I felt I was staring at a painting by a Rennaissance maestro or reading a passage in a favourite book. Standing under the Magdalen Bridge on the Cherwell River in Oxford, it was difficult to believe the beauty of the sight that I beheld. The river shimmered under an unusually bright November sun. All along the river, right up to where I could see, there was a vibrant, lush greenery, with some tree tops beginning to display the advent of fall.
Being a Saturday, the river was full of life as dozens of students of this great seat of learning had come there to indulge in their favourite activity, punting or rowing, over which Oxford is known for intense rivalry with Cambridge. As the riverside is a favourite spot for picnicking or pleasant walks, the place was echoing with cheerful sounds.
Not just the students, many tourists were also out on the river, boating since a boat ride on the river is a must for a visitor, not just for the sheer beauty and tranquillity of the experience, but also because you can discover the evolution of Oxford into one of the greatest educational hubs in the world.
But it was not just the Cherwell River that had me captivated. The entire visit, even if it was a rushed one, left me in an enrapture. Walking down the streets of Oxford is like walking down the British or rather English history. If you set aside the vehicles, everything else about Oxford has that medieval English charm about it, something that I struggled to discover in London or its neighbourhood.
The High Street, the numerous colleges, that have ranked amongst the top centres of education in the world for centuries, the mansions or even the shops. Everything had a Victorian charm around it.
Having arrived in Oxford from London earlier that day for a day-visit, I had decided to save time and go for a bus tour aboard the hop-on, hop-off services that ply right from the railway station itself. Though the guide was explaining some of the landmarks along the roads, it was impossible for her to catch every important monument or building. For, every room or every home in this place has centuries of history wrapped around it.
“This is where Oscar Wilde studied,’’ she said as we crossed the Magdalen College or “Lewis Carroll studied in this college and went on to teach here as well,’’ as we approached Christ Church College. The guide added that Carroll’s most famous book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was based on stories that he used to tell children, notably Alice Liddell, daughter of the then Dean of the college. For almost every minute of the ride, the guide tried to recount as much of this massive storehouse of history as possible.
Since it was hop-on, hop-off service, I got off at this point to explore some of the iconic buildings in more detail. The first landmark was Radcliffe Camera, a circular 18th century Palladian-style library and reading rooms that is part of the central Bodleian Library complex. Designed by James Gibbs, it was the first circular library in England and its dome and shape are amongst the best-known monuments of Oxford.
Another iconic building that I got up and close to was the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Situated right next to Radcliffe Camera, it is the spiritual heart of Oxford and has attracted followers of the Church of England for over 1,000 years.
A short walk away is yet another unmissable landmark that all tourists should head to, the Oxford Botanic Garden. Don’t hesitate at the entry ticket, which at GBP 30 may sound a bit much. But one step inside and you will be glad that you got in. The Botanic Garden is, like everything else here in Oxford, an ode to English history. Founded in 1621, or exactly 402 years ago, it is the oldest Botanic Garden in the country and has a spellbinding collection of plants and trees from around the world, numbering well over 5,000 varieties. It also has some unique specimens from around the world as its glasshouses have world’s largest lilies, carnivorous plants from the tropics, cacti from the deserts and also numerous varieties of trees from the Alpine regions as well as tropical rainforests.
Finally, it was time to head back to the railway station to catch the train to London. Back in the tour bus, as I thought over the day, I felt like I had an excellent appetiser, but instead of satiating me, it had left me hungry for more. And I know it for a fact that on my next trip to the UK, I will be back in Oxford for a more thorough visit and take back many more learnings from this vibrant city that is an ideal melange of traditions and modernity.