London stories: Oxford

Lasker Rose Garden at the Oxford Botanic Gardens was once the site of the city’s Jewish cemetery. This gorgeous view belies the reality that Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not allowed to return more than 350 years.

Exactly one month ago on a Saturday morning, I boarded a train at London’s Paddington Station and settled in for the 60-mile trip to Oxford.

It would take little more than an hour to reach the city in south central England, home to the world’s oldest English-language university, dating back to the late 11th century.

In a word, the experience was surreal.

Centuries-old structures are breathtakingly beautiful, both imposing and elegant. Along with university buildings. museums and churches, even pubs and a certain coffeehouse have been here for hundreds of years.

Magnificent architecture is everywhere in Oxford.

As in London itself, I was amazed how the old exists alongside the new. In a city with cobblestone streets, you’ll find wireless electronics stores, souvenir shops, high-end retailers, and a covered shopping mall with 125 stores and rooftop restaurants all sharing the public space.

I’ve been thinking about Oxford lately because I’ll soon be in England again to teach a communications course through Portland State University’s Education Abroad program. The two-week class begins in early July, and this time Lori will join me toward the end of the course so we can enjoy a few days as tourists. Our tentative plans include a visit to Oxford.

Coincidentally, The New York Times recently featured “the ultimate British college town” in its Travel section: “36 Hours in Oxford.” And just last week I watched David Letterman interview Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, on her life as a student at Oxford. (The interview on Netflix is here.) Seeing Malala, now 21, leading a tour of prospective students brought back pleasant memories of my own visit a year ago.


Arriving at mid-morning, I walked through a church graveyard past weathered headstones that had cracked or toppled over. I passed by the Oxford Castle & Prison, a tourist destination, and ventured into the city center, where I ran into groups of teenagers from around the world wearing Oxford University gear. Armed with a simple map and a sense of adventure, I decided against a formal tour and instead wandered the city on my own for hours.

I make no attempt to be comprehensive here in retelling what I did, when or in what order. Suffice to say there was plenty to see and lots to marvel at. A few highlights:

The university. According to the official web site, “There are 38 Oxford colleges, which are financially independent and self-governing, but relate to the central University in a kind of federal system. There are also six permanent private halls, which are similar to colleges except that they tend to be smaller, and were founded by particular Christian denominations. The colleges and halls are close academic communities, which bring together students and researchers from different disciplines, cultures and countries.”

Strolling through the grounds of the colleges was a serene experience. I felt a twinge of envy for the 24,000 Oxford students (divided equally between undergraduates and graduate students) admitted to study in such historic, prestigious surroundings.

The Weston Library. Built in the 1930s and formally opened in 1946 as part of the Bodleian Libraries, the Weston was hosting a special exhibition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous works, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I was out of luck. Free tickets had been snapped up well in advance, so I made do with a souvenir book and checked out Ethiopian and Eritrean art in the lobby.

A moment of solitude. Stepping off the busy streets, I enjoyed a brief respite inside a small church, where I was alone with my thoughts. Here in the silence, I could appreciate the stained-glass windows and pristine interior of St. Michael at the North Gate Church. Even more so, the reverence with which parishioners had put together memorials for Oxford residents killed in the First and Second World Wars. I had a pleasant conversation with the woman who was cashiering in the gift shop and went on my way.

Food and drink. I ordered lunch from a Lebanese food cart and plopped down on the sidewalk with a hefty lamb gyro. Later, I spotted a place advertising itself as the oldest coffeehouse in Europe, established in 1654. Still later, I came upon The Bear Inn, the city’s oldest pub. Can you imagine a place that’s been serving up pints since 1242? Weirdly, that’s 777 years of continuous operation. Thanks to the low ceiling barely a foot from my head, I felt like a 7-footer who’d wandered in from the future.

Soapbox Science. Resuming my wanderings after a surprise thunderstorm, I came upon a small crowd gathered on a sidewalk in front of a young woman in a white lab coat standing on a small platform. Turns out it was a local professor who was participating in “Soapbox Science,” a national initiative to bring science to the masses through a grassroots outreach program. The professor was one of several, all women, who were giving presentations in the public square just outside Westgate Centre, the modern shopping mall I’d just come from. Read more here: London Stories: Soapbox Science.

Such a cool thing to do: Take science education to the streets.

With so much to see, I’m looking forward to coming back to this marvelous city with my wife. Perhaps we’ll take a Harry Potter walking tour. Maybe we’ll float on a canal or visit the 400-year-old Covered Market. Whatever we do, I think a return visit to The Bear is a must.

View of Oxford from the rooftop deck of Westgate Centre shopping mall.

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