To walk in the center of Oxford, a city just fifty miles from London, is to walk in the footsteps of the renowned University of Oxford’s many notable alumni, including: kings, saints, prime ministers, Monty Python performers, and the writers who brought us Narnia and Lord of the Rings. Rather than being set aside in a separate campus, the university buildings are dotted around the city itself, meaning that local residents – and tourists – cannot help but pass by these beautiful, historic sites while simply going about their business.
While the university is composed of more than thirty colleges, a particularly high concentration is found in the area that is the subject of this article, defined by two east-west streets that run parallel to each other: Broad Street and High Street.
The colleges function more like halls of residence than educational institutions in their own right. Students’ social lives revolve around the colleges in which they are enrolled, but teaching is often organised university-wide. The practical result is a city-wide campus that requires one to watch out for student bikers whizzing by on their way to lectures or classes at different colleges. Also, there seems to be a certain cachet to having the oldest and squeakiest bike possible, and bicycle helmets are unheard of.
Each college has a main gate which, if you peep through, opens onto a “quad” or courtyard, framed by living and teaching buildings. Tourists are not allowed past the gates, which are guarded by aggressive wardens called porters.
Broad Street is home to the Bodleian Library, where copies of every book published in the UK are deposited. In order to use the library, students have to become a member, which involves wearing their academic gown while reciting a declaration about what they will or will not do in the library, including a promise not to kindle any fire. Another unusual thing about this library is that books cannot actually be taken out.
One place you can take books from, though, is Blackwell’s, on the north side of Broad Street. The bookstore was founded in 1879 and features a retail area stretching across several floors. Follow the staircase downward to get a breathtaking view as it opens onto a vast underground space full of book laden bookshelves.
The colleges to be found on Broad Street are Trinity (founded in 1555) and Balliol (1263). The spacious Trinity is unusual in having metal railings rather than a wall, meaning you can glimpse something of its airy pavilions from the street.
At the crossroads on the east end of Broad Street is one of Oxford’s most famous pubs, The Kings Arms, whose many rooms buzz with the conversation of students (who call it “the K.A.”). It serves good English beers and pub food. Follow Catte Street to the south of this crossroads and you will find Hertford College (1282, though not officially a college until 1740), whose old and new buildings are linked by a covered pedestrian bridge completed in 1914. The bridge’s real name is Hertford Bridge, but it is colloquially known as the Bridge of Sighs after the one in Venice.
Running parallel to Broad Street, slightly further south, is High Street, also known as “The High”. The colleges on this street include one that is confusingly named University (often abbreviated to Univ). This stately college is thought to be the oldest of them all, established in 1249. Also on this street are Queen’s (1341, though its impressive frontage is 18th century), and the forbidding, graduate-only All Souls (1438). A clothes shop on the south side of High Street, Shepherd & Woodward, sells academic gowns, formal suits, and college ties and scarves.
Between Broad Street and High Street is the cobbled area upon which stands an iconic Oxford building, the circular, domed Radcliffe Camera. Built in 1737-48, it is part of the Bodleian Library. On the western side of that square is Brasenose College (1509). Its name really does mean “brass nose,” because of a nose-shaped door knocker that once adorned its front door.
Another way of navigating between Broad Street and High Street is to walk up Turl Street. As if the other colleges were not close enough to each other, this small street contains three colleges wedged tightly together: Exeter (1314), Lincoln (1427), and Jesus (1571).
If you are looking for something to eat other than the pub grub at the King’s Arms, try The Mitre at 18 High Street, which is owned by the nationwide Beefeater chain known for its mid-range, steak-heavy menu. If you feel like tandoori, ascend the narrow, steep staircase to The India Garden, which is located on an upper floor at 129 High Street. Or for a true student experience, look for the kebab vans that park in various spots around the city, after dark, serving doner kebabs and burgers. Try the burger with salad, cheese and a fried egg inside!
The Kings Arms
40 Holywell Street
Oxford, OX1 3SP,
+44 1865 242 369
18 High Street
Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 4AQ,
+44 1865 244 563
The India Garden
129 High Street
Oxford, OX1 4DF,
+44 1865 251 150