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What Is Oxford Known for & Famous For?

When tourists visit the city of London, one of the most common day trips is always to Oxford. This architectural and historic city receives over 7 million domestic and international tourists annually, competing with U.K. cities thrice its size and many times its development. So, why is the city of Oxford so famous?

Oxford is mostly known for Oxford University and the works that have come out of it, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. The city is also associated with great big-screen films like Harry Potter, X-Men First Class, and Transformers. These are among the many things that make Oxford famous.

Despite being a very small city–half of which is comprised of college students–Oxford has made its name worldwide as a place to behold. Let’s look at what the city is known for and dig deep into its history.

Oxford University

While the University of Oxford is not the only thing that makes Oxford famous, it’s hard to ignore its impact on that fame. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings named the University the best in the world for the sixth year. It is the leading authority for Clinical & Health, Computer Science, and Arts worldwide.

However, the University’s educational accolades take a back seat to its social and architectural fame. It was built at the crack of the 11th century, making it the second oldest university in the world, only next to the University of Bologna. What makes it interesting, though, is that it’s not a campus university, so the school is not located on one site.

The University of Oxford comprises 38 different colleges, academic departments, and buildings spread all over Oxford. Each boasts the classic 12th-century architecture. 

But that is not all you need to know about this great university. As it turns out, some of the best scholars went to school here. The University of Oxford counts 28 Nobel Prize winners, 26 British Prime Ministers, and many international heads of state among its alumni. 

Some famous names that come to mind include:

JRR Tolkien

If you are familiar with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, also known as JRR Tolkien, is the author. 

JRR was an English writer, poet, and academic who was also a professor of Anglo-Saxon at various colleges of the University of Oxford until his retirement in 1959.

TS Eliot

The legendary T.S. Eliot is known for his outlandish poetry that includes:

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • The Waste Land.
  • Ash Wednesday.
  • The Hollow Men.

He also wrote plays such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, not to mention winning the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. 

What most don’t know about Eliot is that he was born in Boston and only moved to Britain when he was 25, effectively abandoning his American heritage.

Bill Clinton

Besides being the 42nd president of the United States and a long-running governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was also a scholar. 

He started his higher education at Georgetown University and then received a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford. Bill later graduated from Yale University, where he met Hillary.

Emma Watson

You know Emma Watson for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, but there is so much more to this British actress. The 32-year-old started her acting career in Dragon School before joining the Oxford University branch of Stagecoach Theater Arts. 

She is among the highest-paid actresses in the world, a winner of three MTV Movie Awards, and one of the most influential youngsters of our generation.

Margaret Thatcher

The iron lady Margaret Hilda Thatcher studied chemistry at Somerville College and worked as a research chemist and a barrister before embarking on politics. 

Her nickname “the iron lady” came from her uncompromising position on issues and leadership style when she was the leader of the Conservative party and subsequently the longest-serving Prime Minister of the UK.

Dr. Seuss 

Dr. Seuss is one of the most influential people in animation to date. He was a world-renowned political cartoonist, illustrator, animator, filmmaker, and most importantly, a children’s book author. 

Dr. Seuss started his career at Dartmouth College and later at Lincoln College, Oxford. His work has sold over 600 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 20 languages.

Stephen Hawking

Many people know Stephen Hawking for his work at the University of Cambridge, where he was the research director until his death. However, Hawking grew up in Oxford. He began his education at the University of Oxford with a BA in physics before doing his Ph.D. at Cambridge. 

Despite his illness which left him paralyzed and unable to speak, Hawking’s contribution to physics (Theory of relativity and Quantum mechanics) is still impactful today.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s reputation as a poet and a playwright precedes him. He attended Trinity College Dublin and then Oxford, where he became exceedingly popular as a classicist and aestheticist

He is, however, more famous for his criminal conviction for gross indecency, alleged homosexual acts, and imprisonment before his death from meningitis at the tender age of 46.

The Oxford University Press

If you are an avid reader of education, research, and technology books, you have likely seen the Oxford University Press at the bottom of a magazine or a book you were reading. The OUP is a department of the University of Oxford mandated to promote excellence in research, scholarship, and education through publishing.

It creates world-class academic resources and partners with technology giants to make information available to users in different formats. Their outputs include dictionaries, children’s books, journals, printed music, higher education textbooks, high school books, and English language teaching material.

