The “City of Dreaming Spires”

All credit to Victorian poet Matthew Arnold for his characterization of Oxford, home of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. 

We arrived here yesterday and knew immediately that all our fantasies of this city would be fulfilled. Though the weather was not cooperative, I immediately took a Morse walking tour of the city, obligatory for all Colin Dexter fans.

I couldn’t hear theme music playing so I hummed it under my breath, and just pretended that the sun was casting a golden glow over the town. But I was able to see many important spots in the world of Morse and Lewis, and was in awe of this world. What a privilege it must be to study here. Just look at some of the beauty that would be commonplace.

While the weather was no more cooperative today, we took another tour which gave us a stronger overview of the University and the city itself.

One major point of interest just outside our hotel is the site where the Oxford Martyrs were burned. The Oxford Martyrs, Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, were tried for heresy in 1555 and burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs and teachings. A stone cross marks the spot on the street where they were burned, and the monument to them is just around the corner. Directly across the street is Balliol College, one the of oldest in Oxford. The story goes that the fire was so fierce that a wooden door of the college started to singe, so it was removed – and supposedly still held within the college. We also saw the tower where they were imprisoned.

The guide today took us into Wadham College, which I also visited yesterday. The 38 colleges of Oxford have varying degrees of tolerance for visitors, and Wadham must be among the most welcoming. The quad is lovely and is said to remain very much as it looked in 1610 when it was founded.

Christopher Wren was a Wadham alumnus, and his first architectural work is just up the road. It is the Sheldonian Theatre, where the most important events of the university take place – matriculation and graduations. It is a lovely building, and we climbed up to the cupola to see all around Oxford.

Another special moment was our visit inside the Divinity School inside the Bodleian Library, notable for its carved fan-vaulted ceiling, heavy with the coats of arms and initials of wealthy donors who helped fund it in the 15th century. It also contains Thomas Bodley’s chest, used as the “bank” of the university for many years.

Other highlights included a walk through Trinity College, including a peek into its dining hall. The chapel is being renovated, but two photos on the hoardings show how lovely it must be and a detail of the carvings inside, done by Grinling Gibbons, whose work also graces Windsor Castle, St. Paul’s and Hampton Court Palace.

Lunch was quite nice – if only for the fact we were dry for an hour. But we had more to enjoy, being in the oldest (1212!) pub in Oxford, with quintessential pub fare. Yes, it was fish and chips, accompanied by bangers and mash. Lovely.

And then there was just Oxford in general and various lovely buildings, like the circular Radcliffe Camera, the University Church, All Souls College, and the original home of the Oxford University Press, home of the OED and the place where the Lincoln Bible was printed. All wonderful – and all light years away from Oxford, Ohio, where Don and I pursued higher learning – as well as other interests of our age group and the times. No resemblance whatsoever…

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