OXFORD is a city where academic rigour meets magical fantasy. Home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities, it provided Lewis Carroll with the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, whose heroine was based on the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College, Alice Liddell.
JRR Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings on a stone table in the gardens of Merton College where he taught English. More recently, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry took over the magnificent Hall of Christ Church when Harry Potter and his fellow students came to film in town.
The world’s first English-speaking university was established here more than a thousand years ago. About 22,000 top-grade students are now taught by world-class academics in its 38 colleges. The alumni list, which includes numerous British prime ministers, reads like a who’s who of luminaries in fields as diverse as astrophysics and Egyptology. Access to the university is a divisive topic in the UK, where privately educated pupils — a small percentage of the population — have historically taken up most of the places. This has changed over the years, but Oxford retains its reputation for elitism.
Recently, town and gown (Oxford residents and the university community) have had to confront another controversial issue that has shone a light on one of its previous students and benefactors.
The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign has highlighted existing inequalities at Oxford and called, unsuccessfully, on Oriel College to remove the statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes adorning its entrance. Rhodes studied at Oriel in the 1870s and left 2% of his fortune to the college.
About 8,000 international students have graduated from Oxford as Rhodes scholars.
Unlike the huge statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, the Oriel College man is smaller and positioned high up on the edifice so that one has to crane one’s neck to see him. A notice has been put up stating that the college is considering how to improve "the representation and experience of BME (black and minority ethnic) students and staff".
Furthermore, it "draws a clear line between acknowledging the historical fact of Rhodes’s donation and in any way condoning his political views".
THE university lies at the heart of Oxford’s tourist industry.
Millions of visitors traipse through its beautiful, honey-hued colleges admiring the classical quadrangles, chapels and soaring spires. Yet there is much to be enjoyed too in the city’s museums, which range from anthropological and archaeological collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum to Modern Art Oxford, which caters for contemporary art enthusiasts.
A guided tour of The Bodleian Library is a must for bibliophiles and Harry Potter fans alike. Exploring the shelves filled with ancient leather volumes, one half expected to find Harry and Hermione’s books of magical spells.
The gothic architecture, wood panelling, and painted ceilings were awe-inspiring. Established in 1598 when 20 books were considered a library, it is the inner sanctum of the university where kings and queens have studied. It houses copies of the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, as well as the literary archives of Tolkien and a host of other literary giants. Nelson Mandela received an honorary degree in its Convocation House.
The Ashmolean Museum was reminiscent of London’s British Museum, without the crowds. It displayed a collection of antiquities from around the globe, as well as collections of European, Asian and Islamic art.
The city is filled with restaurant chains and coffee shops that feed visitors, often up from London on day trips. Wanting to find an eatery with soul, we chose Turl Street Kitchen alongside Jesus College. The restaurant sources its ingredients locally and uses its profits to fund a charity, Oxford Hub. This encourages students to engage in voluntary work in the community including tutoring the area’s local school children, whose educational opportunities are quite different to those enjoyed at the university.
Housed in a Georgian building with large windows overlooking the street, the front room was reminiscent of a student digs. We sat at a wooden table with mismatched chairs.
Framed pictures hung in a motley collection on pale grey walls, while a wood-burning stove provided heat on a cold day. The attractive green-and-white tiled bar area was packed at lunchtime.
The fare was well cooked — the fish and chips beautifully battered, the squash and potato bake unctuous and pungent with Oxford blue cheese, while a large grilled lamb chop with salsa rested on a comforting bed of onion purèe.
After lunch we took a free, two-hour walking tour of the city, during which the Footprints guide regaled the party with stories of college tortoise lettuce-eating competitions to more serious tales of Christian martyrdom.
WHILE the centre of town is pedestrianised, cyclists abound in Oxford, with bicycles chained to railings all over the city.
Up a flight of stairs above a bike shop, we discovered a quirky café called The Handle Bar. Packed with students and their laptops, some writing essays, others holding hands and drinking bottles of cider, it exuded a joyous atmosphere.
Penny-farthings and assorted bicycles dangled from the ceiling, while below we tucked into thick slices of toasted banana cake spread with melting butter, chocolate and blueberry cake, pots of tea, and hot chocolate.
Suitably refreshed, we took a stroll along streets lined with the gothic splendour and turrets of the colleges. Suddenly, we heard the sound of a brass band approaching.
A group of protesters surged towards us bearing aloft two huge red flags of the Communist Party.
As quickly as they had appeared, they vanished down a side street, displaying their banners calling for an end to cuts in government funding. For a moment we felt we might have tumbled, like Alice, down the rabbit hole.
We listened as the strains of music faded away and waited expectantly for the Queen of Hearts to follow on behind the protesters shouting "off with their heads".