Oxford and Cambridge

Lecture 24—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Step away from teeming London into the famous university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. Both house venerable academic institutions, each with its own distinct mood and atmosphere. Learn about some of the famous graduates from each university, and tour a sampling of their beautiful chapels, libraries, rivers, and gardens.

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College Towns: Visiting Oxford and Cambridge

To visit Oxford and Cambridge, England’s two ancient university towns, is to enter a world that still feels churchy even today. All the colleges have chapels, often elaborate buildings of astonishing beauty, and many of them were founded for explicitly religious purposes, the training of priests before the Reformation, and of Anglican clergymen afterwards. Only for about the last 130 years has it even been possible to teach there without being an ordained Anglican minister.

full-color map of Cambridge, England in 1575
Cambridge, England in 1575

Oxford and Cambridge each have a distinct mood and atmosphere. Cambridge is smaller, in the flat country of East Anglia, colder in winter and warmer in summer than most of the rest of Britain. It was Puritan country during the 16th and 17th centuries. Oxford, in the south Midlands, is a bigger city, whose jewel box of a university is now surrounded by industry and extensive suburbs.

As you walk into the central area of either city, you are confronted with majestic and venerable buildings, most built of honey-colored stone. As recently as the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, the stone was nearly always black, because for centuries it had been coated with soot from thousands of coal fires. Since 1980, however, a marvelous work of restoration has been under way, with one college after the next erecting scaffolding and power-washing the blackened stonework, to reveal the beauties beneath. There has never been a better time to visit Oxford and Cambridge than right now. The only problem is that tens of thousands of others share your enthusiasm, so these are two extremely busy cities. Don’t be deterred from visiting on that account.

Eight Centuries of History in Oxford and Cambridge

The oldest colleges at Oxford—University, Balliol, and Merton—dispute with one another for the right to claim first place—they arose in the middle of the 1200s. Significantly, the lovely old structure that goes by the name of New College is new only by comparison with them, having its own foundation in 1379. That’s a very special kind of “new.” Peterhouse, Cambridge, founded in 1284, is admitted by all to be the oldest college at Cambridge, though the university itself was founded in 1209, and celebrated its 800th birthday in 2009. Its founders were a group of Oxford scholars, escaping from the wrongful accusation of having committed a murder.

Most of the colleges will admit visitors in return for a small charge. Visit two or three in each city to get the feel of them. I recommend Merton, Christ Church and Magdalen in Oxford, St. John’s, King’s, and Christ’s College in Cambridge, but many others will serve equally well. You’re generally allowed to visit the chapel, the dining hall, sometimes the old library, and the quadrangles, now superbly tended by gardeners who compete with one-another for annual honors in cultivating the best flowers.

King's College chapel - Oxford and Cambridge
King’s College Chapel (side view)

King’s College, Cambridge, is probably the most superb of the lot and the chapel at King’s College is one of the most outstanding buildings in the whole country. Begun in 1446 in the Perpendicular Gothic style, its ceiling (built 1512-1515) features the grandest example of fan vaulting anywhere. Building was interrupted by the Wars of the Roses, one of whose victims was Henry himself, and for decades the chapel lay half-finished. Changes in the color of the stone, clearly visible today, indicate the point where work re-started after a long delay, using stone from a different quarry.

Nobel Laureates, Spies … and Harry Potter?

Trinity College, Cambridge, is another of the most magnificent colleges. Founded by Henry VIII and the biggest college in either university, it was the college of Isaac Newton, six prime ministers, and 32 Nobel Prize winners. On the other hand, it was the college attended by three notorious spies: Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt, who collectively betrayed most of Britain’s important secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Merton College Library
Merton College library (interior)

At Merton College, Oxford, visit the old library which dates far back to medieval times. Each reading desk stands adjacent to a window, which prompts you to recall that throughout most of history, interiors were dark and that reading must have been difficult. More striking is the fact that each desk has an elaborate chain, to which the books were once attached. It was at Merton College library, from a guide, that I first learned how valuable books were in the era before Gutenberg’s printing press. To own any book, let alone a library of them, was to be conspicuously wealthy.

After touring the lovely quadrangles of Merton College and visiting its grand old chapel, pause in the gatehouse to see the memorial to students of the college who died in the First World War. Every college has one, and together they make a mournful spectacle, revealing an awful waste of life, including the lives of men who would otherwise have led Britain through much of the 20th century.

The Splendors of Christ Church

Christ Church is much bigger than most of the colleges. Eschewing their domestic-scale quadrangles, it has a stupendous main entrance into a vast arcaded arena called Tom Quad. Here was a place built to impress, right from the outset, and it’s no surprise to discover that its founder, Cardinal Wolsey, was King Henry VIII’s right-hand man, immensely powerful, enormously rich, and determined to make a permanent impression on the nation, which he certainly did.

In the back corner of this quadrangle is the entrance to the chapel, which doubles as Oxford’s cathedral. A choir school of highly trained boys sings Evensong, the evening prayer service, every day, accompanied by choral scholars, undergraduates who have been chosen for their exceptional voices to harmonize the boys’ melodies. However religious or irreligious you might be, this, like King’s Cambridge, is one of the most enchanting musical experiences in the whole of Britain.

Tom Tower Oxford England UK
Tom Tower, Oxford

As you come out of the chapel, back into Tom Quad, you will look across to the ogee dome of Tom Tower, the college’s distinctive clock tower. Turn right, go through a short high passage, and you will emerge in Peckwater Quadrangle, an elegant 18th-century building, superbly proportioned and almost perfectly symmetrical, with a grand library built along one side. It’s 200 years newer than Tom Quad, but equally impressive, and an early example of Palladian style in England. If you turned left coming out of the chapel, you would enter the foyer of a magnificent staircase, leading up to the dining hall. Climbing up the stairs and gazing into the hall you are likely to have a vivid sense of déjà vu. That’s because you’ve seen these places in the Harry Potter films. Christ Church doesn’t blush to be part of the highly profitable Harry Potter tourism business, which used it and many other Oxford locations.

Oxford and Cambridge have long stood at the top of the British higher educational pyramid. They are always about to be overthrown by sturdy provincial competitors like Durham, Bristol, Manchester, and Exeter Universities, or by such London powerhouses as Imperial College or the London School of Economics. But the day of the overthrow somehow never comes. Even if it did, Oxford and Cambridge would remain two of the most exquisitely worthwhile places to visit in the whole of Britain.


Interactive Map of All Locations in Oxford and Cambridge Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About Oxford and Cambridge

University of Oxford
University of Cambridge
What is Perpendicular Gothic Style?
The Cambridge Five
Thomas Wolsey