I am a great fan of mysteries. My attraction to these puzzles of human nature began in childhood (literally nine years old, when I borrowed my mother’s book, Grim Grow the Lilacs) right into the present. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories followed, and it spread from there. I am partial to British mysteries – they tend to have more plot and less violence, even though they almost always involve a murder. Murder is the crime that most urgently compels a solution, after all.
It was in 1988 that “Inspector Morse” was first broadcast – a made-for-TV detective show set in Oxford, based on novels by Colin Dexter.“Morse,” as he was called, was an improbable police detective, having attended Oxford University and developed the requisite tastes: his vintage Jaguar, fine wine and good ale, and, most notably and consistently – opera. His sidekick, because fictional detectives inevitably have one (Miss Marple being an exception,) was Detective Sergeant Lewis, a blue-collar sort of guy who drank whatever was on tap. The series ran for several seasons. They used land-line phones, call boxes, and desktop computers. Inspector Morse ended in 2000. In 2006, a new series appeared: “Lewis,” that featured a now-promoted Chief Inspector Lewis and his sidekick, DS Hathaway, a seminary dropout who had attended Oxford University, now a detective. You know it’s a more recent series because they have cellphones, although not yet smartphones.
Both of these series were filmed in Oxford, and added to the already large mystique of Oxford. Oxford University and the City of Oxford were home to many familiar names: Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Dorothy Sayers, Aldous Huxley, Adam Smith, and more – it is a very long list. For a person who enjoys history, literature, and mysteries, Oxford is fertile ground. I decided to include a few extra days to explore Oxford on my way to visit family.
I arrived by train at about 3:00 p.m., Oxford local time, with just enough time, it turned out, to get takeaway from Pret A Manger in the train station and get to Henry’s Bike Shop before dark. Southern England, while mild in climate because of the geography and ocean currents, is still further north than New York City by eleven degrees, resulting in shorter winter days.
The village-scape of Oxford from the train station entry is filled with buildings that have a medieval air about them: grey stone, steep roofs, and a stream wandering through, green grass covering the banks. As I crossed the bridge, the sign told me that it was the Castle Mill Stream, an offshoot of the Thames River.
I pulled my wheeled suitcase from the train station up the hill through the rain toward the central village, to Henry’s Bike Shop on St. Michael’s Street. I had reserved a room at Henry’s Rooms, which are all upstairs (no lift) from Henry’s Bike Shop on the ground floor. I had been emailed a 4-digit code to get into the main door and into my room. After getting my bag upstairs, I used the code on my room door. The door opened to another set of stairs, about half as narrow as the stairs I’d just climbed, but I managed to get my suitcase up it, too.
Once there, the place was very pleasant. I concluded that I had the attic of the old house, but it was now a nicely done modern studio overlooking St. Michael’s Street. Small. Expensive for what it was, but a great location. It was fine for one person or two people, but they had better like each other a lot. There was a tiny galley kitchen area on the stair landing, with a bar sink and a half-sized under-counter fridge. Past the kitchen area was a large-enough wardrobe closet, and a full-sized bathroom with towel warming bars that doubled as a heater, a roomy shower, big mirror, and a spacious shelf for bathroom stuff.
Left turn into the sitting area. It had one comfortable chair, a high table with two bar-height chairs, and a tiny fireplace discovered (per the little green sign) when the owners renovated the building. It had a light in it for “atmosphere,” but it no longer functions as a fireplace. Turn left again, and there was a queen-sized bed with nightstands on either side and a TV hung on the wall. A partial wall on two sides separated the bedroom from the sitting area and stairwell.
I was exhausted and it was dark outside now, so I got myself arranged, turned on the TV and tucked into (I’m in England, after all) my “Protein Box” from Pret. I managed to stay awake until a reasonable time in an effort to adjust my circadian rhythm, but went out with the lights.
I woke up and it was dark. I thought it must be the middle of the night, just an effect of the time change. I tried to sleep some more, but no luck. When I looked at my phone for time, it was 8:12 a.m. Not even eight full hours of daylight.
