Oxford is the most beautiful city in England and makes a great day trip from London. What makes Oxford unique is its famous university with more than two dozen colleges. While each has its own distinct character, they tend to all be similarly laid out with one or more quads and a chapel. Here are five of the best.
Founded in 1456, this college’s soaring Gothic tower on High Street is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline. When this was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War, lookouts kept watch from the top for Cromwell’s troops and even kept a supply of rocks up there to drop on them! Today it’s more peaceful and every May Day morning a choir sings from the top in one of Oxford’s most popular traditions. Behind the tower is a large cloister surrounded by a covered arcade with Gothic windows. Passing beyond this you come to a bridge over a stream and a pleasant walk alongside a meadow where deer nibble at wildflowers or laze under the shade of trees in summer.
Despite the name, New College is one of the university’s oldest, having been founded in 1386. Nobody knows how it got its name, although the greater mystery is why it kept it. Like Magdalen College, there’s a large cloister and two attractive quads. The gardens are especially interesting because one of the walls is actually the medieval city wall, built in the twelfth century. The garden, with its lush flowerbeds, medieval wall, and carefully tended lawn, is one of Oxford’s best.
Founded in 1868, Keble College departs from the Gothic style of most other colleges and is ornately Victorian with its bright red brick and ornate facades. The chapel looks almost Byzantine with its glowing gold mosaics. This makes for a real contrast from the other colleges and after you’ve seen two or three, come here to see something different. Keble College is overlooked by the majority of tourists so you’ll find it less crowded and more tranquil.
This college is one of the university’s oldest, being founded in 1274. It’s also one of the best preserved and much of what you see dates back to the Middle Ages. At the front gate you walk under a 15th century carving of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and enter a quad of similar date with walls covered in ivy. The chapel here is my personal favorite, with an ornate rose window, lots of original medieval stained glass, and an altar painting attributed to Tintoretto. Check out the tombs of various Oxford scholars, including one from 1525 with a globe attached showing the world as it was then known. Two kings lived at Merton College. Charles I made it his home after he got kicked out of London during the English Civil War. Charles II lived here for a time to escape the Plague. Located on a quiet back street, it’s still a peaceful refuge today and not nearly as visited as Magdalen, Christ Church, or New Colleges.
Christ Church College
Founded by Cardinal Wolsey at the bidding of Henry VIII in 1532, Christ Church is famous for Old Tom, a tall tower that like the Great Tower at Magdalen College adds a special touch to the city’s skyline. The front quad has a statue of Mercury in the middle of a waterlily pond. Be sure to see the cathedral with its grand stained glass windows and high vaulted Gothic ceiling. From the gardens you can walk into Christ Church Meadow, a broad expanse of open greenery leading to the River Isis, the local name for the Thames. On a sunny day you shouldn’t miss it!