Visit Oxford website, visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com.
This story was posted on Wed, August 29, 2012
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