Oxford is famous the world over for its University and place in history. For more than 800 years it has been a home to royalty and scholars, and since the 9th century an established town. Although the university dominates central Oxford both physically and mentally, it is nowadays a bustling cosmopolitan town and home to a growing hi-tech community.
The origins of the university are obscure, but it appears that the reputation of Henry I (the so-called "Scholar King") helped attract students in the early 12th century. The first colleges, founded mostly by rich bishops, were ecclesiastical institutions. This was reflected in collegiate rules and regulations – until 1877 lecturers were not allowed to marry and women were not granted degrees until 1920.
Oxford can keep you occupied for several days. The university buildings (including thirty-nine official colleges) feature some of England's finest architecture. The compact centre of Oxford lies between the Thames and the Cherwell rivers. Many of the oldest colleges face onto the High Street or the sidestreets adjoining it, their mellow stonework combining to create one of the most beautiful parts of Oxford.
Magdalen College is one of the most beautiful to visit. The college is entered via a grand Victorian gateway, beyond which is the Chapel. The adjacent cloisters (arguably the finest in Oxford) are adorned by standing figures from the bible and folklore. Magdalen also boasts better grounds than most other colleges. The bridge (behind the cloisters) spans the River Cherwell to join Addison's Walk, a pathway following the river to a water meadow where rare wild fritillaries flower in spring.
Christ Church College is Oxford's largest, most prestigious college. Albert Einstein, William Gladstone and no fewer than twelve other British Prime Ministers were educated here. The chapel of Christ Church College is also Oxford’s Cathedral. The present structure is essentially Norman. The Norman legacy is most apparent in the choir, where massive columns rise to delicate 15th century stone vaulting. Fine medieval carving and several impressive tombs have also survived here, most notably the shrine of St Frideswide.
The university's principal museums grew up around the collections of John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I and an energetic traveller. During his wanderings, Tradescant built up a huge collection of artifacts and natural specimens, which were eventually split up between the Ashmolean and the Pitt-Rivers museums.
Occupying a mammoth Neoclassical building, the Ashmolean is the oldest museum in the country. Highlights include the Egyptian rooms (with well-preserved mummies and sarcophagi), unusual frescoes, rare textiles from the Roman and Byzantine periods and several fine examples of relief carving, such as on the shrine of Taharqa. The Islamic Art, Chinese Art and European Painting sections are all remarkable.