Oxford Stories and Tips

The 'High'--the most spectacular street in Britain

'The High' looking east from Carfax Tower Photo, Oxford, England

Sorry Piccadilly, apologies to Princes Street--the winner of the most jawdropping street in Britain has to be 'The High' in Oxford.

There is such a profusion of mind-blowing architecture here: soaring medieval spires, leering gargoyles, Tudor timber-framed houses, Regency and Georgian shops, sandstone colleges, Victorian pubs, and the green Chiltern hills on the edge of town. The attractions of Oxford are north and south of this main thoroughfare, but you may traverse it several times during your stay.

The best place to start is the center of Oxford: Carfax. This is where four streets meet--'the High' to the east, Queen Street to the west, St. Aldates to the south, and Cornmarket to the north. Looming over this ancient crossroads is the stone tower of Carfax, which was once part of St. Martins Church and was demolished to create more room. And hopefully it does--this is where the ebb and flow of life whooshes past in Oxford.

Cornmarket is the principal shopping street and has recently been pedestrianized over, allowing buskers to entertain the crowds. Shoppers dip into Laura Ashley, housed in a 16th-century Tudor gabled mansion, and Marks & Spencer, which takes pride of place in a Georgian row of houses. Oxford puts its history on display, but also finds more practical uses for it.

But if you begin here, you should really start with a trip up the Carfax Tower, which costs only £2. A tiny wooden spiral staircase takes you up through the tower's insides. You emerge on the roof of the church tower, where the four streets are laid out before you.

If you look south, then St. Aldates leads across the 'dreaming spires,' with Tom Tower of Christchurch dominating the view. To the east is the entire expanse of 'the High' in front of you, and on the road opposite is the ornate tracey of a Jacobean building now used as Lloyds bank. 'The High' curves, but visible are the dagger needle spire of St. Mary the Virgin, with the spires of All Souls as a backdrop. Finally, at the end is the church tower of Magdalen and the end of 'the High.' Hills rise above the city, covered in fields, farms, and sheep to prove that the countryside is never far away in Oxford.

Carfax Tower is currently under renovation and will not be open again until April 2003. But if you head east, along the northern side of the pavement you can explore the length of 'the High.' Traffic is now banned from the street, allowing the buses to move along quickly, and a pretty efficient park-and-ride system is now in force. 'The High' of Oxford isn't quite the sleepy thoroughfare it was at the time of Wren and Halley but it is certainly better then it was.

This part of the street is made up of shops -stationers, Varsity emporiums, tea shops, antiquarian bookshops, and the Oxford University Press, the publishers of the world-famous dictionary. One shop is primarily devoted to dictionaries, and I've seen students shudder as they walk past it.

More shudders are a little way along, with the indoor market on Golden Cross Street. I really like this warren of passages and stalls, as it has so many specialized things to buy--pipes and tobacco, fruit and vegetables, glassware, pewterware, Cornish pasties and fresh Devon cream, locally caught trout, and the most gruesome butcher I have ever seen. All butchers were once like this, and vegetarians will wince at braces of rabbits (coneys) and pheasants hanging up. Deer are also culled hereabouts, and full-grown bodies of red deer minus their heads and legs are dangling from the shop's rafters. Well, at least you know it's fresh.

A little further on, before Brasenose College backs onto the street, is the Mitre restaurant. This is one of Oxford's most ancient inns, dating from 1550, and it is debatable that Shakespeare could have drunk here. It was, of course, a great favorite of the deans of the university who used to come here and sample the wine. It is now a restaurant run by the Beefeater chain, which serves up steaks and burgers for a reasonable price. It gets busy at lunchtime with old ladies who need a break from their shopping on Cornmarket. A passage leading past it heads to Radcliffe Square, and there is usually a man offering tours of Oxford (for 5 pounds) leaning against the railings.

After Brasenose is a truly spectacular church--St. Mary the Virgin. Usually free to enter, this is still a center for Anglo-Catholicism in Oxford and was where the Protestant martyrs were put on trial. The big attraction here is the climb up the steeple for even more spectacular views of Oxford and the spire of All Souls from its heights. The nave itself is impressive, with a wooden ceiling and an altar decorated in gold. During the 1550s, Mary Tudor was trying to return England to Catholicism, and the Protestant martyrs Cramner, Latimer, and Ridley were taken here before their burning in Oxford. The word is that Queen Mary interjected personally to make sure the saintly Cramner was burnt.

Across the street are more cafes, stationers, hobby shops, computer dealers, and everything a student about town needs and wants. The vast block of University College dominates the south side here. Its cream-stone bulk is notoriously hard to get into and always seems to be closed to tourists. It also claims to be the oldest, founded by Alfred the Great in 1061, a claim which might not be true--but due to its central location, the other colleges probably spread out around it.

Almost opposite it is the rather feminine Queens College. It is best appreciated from across the road, with its huge baroque facade and dome dotted with marble statues. This is Oxford baroque at its best, and is named after Queen Phillippa, wife of Edward III. Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson was one of its former students. Also make time for St. Edwards College, whose quadrangle is made out of beautiful stone. This is a real hidden treasure, and the students don't know how lucky they are to be working in a college that reminds me of a Cotswold cottage.

We are reaching the end of historic Oxford. And if you haven't yet been run over by a posh student on a bicycle, then there is one more beautiful college - Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin), whose church tower is the emblem of Oxford. Gargoyles leer down from its cream-colored sides, lead windows hide academic secrets, and a small path leads down to the Cherwell. Crossing at this point is the gorgeous Georgian Magdalen bridge, where the willow-tree-lined Cherwell passes into the botanic gardens.

At the base of the bridge, students in boaters try to lure tourists onto punts (tiny flat-bottomed boats propelled by a man with a pole) for about £20 an hour. On a warm sunny day, this is an enchanting way to see Oxford, as the Cherwell flows into the Thames and you can see the colleges from the river.

Alternatively, you can take over yourself and push your pole in the mud on the river. When it gets stuck, don't forget to let go, or you may find yourself dangling from the pole in the middle of the river. If that happens, then pray that nobody nearby has a camera.

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