The Oxford University Press now has branches in every continent, with over 6,000 employees serving in 52 countries. It is still the biggest university press globally, and its aim to further education and disseminate knowledge hasn’t wavered in all these years.

The Oxford Dictionary

Thought we were done with the University of Oxford? Not by a long shot. Every major language worldwide has a regulator or an institution that decides what and how words are used. French has Academie Française, Spanish has the Real Academia Espanola, and English has the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is the most comprehensive English dictionary in the world as it’s used in every school, office, and learning institution. The dictionary was begun in 1857 and published by the Oxford University Press many years later.

However, history has it that Samuel Jackson made the first-ever dictionary, full of humor and opinionated definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary is a cleaner, more official source of the language, and it is more thorough.

The City of Dreaming Spires

The city of Oxford is known as “The City of Dreaming Spires.” This name was coined by a 19th-century poet called Matthew Arnold in his poem Thyrsis.

The City of Dreaming Spires refers to the fascinating Oxford University buildings. Most have a beautiful honey-colored exterior with a conical structure at the top. You can spot this amazing architectural art from the top of St. Mary’s Church, South Park, or Carfax Towers in Oxford city center.

Many of the University’s colleges and buildings are open to visitors during the day, but you have to check with the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides, which is in charge of tours.

Gothic Architecture

One of the most notable things about Oxford is its Gothic-style architecture. The style, popular in England and Europe around the 12th to 16th centuries, is characterized by pointed arches, buttresses, large stained windows, spires, vaulted roofs, and cavernous interiors. 

Other modern styles replaced Gothic architecture in many places, so you will be pressed to find it anywhere other than Oxford and Paris.

A big part of this is because the city was not destroyed during the war like other medieval cities around it did. However, it’s also because the people of Oxford chose to hold onto their history by expanding the city using gothic instead of modern architecture. 

For instance, you will notice that, while the tower at the Magdalen College is 600 years old, the buildings around it are new–yet they are all Gothic style.

Cities like Milan, Paris, Sydney, London, and Kent have one or two famous Gothic-style buildings, but Oxford is the only city that features the style all over. This is why poet Mathew Arnold called it the City of Dreaming Spires. It’s like stepping into the 12th century again, only with technology and civilization.

The Punt Boats

If you search for things to do in England as a tourist, punting in Oxford is on the list. It is a timeless, quintessentially Oxford thing to do, and you should not leave the U.K. without trying it.

Wondering what punting is? Well, punts are flat-bottomed boats you board and propel along the water using a long stick. The people of Oxford have been punting since the 1860s, and it has become a favorite after-graduation activity or Sunday afternoon hangout.

You can hire the punt for at least an hour and go upstream to the Victoria Arms or take the lovely ride to the beautiful countryside for a day. If you go downstream through the University Parks, you will find excellent places for picnics or watching the sunset.

You can hire the punt at Magdalen Bridge or Cherwell Boathouses or get one with a chauffeur. They can also organize a party activity on the other side of the punting trip for you and your buddies.

Pubs

Oxford is known for its rich culture, medieval architecture, and education. When you think about the city, professors and students discussing mathematical concepts and philosophy come to mind. Outside the University of Oxford, however, pubs and bars are the centers of attention. 

History shows that the likes of C.S Lewis, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien spent a lot of time in these pubs having fun and inspiring each other.

Oxford has a total of 754 pubs, according to The Good Pub Guide, and they are the best and most revered in the whole of the U.K. Some, like the Turf Tavern and Bear Inn, have been around since the 12th century, and they are still extremely popular today. Want to see where the great minds had their drinks and meet some Oxford Professors? The Pubs are the place to go.

A Popular Filming Location

The last reference to the University of Oxford pertains to filming, thanks to the school’s scenic buildings and locations. Lovers of the Harry Potter films will remember the Hogwarts Great Hall, which was set in the Christ’s Church stunning hall. 

Many scenes in the movie series were shot in the university locations such as New College and the Divinity School. However, the rest of the movies were shot around the city of Oxford.

Many James Bond movies are also shot at the University of Oxford. For example, a scene in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) is filmed within New College where James Bond visits Professor Inga.

