Bookmarked by time

This piece originally appeared in Gulf News, the UAE’s leading newspaper

The legend of Oxford encompasses not only its rise to the pinnacle of academic glory but its artistic finesse as well.

Oxford! That bastion of education and the setting for the much-celebrated Alice in Wonderland fairytale. Wait a minute! What was that last one again? Alice in Wonderland? I checked my brochure to make sure I wasn’t on a children’s tour of Oxford. The last thing I expected to hear on these hallowed grounds of learning was a whimsical tale about logic and lunacy!

But allow me to “begin at the beginning”, as the stern King of Wonderland once ordered a certain White Rabbit. On a windy spring morning, I found myself huddled together with ten strangers outside large, iron gates. Like me, they had chosen to be on the Oxford Tour. Dark, mournful clouds gathered in the sky. An unassuming door stood before us – the entry to Alice’s Shop, of Alice in Wonderland fame. Our guide Sheila told us there was a real-life Alice in Oxford in the 19th century. She was the second daughter of Henry George Liddell, who was in charge of the cathedral at the time. Alice Liddell was a favourite with Charles Dodgson, a student at Oxford. Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, as he later famously became known, often played with Alice and her two sisters.

On a breezy summer day in July 1862, Dodgson took the girls for a boat ride, telling them long stories to pass the time. Alice, who was 10 years old at the time, insisted Dodgson write the story about a little girl who tumbled down a rabbit burrow to meet the fascinating March Hare, Mock Turtle, the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter.

Alice’s Shop is where the real-life Alice would have purchased barley sugar, available even today at this shop, alongside collectibles and memorabilia, including grinning-Cheshire-cat mugs.

Oxford University is situated in the heart of a strongly cosmopolitan city of cafés, boutiques, tea shops and bookstores, with residential and commercial properties surrounding it. The place receives a healthy tourist footfall, thanks to Hollywood productions and the Harry Potter series, many of which were filmed at Christ Church College, which houses Oxford’s cathedral. The dining hall of Christ Church was the venue of many pivotal scenes in the Harry Potter movies.

Walking briskly to keep out the cold, Sheila led us into the soul of Oxford, or as poet Matthew Arnold christened it, the City of Dreaming Spires.

The wind whistled around the maze of ancient, ivy-covered buildings. Oxford’s architecture is where its beauty lies. A plethora of libraries, churches and college halls work in harmony to cast a dream-like spell. It was a fantastical world, one in which anything could happen – as in Alice in Wonderland or one of the Harry Potter flicks. As our shoes crunched down narrow cobbled pathways, we looked up to see gargoyles perched high above on narrow ledges. These were sculpted out of stone to serve as rainwater outlets. The back of the gargoyle’s head was scooped out to serve as a channel for water to gush out through its mouth. Most often, these represent animals but if you know where to look, you may chance upon those which represent the seven deadly sins.

Elegant Gothic spires were everywhere. I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from the tall spires that framed the thick, cloudy skyline. Oxford was named by a Saxon princess and nun, Frideswide, after oxen that plied the Thames River in AD700. In 1066, William the Conqueror built a castle to protect the town in Oxfordshire.

The legend of St Frideswide drew monks from all over the country, who studied within Oxfordshire’s monastery walls, gathering renown for their academic prowess. Soon students began enrolling from all over the country; the town grew, thriving on its newfound status as a centre of learning, and over the years, transformed itself into the present university.

There are 38 colleges affiliated with Oxford University, including Christ Church College, Trinity College, Magdalen College, Exeter College and Pembroke College. The alumni include the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Rowan Atkinson and Kris Kristofferson.

We stopped opposite the roundish Radcliffe Camera, which faces the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Delving deeper into Oxford’s history, a more sinister facet to this city emerged, divulging a past that was tainted with bloodshed, heresy and violence.

Sheila gathered us closer, clearing her throat to explain that “Camera” referred to “chamber” and had nothing to do with photography. The Radcliffe Camera was built in 1749 by James Gibbs with donations from Dr John Radcliffe, the Queen’s physician, as a library for students of the sciences. The Palladian-inspired Radcliffe Camera bore witness to macabre events in 1555 during the reign of the staunchly Catholic queen Mary I. Fearing interference from three powerful Protestant bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer – Queen Mary I charged the three “Oxford Martyrs” with heresy. After a trial conducted at the Church of St Mary the Virgin and their subsequent imprisonment in Oxford’s Bocardo Prison, they were burnt at the stake outside what is today Balliol College on Broad Street.

A firebrand Catholic, the queen sought to stamp out the Protestant faith. She was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” after she gave orders for the burning of 300 people at the stake. Her five-year reign left behind a legacy of economic, social, religious and territorial devastation, scarring England’s history forever. Sheila had succeeded in giving us more shivers than the cold weather.

Upon reaching St Giles Street, it was impossible to miss a whitewashed eatery called The Eagle and Child. It was once popular with the group of literary giants known as the “Inklings”, who included the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia.

While Oxford City is full of bookstores such as Blackwell (the official bookshop of the university), Waterstones and Borders, nothing is as impressive as Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which has six million books and 90 miles of shelving, linked through a system of ancient underground tunnels. It is said that a copy of every book that has ever been published can be found in this library.

Out on the main street, a tall, stone monument grabbed our attention. Standing between St Giles Street, Beaumont Street and Magdalen Street, the structure was built in honour of the “Oxford Martyrs”. It is at this point that Sheila brought us to the end of our tour, pointing us in the direction of a few cafés. A steaming cup of coffee sure sounded good as the spell of Oxford slowly wore off.

 Oxford

From Dubai: London is the nearest airport Emirates flies daily. Fare from Dh3,185 British Airways flies daily. Fare from Dh3,205 Virgin Atlantic flies daily. Fare from Dh2,335

 What to do

By tour bus: Several organised coach tours are available from Victoria Station in London. Most tour companies include Oxford, Warwick Castle and Stratford-upon-Avon as a full-day tour. Tours are a great way to see Oxford, as they offer invaluable inputs from qualified guides. Organised tours have a strict schedule to maintain and tour guides insist on punctuality at all times.

 

Information

Situated 90 kilometers northwest of London, Oxford is well connected by both road and rail.

By train: The Oxford and Paddington stations in London are connected via a direct service, which operates every half-hour.

By car: The M40 Motorway connects London with Oxford. Parking inside Oxford is limited, as the main streets are closed to traffic.

 

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey is a Dubai based travel writer. She is also a travel consultant with Travel Counsellors and specializes in cruises, family holidays and honey moons. When she’s not out and about discovering destinations and different cuisines of the world, you would probably find her busy with her 3 daughters and her other passions involving art and music.

As a mosaic artist, she has travelled to Italy and studied ancient Roman techniques of the art form and as a jazz flautist she has had the opportunity of performing across various Dubai venues.