I was hungry. I dressed, took my camera and umbrella (note the 95% humidity,) descended from my attic to the street, and fell in love with Oxford.
The older parts of villages in the U.K. are utterly charming. Oxford has also restricted motorised vehicles from the central area (except for early morning.) Being in the traffic-free area of central Oxford, St. Michael’s Street was peaceful. Old houses, stores, and cafes lined the short street.
Despite being after nine o’clock now, there weren’t a lot of places open in the area. Henry’s had a small cafe, very small, next to the bike shop, and I saw their three tables were filled as I passed by, so I ventured on. I walked toward the church at the end of the street, and noticed a man sitting on the church steps with a pink blanket over his head and shoulders hunched to keep warm. Even storybook towns have homeless people.
A right turn and a short walk to the next corner brought me to a restaurant that had just opened for the day. It had big windows, lots of large tables, several televisions turned to sports channels, and a bar. I chose a table where I could watch the street life go by. The bartender who took my order guessed I was American (not too hard) and, it turned out, he had spent several years working in Seattle. I didn’t catch what he was working at. But, he seemed to have enjoyed it, and he recognized “Whidbey Island.”
I ordered a full breakfast (hold the black pudding, please) and ate the whole thing: baked beans, two fried eggs over medium, grilled half-tomato, toast, and bacon. Americans would call the “bacon” ham. The English would call our bacon “streaky bacon.” Plus a bowl of porridge (oatmeal) and Earl Grey tea. It would keep me going all day.
While I was eating breakfast, the weather turned from wet to raining, and like other places where it rains a lot, everyone carried an umbrella that they didn’t use unless it was pouring buckets. I poured more hot water in my tea, and sat a few more minutes, hoping the rain would let up.
No such luck. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I opened my umbrella and looked toward the church. The man in the pink blanket had moved up the steps and into the doorway, out of the rain. I turned up George Street (that became Broad Street in the next block) and walked on, dodging pedestrians with unopened umbrellas.
I window-shopped along the way, finding tourist shops filled with woollen stuff – Harris tweed jackets (from Scotland’s Isle of Harris), cashmere and woollen scarves, and jumpers (pullover sweaters) – and Oxford University stuff – coffee mugs, sweatshirts, t-shirts, key chains, beer steins, and pretty much anything they could fit a logo on – mixed in with book stores, a couple of restaurants, and stores with art supplies.
Outside of a corner shop was a sandwich board sign advertising a walking tour of Oxford. It was sponsored by the City of Oxford, and estimated to be about two hours, guided by an Oxford resident. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining now. As Paddington Bear would say, it seemed like good value, so I signed up on line. A wander through Waterstone’s Bookstore would easily fill the twenty minutes until time to meet the tour.
At the appointed hour, a group gathered at the sandwich board sign on the corner and a woman appeared, looking around expectantly. I didn’t catch her name, but she was very nice, and knowledgeable about Oxford. We were a group of nine. Our guide gave us a brief orientation to Oxford and Oxford University.
Oxford has been around since the 800s, and was called “Ox-ford” because that’s what it was – the shallow place in the Thames River where one could safely “ford” the river, with or without one’s oxen, the British term for cattle. The City of Oxford was not established formally until 1542. As a city, it could control the markets and theatrical performances, which would be a source of revenue. Oxford’s oldest building still standing is the Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate, built around 1040, the walls themselves dating from about 100 years earlier.
Oxford University was not “founded” as such. There is no anniversary date, or founder that is honoured anywhere in Oxford that I saw. There is evidence that organized teaching was present by 1096, however. By the mid-1200s, there were enough students whose behaviour was frequently so loud and raucous that the citizens of Oxford complained about them, chased students to their quarters, and sometimes threatened physical violence.
The friction between the town citizens and the student community was what brought about the “colleges,” which began as medieval residence halls that were supervised by a “Master.” What we think of in the U.S. as a “college,” a unit focused on a particular area of study, such as business or law, doesn’t exist at Oxford University.
