Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet who was a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, had a friend who met an untimely death. Arnold therefore wrote in his memory in 1865 a poem entitled Thyrsis, which referred to Oxford as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires”. These words have attached themselves to Oxford ever since and so they should. It is indeed a city pleasantly free of high rise buildings and the spires of ancient colleges and churches predominate.
Pat and I visited Oxford, home of the oldest university in the English speaking world, in August 2012. We inspected it from the upper deck of a bus, and what we saw was no surprise to us. For many years in America, public television has shown a popular detective series set in Oxford. Therefore much of the architecture of the city was familiar to us.
The TV series centered on a fictional cop called Detective Chief Inspector Morse, superbly played by actor John Thaw who died. An episode was written where Morse also died, but the series has continued. The scriptwriters simply promoted Lewis, Morse’s sergeant, to the rank of Detective Chief Inspector and we continue to watch the series to this day.
Oxford’s top hotel is The Randolph, which now has an Inspector Morse bar. Even though Winston’s father and son were both named Randolph, the hotel is unconnected with the Churchill family who live just outside Oxford at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough. Instead, the hotel is named in honor of Dr Francis Randolph who, upon his death in 1796, left the money to build the Randolph Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum which stands opposite the hotel.
Most universities consist of buildings grouped around an open campus. Oxford University is not at all like that. It is made up of dozens of colleges and halls, scattered on sites in narrow streets throughout the city. The University foundation date is uncertain. There was teaching in Oxford as long ago as 1096 and it was much increased by 1167. The Pope granted Oxford its charter in 1254. University College (where President Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar), Balliol College and Merton College were all founded in the mid 1200s. Some of the college buildings were therefore built at that time.
On the other hand, some colleges were founded in the 20th century and exist in modern buildings. The different ages of these buildings has led to stunning architectural contrasts. We saw many of the older colleges from the top deck of our bus.
We were able to look through arched entrance-ways and see inner quadrangles or courtyards, which had perfect lawns. “How do they grow such green and beautiful grass?” asked one tourist. “They cut it, they roll it and they water it,” was the reply. “Then they do that for six hundred years.”
In 1209, some Oxford students became upset because two of their number were executed over some minor infringement, so they went off and founded Cambridge University.
We stopped at The Martyrs’ Memorial near the center of the city. It commemorates the burning at the stake in 1556 of three leaders of the Church of England, which had renounced Roman Catholicism. They were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, together with Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. During her short reign (1553 to 1558), Henry VIII’s daughter Mary was attempting to reverse her father’s establishment of the protestant Church of England. At one stage, Cranmer was led to believe that he could escape death by embracing Catholicism and he signed a document doing exactly that. When he realized that they intended to burn him anyway, he made a final speech attacking the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. He then placed into the flames the hand with which he had signed that document, so that it would burn first.
We crossed the River Cherwell at Magdalen Bridge, at the end of which stands Magdalen Tower. Built in 1509, the tower adjoins Magdalen College. Large numbers of undergraduates celebrate May Day here. Some do so by jumping off the bridge into the river. In recent years, the depth of the water in the river has become much reduced and this has led some jumpers to hit the riverbed much sooner than they expected. Police have now banned jumping from the bridge on May Day.
To travel on the river, one can hire a flat bottomed boat called a punt, which is propelled by using a long pole. Problems arise however, when the pole becomes stuck in the muddy riverbed but when the punt keeps moving. One then has to decide whether to let go of the pole and have no way of propelling the punt or to leave the punt while clinging to the pole and finishing up in the water. This is a hard decision, but less dangerous than jumping from a high bridge into shallow water.
Iffley is a village on the outskirts of Oxford and our bus took us along the Iffley Road, where history was made at the Iffley Road running track. It was there, in 1954, that a medical student called Bannister became the first man in the world to run a mile in under four minutes. Some commentators had regarded this feat as impossible and his great achievement was all the more astonishing because Bannister was not a professional athlete. Instead, he trained only when his time-consuming medical studies permitted. At the same time, full time athletes from all over the world were attempting and failing to be the first man to break the four minute barrier. The story gets even better. A few weeks ago, Doctor Sir Roger Bannister (now aged 83) carried the Olympic torch a short distance at the start of the 2012 Games in London. He eventually became Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, but it is a measure of the man that he today regards his forty years of work as a leading neurologist to be of far more consequence than any mere race.