The university city of Oxford is famous for its historic architecture but many of its new buildings also place it at the forefront of modern architecture. Historian and longterm Oxford resident, Adrian Mourby takes us on a walk around his home city.
Oxford owes its fame and architectural beauty to a royal decree that was intended to stop English scholars from studying in France. Back in the twelfth century, pugilistic King Henry II chose the small monastic settlement of Oxenford to be the new base for higher education in Britain. Over the centuries a wealthy and graceful city grew up to accommodate it. Yet, despite its worldwide fame the actual centre of Oxford remains relatively small.
Stand outside the Clarendon Building – purpose-built in 1713 as a home for Oxford University Press – and in one direction you can see the Jacobean grandeur of the Bodleian Library. Look in the opposite direction however and there is the Weston Library (formerly the New Bodleian) laid out by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed Britain’s famous red telephone boxes.
In order to store the millions of books owned by the Bodleian – and not spoil the Oxford skyline – Scott dug an eleven-storey basement below his new library. Recently the “New Bod” has been opened up as a visitor centre. It’s now called the Weston Library and has a shop, café and excellent exhibition space. Because Oxford is not allowed to grow any taller than Carfax spire -and is prevented by two rivers from getting any wider- it is always rethinking its buildings.
Walk through the Bodleian’s Old Schools Quadrangle, with its tempting shop of literary souvenirs inside the old School of Astronomy and Rhetoric, and you come to the Radcliffe Camera, one of the most dramatic buildings in Oxford. It’s a perfectly circular piece of neo-Classical architecture that looks as if belongs in Italy. Opened in 1748, it was intended as a science library but now it is just one of the many reading rooms attached to the Bodleian. Anyone with a Bodleian card can sit in there and order any of the library’s books – up to 1,000 are added every day – that they want to read onsite.
Beyond the Camera lies the medieval University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was co-opted as the first building of the University and which has seen many dramatic moments in the history of Oxford. Its south porch, built in 1637, is one of the most elaborate baroque structures in Britain and contains bullet holes from shots fired by Oliver Cromwell’s troops (Oxford was King Charles’ capital when he fled London, 1642-46). The panoramic view from the steeple of St Mary’s is one of the best in Oxford and has featured in many films and TV series.
Walking up the High Street towards Carfax, you pass four entrances into Oxford’s delightful Covered Market. This neat wood and glass-roofed structure was opened in 1774, a year before the birth of Jane Austen. Oxford’s new markeplace brought twenty of the city’s butchers and fishmongers under one roof. There are only three butchers operating there now. The rest are cake and clothes shops, florists and cafés. There’s also a cobblers and a lovely old-fashioned toy shop. There are nine entrances into the market and the one that threads through Golden Cross Courtyard is the most picturesque. The twelfth-century inn that stands here was almost definitely visited by William Shakespeare; it is a long-held belief that Hamlet was performed in this courtyard during Shakespeare’s life time by his company. We know for certain that the poet Alexander Pope stayed at the Golden Cross in 1735.
Leaving Golden Cross via Cornmarket Street, we come to Carfax, the great crossroads of Oxford that is also the name that is given to the church that used to stand here (of which only the 23-meter tower remains). The name “Carfax” derives from the Latin “quadrifurcus” meaning four routes. Today the North-South route here still points to London (south) and Stratford (north) while the east and west routes lead to the city’s original east and west gates. The old east gate is commemorated by the East Gate Hotel where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien used to meet up and the old west gate, close to Oxford castle is commemorated by the city’s new Westgate Centre. (It’s a little-known fact even in Oxford that when the Church of St Martin’s Carfax was demolished in 1896 as part of a Victorian road widening scheme, the panelling of its pews ended up in Devon at a house called Buckland Tout Saints which is now a hotel.)
Oxford has been building and rebuilding in recent years at a rate unprecedented since medieval times. The new Westgate Centre which opened in 2017 is like a city in its own right with shops, restaurants, a cinema and even housing. Most of Oxford’s chain stores have relocated here, leaving the city centre to become a place of individual boutique shops and restaurants.
The twenty-first century has been one of the busiest architecturally in Oxford’s long history. The Said Business School with its gopuram-like tower was created next to the railway station in 2001. The circular Blavatnik School of Government – nicknamed the “concrete marshmallow” by locals – was opened in 2015 and around the same time the Observatory Quarter was opened up to the public to reveal a superb eighteenth-century observatory that had been lost from view during twentieth-century development. Wherever you walk in the centre of Oxford, the old and new combine, sometimes in the same building.
Where to stay:
The Old Bank Hotel is one of a number of stylish local ventures by Oxfordshire restaurateur, Jeremy Mogford. It opened in the 1990s inside a former branch of Barclays Bank. With a nod to post modernism no attempt has been made to disguise the fact this was once a bank. All the bedrooms have arresting modern artwork from Jeremy Mogford’s own collection and the hotel restaurant Quod is one of the most exciting dining spaces in modern Oxford.
92-94 High Street, 01865 799599 , oldbank-hotel.co.uk
Malmaison was once Oxford’s main prison and even had a starring role in the classic Michael Caine film The Italian Job. Now stylishly converted by the innovative Malmaison chain, the gaol combines dramatic public areas with some comfortable but quirky bedrooms. If you don’t mind sleeping in one of 88 cells, then you’ll enjoy Malmaison. The food is good too, a hearty menu which will mean you may find you are sharing your time inside with a wedding reception or 18th birthday party.
Oxford Castle, New Road, 01865 268400, malmaison.com
Head of the River. In the days when Oxford was a thriving river port this eighteenth century warehouse by Folly Bridge was where goods were unloaded. An old crane still sits on the quayside which you’ll find packed with diners in the summertime. Inside the old warehouse and customs building a series of retro bedrooms have been created, each named after a celebrated Oxford student: Evelyn Waugh, Alan Bennett and astronomer Edmond Halley (the manager’s favourite room).
St Aldates, 01865 721600, headoftheriveroxford.co.uk
Where to eat:
The Cherwell Boathouse enjoys the best location in the city and is an Oxford institution. Here you can enjoy excellent British cuisine – and a superb collection of Burgundies – while watching people hiring punts and rowing boats on the Cherwell river and occasionally falling in. When former Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton came back to Oxford, this 1904 boathouse was where he asked to eat.
50 Bardwell Road, 01865 552746, cherwellboathouse.co.uk
Brasserie Blanc was the first ever brasserie created by celebrated Oxfordshire chef, Raymond Blanc, OBE. It is housed in a former Jericho piano shop, brightly lit and stylishly functional. Eschewing haute cuisine Blanc declared: “If Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons is a delicate waltz then my brasserie is the can-can.” The basic French dishes are a tribute to the food Blanc remembers his mother preparing in Franche-Comté.
71-72 Walton Street, 01865 510999, brasserieblanc.com
The Trout. Anyone who remembers the Inspector Morse TV series will immediately recognise this Thames-side restaurant opposite the ruins of Godstow Abbey. The Trout is one of two relaxed family-friendly pubs that Oxford residents can walk to along Port Meadow for lunch or an evening meal. The other is The Perch and both exemplify what is best about British pub cuisine at the moment.
Godstow Rd, Wolvercote , 01865 510930, thetroutoxford.co.uk
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