University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges were the earliest, established between 1249 and 1264. The older colleges are scattered throughout central Oxford, and newer ones a little beyond. They retain their function as housing. An economics student, for example, might be housed in any of the colleges in Oxford based on available space rather than subject of study. The colleges were closed for the holidays, so we were only able to get a walk-through the courtyard and ground floor hallway of Corpus Christi later on. College residence rooms are never on any tour, but sometimes one can see the dining hall or chapel belonging to a college.
One of Balliol’s best-known members was former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, who was involved in a singular incident, according to our guide. All Oxford colleges participate in an annual tortoise race, usually one tortoise per college. However, one year, which happened to be a year that Johnson was at Balliol, the Balliol tortoise, “Rosa” (after Rosa Parks,) was kidnapped just a couple of days before the race. Balliol’s traditional rival, Trinity College, located right behind Balliol, was deemed responsible for this crime by members of Balliol. Balliol had no evidence to support their accusation. However, Trinity’s claim of innocence was not helped by their presentation of TWO tortoises on race day.
“It all looked very suspicious,” said our guide. Sadly, Rosa was never found, and her fate remains unknown.
Oxford University students were males only, from the 10th century beginnings until the 19th century. In 1878, “academic halls” were established for women, the first two being Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville, but no degrees were conferred on female students (despite passing the same, requisite examinations!) until 1920 when women were admitted as full members. In 1986, the all-male colleges changed their rules to allow admittance of women, but it was not until 2008 that all Oxford colleges actually had admitted both men and women.
Before we walk away from it, the clearly-not-medieval, Gothic, or Renaissance building you see above in the background of the “Wren head,” across Broad Street from the Sheldonian Theater, is quite historical in its own right. Below is a better view of it:
According to our guide, the Normandy Beach invasion of WWII was largely planned – in top secret, of course – on the upper floors of the Weston Library. They were handicapped by having no aerial photographs or maps of the shoreline, so (somehow – she was vague on the details) the British government called for and collected photographs, aerial and land-based, taken by magazines, regular citizens on holiday, and others of the general public, from which they compiled maps suitable for planning the huge invasion. That the public responded and provided so much help strikes me as a very British story. King and country.
The Sheldonian Theatre was the first major work of Sir Christopher Wren, who was also a professor of astronomy at Oxford. It was built to create a ceremonial atmosphere for the awarding of degrees, and it’s still used today for that purpose. It is modelled on a classical Roman theater, rectangular on the front, and semicircular at the back. (Its back is what one sees from Broad Street.)
During the ceremony marking the awarding of degrees, the students who are receiving degrees exit the theater, cross the square to the Divinity School door, and don their new insignia representing their degree, then return to the theater by the same path. Our guide did not specify, but I assumed that the insignia is a “hood” such as American universities use to designate advanced degrees, and worn on ceremonial occasions.
I was almost right. I read later that the academic dress for students means the black robe and a white bow tie, and “colorful hoods” for graduates. Students are required to wear the black robe and white bow tie when they sit for their examinations and when they collect their degrees, but they do not have a hood until awarded. Apparently, some colleges require academic dress when dining in their halls.
The Divinity School was built around 1423, and is an example of English Gothic architecture. I think it is a stunning building with those huge mullioned windows. This was the first building at Oxford that was built for the express purpose of teaching, and it was devoted to “Divinity,” which (I think) means the same subject matter as theology. Divinity was considered the “Queen of the Sciences,” and one earned a degree by passing oral examinations conducted in Latin and Greek.
Duke Humfrey’s Library was not open nor included on the tour when I was there. Duke Humfrey’s Library was the first library of Oxford University, and was the foundation upon which the Bodleian Library was built.
In 1447, Duke Humfrey died, leaving 281 manuscripts to Oxford University, a collection containing translations of classic works that he had commissioned himself, and this prompted the building of a library to house the collection. The library room still exists, where books were chained to the shelves, and the library appears as the Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films.