Other notable films set in Oxford include Inspector Morse, Transformers, Cinderella, Mission Impossible, and X-Men.

Even without the university, the city of Oxford is a beautiful place, which is why so many people have made films in its locations. The architecture and calm meadowlands alongside River Thames have inspired amazing films such as Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows.

Proximity to London

The city of Oxfordshire is also known for being only a few miles away from London, 60 miles to be specific. The famous day trips from London to Oxford and then to the Cotswolds by train are a favorite among tourists, and it takes less than an hour. It is a breathtaking experience because you can see the best of England from a train.

If you have a car, however, take a leisurely drive which will take about 90 minutes, and you can enjoy the views without a rush. You can go to Oxford for a quiet lunch, learn some English history and visit the University and still make it back to London by evening. Oxford has many public parking spaces but stays off the permit-only zones.

Centuries Old Culture

Oxford’s exciting and somewhat ridiculous customs are part of the reason tourists and students visit the city and the University. Some date all the way back to the 12th century, and some are recent, but they all have a link to Oxford University.

Every year on Ascension Day (commemorations of the day Jesus rose to heaven), the city of oxford beams with activities instigated by college students. Those traditions include Beating the Bounds, Penny-throwing at Lincoln College, and the Lincoln vs. Brasenose ritual.

May Morning is another tradition that’s been going on for over 500 years. The residents of Oxford celebrate it on the 1st of May. Town and Gown people gather to listen to the Magdalen College choir sing the Eucharist from the top of their bell tower. It is so popular that bars and restaurants don’t close the night before.

And if you thought May Morning was big, you haven’t seen the St. Giles Street Fair, which forces the road out of Oxford to close for two days straight. The fair started in 1200 but has evolved over the centuries to include fewer freak shows and more modern entertainment.

The Ashmolean Museum

The Oxford University Ashmolean Museum of art and archaeology was established in 1683, making it the oldest museum in England. It holds one of the largest collections of Egyptian mummies and contemporary art, including world-famous paintings and pottery work.

The present building was completed in 1845 but was upgraded and expanded in 2009. It’s now a 5-floor collection featuring over 1500 oil paintings from the Italian Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Camille Pissarro, and the greatest to ever live, Giovanni Battista, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pablo Picasso.

You can visit the museum any day to learn about art and the history of Egypt and Sudan. 

Oxford Castle

Many people visiting the city of Oxfordshire do so to experience England’s history and religious grandeur. No place holds that history better than Oxford Castle, a dark-filled medieval structure opened in 1073 by Baron Robert D’Oyly. 

The castle played a critical role during the Anarchy because it was the base of Empress Matilda from 1114 to 1142. Unfortunately, it never became a royal residence despite its grandeur as King Henry I built a more kingly palace nearby.

In 1074, D’Oyly found a chapel in the castle dedicated to St. George, and it was the first collegiate church in an English castle. History shows that this church is where scholars founded the University of Oxford. Unfortunately, there is little proof that the church existed, but you can still go and see the church tower.

After the civil war, the Oxford Castle became a criminal court and a prison until 1996, when it was redeveloped into a boutique hotel and tourist attraction. The dark past and associated history of this castle are evident within its corridors to date, and people go there to learn about it daily.

Port Meadow’s Wild Horses

Port Meadows may not be world-famous like the rest, but it’s well-known by horse and cattle lovers. This vast land space is home to many cattle, horses, and bird species. Standing by the houseboats to watch the wild horses galloping past you is an experience you will never forget.

All the ponies on the meadow are native types, built to withstand the climate, so they live off very little grass. You can learn much about caring for horses here from the few owners around, but most people just watch and enjoy them.

The fact that the river Thames flows through the meadow attracts many wildfowl and other bird species to the site. The annual winter floods bring the most spectacular flocks of birds, from Golden Plovers to Canadian geese and even Teals and Widgeons. Local and international tourists can take walks past the livestock or pick a serene place to picnic while watching the birds and the horses.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, Oxford city isn’t famous for no reason. The city’s Gothic architecture, rich history, and scenic views attract millions of people annually from London and places outside the U.K. 

While there, be sure to have a beer at one of the famous pubs, tour the University colleges, go punting, and don’t forget to ride the ponies. This is one of the few places globally where you can detach from the rat race and just enjoy the beauty.

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