Arts & crafts

Oxford: My City of Dream Spires

18 Apr 2022 | Written by By Jacqui Holding

[Pictured above: A photo taken by Jacqui of the Alice in Wonderland shop next door to Oxford Blue.]

Today is the International Day for Monuments and Sites, which is a global celebration of cultural and architectural heritage. To celebrate, we are delighted to share this article written by member, Jacqui. When she first visited Oxford, the city made a profound impression on her. Today, she shares her feelings about this inspiring place and what it means to her, including reflecting on one of its many beautiful landmarks: the Carfax Tower. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did…

My first memory of this beautiful city comes from 1966. I had taken a train from London, where my future husband was waiting to meet me. He had secured a job in Oxford, having moved down there himself from the North of England. We walked from the train station excitedly chatting and not really taking any notice of our surroundings. Then we reached the corner of an iconic landmark that depicts the centre of Oxford – Carfax. Cornmarket and High Street meet up with Queen Street and St Aldates at this point. 


[Image from Google Maps.] 

To me, a young woman who had just arrived from Africa, the scene that met my eyes was unbelievable. I had the weird sensation that I had stumbled into Alice in Wonderland’s world. Quaint little shops ran down each side of the road. Turning to face the building behind me, I found myself in front of a tall tower that I later discovered is Carfax Tower. Walking along the whole of Cornmarket Street was like walking through a scene from Alice’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ written by Lewis Carroll. This most famous author attended Oxford University in the mid-1850s.

Many of the scenes described throughout his books can be found either in Oxford’s parks or along the riverbanks of the River Thames that runs through the centre of this beautiful city.

Over the years, a lot of the old buildings in the centre of Oxford have been renovated and updated. Visitors over the past twenty or so years will have often remarked, not always politely, on the scaffolding and boarded-off areas. However, the essence of the city is still here. Long-standing listed buildings have been left untouched and it is still possible to imagine the world of some famous personages, such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, and even Edmond Halley who discovered Halley’s Comet. This was last seen from earth in 1986 and only appears approximately every 76 years so we have some time to wait for the next sighting. 

Many of our own Prime Ministers have attended Oxford University at one time or another, along with some very well-known people from other countries. Indira Gandhi and Bill Clinton spring to mind. Actors like Hugh Grant will have enjoyed the long lazy summers punting on the River and reciting plays in Oxford’s South Park.

[Above is a photo I took of the chalkboards at The Turf Cavern, a pub boasting many famous patrons both past and present.]

When I arrived in Oxford, the Oxford prison was very much a working institution. At the time, it was housed in the remains of the Oxford Castle, which had been badly defaced during the English Civil War in the 17th century. The prison closed in 1996 and the internal structure is now a private hotel. Visitors now pay to be taken on escorted tours and get a feel of what it must have been like to have been incarcerated for some misdemeanour or other. The walk includes a tour of the deep dark recesses underground to follow the footsteps of prisoners destined to spend time incarcerated in the most appalling conditions.  

Oxford is, indeed, steeped in history and every year people flock here to take guided walking tours along its narrow streets and alleys once said to be haunted by ghosts. Many authors have written screeds of stories woven around its streets and surrounding villages. Anyone who has seen ‘Inspector Morse’, or ‘Lewis’ will find it easy to recognise landmarks found in the tales of murder and mystery. 

[Pictured above is a photo I took of the Oldest Building in Oxford, which is still in use.]

Oxford was very lucky to escape the wrath of Hitler during the second world war, while other cities, such as London, Coventry and Liverpool were all but obliterated. Speaking to one scholar in Oxford recently, I was told that the reason was simple: Hitler had planned on making this beautiful city his headquarters once he had conquered England. Had this happened, we would all be living in a different world now.

And what about ‘my Oxford’? Although we moved to a village just outside Oxford, it was a short bike ride for us. Every Sunday my husband and I would cycle to the centre and meet up with our cycling friends for a day out on the bikes. I miss those heady days when shops were closed on Sundays and we would, on the whole, get the roads to ourselves.

Indeed, we have seen many changes over the years. As in all major cities, there has been a problem with pollution caused by cars and buses negotiating their way through the narrow streets. Accidents between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists were, and still are to a certain extent, common. Our councillors racked their brains to come up with a solution. Nothing seemed to work and even now, although pedestrianisation of much of Oxford’s centre means less traffic, a new shopping Mall invites people to drive into the centre. Sadly, this has led to long queues along all four major routes into Oxford.

Recent changes have included a new train station four miles outside the city centre. From here, you can hop on a bus, visit Blenheim Palace, or enjoy a 45-minute train ride straight into London. Since the station has been built, the number of cars on the roads has, unfortunately, increased exponentially through our villages and surrounding areas. Such is progress.


Have you ever visited Oxford? Share your experiences of the city in the comments below. 

If this article has inspired you to write about a place you love, you can share it with us at submissions@thejoyclub.com. We look forward to hearing from you!

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