However, the books themselves were not so lucky. During the Reformation (1534 – 1603 in England,) around 1550, the original books that Duke Humfrey had donated were removed from the library by Protestant authorities. All but twenty were destroyed because they were declared tainted by Catholic doctrines.
As a result, Oxford University was without a library until 1598, when Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, retired from his diplomatic career and came to Oxford. Re-establishing a library became his retirement project, and he contributed money to refurbish and add on to the library, as well as purchasing books. His “modern” ideas included not chaining the books to the shelves, but placing them on shelves that could be monitored. Books were still rare and expensive, but Sir Thomas believed they should be more accessible, as he had seen in the Spanish king’s library. With all of his work and financial support, it is not surprising that it became the “Bodleian Library” in 1602.
Sir Thomas did something else that was of great importance to Oxford’s new library. In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would provide a copy of each and every book published in the United Kingdom to Oxford’s library. The Bodleian Library was the first of six “legal deposit” libraries, now housing over 12 million items.
The Bodleian Library is not a lending library. No one, not even King Charles I nor any other royal, was allowed to borrow a book. Users must be physically present, and must swear Bodley’s Oath not to bring fire or flames into the library. No artificial lighting (including candles) was allowed in the library until 1929.
All of the libraries at Oxford University are part of the Bodleian Library system now. Their names distinguish them individually, such as the Weston Library or the Radcliffe Camera, but they are connected by tunnels underground and by administrative authority. Our tour group walked from the Divinity School lobby to the Radcliffe Camera (pictured below,) through the tunnel known as the “Gladstone Link.”
The highest statue on the front of Oriel College is of Cecil John Rhodes, 1853-1902. The former African country of Rhodesia was named for him, as is the well-known Rhodes Scholarship program that brings scholars from all over the world to study at Oxford. Rhodesia became two modern African countries – Zimbabwe and Zambia – which is where I had learned his history. This Oriel College building was constructed 1909-11, and the Rhodes Scholarship Trust established, with money given by Rhodes, who was a student at Oriel College in his youth. The statue, however, has become the focus of public debates because Rhodes got his fortune by exploiting southern Africa’s minerals, land, and people. Rhodes attracted criticism in his day (and ever since,) including currently in Africa. Oriel College formally requested removal of the statue, but it remains by advice of legal representatives. Debate continues.
The “Pelican in Piety” catches the eye when first entering the courtyard. The gilded pelican, perched on top of the stone pillar, is shown plucking at her breast. In medieval times, it was believed that a mother pelican fed her young with her own blood, drawn from her breast by plucking at it. The pelican became a Christian symbol of self-sacrifice and the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The Pelican Sundial was built in 1581, sometimes called the Turnbull Sundial after its builder, Charles Turnbull. It has twenty-four different dials, with signs of the zodiac, phases of the moon, a hollow framework of rings representing the planets orbiting the Earth, and the golden pelican perched at the top of the sphere.
Corpus Christi College was founded in 1517 by the Bishop of Winchester, Richard Fox, who held a number of other church offices as well as being an advisor to kings. Although first conceived as a training college for monks from St. Swithuns Priory at Winchester, it gradually broadened in purpose, evolving into a place of Renaissance learning, a place to educate young men in the humanities and sciences for service to the church and state, according the the college’s historical notes. It was built on the site of several medieval Oxford academic halls, just inside the city walls. These had fallen out of use and into disrepair due to outbreaks of the plague during the 1400s.
Our guide took us through a smaller courtyard of Corpus Christi, past the chapel, through a hallway past the dining hall, and back to the front gate to exit. We walked along King Edward Street to High Street again, and turned toward the Covered Market.
We exited the Covered Market at the intersection of Market Street and Turl Street. Our tour was at its end, and she asked if there were any questions. I felt the tour had been “good value,” indeed. When I asked about tea, she pointed me in the direction of the Grande Cafe on High Street, a good suggestion.
I looked at my map over tea, plotted my route back to Henry’s Bike Shop, and enjoyed the walk in the waning light. Plans for the next day included some shopping and visits to some other spots in Oxford.